If Roger Ailes believes in anything, it’s the counterattack.
When you’re accused, losing, wounded, bleeding — hit back hard. Go for the jugular.
That philosophy — actually, a whole way of life — is surely what’s behind a letter sent a few days ago to New York magazine from one Charles Harder, on behalf of the deposed Fox News founder, suggesting that a defamation action may be coming.
Harder is the high-profile Hollywood lawyer behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that, in effect, put Gawker out of business last month. He’s the same lawyer representing Melania Trump in her assertions that publications defamed her when they reported that she once was associated with an escort service; one of those publications took down its story after the threats.
And so, when a letter arrives from Charles Harder, it sends a loud message: Stop messing with my client or else.
Or else what? Well, in the post-Gawker era, the suggestion is this: or else we’ll come after you so hard and with such deep pockets that you’ll have to fold.
New York magazine is the publication easily most responsible for Ailes’ stunning fall. That’s where Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman has relentlessly reported about the sexual harassment claims that led to his ouster from the network in July. (Ailes has denied all claims of sexual harassment.)
Those claims resulted in Tuesday’s news that former Fox host Gretchen Carlson would get a $20 million settlement from 21st Century Fox, the parent of the cable news company. It was Carlson’s suit, accusing Ailes of sexual harassment, that opened the floodgates. (As a sidenote, I hoped Carlson wouldn’t settle, because I thought a trial would force some ugly truths into the sunlight where they belong. Still, I give her a lot of credit for the gutsiness it took to come forward.)
Since then, a lot has happened: Ailes, 76, quickly was shown the exit; 20 other women came forward with similar stories of being asked to trade sexual favors for career advancement; and another former Fox host filed suit.
But Ailes, who was, after all, Richard Nixon’s media adviser, didn’t have the grace to slink away. Instead, he began blaming the messenger. And pulling out a proven big gun to do it. The suit against Gawker brought $140 million in damages for Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea; soon after, Gawker filed for bankruptcy, and last month, it stopped publishing.
Ailes’ main lawyer, Susan Estrich, once considered a feminist, recently accused Sherman of abusing women by airing their grievances. And she told the Daily Beast that he would “use any woman he can find — no matter how clearly and deeply troubled she is — to try to concoct allegations against Ailes.”
That’s absurd, of course. But in AilesWorld, it’s normal behavior. It’s no surprise that the truth-challenged counterattack is a favorite tactic of Donald Trump, who has described his friend Roger Ailes in glowing terms and reportedly is using him as an adviser in preparation for the presidential debates.
New York magazine’s reporting has been careful and reviewed by lawyers at every step. I don’t mean to equate the Hulk Hogan matter, which hinged on an invasion-of-privacy claim, with Sherman’s work, whatever legal claim Ailes may have in mind there. New York’s reporting, though was important and responsible journalism.
But something bigger is going on here that worries me. Many publications are struggling to survive. Not all can survive a deep-pocketed legal assault, like one Mother Jones successfully fended off from a wealthy dietary supplements mogul angry over a story about his political donations and regulatory battles. Some will indeed find it wiser to pull their punches than to continue aggressive reporting.
In short, there’s a risk of self-censorship by intimidation. After the Financial Times reported Ailes’ hiring Harder, business journalist Heidi Moore posted a warning on Twitter to “all the smug media church ladies who said this could only happen to Gawker and not ‘real journalism.’”
New York magazine, I feel confident, would prevail in court were Ailes and company foolish enough to follow through.
Of course, the former Fox News chief hasn’t always exercised the best judgment. Twenty or so women could tell you all about that.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper.