When we speak of accusers “coming out of the woodwork,” we speak with faint disparagement of opportunists getting in on the act. Bill Cosby’s lawyer denounced the women lining up outside the gates of Cosby’s citadel as “people coming out of the woodwork with fabricated or unsubstantiated stories.” A Cosby defender, columnist Audrey Ignatoff of RenewAmerica.com, commented, “All of these women seemed to come out of the woodwork. . . . Something about this just doesn’t seem so random to me.”
Now it’s Roger Ailes, CEO and chairman of Fox News, who’s in the line of fire, and the cliche is back in circulation. After being dismissed by Ailes as an afternoon host, former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a suit earlier this month accusing Ailes of sabotaging her career “because she refused his sexual advances and complained about severe and pervasive sexual harassment.”
Politico’s Kelsey Sutton then wrote that, according to Carlson’s attorneys, since the suit was filed “at least 10 women had come out of the woodwork and contacted the firm about being harassed by the long-serving Fox News head.” Robert Franklin at liberalamerica.org wrote that “nearly a dozen other women came out of the woodwork, pointing their fingers at the conservative propagandist.” Though I think this probably was just tin-eared writing on their part, readers had a right to wonder if one or the other was letting skeptical feelings be known.
Ailes, 76, is one of television’s oldest, fiercest lions. He’s closely identified with the relentless right-wing slant of his network, which he joined after serving George H.W. Bush as chief media strategist during the 1988 presidential campaign. Carlson’s suit is a big media story, and other journalists jumped on it.
Some of their stories reflected on what the New York Times, in this piece, called “changing mores” in the workplace. Others aimed their sights directly at Ailes. New York magazine interviewed some of the women who’d contacted Carlson’s lawyer, and last weekend posted “Six More Women Allege That Roger Ailes Sexually Harassed Them.” One of these women was “Susan.”
Susan said she’d encountered Ailes half a century ago, when he was 26 years old and running a popular syndicated TV talk show in Philadelphia:
I was 16 years old living in Radnor, Pennsylvania. I was sent over for a walk-on part on The Mike Douglas Show in the winter of 1967. It was 6:30 in the evening and the place was totally closing up. Ailes took me into this big office and locked the door with a key. He reclined on a couch in a seating area under a map that had flags of all the cities they were syndicated in. He proceeded to pull down his pants and very gingerly pull out his genitals and said, “Kiss them.” And they were red like raw hamburger. He was pretty meticulously dressed, with long white shirttails coming out. It was like he was just at the end of a long day and I was supposed to know what to do. I was a kid, I’d never seen a man’s privates before. I jumped up, but the door is locked and nobody’s out there. He chased me around the office and at some point it dawned on him that this just wasn’t going to happen. He finally pulled up his trousers. He was very angry and rushed over to his desk, pulled open a door and had a reel-to-reel tape recorder going. He said to me, “Don’t tell anybody about this. I’ve got it all on tape.” I think he knew I was sixteen.
The New York article ended with a statement from Ailes’s lawyer. He accused Carlson and her lawyers of “desperately attempting to litigate this in the press because they have no legal case to argue. The latest allegations, all 30 to 50 years old, are false.” When I read this, I could hear in my head what went unspoken: the charges are ancient, the charges are false, and these women all just came out of the woodwork.
So I write here to put something on the record: I’ve known Susan, not her real name, since we were both children. She did not just come out of the woodwork. She told me about her encounter with Roger Ailes decades ago and—more to the point—she tried to tell the world too.
In 1988 she saw Ailes rise to national prominence as the media Svengali in Bush’s come-from-behind victory over Michael Dukakis, the artisan of negativity chiefly responsible for Bush’s devastating “revolving door” TV attack ad. Four years later Bush ran for reelection, and Susan expected more of the same from Ailes. (Ultimately, he had no formal role in Bush’s 1992 campaign.) Susan typed up an account of the Mike Douglas Show encounter and sent it to the primary alternative newspaper in what was by then her hometown, LA Weekly. “Roger, You Made Me a Democrat,” she called her story, and went on to say that, pre-Ailes, she’d been a “Goldwater Girl,” her mother a Republican committeewoman.
The story she submitted in 1992 was a more detailed version of the account just published by New York Magazine. Jay Levin, the editor of LA Weekly at the time, remembers it. Levin assigned a staff writer, Ron Curran, to call Ailes. “We had expected the usual ‘She’s lying and I will sue you,'” says Levin; “Instead, Curran said he got a kind of mumbling self-pity from Ailes. So I decided I needed to hear him myself.”
Levin got the same. “To the best of my memory,” he says, “Ailes repeated something about being in a bad place in his past life. He didn’t make any threats and he didn’t really make any clear denial. He was fumbling around in self-pity. I said, ‘OK, to be clear, are you denying this or not? Are you saying she’s a liar? I don’t hear a clear denial.’ He said, weakly, ‘Yes, I’m denying it,’ and he wanted to know what we were going to do.”
Levin said he didn’t know, and in the end LA Weekly didn’t publish Susan’s account—for reasons I understand. This was a story requiring strong corroboration, and Levin had no other names. Furthermore, Ailes was in the east, and following up would have meant hiring a reporter there to spend weeks tracking down women who’d worked for him. There was the obvious risk of a lawsuit. And Ailes wasn’t then who he is now—one of the most powerful men in American media. “Going after him,” says Levin, “would be a misallocation of resources.”
Susan says she then sent her story to a couple of papers in Washington, D.C., that also said no because of a lack of corroboration. And over the years—as recently as 2011—she’s fitfully tried to interest other publications. No one bit. She was a single voice, and 1967 was increasingly ancient history—until Gretchen Carlson filed her suit and suddenly Susan wasn’t alone and 1967 didn’t seem so long ago.
When I read about Carlson suing Ailes, I sent Susan an e-mail that said, “Isn’t this your guy?” Susan told me she’d already called Carlson’s lawyers.
Accusers don’t just pop out of the woodwork because they smell an opportunity. Sometimes the world is finally ready to hear what they have to say.