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Economy & Business

Fox News Pays Record Fine Over #MeToo Violations of NYC Human Rights Law

Outside the Fox News headquarters building in New York City.
Outside the Fox News headquarters building in New York City.

Fox News Media has agreed to pay a record $1 million fine as part of a broader settlement following an investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights into patterns of sexual harassment and retribution at the cable news channel.

For Fox News, the financial penalty is symbolic, as it is believed to make more than $2 billion a year in profits. Yet the figure marks the maximum the commission could levy in the case. The settlement was first reported by the Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove.

The conditions of the settlement are more consequential: along with specifying training programs and ways for employees to report harassment, Fox News agreed not to issue any new or extended contracts that compel people to resolve disputes in binding and confidential arbitration for the next four years.

That has been a key objection of many women who sued Fox News or accused influential men at the network of harassment. And it means that people will be able to publicly accuse Fox or its employees of violating New York City human rights law in state or federal courts, rather than being shepherded into closed arbitration hearings. Fox cannot compel other employees who don't have such individual contracts into private proceedings, according to two people with knowledge of the settlement.

"We found that [Fox News] engaged in a pattern and practice of retaliating against the individuals that were working at Fox News," Christina Piaia, supervising attorney of the commission's gender-based harassment unit, tells NPR. "When such information was reported, oftentimes there was additional retaliation that happened."

"We hope that this is a model for other conciliation agreements and other agencies and other companies to start that, by not allowing mandatory arbitration clauses to be in any of these contracts," Piaia says.

The commission's investigation stemmed from revelations of systemic sexual harassment by Fox News's former chairman, the late Roger Ailes. Former Fox President Bill Shine was accused of enabling Ailes' repeated harassment with payoffs, promises and threats. Each denied the accusations. Yet each would lose their jobs. So did others as more accusations poured forth against other senior men at the network, including former Fox hosts Bill O'Reilly, Eric Bolling and Ed Henry, executive Francisco Cortes, and reporter James Rosen, among others. (All but Rosen denied the allegations against them; Rosen declined to comment.)

A commission spokesperson says the settlement covers mandatory arbitration clauses in any newly signed or extended contract for four years, starting late next month.

"If that's true, it's a big deal," says lawyer Douglas Wigdor, who has sued Fox on behalf of 20 clients in recent years but played no role in the commission's investigation. "It would be a very bold and big move." He credited Fox as well as the city for reaching such an agreement.

"It's a beautiful statement about mandatory arbitration," says attorney Nancy Erika Smith, who represented former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, former reporter Diana Falzone (who now writes for The Daily Beast), and former commentator Julie Roginsky, in their allegations of harassment. "Arbitration does enable harassment and discrimination by silencing victims. Bravo NYC!"

Fox News presented the settlement as the residue of an earlier and unsavory age, the resolutions already in place.

"We are pleased to reach an amicable resolution of this legacy matter," read a statement conveyed by a spokesperson for the network. "FOX News Media has already been in full compliance across the board, but cooperated with the New York City Commission on Human Rights to continue enacting extensive preventive measures against all forms of discrimination and harassment."

Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott has said she has sought to remake the culture at the network, blowing up the old newsroom literally and figuratively. Women hold more top jobs than ever before; human resources division is under new leadership and its staffing levels have swelled; new policies throughout the network dictate appropriate behavior and training and enhance multiple ways to file complaints. Scott cited strict anti-harassment policies in a memo to staff last July about firing Henry. A former colleague had alleged he had physically abused her. Scott made clear such behavior was unacceptable.

The shield that arbitration offers to employers and those accused of wrongdoing played a large role in the Fox News scandal. On Carlson's behalf, Smith sidestepped arbitration by suing Ailes individually instead of Fox News so she could get Ailes' taped harassment of the former Fox host into the public record. Carlson eventually won a $20 million private payment from Fox and initiated the cascade of allegations that led to Ailes' downfall. Fox Corp paid Ailes $40 million as he left the network, just days after Carlson's suit was filed.

"It's major that a government agency has finally publicly acknowledged that mandatory arbitration enables harassment and discrimination as it silences victims," Smith says. "And it's a tool that takes away very important rights that are embodied in the Constitution.... It's disgusting how it's used to silence victims."

In some ways, the settlement serves as a Rorschach test for Scott's tenure. She started out in the network's first year as a junior assistant to one of Ailes' closest friends and top executives. Over the next quarter century, she rose through the ranks to be Shine's deputy and then led Fox News after a stretch in which founder and controlling owner Rupert Murdoch ran the network. Since taking over, Scott has presented herself as a reformer. She also touted the network's certification as a "Great Place To Work."

By contrast, Roginsky alleged in her lawsuit that Scott was complicit in efforts to silence her accusations of harassment against Ailes and retaliation by Shine. Scott denied the claim; Roginsky ultimately reached a financial settlement with Fox News. It is believed that Fox News, its corporate owners, its insurers and O'Reilly personally have together paid out more than $200 million to resolve harassment cases and to oust some of those accused.

"In case after case after case, she forced victims into mandatory arbitration," Smith, the attorney, says of Scott. "She forced them into settlements with non-disclosure agreements. We've written to her and asked her... to release women of their non-disclosure agreements."

"If she has done such a great job, why is she silencing women?"

Fox News officials have called such criticism unfair to Scott, blaming her for the actions and decisions of others. "FOX News Media has worked tirelessly to completely change the company culture over the last five years," a second statement from the network stated. It hailed Scott's leadership and cited a "zero tolerance" for workplace misconduct.

For the next four years, Fox journalists under new contracts will not have to go through the confidential process to resolve conflicts.

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