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How media outlets cover their own sexual harassment scandals

Nov 2, 2017 / Media Coverage / Washington Post — Callum Borchers

Mike Oreskes sure isn't getting the Roger Ailes treatment.

On the air, Fox News handled Ailes's resignation amid sexual harassment allegations last year like an honorable discharge, lauding the professional accomplishments of the longtime network chairman while scarcely mentioning the claims against him.

But NPR's coverage of Oreskes, its senior vice president for news until his resignation on Wednesday, has been unsparing. Shortly after Oreskes stepped down, host Mary Louise Kelly grilled NPR chief executive Jarl Mohn about his decision not to remove Oreskes sooner. The public broadcaster was aware of three incidents of alleged inappropriate behavior by Oreskes, two of which predated his tenure at NPR, but kept him in place until a report on Tuesday by The Washington Post's Paul Farhi.

“If you knew of these multiple allegations, did it cross your mind that leaving Mike in his job might put other women, might put our colleagues, at risk?” Kelly demanded to know.

Reporting on an internal scandal is inherently difficult for a news organization. An outlet risks damage to its reputation by baring its worst side; it also risks damage to its reputation by trying to cover that side up.

There is no way to win, which might help explain why Fox News and NPR took different approaches — and why NBC went a third direction when it suspended senior political analyst Mark Halperin last week and ultimately fired him on Monday. NBC did not praise Halperin on his way out, nor did it subject its management to public second-guessing.

On the day of Ailes's exit from Fox News in July 2016, an 11-paragraph statement issued by the network's parent company, 21st Century Fox, said nothing about sexual harassment but featured praise for Ailes's “remarkable contribution to our company and our country.”

Fox News's 6 p.m. newscast that day noted that Ailes had been accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit filed by former host Gretchen Carlson, but it omitted the subsequent allegations of roughly two dozen other women. Fox News media reporter Howard Kurtz quoted from the 21st Century Fox statement and added that Ailes “has been virtually synonymous with Fox News since its founding.”

The network's prime-time opinion shows ignored Ailes's departure altogether.

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