This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
From 2010 to 2013, I was a gay, liberal commentator at Fox News. I wasn’t technically the only left-wing lesbian on Fox at the time. There was one other (that I knew of, anyway)–but I was definitely more left-wing, and maybe more obvious about being a lesbian, too. The point is, during the two-and-a-half years I worked at Fox News, I was certainly in the minority. Here’s what that experience taught me.
Despite what you might think, the staff at Fox News is not 100% ultraconservative. Like most media organizations headquartered in New York City, many of its employees are urban and urbane liberals–maybe slightly more conservative-leaning than at other outfits, but far from atypical among tri-state-area media professionals.
Special Report: What It’s Really Like To Be Out At Work
See, one important thing I learned from my time there is that no place is entirely its stereotype. I’m sure there are people working at oil and gas companies who care deeply about the environment and even drive Priuses. I’m sure there are marketing execs at cigarette companies who caution their own kids not to smoke. And I’ve definitely known men who work at women’s empowerment organizations who are sexist pigs.
On the other hand, there are definitely do-gooders within institutions who see themselves making a difference from the inside. Certainly I felt like Fox News was better because I was on the air–being visible and making a strong argument for liberal policy positions. And behind the scenes, I know lots of other liberals at the network were also frequently pushing where they could for more balanced coverage.
Businesses, like all of us (as Walt Whitman put it), contain multitudes; the same is true of Fox News, at least to an extent. Realizing this taught me that nothing is always exactly–or only–what it seems. And neither are people. In her book Onlyness, business scholar and strategist Nilofer Merchant talks about how we often only treat people as their silhouettes, not their unique and varied singular selves.
By working at Fox, I realized how I had stereotyped conservatives–how I assumed they were all heartless and hateful and, thus, I hated them for it. It took being the “only” one in the room to see my own biases. I had to be the weirdo to notice how normal everyone else really was.
Narrow-Minded People Are Sometimes Pretty Nice . . .
And not just normal, but nice. People were always nice to me when I’d go on air at MSNBC, as a guest commentator dispatched from Fox, and everyone is nice to me at CNN where I’m a commentator now. But that didn’t stand out to me back then because I didn’t expect anything different–and also because I didn’t stand out on those networks. Since I blended in much better among the wider mix of liberal, moderate, and gay folks there, I expected Chris Hayes and Don Lemon to be nice to me, and they were. Back at Fox, I didn’t expect Sean Hannity to be nice to anyone–especially not to me–but he was, too.
You can judge me for having those biased expectations about everyone at Fox, and you probably should. The whole thing was a wake-up moment for me–to such an extent I wrote a book about coming to terms with my own hate, and what we can all do about the hate in our minds and in the world around us. But that experience was only possible because I had a unique vantage point in the organization that pushed me to challenge my own ideas and assumptions.
. . . But That’s No Excuse For Bigotry Or Misbehavior
That said, you should also judge Fox News for its lack of diversity on and off the airwaves. My experience is the silver lining coming out of what remains a very narrow–and often narrow-minded–network.
Here, too, there are multitudes. On the one hand, Roger Ailes ran the only program in cable news to hire and train women and people of color in the industry and, at the time, had one of the most racially diverse newsrooms I’d ever seen. On the other hand, we now know the same man horrifically harassed and assaulted many of the women he worked with and created a hostile work environment for women employees in general.
Looking back, this was definitely one of the advantages to being an out lesbian at Fox News. The worst I was subjected to was Ailes telling me that I had pretty eyes. Mind you, he told me this uncomfortably often, but that’s still relatively mild compared with what other women suffered at Fox News. Unfortunately, during my time there, I had no idea that Ailes’s behavior was so much worse.
It’s also a reminder that no matter how diverse an organization might be, what still matters most is who has the power. I had no real power at Fox News, but it would have been a much different place had more women, let alone gay women like me, held positions of authority.
There’s No Substitute For Face-Time
The broader lesson I took away is the importance of inclusion and connection. Studies show that we are less likely to hold conscious or unconscious biases toward groups if we’ve interacted with those “others.” Which means, at the very least, we need more opportunities to live, work, and socialize together—an important goal in the face of neighborhoods and schools that remain deeply racially, economically, and politically segregated.
At work, we often have to make a change to get outside our bubbles and expand our horizons. It’s vital that we understand diversity and inclusion as not only good for the bottom line, but good for our society and democracy, helping us all connect and understand each other’s unique value.
As businesses increase their commitment to equity and inclusion, hopefully it becomes more and more rare to be the “only” one in any organization or room. At the same time, I’m grateful for my experience as the lone liberal lesbian commentator at Fox News. It taught me that no one is the embodiment of their worst stereotype–an invaluable lesson that only stood out because I did.
Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator, activist, and the author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity (Algonquin Books; April 10, 2018). She is also the host of the State of Resistance podcast.