Admissions of wrong doing accompanying corporate settlements are rare. Generally, companies are loathe to admit error, and stress that any payment is not an admission of fault, but an effort to efficiently resolve a distraction.
So when 21st Century Fox issued an apology to former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson—along with a reported $20 million payment—to settle her claim of sexual harassment against former executive Roger Ailes, it raised eyebrows. Fox’s statement was brief, and while it doesn’t answer specific allegations, it also didn’t try to shift blame or avoid responsibility:
“21st Century Fox is pleased to announce that it has settled Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit. During her tenure at Fox News, Gretchen exhibited the highest standards of journalism and professionalism. She developed a loyal audience and was a daily source of information for many Americans. We are proud that she was part of the Fox News team. We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”
Also of note is that the apology came from Fox News’s corporate parent, not the famously pugnacious news organization itself. In its 20 years of existence, Fox’s decisions mirrored the no-holds-barred approach of Ailes, a former consultant for US Republican presidential candidates, who managed the station’s image and reputation like a political campaign manager. Fox froze out media reporters it viewed as hostile, kept a 400-page dossier on Gabriel Sherman, a reporter writing a book about Fox and Ailes, and hired private investigators to obtain phone records of reporters, according to Sherman. When Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly was sued for sexual harassment, Fox went on the offensive. His accuser, Andrea Mackris, was called a “lunatic” in the New York Post, which shares an owner with Fox News, and O’Reilly counter-sued Mackris for extortion. The suits settled in 2004, with no apology and O’Reilly claiming he was real the victim.
While 21st Century Fox is apologizing, Fox News has remained silent. Quartz’s requests for a comment were forwarded to the parent company.
In Carlson’s case, Fox faced a problem it couldn’t bully its way out of. Other women came forward, alleging similar treatment by Ailes, among them, reportedly, Fox star Megyn Kelly, whose contract will soon expire. By taking the extraordinary step of ousting Ailes—he officially resigned July 21—and replacing him on an interim basis with Robert Murdoch, the executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, the company signaled how seriously it took her claims. While Ailes hasn’t admitted wrongdoing, Fox’s apology to Carlson suggests the company believed her. If she has recordings of Ailes, as has been reported, that would be especially damning.
Companies are reluctant to apologize in part because they fear doing so diminishes their authority and standing, wrote Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in Fortune. But Fox’s statement may have the reverse effect. Cutting ties with Ailes and apologizing for his behavior may enhance its credibility with both the public, and its employees, including Kelly.