Bombshell: Sexual Harassment Is About Power, Not Sex

By

Leonard Zwelling

One of the most important stories of the last ten years is the #MeToo movement. Sexual harassment is something whose existence can no longer be accepted or denied by anyone. It is an unwanted reality of modern life. It is also to be resisted at every turn and called out when observed. (I know I just wrote a piece in opposition to MD Anderson’s policy to fire non-reporting observers of harassment, but silence is not right, even if it is a right.)

One of the great moments in the fight for women to be free from the threat of sexual harassment was the 2016 fall of Roger Ailes from the leadership of Fox News because he was a harasser. Despite the fall, the network that Ailes created for Rupert Murdoch continues to thrive because Ailes could see that the news that much of America craved was not on the television screens of the country. He was going to put it there.

The Loudest Voice, an excellent Showtime series based on a Gabriel Sherman book, about which I wrote previously, told the story from the point of view of Roger Ailes, played by a plumped up Russell Crowe. Bombshell tells the story from the point of view of the women of Fox News, most particularly Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), with fictionalized characters used for dramatic purposes as well (Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon). Ailes here is John Lithgow also plumped up and every bit as disgusting as was Crowe. These are all fine actors and each has been given a whole lot of scenery to chew on.

Both of these works ought to be seen by one and all even if it means spending time with the seamy side of the rich and famous, because all they do is do what many others are doing but writ much larger. The guy in your office who makes foul, off color jokes is dreadful. But, as I said, Ailes was a monster. Both are guilty of unacceptable behavior.

The Loudest Voice covers a lot more time than does Bombshell. It shows exactly how Ailes built Fox and then used it to help candidate Trump during the 2016 election. The movie focuses on 2016 and the fallout from Gretchen Carlson’s suing Ailes for harassment and Megyn Kelly finally admitting that Ailes may have made her career, but has also been a monster with her and that her silence about Ailes’ true nature allowed countless other women to be harassed by him and allow for a culture of permissive, male-dominated civil rights violations to become the norm at Fox. And that is just what the leadership of MD Anderson is trying to avoid, BUT…

It is hard to legislate morality and commanding ethical behavior rarely gets you there. If that were the case, there would be no criminals, because we sure have enough laws and a criminal justice system that ought to serve as a deterrent.

It is the leadership that was so corrupt at Fox News stemming from Ailes being a self-centered narcissist and power hungry meanie who controlled his world with an iron fist and his pants open. It is stated often in both of these docudramas. It was always about loyalty to Roger. It was never about the sex. It’s about the power.

In the end, the real message of Bombshell may be that nothing really gets put right. Ailes and Bill O’ Reilly, another Fox News harasser, walked away with a lot more money than did Kelly or Carlson. Fox is still Fox, although I suspect things in the newsroom may be more civil even if some of the on-air personalities are not.

The real lesson of Bombshell is the hard one that MD Anderson is struggling with as well. What’s the right institutional posture beyond demanding civil behavior? It’s not ukases or fiats from leadership. It is the creation of a corporate culture that exhibits the behavior it says it wants while making sure excellence prevails. Fox, Boeing, and the current White House show how to do it wrong. Doing it right is much tougher.

Leonard Zwelling