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Sexism In Newsroom Culture Not Unique To Allegations Against Roger Ailes


This week, one of the most powerful executives in media stepped down. Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes resigned from the network he commanded amid a growing number of claims he sexually harassed women he worked with. But macho newsroom cultures aren't unique to Fox News. Does this Ailes ouster change anything? To talk about it, we're joined by network news veteran Betsy West, a longtime producer at ABC News who later held executive positions at CBS. She's now a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Betsy West, thanks for joining us.

BETSY WEST: Thank you, Elise.

HU: Well, Roger Ailes is described as all-powerful at Fox News. He set the agenda across the network. Some call him the architect for the modern conservative movement. What does his departure signify?

WEST: Well, it seems to me that this story is a huge turning point. It's a signal that men, even the most powerful of men, will be held accountable for their behavior. And I think, despite the fact that Roger Ailes is walking away with a giant golden parachute, he lost his job. And that's a big deal.

HU: You established yourself at a time when TV news was quite literally a boys' club. What was it like for you as a young woman coming out of college?

WEST: Well, when I started at ABC Radio News in the mid-'70s, I was one of the few women in the newsroom, and I loved it. It was a very exciting business. But I think that I had a rude awakening. My first year, I heard people singing "Happy Birthday." And I thought, oh, my goodness - they know it's my birthday.

HU: Oh, that's so nice.

WEST: This is so fantastic. And they're wheeling in this birthday cake, and everybody seems so happy. And as I got closer to the cake, I realized - oh, my God. It was in the shape of the male organ.

HU: What?

WEST: Yeah. And it was just the most mortifying (laughter), embarrassing moment. I just didn't know what to do. And when I think back on it now, well, you know, why didn't you just say - hey, guys, this is kind of inappropriate? But at the time, you just sort of laughed it off and thought OK. Ha, ha, ha. And let's move on with it. But I still kind of get a kind of creepy (laughter) feeling when I think about that moment.

So, you know, it was a locker room atmosphere. One time, a friend of mine, sort of in the mid-'80s some time, who was a very young associate producer - not that long out of college - came into my office with tears in her eyes. And I said, what's wrong? And she said that she had found a box on her desk. She opened it up, and inside were a pair of very skimpy stiletto...

HU: Oh, my goodness.

WEST: ...Heels. And the shoes were in her exact size, and she hadn't ordered them. Later on, her boss came by and whispered to her, I want to see you wearing those shoes.

HU: Oh, my goodness.

WEST: And again, we didn't know what to do. We just kind of put up with it.

HU: What, in your mind, will it take for things to change systemically?

WEST: There have been these little turning points of - as we've gone along. I think the Anita Hill hearings were a big deal for everybody, just not for the television news business; I think that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, the head of the IMF, a very cultured man who turned out to be a serial abuser; and frankly, the Bill Cosby story, this iconic American hero. And people just didn't believe that he could be doing the things that were rumored. And then, eventually, women came forward.

I think that these are steps. And the most important thing is for people to take allegations seriously. And it's going to take having women at the top of these institutions. And if you look at the power structure, I think, 70 percent of the news directors in this country are men. And you look at the network news divisions, not just Fox, but across the board, and there really aren't that many women in positions of power. And that's really what it's going to take. When women are in power, this kind of thing will stop.

HU: Betsy West, thanks for joining us.

WEST: Thank you very much, Elise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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