Suspended Host's Lawsuit Casts Shadow Over Fox News' New President
For all the changes wrought by the sexual harassment scandal that brought down former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, the Murdoch family that controls the network has held one goal paramount: to maintain continuity.
After a lawsuit filed by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson unleashed a wave of allegations, Ailes and a coterie of his associates were purged and a new day declared. But with few exceptions, the senior executives who led Fox News remain in place, notably Ailes' former chief deputy, Bill Shine. Rupert Murdoch, who sits atop parent company 21st Century Fox, elevated Shine this summer to co-president of the network.
The greatest threat to that continuity could lie in the lawsuit filed by suspended Fox News host Andrea Tantaros, who has sued Fox, Ailes and a raft of current Fox News executives, including Shine. In court papers to be filed Wednesday, her lawyers offer fresh support for her allegations. Especially notable are the elements involving Shine and other current Fox News executives who Tantaros accuses of acting to shut down her complaints.
The support comes in the form of a sworn affidavit from Tantaros' former therapist, Michele Berdy, who says Tantaros told her starting in 2014 that Ailes had degraded her, harassed her and retaliated against her for rejecting his advances. Berdy also says Tantaros told her contemporaneously about a series of futile exchanges with Shine starting in 2015 --before Fox News raised objections over her planned book.
"I remember Andrea being shocked and devastated after a meeting with Mr. Shine in which he told her that she needed to stop complaining about Mr. Ailes' advances toward her, and his subsequent retaliation," Berdy states.
According to Berdy, Shine then told Tantaros that "she must forget what Mr. Ailes had done to her, instructing her, 'Don't fight this' because Ailes is 'a very powerful man.' " That account closely tracks the allegations in Tantaros' suit. Tantaros says as a result of rebuffing Ailes' advances, she was demoted from being a host of the 5 p.m. show The Five to being a host of the midday show Outnumbered, with a smaller audience, less promotion and less visibility.
A Fox News spokesperson said Wednesday in an email to NPR, "We stand by our earlier motion to compel arbitration."
In previous court filings, Ailes has denied all of Tantaros' allegations against him. Lawyers for Fox News have called her allegations baseless. Shine has previously denied any knowledge that Ailes harassed women. A parade of accusers came forward this summer after Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit to tell an outside law firm they had been harassed by Ailes.
This summer, former Fox News booker Laurie Luhn accused Ailes of psychological torture, using her career advancement to extort sex from her for years. After she accused Ailes of this behavior to Fox executives, Shine encouraged her to go home to Texas and referred her to a therapist there. Luhn was later hospitalized and tried to commit suicide. Shine has denied having reviewed her emails and contacts with other people while Fox News put her up in a New York City hotel during a particularly fraught period. She was secretly paid $3 million by Fox News in 2011 to settle her complaints against Ailes, a payment authorized by top network executives.
Luhn's account was first published in detail in New York Magazine. Fox News officials have confirmed to NPR that the payment was made but say executives believed Ailes' denials.
Fox News suspended Tantaros in March over her recent book, citing what it said was her failure to consult the network about the book and its provocative cover featuring Tantaros with her arms bound by ropes. Fox News lawyers have strongly suggested that her allegations against Ailes were recently concocted and made in retribution: "She never complained of any such conduct in the course of an investigation months ago."
Berdy's account in the court filing undercuts that claim. It also offers support for Tantaros' accusation that she complained of being repeatedly propositioned by Fox News' top rated host, Bill O'Reilly; that she had been targeted by the network's publicity chief, Irena Briganti; and that Shine's deputy, Suzanne Scott, had also not taken Tantaros' concerns seriously. Scott has been promoted to Shine's former position of executive vice president of programming and development, which oversees its opinion shows and much of the network's relationship with its talent.
Tantaros' attorney, Judd Burstein, says the sworn statement is the next best proof to actual audio recordings.
"It establishes that Andrea was raising her upset at these events years ago, when she was being victimized," Burstein told NPR. In court documents, Burstein goes further, alleging, "Dr. Berdy's affidavit unequivocally demonstrates that Mr. Shine and Mr. Ailes are not only misogynists; they are liars."
The papers to be filed by Tantaros' lawyers also include an email in early September from Berdy volunteering her account. Burstein says he was unaware that she could serve as a corroborating witness before her email.
In the Sept. 7 email, reproduced in the filing, Berdy wrote, "Dear Andrea, I know you're telling the truth — whatever your issues with me or our work together, if I can be of help in validating your claim, please get in touch."
The reception afforded the Tantaros lawsuit has until now served as a perplexing counterpoint to the reaction of the network's parent company to other allegations. In July, 21st Century Fox bought Ailes out for $40 million within two weeks of lawsuit filed by Carlson against Ailes — and Ailes alone. The company's top executives, Murdoch's sons Lachlan and James, offered contrition for the culture Ailes created, and authorized modest settlements to several woman who accused him. Carlson received a $20 million payout.
Lawyers for Fox News have dismissed Tantaros' legitimacy, however. "Tantaros is not a victim," they wrote in an Aug. 29 response to her lawsuit. "She is an opportunist." Fox News lawyers also called her a "wannabe," adding: "Tantaros's allegations about sexual harassment are a smokescreen to obscure her violation of her employment contract." Fox said she was suspended earlier this year over her failure to show executives her book, Tied Up in Knots, and its cover art. The book posits that modern feminism has failed women.
They say her contract requires prior review by executives, and Fox executives say that clause has never previously been broken by one of their personalities. Burstein has argued her failure to do so was not a material breach of the contract.
Instead, Tantaros alleges the flap over the book was ginned up because of the objections she raised about Ailes and about the behavior toward her of five other men at Fox. She also alleges in her suit that O'Reilly repeatedly propositioned her and invited her with a clear sexual intent to his Long Island, N.Y., home.
"Fox News masquerades as defender of traditional family values," Tantaros' legal team wrote in its colorful initial suit, "but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency, and misogyny."
Fox News says Tantaros participated only reluctantly and unhelpfully earlier this year in an internal review of her contentions.
Tantaros' lawsuit alleges tortious interference over the book, too, saying the network's public relations chief, Briganti, helped to sabotage its fortunes by preventing her from doing publicity for it. The book was published by an imprint of HarperCollins, a part of the greater Murdoch media empire.
Along with Ailes, Shine and Fox News itself, Briganti is also named as a defendant, as is the programming executive Suzanne Scott and Fox News' top lawyer, Dianne Brandi.
Fox News' lawyers have said they will address the specifics of Tantaros accusations in private arbitration, a closed forum where they believe the dispute rightly belongs. Lawyers for Ailes argued that the Carlson lawsuit should also be handled through arbitration with Fox, but the Murdochs settled with her before the case was fully heard.
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