Roger Ailes has been ousted from his longtime roost at Fox News Channel and the allegations levied against him by female employees from that network have been lurid, salacious and shocking. The entire drama has been chronicled in depth by Gabriel Sherman, who wrote an Ailes biography and has continued to report on his actions from his perch at New York magazine.
Now Ailes may be trying to exact some measure of revenge.
A spokeswoman for the publication, Lauren Starke, said Monday that both the magazine and Sherman had been contacted on behalf of Ailes and his wife, Elizabeth, by Charles Harder, a well-known libel attorney who has in recent months has caused a stir among in the news industry. Harder represented wrestler Hulk Hogan in legal efforts against Gawker that ended with the snarky New York digital-media company selling itself to Univision, and Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has suggested she might sue The Daily Mail after it posted allegations the potential First Lady could have worked for an escort service earlier in her modeling career.
“New York Media and Gabriel Sherman were contacted by Charles Harder on behalf of Roger and Elizabeth Ailes, asking that we preserve documents related to the Ailes, for a possible defamation claim,” Starke said by email. “The letter sent by Harder was not informative as to the substance of their objections to the reporting. Sherman’s work is and has been carefully reported.” The Financial Times previously reported outreach by Harder on Ailes’ behalf.
The decision to hire Harder suggests Ailes is trying to raise new questions about Sherman’s reporting, which has been massive and detailed. Sherman has in past weeks broken stories of former Fox News employees and other women who have been subjected to sexual harassment by Ailes. The former Fox News chief has denied all the accusations. Harder did not respond immediately to an emailed query seeking comment, nor did Susan Estrich, an attorney who has been representing Ailes in his dealings with Fox News’ parent, 21st Century Fox.
The legal to-and-fro is the latest chapter in a sordid saga that has gripped the media industry. In July, Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, filed a lawsuit accusing Ailes of harassing her sexually and of demoting her once she complained about how female employees were treated at the network. 21st Century Fox subsequently started an internal probe led by law firm Paul Weiss Rifkind to determine whether Carlson’s allegations carried merit. The investigation turned up allegations by multiple female employees of the network, and subsequent reports by Sherman and others discovered stories of harassment that in the case of at least one employee lasted years. Sherman’s reporting also suggested that senior executives at Fox News were aware of and may even have aided Ailes in some matters, though executives have denied knowledge of Ailes’ behavior.
Of course, the episode could contain more bark than bite. No one has filed a lawsuit at present, and Harder’s contact could have been aimed at spooking the magazine or prompting a reaction that might be studied by Ailes’ team.
At Fox News, ratings continue to hold, The network is the most-watched cable-news network on the set-top box and it remains a driver of the national conversation around the current election cycle. Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, has taken over Ailes’ role for an interim period, while Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy, two longtime employees of the media conglomerate, have been appointed co-presidents over the parts of the portfolio Ailes once supervised.
The move to hire Harder could be seen as one with chilling ramifications. In his efforts against Gawker, Harder was abetted by Peter Theil, a deep-pocketed Silicon Valley investor who was the subject of gossipy reports by Gawker. The Daily Mail recently said it would retract its reporting on Melania Trump after being contacted by Harder.
New York Media is controlled by the Wasserstein family, and formed when New York investment banker Bruce Wasserstein purchased the durable New York in 2004 for $55 million. The company in Spring named his daughter, Pamela Wasserstein, as its new chief executive. In the case of Sherman’s journalism, much of it has been substantiated either by recent events or the reporting of other news outlets. Whether the company will be cowed by Ailes’ maneuver remains to be seen.