Fox News is reeling from the Bill O’Reilly sexual harassment scandal. The company faces lawsuits alleging racial and gender discrimination. Former chief Roger Ailes was ousted months ago in a sexual harassment saga that still hangs over the network.
It’s the kind of week — the first in the post-O’Reilly primetime lineup — where a male Fox News host might want to avoid making what was widely interpreted as a sexualized comment about the president’s daughter.
Enter Jesse Watters, co-host of The Five, which this week assumed the 9 p.m. slot on Fox after Tucker Carlson moved to O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. hour. After a clip of Ivanka Trump making remarks during a recent trip to Germany, Watters on Tuesday night said with a grin, while making a quick hand gesture, that he “really liked how she was speaking into the microphone.”
The moment went viral after being tweeted by journalist Yashar Ali.
Watters’ comment prompted swift backlash across Twitter, but he defended himself. “During the break we were commenting on Ivanka’s voice and how it was low and steady and resonates like a smooth jazz radio DJ. This was in no way a joke about anything else,” Watters said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Some are not buying Watters’ explanation.
“So much of the sexual harassment at Fox News is hiding in plain sight, on air. This overt sexualization of Ivanka Trump — while she is talking about women’s empowerment! — is a perfect example of the toxic culture at Fox News,” Lisa Bloom, an attorney who representing O’Reilly accusers, told BuzzFeed News. “They don’t get it. They still don’t get it. And so they have to be forced to get it through litigation and public shaming.”
For his part, Watters has been on a fast rise within Fox News recently. A protege of O’Reilly, he has been known for his ambush interviews and frequent segments on The O’Reilly Factor, where he would conduct man-on-the-street interviews poking fun at his subjects.
The segment has not been without controversy. One “Watters World” clip last year was criticized as a racist for mocking Asian-Americans. Still, Watters’ profile has risen at the network, evident by his recent climb to primetime. Watters also recently scored an interview with President Trump, who has subsequently followed Watters on Twitter.
But Watters’ Ivanka remark comes as Fox News’s workplace culture comes under sharp scrutiny during a particularly tumultuous time at the network, which continues to dominate the cable news landscape. Earlier this month, the once invincible O’Reilly was forced out amid an advertiser boycott sparked by a New York Times report detailing harassment allegations and $13 million in settlement payments. O’Reilly has denied the allegations. That controversy was reminiscent of Ailes’ ouster last summer amid his own spate of sexual harassment allegations (which he has also denied).
More allegations are still coming forward. On CNN’s Reliable Sources over the weekend, former Fox News and current CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota said that Ailes sexually harassed her. An attorney for Ailes denied the claims.
With Ailes and O’Reilly out, and the controlling Murdoch family taking a more hands-on approach with the network, the spotlight has now moved to other current senior executives and the extent to which they may have engendered a pernicious workplace environment.
The network is facing more lawsuits that paint a misogynist and racist working environment. On Tuesday, Fox News anchor and reporter Kelly Wright joined 12 other current former employees in a lawsuit against Fox News alleging racial discrimination that was ignored by senior executives. In the suit, Wright claims that senior network executive Bill Shine focused on his skin color and would ask how Wright thought white viewers looked at him.
Shine is also mentioned in another suit brought by on-air contributor Julie Roginsky, which alleged gender discrimination against Ailes. Shine, according to the complaint, knew of Ailes’s behavior but did nothing.
Fox News has said that it denies the claims in the various lawsuits. “Fox News and [Fox’s executive vice president for business and legal affairs] Dianne Brandi vehemently deny the race discrimination claims in both lawsuits. They are copycat complaints of the original one filed last month. We will vigorously defend these cases,” Fox said in a statement.
Meanwhile, government lawyers are probing whether Fox News allegedly misled investors by hiding financial settlements with former employees. The Financial Times reported that former Fox News Chief Financial Officer Mark Kranz has been offered immunity from prosecution from government lawyers looking into the matter.