Revolt of Fox’s Hens

This has been a bloody and unpleasant couple of weeks at the Fox News Channel. A producer named Andrea Mackris brought a sexual harassment suit against Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News Channel brand-name host of The O’Reilly Factor and inventor of the TV territory called the “No-Spin Zone.”

The details of Ms. Mackris’ complaints are grisly and involve late-night dinners, dirty conversations and an electronic apparatus that no boss should ever recommend to an employee as office equipment. For his part, Mr. O’Reilly was prepared with a preemptive suit; the Fox News Channel almost immediately attempted to surgically remove Ms. Mackris from the company, implausibly asserting that her dismissal had nothing to do with her court complaint against Mr. O’Reilly.

But when Fox News’ highest-profile female journalist, Greta Van Susteren, host of On the Record, was asked about Andrea Mackris’ sexual-harassment suit against Mr. O’Reilly, she threw the ball elsewhere.

“I have an open door all the way to the top in this company,” she said, “and I’ve got nothing about walking right through that door. If I heard about it, believe me, I would not look the other way. I would speak up. I don’t want that in my environment, and I would raise hell. I wouldn’t raise hell in the newspaper, but I would raise hell in the organization.

“Which is what I did at CNN.”

Ms. Van Susteren, who became a legal analyst at CNN in 1991, said she “left CNN because of the way they were mistreating people. I’d do the same here. I’d walk out of here. If I heard about a situation that was not being addressed—I don’t sit back. I’m a lawyer.” Ms. Van Susteren’s complaints about CNN didn’t include the dinners, telephone calls and electric vibrators that show up in Ms. Mackris’ suit against Mr. O’Reilly.

But they suggested the same principle that many women interviewed by The Observer have asserted since Ms. Mackris’ vivid charges against Mr. O’Reilly have been reported: TV news is a generally inhospitable place for women to work. It often involves unequal pay for comparable work. It nurtures and inspires sexual harassment in a pressured, heightened environment filled with risks and rewards, highs and lows, and often staffed by malleable younger women producers and assistants assigned to the care and feeding of outsized male egos.

Few women under the age of 40 were willing to speak on the record for this piece about their harassment experiences, or even the sexist culture of TV news in general. But this was a shockingly easy story to gather anecdotal material for, on background.

“The television industry in general is rampant with sexual harassment, and it’s very difficult for women at a low level to complain or do anything about it,” said Lisa Bloom, a Court TV anchor and sexual-harassment attorney. “As you can see with what’s happened to Andrea Mackris, it’s brutal. That’s why they don’t come forward. They put up with it, they change jobs, engage in avoidance. It’s a small industry in New York, especially in cable news, and we all know each other. You move around a lot, and your reputation follows you. And if you offend the top brass at one TV network, they’re very tight with top brass at other networks. Word will spread, and you’ll have a hard time getting a job.”

It will be up to a court to assess the merits of Ms. Mackris’ complaint. But in her version, Mr. O’Reilly seduces, beguiles, promotes, deceives, abuses, punishes and generally violates her. Even in Ms. Mackris’ telling, her part of the dance was to coddle, to enable and—after leaving Fox for CNN—to return to Mr. O’Reilly despite her creepy feelings about him, which led to an incessant, seamy courtship of dinners, dirty telephone calls and exposure to what she described as his preoccupation with loofas and vibrators.

And, according to Ms. Mackris, his threats: “If any woman ever breathed a word I’ll make her pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born,” Ms. Mackris said he told her in a telephone conversation. “I’ll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable that she’ll be destroyed. And besides, she wouldn’t be able to afford the lawyers I can or endure it financially as long as I can. And nobody would believe her, it’d be her word against mine and who are they going to believe? Me or some unstable woman making outrageous accusations. They’d see her as some psycho, someone unstable. Besides, I’d never make the mistake of picking unstable crazy girls like that.”

Fox News declined to comment on the lawsuit. But Ms. Van Susteren said she’d never noticed the phenomenon of male anchors surrounded by young, beautiful women. “I haven’t noticed that any male anchors have a bevy of blond babes—I don’t see that,” she said. “What I see: young people who are very eager and having fun at work and learning and moving up the food chain. That’s what I see.

“If Brit Hume were doing that,” she said, “every woman would have to go past my office, because to get to his office at the end of the hall you’d have to go past my office. And I don’t see a line of women in Brit Hume’s office. Do I believe it happens? Yes, I believe that does happen. But that’s just generality. I have not seen it here.”

But others said they had. And while the pressure on women to morph into Barbie-Reporting-Live-from-the-White House is prevalent across the TV world, former staffers at Fox News described a powerfully exacerbated atmosphere there.

“They love their women dolled up,” said another former Fox News staffer who had worked in the D.C. bureau. “It’s not saying they don’t like women who aren’t smart. But women at Fox were in trouble if they were on air and they weren’t dressed like a hooker. Everybody at Fox is painfully aware of that.”

One current female producer at CNN said that an influx of younger women into the business in recent years was the surest sign not of how the industry was shifting, but of why the power dynamic between men and women was, in some instances, regressing. “In the last 10 years or so, it seems there are more and more young, pretty women who are just dying to be on television,” said the producer. “It’s just about being on television, and they’ll do anything to get there—among those things, being treated poorly.”

The CNN producer described a young woman co-worker at the cable network who had strategically slept with older, more powerful men to advance her career—which wasn’t something the producer could judge with pure moral clarity. After all, it worked. “It was her goal to get on the air,” she said. “And she made it. She got what she wanted. It’s a very tricky—it’s murky. It’s very murky.”

Other women professionals described a recent shift in the stylistic choices of college interns invading the stations: girls in shorts skirts and high boots, who were clearly aware of the power their looks afforded and were willing to work it—up to a point.

Many women said that for young females looking for mentors in the business, older men were much more willing to dole out attention and guidance than were the jaded, established women who were working against the clock, juggling face-lifts to prolong their television careers—which, of course, put the younger women into the very compromising positions that inspired harassment.

“I do think in network news, it’s so incredibly cutthroat—for a woman to get to that level, she loses all sense of what she was like as a young woman,” said a former Fox News staffer who didn’t want her current network affiliation to be known. “She had to sacrifice so much—why should she help a young woman?”

Said another female CNN producer, “There aren’t that many female executive producers. And they’re mean to those girls who are pretty and want to be on television.” One cable news producer said that the most verbally abusive boss she’d ever had had been a woman.

Clara Frenk, a former Fox News producer who appeared in the anti-Fox documentary Outfoxed, said that many of the staff she worked with there were young and not comfortable with expressing dissent.

“Whether anyone ever thought of complaining … again, most of the people who worked at Fox News were very young, it was a cable network and you had very, very high turnover,” said Ms. Frenk. “So you had kids right out of college who were working in this environment, who wanted to work in TV and probably didn’t feel comfortable complaining. What are you supposed to do when a guy who is much higher in the food chain is coming on to you? That’s something that most young women are not comfortable doing.”

“I don’t want to get that specific because of my own career,” said one 28-year-old former Fox News staffer, who described multiple scenes of harassment by the on-air talent at her former network. “There is a much lower bar and much higher tolerance for things that are inappropriate.”

But Ms. Frenk said the harassment at Fox News was no worse than anywhere else she’d worked, and she herself accepted sexual banter and even flirtation as part of the tough-nosed TV biz. But during the Clinton impeachment trial, which powered Fox News into a cultural phenomenon, she said that the behind-the-scenes behavior there made a mockery of their bias against the President. “What did bother me more than anything else was not the friskiness, but the hypocrisy” she said. “When you have one standard for the President of the United States engaged in a consensual relationship, and you’ve got people in the company who don’t hold themselves to the same standard.”

The TV news business offers a unique setup for the kind of behavior that Mr. O’Reilly is accused of: Aging, highly paid, powerful men dominate on air and behind the scenes, while armies of ambitious, underpaid, beautiful young women serve as their foot soldiers—the producers and bookers, assistants and interns—who scramble for guests and keep their bosses’ egos inflated.

Most of the on-air and off-air TV news people said that the way network and cable news is produced—from the basic flow chart in your average production to the required hours—creates an atmosphere primed for power relationships to exert themselves. Often, staff find themselves working late in close quarters, traveling from city to city, hotel to hotel, bar to bar.

One prominent and current male on-air host described his view of the social and sexual dynamic of the television news world:

“At the producing level, it’s all young women,” he said, “99 percent of whom have no chance of being on TV. They like being in TV and they like powerful men. Each host has around him lots of good-looking, unmarried women. Women are excited by power, let’s be totally clear. The temptation to fuck your staff is overwhelming—literally, almost overwhelming. You just can’t imagine how sexually out of control it is. A quarter of the women are bisexual. They’re good-looking, they’re totally without restraint. Nobody has family around, you’re on the road traveling, and you’re making $7 million a year and they’re making $65,000 a year. That’s three grand a month to live in the big city. You’ve got all the money—in every way, you’re the sheik, they’re the harem. You can’t overstate how true that is. That’s a natural dynamic.”

The news personality said that the job descriptions of most of the behind-the-scenes staff—including the producer—is to focus positive attention on the on-air personality, to make him look and sound smart and handsome and to keep his ego well-inflated.

“All they do all day long, they’re job is to serve you,” he said. “That’s explicitly their job. How you look, how you sound—everything is focused on you.”

Most of the women interviewed had a pretty easy time reciting tales from the TV-news locker room of unwanted touching and groping, compliments on “fuck-me” shoes, invitations to return to hotel rooms, clunky and incessant sexual innuendo (e.g., “I’d like to help you get a-head, ha ha ha!”), unwelcome shoulder rubs, shameless requests for dates, three-way orgies and oral sex—all by well-known male on-air personalities and powerful news executives at the top of network and cable channels.

A few seasoned women in television news were willing to talk. And they corroborated what the younger, more fearful female TV staffers would not: that TV news is very much a male preserve.

“I think we’ve made tremendous window-dressing progress in lots of ways,” said Gwen Ifill of PBS, formerly of NBC News. “You can see a lot of women, and you can name them, but as far as who is running the program, who are the executive producers of the programs, who are making the news decisions every day—those are the more critical questions. I keep telling people it’s only 2004— we aren’t where we want to be yet.”

“We’d love to believe there is equality now, and that the sexual innuendo, and inappropriate sexist remarks have stopped, but it’s just not true,” said Jill Chernekoff, a former Fox affiliate anchor. “It’s as prevalent today as it was when I started in TV 24 years ago. Women have just learned to ignore it—and unfortunately, in many cases, to accept it as status quo.”

“There has to be a beautiful, pretty woman next to some old geezer, which in its own way is harassment and sexism,” said Gail Evans, a retired executive vice president of CNN. “Harassment goes on—I hear stories from women all over about harassment.”

Ms. Van Susteren said she would withhold judgment on the O’Reilly-Mackris case until the facts come out. She said that she couldn’t vouch for Mr. O’Reilly’s character.

“I’ve never been to his house, never gone to dinner with him,” she said. “I consider him a colleague. I wouldn’t vouch for any colleague. Look, I know about the litigation ,and it’s ongoing. I’m a lawyer. I won’t discuss the merits of his case. I will let it play out however it plays out. But whether it’s Bill O’Reilly or Sean [Hannity] or Alan [Colmes] or Shep[ard Smith]—or whatever—it would be unusual for me to vouch for them.”

And the on-air standards created by management, said former Fox employees, helped define the off-air atmosphere.

And the powerful figures at the top, from the news executives to the top prime-time anchors, shared a sense of entitlement, they said—which precluded complaints about unwanted sexual overtures or outright harassment. “They all fit into the same mold of intimidators,” said the former Fox News staffer. “There’s definitely a sense of fear always prevalent.”

That sense of fear is palpable in cable and network news. Amid all the descriptions in the sexual-harassment lawsuit that Ms. Mackris has filed against the Fox News star, the most extraordinary is the thug-like monologue attributed to Mr. O’Reilly, threatening any woman who exposed his “inappropriate conduct.”

In it, the author of best-selling Who’s Looking Out for You? threatens to be looking out for her, period, if she makes a wrong step. And so, Ms. Mackris’ rendition of Mr. O’Reilly suggests, would the head of Fox News:

“If you cross FOX NEWS CHANNEL, it’s not just me, it’s [Fox president] Roger Ailes who will go after you,” Mr. O’Reilly is quoted as saying. “I’m the street guy out front making loud noises about the issues, but Ailes operates behind the scenes, strategizes and makes things happen so that one day BAM! The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming.”

Whether or not Ms. Mackris’ story is true—that she left Fox News for a job at CNN, where she worked under Jim Miller, a producer who himself quit after accusations of sexual harassment, then returned to Fox to work once more for a man who continued to harass her—many women in TV news found the sordid tale unsurprising.

One 25-year-old former Fox associate producer, speaking of Mr. O’Reilly, said she turned down a job with The O’Reilly Factor “because of the reputation at Fox of how he treated his producers. If you get on his bad side, you’re done at Fox. It was just a lot of baggage to take, but at Fox it was the best show to work for in terms of ratings. I think the women who worked on that show knew what they were getting into.

“I’m sure there are women who tell you that they have never experienced harassment,” said a veteran television anchor and reporter, “and I say this gently: They’re probably less attractive women. I know that the attractive women hear those remarks all the time.”

Having a well-endowed harem swirling around “some old geezer” wasn’t just a complaint at Fox. “They love to show off their cute little girls: ‘These are my smart, beautiful young women, who surround me, who I take to my events’—but whom they rely on,” said Gail Evans, formerly of CNN.

Asked to compare her current shop, Fox News Channel, to her former one, Ms. Van Susteren wrote back, “I just remembered that when I told CNN I was leaving, the then management got on the phone and called my women colleagues to tell them. They did not want a women’s mutiny. Since it was the Christmas holiday, the women were spread out all over the country on vacations. Each was stunned since I kept the decision private. Immediately after getting the call from CNN management, many of them picked up the phone and called me at home. This was no surprise since I was close to the women. I got so many ‘I am so sad you are going … but “you go, girl!!!” I would go, too if I could.’ As time passed, many did leave … and some have stayed.”

Meanwhile, as Andrea Mackris copes with the wrath she has unleashed, the women of TV are going to be watching with a combination of admiration, resentment, relief and awe.

“I wish I had been more assertive at certain times and had told certain people where to get off and not worried about it,” said Ms. Chernekoff. “I wish that I didn’t have to get to my 40’s to be confident and self-assured enough to turn around to a foul-mouthed colleague or boss and say, ‘Hey—you’re out of line! Knock it off.’ It seems women have to be pretty well-established to risk saying what they really think. I hope the young women in the newsroom today change all that and speak up rather than put up with that chauvinist stuff.”