Why Did It Take Roger Ailes So Long to Fall?

The real surprise may be that some accusers were willing to step forward despite the likely consequences.

Richard Drew / AP

Somebody please tell me that Fox News eminence Brit Hume is joking.

On the day of Roger Ailes’s ouster over accusations of sexual harassment, some conservative podcaster fired off this snarky tweet:

To which Hume tweeted back:

Really, Brit? That’s what you consider a good question regarding this whole sordid mess? I get that you and Ailes are friends, having spent 20 years in the trenches together building the network. And it made perfect sense for you to be skeptical of Carlson in the early going. To wit, your super-helpful tweet the day after news of her lawsuit broke:

But now, after all the icky stories to surface about your pal’s alleged tendency toward sexual predation—hard to dismiss Megyn Kelly and all the rest as bitter, vindictive losers, too—are Carlson’s core motivations really what strike you as the pertinent line of inquiry here? Not: How the hell did Roger apparently get away with this for so long? Or: Why did I not have any inkling that my good friend may have been putting the entire enterprise at risk this way? Or: Should those of us who rushed to defend Roger by publicly trashing Carlson maybe give it a rest at this point?

To be fair, Hume is not alone in his musings. Lots of folks have been muttering (some more snidely than others) about why Carlson waited so long to come forward. Men in particular seem dismayed that a woman would not have immediately spoken up about this kind of mistreatment. And if the woman didn’t bother blowing the whistle at the time, then it must not have been that big of a deal, right?

Sorry, guys, but this is more treacherous terrain than you might think. Way too many women still find themselves putting up with way too much inappropriate nonsense from bosses for all kinds of reasons. Certainly, I’ve had colleagues who were impressively willing to call bullshit the second a boss stepped over the line. But not everyone wants to kick that hornet’s nest. (And it’s always a hornet’s nest.) Some women are loath to come forward lest they be labeled a troublemaker or—as Carlson says happened when she complained to Ailes about her Fox & Friends cohost, Steve Doocy—an uptight “man hater” who doesn’t play well with “the boys.” Others don’t want to do anything that might endanger their jobs and figure that they can defuse/deflect/manage the boss’s occasional skeeziness on their own. (Been there. Done that. Many times.) If the guy is a great leader in other ways—as so many people assure us that Ailes was—that makes women all the more hesitant to raise a stink. What if no one believes them? And even if they make their case, they’re still marked as the person who brought down a beloved leader.

Is there an ideal approach for handling out-of-line bosses? Probably not. In an ideal world, bosses like Ailes would keep their grubby mitts and pervy propositions to themselves.

This is not to say that women are the only ones to find themselves in awkward to-tell-or-not-to-tell positions. All whistle-blowing entails risks—chief among them that the company will trash the whistle-blower as a disgruntled employee. In many cases, this may be 100 percent true. But disgruntled doesn’t necessarily mean dishonest, nor do an employee’s motivations change the wrongness of the behavior they are reporting.

Anyone remember The Insider, the 1999 film about Jeffrey Wigand, the guy who blew the whistle on Big Tobacco? It’s unlikely Wigand would have turned out to be such the heroic figure if he hadn’t first gotten fired from Brown & Williamson. Why? Because tattling on the boss tends to throw people’s lives into complete chaos. Which means lots of folks, regardless of gender, won’t do it without a really compelling reason, like, say, having had their careers blown to smithereens already.

In 2012, The New York Times ran a piece warning people of the catastrophic fallout that often comes with reporting an employer for financial shenanigans. A couple of the more ominous bits:

“It’s a life-changing experience,” said John R. Phillips, founder of the law firm Phillips & Cohen and the man credited with devising the amendments that strengthened the government antifraud law, the False Claims Act, in 1986. “If you look at the field of whistle-blowers, you see a high degree of bankruptcies. You may find yourself unemployable. Home foreclosures, divorce, suicide and depression all go with this territory.” …

“There is a 100 percent chance that you will be unemployed—the question is, Will you be forever unemployable?” said Patrick Burns, a spokesman for Taxpayers Against Fraud. “The other 100 percent factor is the person who fired you, the person who designed and implemented the fraud, won’t be fired. He’ll probably be promoted again.”

Oof. And if anything, a harassment claim is more nebulous and arguably even more fraught than fraud. Think about all the sexual politics involved, not to mention the sniggering, raised eyebrows, and even whispers that, maybe, the woman herself was up for the game—until it stopped working to her advantage, of course. Then she decided to get even, because, well, hell hath no fury.

For the most part, the Ailes meltdown seems to have been handled about as well as one could hope: Good for 21st Century Fox for jumping on the charges and launching an investigation. Good for the Murdochs for not trying to sweep this whole mess under the rug. (It helped, of course, that Rupert’s sons were looking to boot Ailes.) Good for Megyn Kelly and the other women who stepped up to share their own accounts of close encounters with Ailes, making it exceedingly difficult for Ailes’s defenders to continue dismissing Carlson.

There are, no doubt, many questions remaining about this unfortunate episode. As to why Carlson took so long to push back against Ailes, there are also many possible answers—not one of which matters as much as the mystery of why Ailes allegedly thought he had the right to behave like a horndog toward any of his female employees.