In case you missed it, a number of media experts believe that Fox News Channel may not be around for much longer in its current form. In the wake of founder Roger Ailes being pushed out amid overwhelming evidence that he harassed dozens of female employees over the years, some believe that the only way for the fair and balanced network to survive will be if Rupert Murdoch undertakes a root-and-branch housecleaning.
Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine is of similar mind. Last Sunday, Sherman dropped a bombshell on CNN–he had evidence that senior executives at Fox News were well aware that women were being harassed and covered it up. He laid out some of that evidence on Friday by telling the story of Laurie Luhn, the network’s former booking director.
Luhn maintains that she had to endure harassment and “psychological torture” from Ailes for over two decades, including nearly all of her tenure at Fox News. She first met Ailes in 1988, when both worked for the George H. W. Bush campaign. Luhn worked in accounting, and was impressed with Ailes’ ads. Ailes apparently liked what he saw in Luhn; he offered to help her if she ever needed it.
Two years later, with Luhn in dire financial straits, she took Ailes up on that offer, and Ailes hired her as a researcher at $500 a month. However, research wasn’t her only responsibility. In 1991, after Ailes helped Bush prepare the speech that announced the start of the first Gulf War, Luhn met Ailes at the Crystal City Marriott clad in a black garter and stockings–garb that Ailes called her “uniform.”
According to Luhn, Ailes forced her to dance for him on tape to confirm that she would be “my spy” in Washington. He then directed her to get on her knees before him. While Ailes held her temples, Luhn recalls him saying:
“Tell me you will do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. At any time, at any place when I call. No matter where I call you, no matter where you are. Do you understand? You will follow orders. If I tell you to put on your uniform, what are you gonna do, Laurie? WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO, LAURIE? What are you, Laurie? Are you Roger’s whore? Are you Roger’s spy?”
This set a trend that lasted for most of the next two decades, particularly when Rupert Murdoch hired Ailes to launch Fox News in 1996 and convinced Luhn to join the fledgling network as a guest-relations staffer for “Fox News Sunday” in Washington Years later, Luhn says that she took the job because Ailes had “programmed” her.
She recalled that once the network formally launched that fall, things settled into a regular pattern. Either Ailes or programming chief Bill Shine would call Washington bureau chief Kim Hume with a message: Luhn was needed in New York for a “booking meeting.” However, she said, it soon became an open secret among Fox staffers in the capital that Luhn was being harassed.
When Hume got suspicious, Ailes promoted Luhn to booking director for the entire network, reporting to Shine. However, the harassment ramped up considerably. The hotel visits ended, but Ailes forced her into phone sex on several occasions. Even more chillingly, he forced her “find me whores.” Specifically, Luhn says Ailes ordered her to have several of the newly hired female staffers in the booking department meet with him privately–situations that she knew would likely result in harassment.
Luhn finally reached her breaking point in 2007, when she was transferred to event planning. Soon afterward, while laying over in Atlanta en route to Mexico, she started hallucinating. On the advice of a psychiatrist, Shine arranged for her to spend several days at a hotel in Houston, near where she grew up. Ailes then transferred her to New York to keep a close eye on her. At one point, she says that Ailes and Shine had to approve all of her emails.
By then, Luhn says, Ailes knew he’d stepped in it. When he saw some anxiety medication in her purse, he yelled at her, “Don’t take pills, and don’t you ever tell that doctor about us!” He added that the only way anyone could prove he harassed her was if she spoke up.
After 18 months of increasingly limited responsibilities, Luhn moved to Los Angeles, where she had another breakdown. Luhn’s father, George, says that several Fox News executives, including Shine himself, tried to call her. She eventually moved back to Texas, where she went to a psychiatrist recommended by Shine. For several months, she was heavily medicated, and even hospitalized.
Finally, in 2010 or 2011, Luhn wrote Fox News general counsel Dianne Brandi and told her that Ailes had harassed her for 20 years. Soon afterward, Luhn and Fox reached a $3.15 million settlement. This included an ironclad nondisclosure agreement that seemingly barred her from talking to the press.
However, Paul, Weiss; which is leading the internal investigation into Ailes’ debauchery, has reportedly waived these agreements to allow Luhn and other Fox News employees to speak out. Luhn did so when she called the firm soon after Ailes resigned on July 21. Even if the agreement is still in place, Luhn isn’t afraid; as she sees it, “nothing else matters” but the truth.”
Clearly, this situation is firmly in “what did they know and when did they know it” territory. After all, why would Fox News cough up $3.15 million of the Murdochs’ money to keep Luhn quiet? If even a fraction of this story is true, then a lot of people at Fox News have some explaining to do–and probably need to follow Ailes out the door. Not only that, but it may be time for the Murdochs to clean up what has become a toxic waste dump.