In 2006, after nearly a decade at CNN, Rudi Bakhtiar came to the Fox News Channel’s headquarters in New York with a command of foreign policy, an appealing personality and a delivery that easily switched between light and serious.
After a six-month freelance arrangement, the network signed her to a three-year deal. Pretty quickly, she said, she was spending half her time in Washington, where the network sent her to fill in temporarily as a weekend correspondent, a post she hoped to win permanently.
Her break seemed to come in early 2007, she said, when she met for coffee in the lobby of her Washington hotel with a friend and colleague, Brian Wilson. He told her he would soon become Washington bureau chief and wanted to help her get the weekend job. Then he said, “You know how I feel about you, Rudi.”
Recalling the encounter in a recent phone interview, Ms. Bakhtiar said she was thrilled and told Mr. Wilson she would make him proud. But, she said, he repeated himself, asking, “You know how I feel about you?” When she asked him what he meant, he said, “Well, I’d like to see the inside of your hotel room,” adding that he wanted a friends-with-benefits relationship.
She politely rebuffed him, she said, apologizing for giving him any wrong impression. After that rejection, she felt caught in a whirlwind in which, she said, network executives canceled her Washington appearances, directed her to report her allegations to human resources and, a few weeks later, let her go, with the Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes, telling her that her tenure was ending because of her performance. On Saturday, a senior Fox News executive repeated that assertion.
In a short time, she went from thinking she was in line to land the job she coveted to unemployment. After a mediation process, she reached a settlement in which Fox News paid her an undisclosed amount.
Contacted on Friday, Mr. Wilson, who went on to get the bureau chief job, said of Ms. Bakhtiar’s account: “I take strong exception to the facts of the story as you have relayed it to me, period. Beyond that, I will have no further comment.”
Ms. Bakhtiar concedes that she agreed in her settlement not to speak of her experience. But she said she was emboldened to step forward by the sexual harassment lawsuit that the former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson brought against Mr. Ailes this month, and a subsequent investigation that has brought to light at least 10 other claims of improper behavior involving him. Mr. Ailes resigned from Fox News on Thursday.
The investigation by Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, focused narrowly on Mr. Ailes. But in interviews with The New York Times, current and former employees described instances of harassment and intimidation that went beyond Mr. Ailes and suggested a broader problem in the workplace.
The Times spoke with about a dozen women who said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or intimidation at Fox News or the Fox Business Network, and half a dozen more who said they had witnessed it. Two of them cited Mr. Ailes and the rest cited other supervisors. With the exception of Ms. Bakhtiar, they all spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing embarrassment and fear of retribution. Most continue to work in television and worry that speaking out could damage their careers.
They told of strikingly similar experiences at Fox News. Several said that inappropriate comments about a woman’s appearance and sex life were frequent. Managers tried to set up their employees on dates with superiors.
In a statement on Friday, Julie Henderson, a spokeswoman for 21st Century Fox, said, “As we’ve made clear, there’s absolutely no room anywhere at our company for behavior that disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment.” The company also pointed out that its business standards manual includes instructions on how to report harassment and inappropriate behavior. There are several options, including an anonymous hotline.
The women interviewed by The Times described similarly troubling experiences at Fox News and the Fox Business Network, a sprawling operation with about 2,000 employees on several floors of News Corporation’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
The networks were run with an iron fist by Mr. Ailes, the founding chairman and a former Republican strategist, who established the channels as a lucrative profit center and an influential voice in conservative politics.
One woman who is still there said that a producer of a show on which she frequently appeared persuaded her to go on dates with him. When she decided after two uneventful outings that she had had enough, he ceased to have her on his show, she said.
One former Fox News staff member described walking into a dark office in 2009 to find a senior manager receiving oral sex from a junior employee.
It is difficult to know exactly how much Mr. Ailes set the tone. The investigation into his conduct revealed findings troubling enough to compel 21st Century Fox executives to move quickly and arrange his exit. Beyond inappropriate language, Mr. Ailes was also accused by employees of kissing and intimate physical contact, according to three people briefed on the investigation, and of making propositions that included quid pro quo arrangements.
One former reporter said that behind closed doors, Mr. Ailes often made provocative comments about her appearance, her body and the dresses she wore. She also said that each meeting with Mr. Ailes began and ended with a hug and a kiss, a ritual that made her uncomfortable and sometimes prompted her to turn her head to avoid being kissed on the lips.
Messages sent to Mr. Ailes’s lawyers seeking comment were not returned.
Female staff members told of problems with other supervisors as well. One current employee said that she was with a male supervisor in a closed-door, one-on-one meeting in 2009 when she asked to work on an assignment. He turned to her and said, “Sure,” then conditioned it on oral sex. The woman said she laughed it off, thinking that she would face retaliation and be demoted if she told him that the comment was inappropriate.
This woman also said that meetings were filled with sexual innuendo and that supervisors had routinely asked her about her sex life. She said that she was at a happy hour outside the office last year and an executive approached her and whispered in her ear that the full-length zipper on the back of her dress was quite provocative.
Almost all the women said they were reluctant to go to the human resources department with their complaints for fear that they would be fired. Some of the women said they went to their parents instead with their complaints.
Other women, however, said the environment was not as bad as recent news suggested. Ashana Clark, who worked as a makeup artist for Fox News from 2003 to 2014, said in an interview that the company held sexual harassment training sessions at which employees were instructed not to make sexual jokes or references. “After that,” she said, “you didn’t see a lot of it.”
She also said many of the women she worked with “loved Roger Ailes” and were “very grateful to him.”
Several former Fox News employees said that people were afraid to speak up but that many women viewed the behavior there as par for the course in the broadcasting industry, where appearance is so highly valued.
“There is a culture where, not that you accept it, you just deal with it,” one former employee said.
Ms. Bakhtiar, who now works as a producer for Reuters, said she was risking a lawsuit to speak out because her experience “ruined my life” and also because she said she believed that “this environment has to change.” Two former colleagues of hers confirmed to The Times that she had told them of her experience at the time.
After her encounter over coffee with Mr. Wilson, Ms. Bakhtiar said, she informed a manager, Bill Shine, of the incident, and Mr. Shine urged her to make a formal complaint. (Mr. Shine is part of the interim leadership team that 21st Century Fox says will be leading Fox News until it names a new chairman.)
She initially resisted filing a complaint and told her managers: “I know what happens to women. We’re expected to shut up about it.” But she said she did as she was told.
Ms. Bakhtiar had landed the temporary Washington role at Fox News, she said, before one of her proudest accomplishments — gaining entry to Iran for a summit meeting between the Iranian and Iraqi leaders. (She is of Persian descent, speaks fluent Farsi and spent parts of her childhood living in Iran, and had relatives high up during the last shah’s reign.)
She said that things changed after she rejected Mr. Wilson’s advances, and got worse after she filed her complaint, which was followed by Fox’s decision to exercise an option terminating her contract a few weeks later.
“Rudi, we’re letting you go,” she said Mr. Ailes told her.
“I said, ‘You know very well why I’m getting let go, and it has nothing to do with my abilities. You guys came to me and sought me out,’” Ms. Bakhtiar said. “I said, ‘This is all about what happened with Brian. You know it, and I know it.’ He kept on saying, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’”
Ms. Bakhtiar said that Mr. Ailes, referring to a senior news executive, John Moody, told her, “Moody doesn’t think you’re a good reporter.”
In an interview on Saturday, Mr. Moody said, “My lack of confidence in her reporting predated any knowledge that I had of her claims of sexual harassment.”
But in Ms. Bakhtiar’s view, it was because she had spoken up.
“Once they got my H.R. statement, I was finished, finished — 10 years in the business,” Ms. Bakhtiar said.
Mr. Wilson became bureau chief and stayed at the network for two more years, but then left.
Ms. Bakhtiar said she received moral support from colleagues, including the anchor Megyn Kelly.
Ms. Bakhtiar retained a lawyer, the Atlanta litigator L. Lin Wood, who, she said, thought she had a strong case. During mediation, as it became clear that a settlement was getting close, she said Mr. Wood encouraged her not to settle. But she said she did not want to make it into a public legal fight. “I thought, if this gets out, I’ll never get another job in this business because nobody likes it when a girl cries sexual harassment.”
She accepted a settlement. But as her agent looked for new jobs, he determined that her best route was to go to local news and work her way back up, she said. She could not bring herself to do it. “It took a couple of years for me to bounce back,” she said.
Ms. Bakhtiar eventually became a senior adviser at Voice of America’s Persian-language service and more recently has served as a producer for Reuters. She is currently working on a documentary about Kurdish pesh merga forces.
When The Times contacted Fox News on Thursday about Ms. Bakhtiar’s story, the network contacted her old lawyer, Mr. Wood, she said, to warn her that she was in breach of her agreement. She decided to go forward anyway.
“What are they going to do? Come after me for money? Garnish my wages? It’ll make a bigger story out of it,” she said. “I just feel like I shut up because I didn’t want to hurt my career,” she said. “It’s awful what happened to me, and to other people, with a nod from management.”
SOURCE: The New York Times
Jim Rutenberg, Emily Steel and John Koblinjuly