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Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott keeps her focus on winning

Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott keeps her focus on winning
Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott in a studio at Fox News headquarters in New York on March 28. (Michael Nagle / For The Times)

In the politically charged environment powered by the Trump White House, Fox News Channel’s role in public discourse is more polarizing than ever. Even an error in an on-screen graphic can spark critics to charge the network with misinforming, propagandizing or serving as state TV.

But after 23 years at the network, Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott has learned how to shut out the noise surrounding her — no easy feat when the channel’s No. 1 fan, President Trump, is watching for policy advice and emotional sustenance.

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“Of course people are going to pay attention to what we’re doing,” she said during a recent conversation in her office at Fox News headquarters in midtown Manhattan. “People always want to shoot at the leader.… But I care about growing our business and keeping us profitable.”

The importance of that task has only increased for Scott. The news network is the centerpiece of Fox Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s new company spun off after its sale of the 21st Century Fox entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co.

Scott was given the top post in May, after a turbulent period when Fox News was engulfed by a sexual harassment scandal that led to the ouster of its founding chief executive Roger Ailes in 2016 and popular host Bill O’Reilly the following year.

Ailes, who branded established media outlets as liberal enemies, turned Fox News into a powerful and controversial voice for the political right. A former advisor for Republican candidates, he openly voiced disdain for Democrats, even as the head of news organization.

In contrast, the even-keeled Scott, 53, is not driven by ideology. Her voter registration in the northern New Jersey town where she lives with her husband and 13-year old daughter is not affiliated with a political party. Many colleagues are unaware of her political leanings.

“Suzanne runs Fox News as more of a business than as a political machine,” said Washington attorney Robert Barnett, who represents a number of the network’s personalities. “Roger ran it in a completely different way.”

Fox News has been the most-watched cable network for three consecutive years despite the loss of O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, who left in early 2017. But there have been other challenges.

Liberal media watchdog groups have successfully driven advertisers away from prime-time commentators Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham over inflammatory comments they have made, significantly reducing ad revenues for their shows. Scott said the network is standing by them.

“Our viewers trust our hosts and are loyal, passionate followers,” Scott said. “We just cannot cave to political activists or those kinds of groups. We fully support our talent.”

Such loyalty has been demonstrated in the Nielsen ratings since special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation determined President Trump or his campaign did not collude with the Russians in their efforts to influence the presidential election (although the story is far from over, as Mueller’s full report has yet to be released). Fox News viewing surged in March as prime-time commentators felt vindication for the president they support nightly.

Cable fees still drive income for Fox News, which is expected to generate $2.95 billion in subscription and advertising revenue in 2019, up 7% from last year. Media analysis firm MoffettNathanson LLC, projects that Fox Corp. will have high single-digit growth from pay-TV revenue over the next five years, largely driven by Fox News, despite the cord-cutting trend.

But Scott is working at expanding Fox News revenue streams by improving its offerings on the web and mobile devices. Fox News Digital had 104 million unique users in February, an increase of 17% from the same month a year ago, according to comScore. She developed Fox Nation, an online streaming service launched in November for dedicated fans who want more unfettered conservative commentary and documentaries. Sign-ups for the service are well ahead of projections, said Scott, who has also expanded the Fox News brand to terrestrial and satellite radio.

Scott has also tried to be an agent of change for the company’s workplace culture. Fox News became ground zero for the #MeToo movement after former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a harassment lawsuit against Ailes in 2016, which led to his ouster and required a $20-million settlement.

The company was rocked by more harassment lawsuits and numerous lurid reports describing alleged bad behavior by Ailes, O’Reilly and others.

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“I felt devastated for the women who work here,” Scott said. “I wanted to do everything I could to heal this place.”

She had one-on-one meetings with employees about the company’s work environment for women and how to improve it.

“It was often uncomfortable and emotional,” Scott said. “One of the things that was said to me was, ‘How do I explain to my family that I work at Fox News?’”

In some of those discussions, it was necessary for Scott to tell employees she had no knowledge of Ailes’ behavior even though she was part of his inner circle. Scott had also worked closely with Bill Shine, a longtime Ailes lieutenant who was pushed out of his role as co-president in May 2017 because of his handling of the scandal.

“I had no clue on what was going on in Roger Ailes’ office,” Scott said. “I have never had any issues with any sort of harassment myself.”

Scott has eradicated the memory of Ailes by overseeing a massive renovation of the entire second floor where his corporate lair was located — part of a $135-million upgrade of facilities and studios. More than 200 of the network’s producers, writers and production assistants have been moved from a bleak basement at 1211 Avenue of the Americas to a bright, airy workspace steps away from where top management is located. Scott and Jay Wallace, president of news, have offices adjacent to Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, who serves as co-chairman of Fox Corp. and has become more involved with the channel.

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Women at the company say there is now a process to report inappropriate behavior to human resources, with names and phone numbers of who to reach posted in the restrooms.

“It’s a reminder that you don’t have to hide in there to cry,” said Janice Dean, the longtime meteorologist on “Fox & Friends.”

Dean, who recently detailed her own uncomfortable encounters with Ailes in her recent memoir “Mostly Sunny,” attested to an improved atmosphere under Scott.

“I don’t feel fear anymore,” Dean said. “It truly is because of the strong women who work at the company now.”

Scott tries to attend a monthly breakfast held for women who work at Fox News. A mentoring program has also been implemented. There are also company-wide meetings where all staffers can air their concerns. Employees previously had scant contact with top management.

“The openness and transparency that she has brought to the job has been quite noticeable,” said daytime news anchor Bill Hemmer.

Scott has been at Fox News since it launched in 1996. She joined as an executive assistant to Chet Collier, a veteran producer who gave Ailes his first TV job on “The Mike Douglas Show” in the 1960s.

Collier was a worldly Boston liberal and the political polar opposite of Ailes. But he understood what viewers liked and passed that along to Scott, who spent hours with him watching audition tapes of prospective anchors and reporters for the channel.

“Chet taught me talent puts themselves on the front lines for this place,” she said. “They need to be well managed and taken care of.”

Scott eventually became producer of Greta Van Susteren’s program “On the Record.” The veteran former Fox News host recommended years ago that Scott be elevated to the executive suite and believes she was the right choice to lead the company in the post-Ailes era.

“She’s smart, she works hard and she didn’t do anything wrong,” Van Susteren said.

While Scott made her bones at Fox News by developing shows for its conservative opinion hosts, Washington anchor Chris Wallace said he is happy with the attention she has given to the journalism side of the operation.

“I feel more supported in being an equal opportunity inquisitor by the new regime than I did in the old regime,” said Wallace, who often goes hard at Trump administration officials who appear on “Fox News Sunday.”

Wallace said the news side is being heard when it complains about occasional ethics breaches by the opinion hosts, such as when Sean Hannity appeared on stage with Trump at a rally before the midterm elections in November.

“We made it clear we were ticked off because we felt it hurt our credibility,” he said.

Wallace added that Scott’s preference is to handle such matters privately.

Scott quietly scaled the ranks at Fox News without much of a profile outside of its headquarters.

She is not a regular New York media-industry parties. On weekends, she serves as a certified YMCA stroke-and-turn official at a New Jersey club where her daughter is a competitive swimmer.

Scott said her steady work ethic came from her parents. Her father ran a trucking business out of the Morristown, N.J., home she grew up. Her 88-year-old mother still works as a real estate agent. It’s why Scott believes she is built for cable’s nonstop news cycle.

“My father was incredibly hardworking — up at three in the morning, working Monday through Saturday,” Scott said. “ “He never complained. He was the happiest guy on the planet.”

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