The former Fox News anchor brought about the downfall of the network’s formidable CEO Roger Ailes. Now a leading figure in the fight against sexual harassment, she talks about her own early experiences of harassment and her mission to crush cover-up culture and end the silencing of women
It’s early 2016. Women are being sexually assaulted and harassed in the workplace but nobody is talking about it in public. There are whispers of bad behaviour behind the tightly closed doors of some of the most established global institutions, but any legitimate murmurs of discrimination are quickly quashed by aggressive gagging orders and intimidating Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) that silence women in perpetuity while the perpetrators keep their jobs. The status quo remains untarnished, legacy brands unspoiled and this enigmatic discrimination prevails.
Fast-forward to July 6, 2016. Gretchen Carlson, a well-known daytime anchor in the US, has just filed a public lawsuit against her boss Roger Ailes, the CEO and chairman of the right-wing, multi-million-dollar news franchise Fox News. The content of the suit is explosive and the filing itself has sent shockwaves through the industry.
“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago,” says Ailes to Carlson on one of the many secret tape recordings Carlson has made of their conversations, which are detailed in the lawsuit.
“Sometimes, problems are easier to solve that way,” Ailes, then one of the most powerful media moguls in the world, adds for good measure.
On another occasion, Ailes ogles Carlson in his office and asks her to turn around so he can view her posterior, according to the lawsuit. He also refers to her as a “man hater” and “killer”. The list of demeaning allegations is endless.
Carlson rebuffs his sexual advances and, in turn, Ailes retaliates and ends her career at Fox News nine months later.
I recently spoke to Carlson and took the opportunity to ask her what she could tell me about the now much-publicised lawsuit.
“Nothing,” notes the well-coiffed, Oxford and Stanford University-educated classical violinist and mother-of-two.
Despite Fox News publicly apologising to Carlson for not being treated with the “respect and dignity” she deserved and entering into what’s been reported to be a $20m settlement, Carlson has been sentenced to silence via an arduous NDA that she was forced to sign back in 2016 when she entered an agreement with the company.
“Do you regret signing that?” I probe, knowing she had very little choice back then.
“When I signed this agreement four years ago, my settlement agreement was progressive for its time. It was progressive in the sense that the most important thing was that I got a public apology… some people would equate a public apology to an admittance of guilt.”
Carlson, whose name is now synonymous with confronting sexual harassment in the workplace, is lauded as being one of the women who inspired the global #MeToo movement in 2017, the year after she went public. Carlson’s bravery paved the way for Harvey Weinstein’s accusers to come forward with their experiences of sexual assault. Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most influential producers, was found guilty of rape earlier this year.
After she filed her lawsuit, it was reported that two dozen other women from Fox News also came forward with allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment against Ailes and other male members of staff at Fox News. The New York Times reported that 21st Century Fox, the parent of Fox News, incurred around $50m in costs tied to the settlement of sexual harassment and discrimination allegations that these women brought to light during an internal investigation at the company. This figure does not include the $40m package Roger Ailes received when he was ousted from the company.
Last year, the box-office hit Bombshell, starring Hollywood hard hitters including Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman — who played Carlson — portrayed a story of a television network (Fox News) that institutionalised the harassment of women. The Loudest Voice in the Room, a seven-part television miniseries, starring Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson, also told a tale of deep-rooted and disturbing misogyny in the newsroom.
I ask Carlson what it felt like to see the most nefarious and sobering part of her personal life play out on the big screen.
“Yeah, I can’t tell you anything about the portrayal of me; I can’t say if it’s accurate. I can’t say if there were 10,000 other things they should have really put in. I can’t say if any of the other characters and the way they depicted them is accurate,” she says.
We’re back to the nonsensical gagging order between Carlson and her former employer, which keeps the facts about her harassment under lock and key — all in a bid to preserve a media behemoth and spare some flushed faces of the establishment who turned a blind eye under Ailes’ watch.
The only reason Carlson’s lawsuit ever made it into the public domain was because her lawyers decided to sue Ailes directly as opposed to the company itself. Carlson, like many working in the US, signed an arbitration agreement with her employer, which makes sure discrimination cases are dealt with behind closed doors.
Before I reached out to Carlson, I was well versed on how stringent her NDA was. I was acutely aware of how limited she would be in disclosing anything relating to her time at Fox News and the allegations she brought against Ailes, the media titan who is now deceased. However, I did want to discuss her new life mission of eradicating the use of nasty arbitration clauses, NDAs and cover-up culture both in the media and in the world at large. I also wanted to highlight the myths surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace.
“What companies have gotten very smart about is that they put these arbitration clauses in the contracts, which means that if you have any kind of dispute, that you can’t go to an open jury process, that you will be stuffed into this secret chamber called arbitration. And the reason that is so detrimental to women is because it’s secret,” laments Carlson.
Of course, the real chicanery in this situation is that the alleged perpetrator gets to stay on in the job, as the arbitration process has taken place in private. However, the woman who brought the allegations might never work again because she can’t talk about her previous job to her future employer as it’s a legally binding secret.
Non-disclosure agreements became popular in the 1970s with the rise of technology companies that were trying to protect trade secrets. In these circumstances, where intellectual property, product design and algorithms needed to be kept hidden, NDAs makes sense. Using them to muzzle women and insulate perpetrators does not.
Carlson now runs a non-profit called Lift Our Voices that’s dedicated to crushing cover-up culture and the prevalent use of NDAs. She says one in three US workers is bound by a non-disclosure agreement and 60 million American workers have unknowingly given up their right to sue their employers by signing employment contracts with forced arbitration clauses. She’s urging companies and powerful members of the media to sign a pledge stating that they will get rid of NDAs and arbitration clauses completely.
“Listen, some companies have done it. And I always say that they’re the ones who will be on the right side of history. And if you want to continue to dig in your heels and think that this is just a passing fad and that we’re going to go away, well, then we’ll force you to do it through legislation,” Carlson asserts.
In October 2019, NBCUniversal, the parent company of MSNBC and NBC News, announced that they would release former employees from their NDAs. It was a brave move by one of the most prominent US news outlets in an ecosystem that generally tends to work against women. The announcement came as the company faced mounting pressure about how it handled sexual harassment and assault claims against one of their star hosts, Matt Lauer. Lauer was fired towards the end of 2017 after a complaint of sexual misconduct was filed against him.
In February of this year, former New York City Mayor and 2020 US Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg said that he would allow his company to release three women from their NDAs, which detailed complaints they made about lurid comments Bloomberg allegedly made against these women. He did this after coming under pressure from rivals at a Democratic Presidential debate.
When Carlson publicly filed her lawsuit, she was not immediately supported by the masses in public, nor was she backed by her colleagues. Instead, she was accused of being a troublemaker whose career was over a long time ago and somebody who was out to make a quick dollar. We discuss the dichotomy between the truth-teller versus the troublemaker when discrimination complaints are made in the workplace.
“The idea that if we start talking so openly about this, that there’ll just be so many lawsuits in the world if we take away arbitration and we take away NDAs... No, actually, if you take away those things, men will learn how to start behaving because they’ll know that there’s no shield for them anymore,” suggests Carlson.
“That women do this for fame and money. Oh yeah, really? Because it’s so fun to have your entire life laid out there for people to criticise and for people to malign you on a daily basis on social media and attack your children.”
Another myth, she says, is that discrimination like this only happens to weak women.
Roger Ailes’ sexual advances on this extremely powerful, well-educated woman who had a global voice was, unfortunately, not her first encounter with the realities of working in a male-dominated industry.
When Carlson won Miss America in 1989, she tried to use this newly acquired capital to secure a job in television. However, being a pretty, polite and petite blonde in her early twenties severely backfired.
“I was trying to be a go-getter and trying [to] break into the television industry while I still had some name recognition from that year. And I met with some high-level executives, and both of them assaulted me in a car,” Carlson tells me.
“He… took my neck and his hand and forced my head into his crotch, and I couldn’t breathe,” recalls Carlson, who is now in her mid-fifties.
Not long afterwards, in a grotesque irony, while Carlson was covering the Anita Hill hearings in a rural part of Virginia on one of her first jobs, her cameraman groped her breasts while attaching her microphone to her blouse. Hill was testifying before Congress in 1991 in landmark televised hearings about the sexual harassment she said she had experienced while working as an aide to a Supreme Court nominee.
Sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace is a pervasive epidemic. According to a 2015 survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine, one in three women say they have been sexually harassed in the workplace — however, a shocking 71pc of women say they have never officially reported it.
Women tend not to report discrimination for fear of gaslighting or not being believed and over concerns about being pushed out of their jobs.
The next phase of the #MeToo cultural revolution is abolishing cover-up culture and the use of aggressive NDAs. In woke 2020, companies continue to abuse their power and merely pay lip service to deep-rooted issues like discrimination, sexual harassment and diversity, topics that are all now so contemporary.
When a legacy company flirts with the idea of putting purpose before profit or, in layman’s terms, putting people before the brand and the bottom line, how many of them are being genuine? How much of this is empty rhetoric?
If institutions truly want to retain talented women, they need to illustrate their willingness to listen and their eagerness to protect people who show bravery in the pursuit of truth and fairness. Carlson has taught us that fearlessness should be celebrated. Going against the grain and being the first to jump off a cliff sometimes leads to an irreversible revolution.
At the end of our interview, I joke about the paradoxical nature of how media companies, whose business model and raison d’être are obviously based on freedom of speech, continue to muzzle women via cumbersome NDAs. We both chuckle nervously, knowing that this joke is not on us women, but on the media bosses who continue to hide from an uncomfortable truth.
Shaunagh Connaire interviewed Gretchen Carlson as part of a bonus series on her Media Tribe podcast. This episode will be released on December 7 and will be available on all your favourite podcast apps or thismediatribe.com