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Chaos at Fox News: One Week In, Culture Change Is on the Rocks (Column)

Variety logo Variety 4/28/2017 Sonia Saraiya
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Is this what implosion looks like?

In the week since Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News, the cable news network has struggled to stay on message. The Murdoch family has stated firmly that it is seeking a culture change. But the culture of Fox News seems quite resistant to changing — and the allegations keep piling up. In addition to a network-wide culture of sexual harassment that ended the Fox News careers of both Roger Ailes and O’Reilly, a racial-discrimination lawsuit against comptroller Judith Slater is gaining complainants and is similarly sordid in its details of harassment and employee exploitation. (Among other complaints, the black employees of Fox News allege that they were subjected to arm wrestling white employees for Slater’s amusement.)

But that’s just the legal mess. On-air and in public, the network’s image problem is also a mess. The promised culture change isn’t evident in what the network’s been putting on air — or who they’re promoting to plum timeslots — leading to a smug and typically bigoted debut for Tucker Carlson at 8 p.m. Monday that feinted towards inclusion before reveling in mockery .

Then, on Tuesday’s episode of “The Five” — which moved from 5 p.m. to a primetime 9 p.m. slot, just on Monday — co-host Jesse Watters ended a segment about Germans booing Ivanka Trump by making a literal b*****b joke. “I really liked how she was speaking into that microphone,” Watters said, gesturing cylindrically with one hand and grinning in what most women know as the street harasser’s go-to jerkoff motion. The moment is so awkward that his co-hosts skip over the remark; even when defending Ivanka Trump, Watters apparently could not stop inappropriately sexualizing her. (Watters denies that he meant any innuendo; in a statement , he said that he was referring to “Ivanka’s voice and how it resonates like a smooth jazz radio DJ.” Of course, he didn’t mention her voice in the original comment — and this statement does not even bother to try to explain the gesture — so it is hard to take this attempt at an excuse too seriously.) The next evening, Watters closed “The Five” by briefly mentioning that he would be going on “vacation.”

And on Wednesday, Sean Hannity — one of the network’s longest-running anchors, and its most recognizable personality now that all the rest have left or been booted — took to Twitter for a public meltdown , hinting at a conspiracy to take down Fox News from the inside. The tweets were a response to a report from New York magazine that Bill Shine, the Fox News co-president implicated in covering up or permitting the network’s culture sexual harassment, wasn’t able to get a statement of support from the Murdoch family. Hannity tweeted portentously that if Shine goes, Fox News “as we know it” goes with him.

As unfortunate as his anxiety is, though, maybe Fox News as we know it should be quietly asked to leave the building. After all, the question following O’Reilly’s firing was whether or not Fox News can change its culture beyond sexual harassment. The rampant chaos of this week suggests that Fox News may not have a culture beyond sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and questionable employment practices. It is so endemic to this company’s identity that Watters, a Trump booster, could not stop himself from joking about Ivanka Trump and fellatio. On the outside chance that his preposterous “smooth jazz” excuse is valid, it is still mindboggling that he was not walking on eggshells around any mention of a woman’s appearance; Fox News is under heightened scrutiny when it comes to the network’s treatment of women. At worst, Watters is a misogynist boor; at best, he’s an idiot.

But then again: What else can we expect from Fox News? Watters and O’Reilly did a segment mocking allegations of sexual harassment and decrying political correctness on April 8 — one week after the decades of allegations against O’Reilly were revealed to the public, in an on-air nose-thumbing at the reports. Watters went on the street in Chinatown in late 2016 which produced four and a half minutes of regressive Asian stereotyping (intercut with scenes from films, to heighten the hackery). O’Reilly, famously, mocked Rep. Maxine Waters’ “James Brown wig,” and while he apologized for that, he didn’t apologize for saying that African-Americans are “ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads,” or that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings,” or that Asians are “by nature… industrious and hardworking.” Carlson has denied the existence of sexual harassment and called Hillary Clinton “castrating.” And let’s not forget Hannity, who has thrown his weight behind nearly every opportunity for xenophobia that the 2016 election presented — including defending and promoting Donald Trump’s repeatedly and widely debunked theory that former President Obama was either not an American citizen and/or actually a Muslim. Hannity also defended Trump’s use of the term “anchor baby.”

In Fox News’ first week of attempting to change its corporate culture, it appears to be in complete disarray. Without the casual sexism and race-baiting — without the bluster and bombast — what does this network stand for? Or are these gaffes and goofs and Twitter meltdowns just indications of what many have long suspected — that Fox News is rotten, all the way to its core.

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