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Federal Probe Into Fox News Reportedly Widens

Variety logo Variety 5/4/2017 Brian Steinberg
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A probe by federal investigators into sexual-harassment settlements made to certain employees at Fox News Channel is gaining steam, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Citing people familiar with the probe, the Journal reported the government’s inquiry has widened to examine not only the structure of those payments but whether intimidation tactics were utilized against employees at the network. Prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and criminal investigators from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have interviewed women who have accused Roger Ailes, the former Fox News CEO who was ousted last summer, of sexual harassment. Those women include Julie Roginsky, an on-air contributor who recently filed a lawsuit against the network, and Laurie Luhn, a former talent booker who has made shocking allegations about Ailes’ behavior.

A 21st Century Fox spokesman said the company declined to comment on the report. The company has said in the past that it is cooperating with the investigation, which has not been announced publicly by the U.S. attorney’s office.

The revelation marks just the latest in a series of legal issues that have begun to surround operations at Fox News Channel and that threaten to distract both executives at the network and its parent company as they seek to keep it running in the wake of the departure of three of its best-known personalities over the last few months.

Bill O’Reilly, who has been the linchpin of the Fox News primetime lineup for two decades, parted ways with Fox News after it was disclosed that he made settlements coming to as much as $13 million to women who had accused him of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior (O’Reilly has said he made settlements to protect his children, and that his fame had made him a target). Megyn Kelly, who took over the network’s 9 p.m. slot in 2013 and rose to fame, left Fox News earlier this year for  NBC News. And Greta van Susteren, who worked both in primetime and the early evening, parted ways with the network after Ailes left last year as part of what was said at the time to be a contract dispute.

Fox News Channel has performed well in the ratings in recent weeks, moving Tucker Carlson into O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. slot; shifting “The Five” from afternoons to 9 p.m., and launching two new shows, a news-side hour with Martha MacCallum at 7 p.m. and a new panel show, “Fox News Specialists” in place of “The Five.”

The government won’t necessarily move forward with a prosecution, the Journal reported.

But its investigation, for now, is proceeding apace. Mark Kranz, a former chief financial officer of Fox News Channel, was granted immunity in exchange for talking to investigators, the report said. They also subpoenaed and met with Brian Lewis, a former Fox News communications executive, the Journal reported.

Investigators are looking into how payments made to women who complained about sexual harassment were structured, the report said. And they are also gaining insight into whether top executives at Fox News Channel had roles in arranging those settlements or fostering a workplace culture in which sexual harassment was tolerated and not punished.

Earlier this week, Fox News parted ways with Bill Shine, one of the network’s co-presidents and an executive who played a significant role in the network’s editorial operations. Shine had been cited in several lawsuits and the company has come under both internal and external pressure to show that its culture has shifted. When Ailes left last year, James and Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO and executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, respectively, said in a statement that they were committed to “maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”

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