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Sexual harassment at Fox News: Murdochs overhaul culture with eyes on Sky

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A woman walks past the News Corp. headquarters in New York on April 19, 2017. Later that day, Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly was fired after an investigation into sexual harassment. In a message to employees, Rupert Murdoch and sons, James and Lachlan, who run 21st Century Fox, said the decision follows "an extensive review done in collaboration with outside counsel."(Photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)

Is this really a brand new Fox News?

In the past several months, dogged by a growing pile of legal suits and paying out more than $45 million in settlements over sexual harassment and discrimination charges, Fox News has shaken up its executive roster, ousting section heads and top on-air talent, as it vows to live up to the Murdoch family's pledge to eradicate an oppressive work environment. 

It's got incentive: parent company 21st Century Fox, controlled and run by Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James, wants regulators to approve its purchase of U.K.-based TV and Internet provider Sky, and corporate culture is a factor. Fox News, the crown jewel of the company's cable TV enterprise, wants to maintain its standing as the top cable news network, which it has held for more than 15 years.

But questions remain as to whether the recent changes can transform a work environment into one where sexual harassment, retaliation and racial discrimination — all claims made by employees over the last year — are no longer condoned. Recent revelations about some employees suggest that the culture, cultivated by late Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, may run deep. 

Australian-born US media mogul Rupert Murdoch is accompanied,

 (Photo: John Phillips, Getty Images)

As Ailes built Fox News into the dominant cable news network that gave voice to conservative Americans, the upstart channel crafted a look: Blustery male commentators and women, just as qualified, who were showcased for their looks with revealing clothes and camera shots. 

That attitude, said Jahan Sagafi, a partner with Outten & Golden who represents workers in claims against employers, prioritizes "looks over job qualifications and effectiveness. Whenever a leader says that some irrelevant quality trumps excellence, the resulting culture can be particularly conducive to harassment."

Months after the ouster of star anchor Bill O'Reilly in the wave of sexual harassment allegations that stretched back years, other women have come forward to detail harassment at the network or its divisions. These suggest harassment and retaliation were more widespread than the cluster of senior executives around Ailes. 

Fox Sports executive Jamie Horowitz was fired July 3, apparently the result of a sexual harassment investigation. A female production staffer told Sports Illustrated Horowitz had tried to kiss her after suggesting he could get her more work. Horowitz has denied any claims of misconduct. Shortly after, Fox Business News host Charles Payne was suspended in another sexual harassment probe; he's denied harassing a female commentator.

Roger Ailes speaks at a news conference with Rupert

Roger Ailes speaks at a news conference with Rupert Murdoch on July 21, 2016 in New York. (Photo: Richard Drew, AP)

Still, the Murdochs seem to be making clear that they are no longer protecting executives and anchors accused of sexual harassment or discrimination. 

Major ousters

Fox News co-president Bill Shine — mentioned in several lawsuits against Fox News for fostering a workplace culture where sexual harassment and racial discrimination were allowed to go unchecked — resigned two months ago.

This follows the departure of O'Reilly, dismissed in April after an internal investigation into sexual harassment claims, and after a New York Times investigation found that he or the company paid a total of about $13 million in settlements to five women about his behavior over several years. He called the claims unfounded.

Setting off this fallout was the July 2016 resignation of Ailes in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination  after former Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against him. Ailes took home a $40 million severance package.

Gretchen Carlson speaks Women at the Top: Female Empowerment

Gretchen Carlson speaks Women at the Top: Female Empowerment in Media Panel at the 2016 Greenwich International Film Festival on June 12, 2016 in Greenwich, Connecticut. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for GIFF)

Fox revealed it had paid about $45 million in settlements related to Ailes, including a $20 million settlement with Carlson. A one-time adviser to President Nixon, Ailes who died May 18, denied the claims. 

U.K. image

The house-cleaning was meant to send a message — and at least one listener heard it. 

U.K. media regulator Ofcom, which is advising the government on whether to approve Fox's $15 billion bid for Sky said Lachlan and James Murdoch, in a meeting in May, "personally put to us that no individual working for Fox News could now be under the impression that sexual harassment is acceptable, having seen the sacking of Mr Ailes, Mr O’Reilly and a number of other employees including very senior managers," the regulatory agency said in its report.

The regulators also said that Fox dealt with racial discrimination cases "in a timely fashion ... once it had become aware of them" and that none in the Fox News workplace "could now be under the impression that the conduct alleged was acceptable."

In May, Fox News fired liberal commentator Bob Beckel for a racially insensitive remark to a black employee. It fired Judith Slater, a former company controller, prior to the filing of a racial discrimination suit that's expanded to 13 plaintiffs, some of whom say “dark-skinned employees suffered years-long racial animus”  from Slater. 

Alongside the wave of departures, 21st Century Fox — which also includes the Fox TV network and Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox — is telling employees to speak up. And it's broken up some of the old-male rosters of executives in power.

This July 1, 2013 photo shows, from left, Kimberly

This July 1, 2013 photo shows, from left, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Bob Beckel, Eric Bolling, Dana Perino, Greg Gutfeld and Andrea Tantaros co-hosts of Fox News Channel's "The Five" following a taping of the show in New York. Beckel was fired earlier this year and Tantaros last August sued Fox, alleging a culture of sexual harassment and misogyny. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Invision/AP)

Fox News now has posters dotting its walls reminding employees how to come forward about improper behavior. They include an anonymous 21st Century Fox hotline, which had already been in operation but has been promoted across the company over the past year. Construction has begun on a new, more open newsroom on the building's second floor, gutting the former offices of Ailes and several other executives in the process.

Fox News has hired and elevated women into executive positions. Former executive vice president Suzanne Scott became president of programming for Fox News Channel, while also in May, NBCUniversal veteran Marianne Gambelli was hired as president of advertising sales and Amy Listerman, formerly of Scripps Network Interactive, was hired as chief financial officer.

 "Rather than treating them as isolated events, companies that experience multiple claims of harassment and discrimination need to approach it as a structural problem," said Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a strategy firm that consults with  companies on diversity and inclusion. That means assessing internal processes and policies, outcomes like hiring, advancement and compensation, and organizational culture. Fox should have been  promoting women all along, she says.  

Fox News anchor Kelly Wright becomes emotional as he

Fox News anchor Kelly Wright becomes emotional as he joins other current and former Fox employees at a press conference organized by his attorney Doug Wigdor of Wigdor LLP on April 26, 2017 in New York City. Wright, and ten other plaintiffs (since expanded to 13), filed an amended lawsuit in New York state court in which they claim that they faced years of racial discrimination at Fox. (Photo: Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There are signs it's making some structural changes that would be necessary for a true corporate overhaul. It's bolstered the human resources function: Fox News' executive vice president of human resources Kevin Lord, hired in January, reports to the parent company, not Fox News executives. Lord also took on the newly created role of chief compliance officer and has been charged with increasing the network's diversity metrics by the end of the year. 

After August 2016, mandatory workplace civility training was enhanced with additional live training to go along with online instruction. Nearly all Fox News employees and contributors have completed it, the company says. 

There's other pressure on Fox News to change: It faces a collection of lawsuits, many of which also target 21st Century Fox. Also looming: federal investigations involving Fox News' business practices that may have been related to the sexual harassment allegations. 

Ailes' legacy

Fox's corporate moves are "promising," Sagafi said, but Ailes' "impact is likely pervasive in the organization, which creates a particular challenge."

In her suit against Fox News and Ailes in April, for instance, longtime paid commentator Julie Roginsky  said she was denied a permanent position because she declined Ailes' advances and — when he had departed — another hosting job after Fox executives failed to get her to malign Carlson.

Scott, one of the senior women promoted, has also been named in a sexual harassment lawsuit by former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros as one of the executives who ignored her complaints of sexual misconduct. 

In the case of anchor Payne, the Los Angeles Times reported that lawyers for 21st Century Fox were contacted by a Fox News political analyst who alleged she was asked to make fewer appearances on Fox shows after ending an extramarital affair with Payne. He has admitted to the relationship but denied harassment. 

Vocal victims are likely to keep applying the heat — even if Fox News' commitment to its cultural makeover starts to flag. 

Carlson, the woman who set into motion the entire process, noted a shift in how women are perceiving their ability to step forward in her book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, to be published Oct. 17.

"There’s a loud rumbling in the culture—a sense that it’s time to stand up and turn the floodlights on the injustice women often suffer by being objectified, made to feel like victims, forced to settle for less, and expected to tolerate being ignored, unheard, and marginalized," she writes. 

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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