Updated: 4:05 p.m. April 11, 2017.
Fox News anchor Melissa Francis was shocked when accusations of sexual harassment first surfaced against then-Chairman Roger Ailes last year. But when she looked back on her own experiences with Ailes, she realized she may have been a potential target.
Francis writes in her upcoming memoir, Lessons From the Prairie, that Ailes told her a “star” is many things, including “someone you’d like to get into bed, and you fit that bill as far as I’m concerned, for sure.” Francis says she didn’t think much of the comment, which she alleges Ailes repeated to her at least twice, until multiple Fox employees came forward to accuse him of sexually harassing them. Ailes, who has denied the allegations raised by those employees, resigned in July. Ailes’s lawyer Susan Estrich wrote in a statement to Motto: “Roger tells me he has never had multiple conversations with Melissa Francis and her account is simply not true.”
New accusations have continued to emerge, including a lawsuit filed by contributor Julie Roginsky alleging she was punished for rejecting Ailes’s sexual advances and refusing to discredit former host Gretchen Carlson after she sued him. Roginsky’s suit, filed last week, names Fox News, Ailes and co-president Bill Shine. Ailes has denied her claims through his lawyer, who called the accusations “hogwash.” A Fox News representative declined to comment on Roginsky’s suit. She is still working for the network and appeared on-air as recently as April 11.
Francis says she has continued to be surprised by new revelations. She has worked with both Shine and Bill O’Reilly, whose alleged abuse of women has cost himself and the network about $13 million in private settlements over the years, according to the New York Times, and never suspected they mistreated women. In statements given to the Times, 21st Century Fox said that O’Reilly “denies the merits of [the] claims” but has “resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility,” and O’Reilly said that his position as a public figure makes him a “target.”
Though Francis says she was never sexually harassed at Fox outside of the possible incidents with Ailes, she writes in Lessons from the Prairie that she was targeted early in her career at another station, and she believes sexual harassment is “everywhere” in the broadcast news industry.
Motto spoke with Francis about that early experience, the culture at Fox News and why she thinks every person should have a plan for what to do if targeted.
You write in your book about being sexually harassed at the beginning of your career. What was that like?
I was working in a small town, and the news director who had hired me showed up on my doorstep long after midnight, drunk, trying to force his way in. It was obviously very shocking for someone who’s barely out of college, lives alone and doesn’t have anybody nearby. In that moment I managed to keep him from coming in, but I knew in the light of day it was going to work out really badly for me when he realized what he had done and was embarrassed about it. I ended up quitting and leaving and finding a different job.
Can you describe what happened at Fox?
I want to emphasize that when the revelations started to come out, I was as shocked as anyone, because I’ve been very happy here and have felt like I’ve had a lot of opportunity. But when I looked back on some of the conversations that I had with Roger in particular, I realized I may have missed some signs. When more and more people came forward and I started to realize what had gone on, I went back in my head and replayed different conversations that we’d had. I will never know what was truly in his heart when we had those conversations, but it did seem like he was trying to see if there was some possibility.
Were you ever asked to defend Ailes?
No, but you know what? I would have. In my mind, that was not my experience of him, so I was as surprised as anyone, and I was ready to leap to his defense. There were a lot of people here who were like, ‘That hasn’t been my experience, that can’t be the case.’
What do you make of the network keeping Bill O’Reilly on?
My experiences with him have only been really positive. He’s held the elevator door for me. I’ve never seen him do anything in appropriate. I wasn’t there. I’m not prepared to call anyone a liar — on any side.
How has the environment been at the network?
They have been incredibly proactive about making sure everyone knows there are many, many ways to come forward. They were smart about whether you wanted to report it internally within Fox, or whether you wanted to go to 21st Century, because you didn’t feel comfortable in your own department. We have female managers, there are hotlines, we’ve been reminded repeatedly where you can go. To me it feels like they’re making a huge effort to shed daylight on anything that may have happened, rectify it and change things going forward. But I understand there are people out there who don’t feel that way — I don’t want to diminish their feelings. I certainly know exactly what I would do — I have a plan of action. If something happened today, I feel really comfortable about who I would go to.
Would you go to HR?
I know of a female manager I trust, and that’s what I would do. That’s some of the advice Megyn Kelly gave out when she was talking about the same issue — for me that feels like good advice.
It’s striking that you feel like you’re in a place where you need to have that plan of action.
I think everybody does. You’re naive if you don’t think that. I would have told you it wasn’t going on here. I certainly didn’t expect my news director to show up on my doorstep after midnight drunk. That really taught me that you’ve got to be prepared and know what you would do. It was a really scary situation — I felt panicked, like I needed to get out of town that day. I left pretty quickly afterwards. I didn’t feel guilty about fleeing the scene until years later when I was older and it dawned on me that I had just left him to show up on someone else’s doorstep. If he was bold enough to do it that time, he was going to do it again.
Have you spoken with Julie Roginsky? Were you surprised when she filed her lawsuit?
She’s a friend. I haven’t talked with her since last week. It’s all really fresh.Yes, I was surprised. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this whole entire thing is you have no idea what the people around you are experiencing.
What would you say to the argument that you should leap to the defense of women when they come forward?
That’s too easy. You can’t have a one-fits-all rule of thumb for yourself like that, because every situation, every story is different. You never know what happened. If you weren’t there, you don’t know. I’m here to be honest and to support people and to do my job. That’s all I can do.
You mentioned sexual harassment is a problem across your industry – why do you think that is?
It’s everywhere in my industry. Other powerful women at major networks have also talked to me since everything has happened at Fox and identified people at their networks who are also doing inappropriate things. As I watch other networks where I know there are predators throw stones at us, I kind of sit there and wait for their time to come. Because those other managers at other networks know who they are. And the talent and people working there know, too. The more people who hear other people’s stories and feel empowered to say something, the better.
How has the network responded to your writing about this?
Totally supportive. I think that would surprise a lot of people. I sincerely believe that’s more evidence that there’s a sincere desire to make change. It’s just a painful process to get to that point.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.