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Fox News’ War on Women

Roger Ailes created a hotbed of misogyny behind the camera and on air. That's not likely to change anytime soon.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Fox News has a long history of on-air sexism. Now, it’s apparent that the network has a long history of behind-the-scenes sexual harassment, too.

This is fitting, perhaps, but not inevitable; sexism and sexual harassment aren’t the same thing. There have been plenty of liberal men who have supported feminist ideas in theory but mistreated women in their private or professional lives. The late Ted Kennedy was a prime example. But deposed Fox CEO Roger Ailes is a unique case because of the congruence between the gender ideals promoted on camera and the allegations about his behavior off camera.

The harassment problem is back in the news—if it ever left—thanks to the $20 million settlement on Tuesday between Fox News’ parent company and former Fox & Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose lawsuit against Ailes sparked an internal investigation that led to his ouster. This is not, on its face, political news. But given Ailes’s role as the ideological shaper of Fox News (not to mention his long history of advising Republican presidential candidates from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump), it’s impossible to ignore the political dimensions of the story. It’s not just the many sexual-harassment claims against Ailes himself or the “locker room” environment at Fox, but that the network promoted on air a politics of male domination.

The sexist ideology of Fox is all the more salient given the 2016 presidential race, a contest between the first woman nominated by a major party and a notorious sexist whose ears Ailes happens to be whispering into. With Trump deploying gender stereotypes against Clinton (saying she doesn’t have “a presidential look” and that she “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS”), it’s worth looking at the role sexism plays on the network Ailes co-founded.

As Gabriel Sherman, who has broken many stories about Fox for New York magazine, noted:

The fact that these incidents of harassment were so common may have contributed to why no one at Fox came forward or filed a lawsuit until now. Ailes’s attitudes about women permeated the very air of the network, from the exclusive hiring of attractive women to the strictly enforced skirts-and-heels dress code to the “leg cam” that lingers on female panelists’ crossed legs on air. It was hard to complain about something that was so normalized. Other senior executives harassed women, too. “Anyone who claimed there was a hostile work environment was seen as a complainer,” says a former Fox employee who says Ailes harassed her. “Or that they can’t take a joke.”

Sherman’s point about Fox’s hiring practices could be extended not just to how women were displayed on screen, but how they were discussed in general. In “70 awful displays of sexism on Fox News,” a supercut video by watchdog group Media Matters, one can hear such gems as Erick Erickson saying men should be “dominant” over wives, Lou Dobbs bemoaning the fact “women have become the breadwinners in this country and a lot of other concerning and troubling statistics,” Brit Hume lamenting “this sort of feminized atmosphere where we exist today,” and Rush Limbaugh chortling, “I love the women’s movement, especially walking behind it.”

Fox News has been the major media outlet for reactionary gender politics since the late 1990s. With the network squarely behind the candidate whom Ailes is advising, that’s not going to change anytime soon. Removing Ailes and paying settlements to his alleged victims won’t be enough for Fox to leave his toxic legacy behind. Perhaps the workplace sexual harassment will be curtailed. But the sexism that Ailes imprinted on the network is now part of its DNA, and likely to become even more pronounced if a woman finally takes over the White House.