After Ailes, the Pirate Flag Still Flies at Fox News

After Ailes, the Pirate Flag Still Flies at Fox News

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A poster of Bill O’Reilly at 21st Century Fox headquarters. Some $13 million has been paid to settle claims against him. CreditLucas Jackson/Reuters

Throughout Fox News Channel’s summer of discontent last year, executives at its parent company, 21st Century Fox, assured reporters that the young, up-and-coming corporate leadership — Rupert Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan — understood the severity of the sexual harassment allegations pending against the network’s founding chairman, Roger E. Ailes.

It was why they moved quickly to hire a white-shoe law firm to investigate the charges against Mr. Ailes, executives at the company told reporters at the time. And, these people said, it was why they forced Mr. Ailes’s resignation after that investigation found enough potential evidence to preclude them from standing by his denials.

The company’s response, the executives said, was an example of how it had reined in the wild “rules-are-what-we-make-of-them-so-long-as-we’re-winning” impulses that led to the crisis that was almost its undoing a few years ago. That, of course, was the phone hacking scandal at its British newspaper division, in which reporters and a private investigator hacked phone messages of the royal family, actors, athletes and various others.

This time around, after Mr. Ailes’s departure, the company promised that things would get cleaned up quickly. It said it was committed to “maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect,” and spent millions on settlement deals that also happened to keep accusers from speaking about their experiences with Mr. Ailes — who, company executives implied, was the isolated cause of all the problems. And that was to be that.

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Except, clearly, it wasn’t.

Not if you go by the meticulously reported piece last weekend by Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times, which said that some $13 million had been paid out to settle claims of harassment leveled against another man vital to Fox News’s success, its top star Bill O’Reilly. (Two of those settlements came after Mr. Ailes’s ouster.)

Not if you go by a federal investigation that is exploring whether Fox News failed to properly account for settlement payments, granting immunity to the network’s former chief financial officer, Mark Kranz, as The Financial Times reported.

Certainly not if you go by the latest lawsuit, from the Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky, who said her own claims against Mr. Ailes — and her refusal to attack his first public accuser, Gretchen Carlson — caused the current Fox News co-president (and former Ailes deputy) Bill Shine to deny her a promotion. Her complaints weren’t even investigated, she said. Mr. Ailes through a lawyer denied her charges after she filed her suit on Monday, just as Mr. O’Reilly has denied all the claims that have been made against him.

But the latest cascade of news involving allegations of misbehavior at Fox News makes it pretty hard to see what, exactly, has changed.

Fox News executives say they’ve made more workplace improvements than they’re getting credit for, and I’ll get to that. But it still stands that, other than the senior Mr. Murdoch taking the reins of the network as executive chairman, the leadership has remained fairly stable; two of Mr. Ailes’s deputies, Mr. Shine and Jack Abernethy, took over as co-presidents, with the executive vice president for programming, Suzanne Scott, and the Ailes-era network counsel, Dianne Brandi, remaining as well.

On top of that, take a look at the news, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, that the network went ahead and renewed Mr. O’Reilly’s contract despite the two new settlements — and a third one from years ago that 21st Century Fox learned about only last year.

Then consider that another Fox News star, Sean Hannity, brandished his licensed (and, he said, unloaded) handgun in his studio and (jokingly) pointed its laser sight at his liberal sparring partner, Juan Williams, with no apparent reprimand, as CNN reported last month.

It’s hard not to see the Murdoch pirate flag moving back up the mast — or to wonder whether it was ever really taken down, at least at Fox News. The network, led by Mr. O’Reilly, remains the most watched cable news network by a wide margin, and it sure seems that the old proclivity to look the other way in the face of hyper-profitable victory remains in place.

But this isn’t just another story about a big public company with potentially serious problems in its corporate culture — which, given the growing number of advertisers pulling out of Mr. O’Reilly’s program, could prove costly.

It’s about one of the biggest and most influential media companies in the world; its cable behemoth, Fox News, is the network of choice for the current United States president. (And this president is more reactive to news than any who came before him.)

The wildness that allegedly permeates Fox News’s office culture has extended to its reportage in ways that have at times helped President Trump create his famous alternative reality. The most notable recent example: a declaration by Andrew Napolitano, a network contributor, saying Fox News had learned that President Barack Obama enlisted British intelligence officers to spy on Mr. Trump before his inauguration. The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated this at a daily briefing, drawing fury from 10 Downing Street.

Fox News followed up by reporting that it had learned no such thing. The network soon let it be known that Mr. Napolitano was being sidelined “for the foreseeable future,” as The Los Angeles Times reported.

The foreseeable future lasted just about two weeks. And when Mr. Napolitano returned to Fox’s programming last week, he repeated his claim about Mr. Obama and the British, despite the news division’s disavowal, only this time with no consequences (as if there had really been any up to that point).

Those who wondered whether Fox News was somehow going to moderate its editorial direction following Mr. Ailes’s ouster have their answer. The questions were based, at least in part, on the notion that the sons were more politically moderate than their father, though Lachlan less so than James.

But the questions were misguided, given that the sons have made it clear that Fox wouldn’t and shouldn’t change too much, given its profits. “There’s no desire or need to shift the position that it has in the market,” Lachlan Murdoch told Wall Street analysts over the summer.

And evidence is piling up that the elder Mr. Murdoch is the one running the show at Fox News, anyway. Fox News was as much his creation as it was Mr. Ailes’s, after all.

But let’s remember: 21st Century Fox repeatedly said that all three Murdochs were on board to change the corporate culture.

Fox News said Tuesday that it was doing so by “expanding our Human Resources department with regional people and adding more people in New York,” a tacit acknowledgment that when Mr. Ailes was there, employees viewed the department as loyal to him above all, and often didn’t trust it enough to make complaints.

In January, the network hired a new human resources chief, Kevin Lord, who on Monday issued a memo encouraging employees with complaints to step forward, assuring them of confidentiality and a swift response (though one name listed as an avenue of complaint was that of Ms. Brandi, an Ailes-era holdover).

But then there’s Mr. O’Reilly. This week, people familiar with his contract extension told my colleagues Ms. Steel and Mr. Schmidt that it includes provisions giving the company “leverage over his behavior.”

The ultimate leverage, of course, could come by way of Mr. O’Reilly’s loss of advertisers. That was the thinking behind the call from the online civil rights group Color of Change for a bigger O’Reilly advertising boycott. “Fox News and the Murdochs only listen when they hear money rushing out the door,” said the group’s executive director, Rashad Robinson.

That’s logic even a pirate has to appreciate.

[“Source-nytimes”]