Roger Ailes, the Clintons, and the scandals of the scandalmongers
Jane Mayer has an extremely interesting column in the New Yorker:
This election year, the big question was supposed to be whether Hillary Clinton would shatter the glass ceiling. Instead, it has become the year in which one of the country’s most towering glass houses has shattered. Few people may remember it now, but Fox News, which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation launched in 1996, became a ratings leader largely because of its gleefully censorious coverage of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals. Now the network is mired in its own scandal. Last month, Roger Ailes resigned as Fox News’s chairman and C.E.O. in the face of multiple allegations of sexual harassment, including a lawsuit filed against him by the former anchor Gretchen Carlson. (Ailes has denied Carlson’s allegations.) The unfolding embarrassment at the network poses a host of questions—not the least of which is how the network’s executives justified their Javert-like pursuit of Clinton’s extramarital affairs, given their boss’s own repeated sexual misconduct. If you go back and look carefully at the chronology, some of Ailes’s most egregious alleged harassment of women was taking place at the same time that Fox News was suggesting that Clinton deserved to be impeached. Sexual harassment is a serious issue, and it merits serious coverage, but it’s hard to believe that the suits at Fox were motivated by genuine concern, given their own corporate culture.
Gabriel Sherman, in his 2014 book “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” describes how brilliantly and relentlessly Ailes exploited Clinton’s scandalous affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky in order to build Fox News’s brand. Sherman writes, “Whatever else it was, the scandal was a media bonanza, and no medium benefited from it more than cable news—and no cable channel more than Fox News.” Within hours of the Lewinsky story breaking, in January, 1998, Ailes inaugurated a new nightly show devoted to the melodrama, and assigned five producers and correspondents to cover it. No detail was too sordid for Fox to cover. With Ailes, a former Republican political operative, at the helm, Fox covered the affair as a criminal act, and rode the story straight up the cable-ratings charts. “Monica was a news channel’s dream come true,” John Moody, Fox’s executive editor, once admitted.
Fox News has devoted considerably less attention to its own sex scandal. When the network announced Ailes’s departure, his alleged improprieties were not mentioned. Carlson’s attorneys told the Guardian that at least twenty women have accused Ailes of sexually harassing them throughout his career. Carlson and the anchor Megyn Kelly, who has also reportedly alleged that she was harassed by Ailes, are the best known among these women, but the story of Laurie Luhn, the former head of booking for Fox News, is especially damning.
Luhn’s account, if true, suggests that, at precisely the same time Ailes was leading Fox’s breathless coverage of the Clinton-impeachment proceedings, Ailes, who was married, was paying Luhn—who was single, broke, and decades younger—to service him sexually. In a recent blockbuster interview with Sherman, in New York, Luhn said that she met Ailes in 1988. Soon afterward, Ailes began paying her a monthly retainer, for sex and for private research on his competitors. When he helped launch Fox, in 1996, Luhn said, Ailes offered her a staff job in “guest relations.” Over time, her job descriptions at Fox changed, but Ailes, whom Luhn described as a “predator,” did not. She told Sherman that her twenty-year involvement with Ailes had been “psychological torture.” As she grew increasingly unhappy, she said, Ailes grew more controlling, insisting that she tell no one of their sexual relations. Luhn told Sherman that Ailes kept an incriminating videotape of her in a safe-deposit vault, as a form of insurance. By 2011, however, Luhn said, she had informed Fox’s general counsel that Ailes had sexually harassed her for decades. All of this might sound hard to believe, and Luhn has acknowledged a history of psychological difficulties. But Ailes and his lawyers declined an invitation from Sherman to rebut Luhn’s story. Moreover, in 2011, Fox agreed to pay Luhn an astounding $3.15-million severance agreement, which included nondisclosure clauses. It looks a lot like hush money, paid for with corporate funds and handled by multiple Fox executives. Yet, if silencing Luhn was the aim, it hasn’t worked. Luhn was reportedly among the first women to contact investigators hired by Fox, in the wake of Carlson’s lawsuit, to straighten out the twisted truth about sexual harassment at the company.
Fox viewers were, of course, left in the dark about Ailes’s personal life as the network relentlessly exposed Clinton’s private life. The campaign was nearly successful. On December 19, 1998, the Republican-ruled House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on two articles, for perjury and obstruction of justice, contending that he had lied under oath about his extramarital affair with Lewinsky. The Senate eventually acquitted Clinton, after a highly partisan trial.
Here, too, hindsight has revealed more hypocrisy. The drive to impeach Clinton was led by three successive House Republican leaders. As ThinkProgress noted last year, each of these self-styled moral authorities was subsequently tarnished in his own extramarital sex scandal. Newt Gingrich, the first Speaker to whip his members into an impeachment frenzy, has since acknowledged that during the same period he was engaged in an extramarital affair with a congressional aide, who was then in her twenties. Gingrich subsequently got divorced and married the aide, Callista Bisek, who became his third wife. (His second wife has also said that he began an affair with her while still married to his first, who, at the time, was recovering from cancer. Gingrich has never specifically admitted to that affair.) All the while, he was publicly castigating Democrats as the party of moral degeneration. For example, while the Democratic Party was nominating Clinton, in 1992, Gingrich introduced George H. W. Bush at a campaign stop by declaring that Woody Allen’s “non-family” was one that “fits the Democratic platform perfectly,” because Allen was “having non-incest with a non-daughter to whom he was a non-father.”
Gingrich resigned from the House Speakership in November, 1998, at which point the Republican House members unanimously voted to pass the gavel to Bob Livingston, a congressman from Louisiana. Less than two months later, . . .