Twenty-five years after its founding, a sit-down with the CEO of America’s most watched and most polarizing network, whose employees laud her for cleaning up a toxic workplace even as critics assail the channel for spreading misinformation and undermining democracy.
“I’m fully vaccinated,” Suzanne Scott volunteers as she stretches out her arm to offer a hand. Once innocuous, the handshake has become an iffy ritual in the pandemic era. But here at Fox News Media’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, everyone entering the building must show proof of vaccination or submit to daily testing. Never mind that the network’s loudest voices have cast themselves as vaccine skeptics; more than 90 percent of Fox Corporation’s full-time employees have taken the shot.
Scott, 55, became only the second CEO in company history and the first female to lead a major news operation when she was promoted to the top job in May 2018. (She signed a new multiyear contract in February.) At the time, Fox News was still recovering from a cascade of sexual harassment claims against predecessor Roger Ailes and others that would cost the corporation well over $100 million. And Scott, who was previously head of programming with purview over the network’s opinion hosts, was viewed as closely tied to the Ailes regime. She has done much, internally and externally, to distance herself from the toxic culture, including implementing annual, mandatory in-person harassment-prevention training; creating a new reporting structure; tripling the size of the HR department; launching quarterly company meetings and mentoring events; and engaging outside independent firms to handle investigations.
More superficial reminders of Ailes’ reign also have been swept away. One of Scott’s initiatives was a top-to-bottom renovation of the company’s Avenue of the Americas headquarters. Gone are the forbidding wooden doors, the dark faux-mahogany paneling and ragged carpeting that in later years was held together with tape. “I used to say, I cannot believe we make all this money but we have black duct tape on the floor,” recalls Scott.
Today, the color palette is cool blue and pewter with glowing LED pillars, sleek modern furniture and Knoll desk chairs. The centerpiece of the overhaul is the 7,600-square-foot second-floor newsroom, unveiled in January 2018 to replace a subterranean studio. “For me, it was important to get that group out of the basement, get them windows,” says Scott. “I care about beautiful things, and I actually think when you work in a clean, bright space, it frees your mind and contributes to overall happiness.”
Employees say Scott’s internal workplace reforms make Fox a safer place to work, but under her reign, say critics, it also has become a more dangerous network. Fox has long been defined by its primetime opinion host. In the Ailes era, it was Bill O’Reilly’s ersatz everyman. Today, it’s the performative outrage of Tucker Carlson, whose top-rated show is watched by more than 3 million viewers each night.
As Donald Trump has inflamed America’s deep ideological chasm with lies about a stolen election and as vaccine conspiracy theories jump from the fringe to the mainstream, critics blame Fox News for amplifying antidemocratic rhetoric and politicizing a pandemic that has killed 700,000 Americans. In the days leading to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, several opinion hosts were parroting Trump’s election lies, even as the company’s news anchors were throwing cold water on such claims. Laura Ingraham mused that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may have bribed Georgia election officials. Carlson described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “hoax” and “poison” — earning his show an advertiser exodus. More recently, he has misrepresented data from vaccine deaths and characterized the U.S. military’s vaccine mandate as a “political purity test.”
Scott is quick to point out that, since February, the network has been airing COVID vaccine PSAs featuring top talent including news anchor Harris Faulkner and Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, while Sean Hannity has implored viewers to take COVID seriously.
If Carlson’s rhetoric alarms Scott, or if she’s tried to do anything to curtail it, she will not say. “I have a regular cadence of conversations with a wide variety of talent here, including our primetime talent,” she says. “I will never discuss those conversations. That’s not who I am. I am loyal first. I am loyal to everyone on the team, whether they are someone on the news side or the opinion side. To me, they are all people who work for Fox News Media, and I respect the privacy of those conversations.”
Launched on Oct. 7, 1996, as a corrective to what Ailes and Rupert Murdoch viewed as the liberal slant of the mainstream media, Fox News cultivated what it saw as an underserved right-of-center audience with news during the day and opinion in primetime. For nearly two decades, it has been the No. 1 cable news network and is poised to notch its sixth consecutive year as the top network in all of cable, with $2.9 billion in revenue in 2020, according to ad-tracking firm Kagan. Scott can boast of a string of programming successes, notably shifting Greg Gutfeld from The Five to late night, where he is now besting the broadcast shows among total viewers.
Gutfeld says Scott had been nudging him for months to try his hand at late night. “I would call it gentle prodding,” he says. “Finally one day I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ But she never told me what to do. She didn’t tell me what topics to cover. She didn’t give me names of people to have on the show. When there’s a suit telling you who to have on, most of the time that’s awful. I can’t even think of a time when she made a call to me about something bad.”
Meanwhile, The Five, which airs at 5 p.m., has not lost steam, watched by 3 million people a night (800,000 more than tune in to MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show). Today, Scott’s portfolio also includes Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox News Digital, the subscription streaming service Fox Nation, Fox Audio, Fox Books and Fox International, which together account for 80 percent of the profits of Murdoch’s Fox Corp. The ad-supported streamer Fox Weather will launch on Oct. 25.
Scott has worked at Fox News for virtually her entire career, starting at the network’s inception 25 years ago as an assistant to executive Chet Collier. After Ailes poached Greta Van Susteren from CNN, Scott worked her way into a senior producer role with the anchor.
“I’m very stubborn. But I listened to her,” says Van Susteren. “She gave me her opinion, but she never told me what to say or do. I can be a bit of a know-it-all. I know I’m not easy to manage. She has good judgment, so she would talk to me and I would come to my senses. She’s innately gifted in television. She knows what viewers are interested in.”
When Ailes was ousted in the summer of 2016, Scott, then head of programming, had virtually no relationship with Murdoch. “I had seen him from time to time at meetings,” says Scott. “But I didn’t have much exposure to Rupert. But that summer he learned everything about our business, and it was interesting to watch how he methodically got himself fully entrenched in our day-to-day operation.”
Today, she reports to his eldest son, Lachlan, who in 2019 was named chairman and CEO of the slimmed-down “New Fox” — the assets that remained after much of the company was sold to Disney for $71 billion. “The early conversations with Lachlan were about, how do we fit into the ecosystem of New Fox, how do we drive corporate priorities, how do we collaborate? He is a loyal boss, but he’s also a smart dealmaker,” says Scott, citing the recent acquisitions of streaming service Tubi and TMZ, for $490 million and $50 million, respectively.
“In June of 2017, when we had a lot going on, he called me up one day and said, ‘Have you ever thought about a direct-to-consumer product? Do you think you could get the audience interested in that?’” adds Scott. “And that was the genesis of Fox Nation.”
Lachlan declined to be interviewed but in a statement characterized Scott as a “dynamic and innovative” leader and “a wonderful mentor.”
To be sure, Scott has elevated a cadre of women, who now make up more than half of Fox News Media’s senior leadership. “She’s done an incredible job of reimagining this company,” says Sharri Berg, president of Fox Weather. “We have so many female leaders and female managers. It’s not just one or two people. In the old days, we had all of these silos. She has broken down those walls. It’s really a different company.”
Beth Saunders, the managing editor of the overhauled Fox News Digital, returned to the network in 2019 after leaving in 2006 to spend more time with her children. In the intervening years, she would occasionally run into Scott socially. “She always let me know that the door was open,” says Saunders. “I would have never imagined that I could get my career back on track the way I have after taking significant time off. I definitely attribute that to Suzanne’s leadership and empathy. As a mom, she understood.”
Those who work with Scott say she is decisive but also comfortable delegating, which has eliminated the bottlenecks common in the previous regime. “If something needs to be addressed, you can get Suzanne on the phone and she will straight-up address it,” says one agent with clients at the network. “And if she doesn’t have an answer for you, she’ll tell you. I prefer that to straight-up lies, which is what you get at some other places.”
The daughter of a first-generation Norwegian immigrant father and an Italian American mother, Scott grew up in the northern New Jersey town of Morris Plains. Her mother worked for the railroad in Newark, later becoming a real estate agent, and her father ran a trucking company from their home.
Intensely private, Scott avoids the New York media event circuit, preferring instead to head home to New Jersey after work to spend time with her family. Unlike many media execs who rode out the pandemic in the Hamptons, she has mostly remained in her office. (She does have a second home on the Jersey Shore.) “I keep my life very simple and structured,” she says. “It is not that complicated outside of [Fox].”
On a window ledge in her office are framed photos of her with Presidents Obama and George W. Bush; behind her desk are shots of her husband, a retired entrepreneur, and teen daughter, a competitive swimmer. (Scott herself is a YMCA-certified stroke-and-turn official, which allowed her to attend her daughter’s swim meets, even when social distancing rules were in place).
Scott says recent personal losses have reinforced her priorities. Her mother died a few weeks before the pandemic, while one of Scott’s brothers passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 2017 at the age of 59. Scott was at the Super Bowl, watching Lady Gaga perform at half time when she got the news. “My brother was making his famous chili to bring to a Super Bowl party, and he just dropped dead in his kitchen. It was shocking,” she says. “And right after that I went to see a cardiologist, who I visit now regularly. But losing a sibling is strange.”
Scott likes to compare Fox News to a large, messy-but-happy family that can agree to disagree. “What I would say to you is I’m friends with everybody. I look at my own life, I look at my own family,” she says. “When Trump was running [in 2016], my brother was a Bernie supporter, my other brother was a Hillary supporter, my mom was a Trump supporter, my extended family was all over the place. And you know what? We all love each other. And we could all debate it, and we could all talk about things and we could all have different opinions. And like The Five or other shows, we could all sit around a table and debate it and it didn’t become an ugly situation. And my life is still that way.
“I have a diverse group of friends with varying political backgrounds and interests. I think there is an intolerance to different points of view and opinions. But I celebrate different points of view. I celebrate diverse thought. I think we all learn from each other. It doesn’t mean at the end of the day you’re going to agree.”
But disagreements do occur, and publicly. When Hannity and Jeanine Pirro appeared onstage at a Trump rally in Missouri in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, it caused a minor conflagration inside Fox News. After Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace and others on the news side voiced their displeasure, the network released a public statement that read in part, “This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”
Says Hannity of Scott’s response: “I barely even remember, if you want to know the truth. It was just handled. She did her job. I understood it. And I moved on. I think I’ve built up a lot of goodwill in 25 years. Are there going to be bumps in the road occasionally? Yes.”
Carlson’s public mocking of his former news-side colleague Shepard Smith, who saw his own daytime show as a bulwark against right-wing misinformation emanating from the Trump administration, led to Smith’s departure from the network in 2019, even though he was in the middle of a lucrative three-year contract. In the end, Fox News released Smith, because, as one network insider notes, “If people don’t want to be there, [Scott] is not going to keep them there.”
One major bump in the road for Fox’s Trump boosters came on election night, when the respected Fox News decision desk, led by Arnon Mishkin — who will return for 2022 and 2024, according to Scott — became the only network operation to call Arizona for Biden that evening. This set off a furious volley of calls from Trump’s surrogates, including one from Jared Kushner to Rupert Murdoch.
“Suzanne and I had normal conversations that night. We always have blinders on,” says Fox News president Jay Wallace. “Suzanne and I don’t have those relationships with [the Trump] White House. We weren’t sitting there hemming and hawing over Arizona. At the time, it was just another state. It wasn’t until the next day that we really started to get this amazing heartburn coming in, a lot of it generated by the White House. That was the start of a long week. But I have to say, Suzanne could not have been more supportive of the [Arizona] call. And we stuck with it.”
Enraged, Trump turned against Fox News, encouraging his followers to switch to One America News or Newsmax, which did manage to eke out a rare ratings win for a single hour in December. Fox News Channel also trailed CNN in the weeks after the presidential election, but by the first quarter of 2021, it was back in first position. Meanwhile, ratings at Newsmax have plummeted.
Scott brushes off any potential threat to the network’s dominance, noting there was a stretch this summer when Fox News was beating the broadcast networks.
“There was this moment, where there was some blood in the water, where some Newsmax shows were putting up comparable numbers to some Fox shows, and there was a moment of, ‘How do we play this?’ ” notes Steve Krakauer, a former CNN and NBC producer who now hosts media analysis podcast The Fourth Watch and produces Megyn Kelly’s SiriusXM podcast. “That fact that there was no voter fraud made it a little easier for Fox to pivot back to its comfort zone, which was going after Joe Biden.”
Since the election, some of Trump’s most ardent supporters on the network, including Pirro and Maria Bartiromo, have faded from prominence while others like Lou Dobbs and his equally incendiary Fox Business Network colleague Trish Regan have been jettisoned entirely. “If they went down that path of Rudy Giuliani and election fraud, it would have been a short-term win,” Krakauer says, “but at what cost?”
That question may soon be answered by the courts: Fox News’ coverage of Trump’s election fraud misinformation campaign has resulted in multiple lawsuits. Voting technology firms Dominion and Smartmatic filed defamation lawsuits this year asking for $1.6 billion and $2.7 billion in damages, respectively. Fox Corp. has moved to dismiss both suits. In August, a New York state judge expressed some skepticism toward Fox’s bid to dismiss the Smartmatic suit, which in addition to Fox Corp. and Giuliani, names lawyer Sidney Powell, Dobbs, Bartiromo and Pirro.
Meanwhile, in October 2020, the network reached a reported seven-figure settlement with the parents of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich over an online report about a bogus conspiracy theory that Rich was behind the DNC email dump to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaigns. Those involved in the report were terminated and the site has been overhauled. Scott will not say anything about the pending suits or the settlement with the Rich family, including why the company insisted on a clause to keep the settlement secret until after the 2020 presidential election.
While Ailes fancied himself a GOP kingmaker, Scott is less an ideologue, more motivated by brand success than political influence. “She wanted to position the company as a multiplatform, multigenre brand and move beyond the limits of [Fox News Channel]. And that is what drove a lot of new ventures,” says Jason Klarman, president of Fox Nation and head of marketing for Fox News Media. Of course, those new ventures are very much on brand: Fox Nation includes programs headlined by Carlson and Dan Bongino, a revival of Cops and, coming in early 2022, a discussion program hosted by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle antagonist Piers Morgan.
The company also has been readying for the launch of Fox Weather by poaching established meteorologists, including Shane Brown from The Weather Channel and Nick Kosir from Fox affiliate WJZY-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina. Known as “The Dancing Weatherman,” Kosir is something of a weather influencer, with more than 2 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. For those who are wondering if Fox will politicize weather by glossing over or ignoring climate change, the answer is no, says Scott. Climate change is an increasingly bipartisan issue, according to recent surveys, and Scott is eager to reposition the Fox News Media empire for the post-Trump era.
“I know there is a lot of attention on one little piece of real estate,” she says, referring to her primetime hosts. “But we are a very big, successful team. I have 230-plus contributors, reporters, hosts and personalities on some platform at any given moment.”
By her own admission, the extremely polarizing position Scott inhabits requires her to compartmentalize.
“Five years ago, I remember going to Rupert’s office and talking about the future and he just said, ‘We have a lot to do, ignore the noise.’ And that’s been my mantra, really. If I wasted any time reading stories about myself or social media posts or what have you, I wouldn’t be able to get my job done,” she says. “And you know what I always say? I sleep well at night.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.