Fox News Channel is a shady operation. That much was clear even before it emerged that founder Roger Ailes was forced to resign for engaging in rampant sexual harassment of several of his female employees. But one of Ailes’ victims revealed that Ailes’ debauchery may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Earlier this week, former host Andrea Tantaros filed a lawsuit alleging that Ailes had harassed her for years, and that senior executives at the fair and balanced network covered it up and retaliated against her for speaking out. Tantaros claims she was taken off the air in April in retaliation for numerous complaints about Ailes’ sexual harassment. Fox News maintains it acted because Tantaros didn’t allow network officials to vet her book, “Tied Up in Knots.” But that claim is pretty hard to believe, since a clip of Tantaros promoting the book on “Outnumbered” is still available on Fox News’ video archive.
Tantaros’ attorney, Judd Bernstein, told Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple that Tantaros’ sexual harassment lawsuit is “only the beginning” of his planned legal assault on Fox News. Bernstein says that he is in the waning stages of an investigation into “violations of certain federal criminal laws that have nothing to do with sexual harassment.” He didn’t elaborate, but did say that this pending lawsuit will pierce “the cloud of secrecy surrounding the 14th floor.”
Bernstein refers to the “Black Room” operation on the 14th floor of 1212 Avenue of the Americas. It was set up in 2011 to spy on Ailes’ enemies both inside and outside Fox News, and operated with virtually no oversight. Apparently Bernstein has evidence that the Black Room crossed the line from merely unsavory behavior into criminal conduct. If that’s the case, then Bernstein must share his findings with local and federal prosecutors if he hasn’t done so.
It should be noted that this deep dive was made possible because, by all appearances, Fox News has some REALLY bad lawyers. In case you missed it, someone from Fox News told The Daily Beast that the network was seeking to force Tantaros into arbitration. However, the arbitration clause of Tantaros’ contract explicitly forbids both parties from disclosing even the existence of an arbitration proceeding. If it does turn out that the Black Room broke the law, this could wind up being one of the most expensive mistakes in recent American journalism history.
Hopefully Bernstein will be more careful with this upcoming complaint than he was with Monday’s complaint. That complaint alleged that Tantaros was the target of a smear campaign in which Fox News PR hatchet-woman Irena Briganti fed negative stories about Tantaros to news sites controlled by Ailes. However, Wemple noted that one of those sites, TVNewser, wasn’t controlled by Ailes at all, but was founded by CNN media critic Brian Stelter during his student days at CNN.
Wemple also discovered that Tantaros appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” for some time after she complained about Bill O’Reilly coming on to her, despite assurances that she wouldn’t appear on the show again. In response, Bernstein claims that Fox changed its mind about letting Tantaros appear on the show.
Those two hiccups aside, Tantaros’ claims are still damning on paper. They portray a network that enabled sexual harassment of the worst type, and by all appearances only seems to be taking cosmetic steps to fix it. For instance, longtime Ailes lieutenant Bill Shine is now operating head of the network; he was named co-president and head of the news/editorial side after Ailes was pushed out. Tantaros accuses Shine of sweeping her claims under the rug, a claim echoed by a number of Ailes’ other accusers.
I had hoped that with Ailes gone, Fox News would be recreated as a true news source, rather than a Republican agitprop machine. But if it turns out that the Black Room veered into criminal misbehavior, then we may have to wonder if Fox News can be reformed.