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Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News Channel, has resigned amidst sexual harassment allegations, including claims from broadcasters Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly.
USA TODAY

Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel, stepped down Thursday, a startling fall from grace for one of the most powerful figures in American journalism.

The resignation, effective immediately, was announced by the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox. Two weeks ago, Ailes was sued for sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, a former host of Fox & Friends who left the company last month when her contract wasn’t renewed. 

Carlson said her career was sabotaged after she refused Ailes’ sexual advances. She also had “reported disparaging treatment in the newsroom,” including what she said was a “sexist and condescending” way her co-host, Steve Doocy, dealt with her, her lawsuit claimed.

Ailes has vigorously denied Carlson’s claims. But  21st Century Fox immediately launched an internal investigation, interviewing other employees. This week, a lawyer for Megyn Kelly, the network’s rising star, acknowledged that she spoke to the investigators from law firm Paul, Weiss. In the interview, she revealed that she also was sexually harassed by Ailes in the past, according to a report by New York magazine. Other women also have recently told New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman that they were sexually harassed by Ailes prior to his founding of Fox News in 1996.

With the scandal erupting rapidly, Fox executives began negotiating the 76-year old executive’s departure. Tuesday, Ailes’ lawyer, Susan Estrich, confirmed his negotiation with 21st Century Fox for severance. The company didn’t immediately comment on the severance package. But Sherman tweeted Thursday that it could be as much as $60 million, paid out over time and including fees for consulting Fox after Ailes’ formal exit.

21st Century Fox and Fox News couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“Within just two weeks of her filing a lawsuit against Roger Ailes, Gretchen Carlson’s extraordinary courage has caused a seismic shift in the media world,” Carlson’s lawyers said in a statement Thursday. “We hope that all businesses now understand that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and reputable companies will no longer shield those who abuse women. We thank all the brave women who spoke out about this issue.”

Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, will assume the role of chairman and acting CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network. He will be aided by three of Ailes’ deputies in running the network: Bill Shine, Jay Wallace and Mark Kranz.

“Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years.”

Murdoch didn’t directly address the sexual harassment scandal. But Murdoch’s sons — Lachlan Murdoch, 21st Century Fox’s co-executive chairman, and James Murdoch, the company’s CEO — who were negotiating closely with Ailes for his departure jointly issued a statement that said they continue their “commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”

“We take seriously our responsibility to uphold these traditional, long-standing values of our company,” they said.

Ailes began his television career in the early 1960s as a producer at The Mike Douglas Show in Cleveland, and went onto serve as media consultant for several Republican presidents, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

In 1996, Murdoch, seeing a market for a conservative cable news outlet, hired Ailes to create Fox News. And Ailes molded the network to run like a political campaign operation, with primetime shows that were unabashedly conservative and hosts who openly espoused Republican talking points. The network eventually unseated CNN as the highest rated cable news network and became one of the most popular cable networks of all genres, reaching more than 90 million households.

“It is always difficult to create a channel or a publication from the ground up and against seemingly entrenched monopolies,” Murdoch said. “To lead a flourishing news channel, and to build Fox Business, Roger has defied the odds.”

Murdoch said he’s also “personally committed to ensuring that Fox News remains a distinctive, powerful voice.”

Fox didn’t issue a statement from Ailes on Thursday. But in a letter Ailes wrote to Murdoch — obtained by the Drudge Report —  Ailes said he was “proud” of building Fox News and Fox Business Channels into “powerful and lucrative news organizations.”

“I take particular pride in the role that I have played advancing the careers of the many women I have promoted to executive and on-air positions,” Ailes wrote. “Having spent 20 years building this historic business, I will not allow my presence to become a distraction from the work that must be done every day to ensure that Fox News and Fox Business continue to lead our industry.”

Follow USA TODAY media reporter Roger Yu on Twitter @ByRogerYu.