Gretchen Carlson is suing Fox News Chair Roger Ailes for retaliating against her for refusing his sexual advances. I don’t know whether her allegations, which are disturbing to say the least, are true. The most sensational of them is her claim that Ailes, when she came to him to complain about sexual harassment from her co-hosts on “Fox and Friends,” said, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.”
Ailes denies her account, but then, he would whether it was true or not, for that statement is pure, unadulterated sexual harassment by all by itself.
Indeed, a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox by Carlson once would be such a slam dunk that it is interesting that she never brought one. I stopped watching “Fox & Friends” in part because Carlson was harassed almost every day by co-hosts Seven Doocy and Brian Kilmead, and it made me angry, and to some extent angry at Carlson for putting up with it.
In 2009, Carlson complained to a supervisor that Doocy “had created a hostile work environment by regularly treating her in a sexist and condescending way, including by putting his hand on her and pulling down her arm to shush her during a live telecast.” Indeed he had. You can see examples of this repeated and juvenile conduct here and here. In her suit, Carlson says that her co-hosts had been “mocking [Gretchen] during commercial breaks, shunning her off air, refusing to engage with her on air, belittling her contributions to the show, and generally attempting to put her in her place by refusing to accept and treat her as an intelligent and insightful journalist rather than a blonde female prop.” To this, Ailes reportedly told Carlson that she was a “man hater” and “killer'”and said that she needed to learn to “get along with the boys.”
This is such classic hostile work environment sexual harassment (and Aisles’ proposition is such blatant quid pro quo sexual harassment), that it is hard for me to believe I am reading this stuff in 2016 in relation to a major corporation. The law is clear. Companies are supposed to give regular seminars on it. The kinds of rhetoric and condescending treatment Carlson endured virtually every day is per se harassment, and once she complained to management, Fox was obligated to stop it. By doing nothing, indeed doing worse than nothing, but implying that Carlson was being unprofessional to object to being treated like a Hooters waitress on live TV, Fox was leaving itself vulnerable to an expensive and embarrassing law suit.
Carlson didn’t take legal action when the harassment continued. Fox’s remedy was to remove her from the broadcast—WRONG!—rather than discipline or replace frat boys Doocy and Kilmeade. Then she got her own show. Like millions of women harassed in the workplace, Carlson decided to accept a big salary or other consideration in exchange for putting up with illegal and misogynist treatment in a harassing corporate culture, because to take legal action would be detrimental to her career and future prospects of working in the broadcast news industry.
I understand and sympathize with Carlson’s dilemma, but like battered wives who refuse to testify against their batterers, Carlson and women like her perpetuate and feed the problem of workplace abuse of women. They accept the illegal and demeaning treatment (and allow other women who observe the harassment to believe that this is conduct that they are expected to tolerate, a process called third-party harassment) in exchange for money, stardom, fame or professional advancement, a deal with the devil that they should not have to make, but also should not make no matter what the benefits.
Carlson didn’t sue until she was fired after 11 years as a Fox anchor. She claims that following the meeting with Ailes in which the 76 year-old babe-magnet propositioned her, he retaliated for her rejection by “severely curtailing her appearances as a guest commentator on prime time shows” and “blocking her from appearing as a substitute host on prime time or daytime panel shows.” Thus the lawsuit is not for harassment, which should have been an easy win at the time she first complained, but retaliation.
Carlson’s lawyer says that this is partially because it is easier to prove and make a jury understand retaliation than harassment. “I do think it’s absolutely true that it’s easier for juries to get retaliation,” Nancy Erika Smith said. “It’s easier for even men to understand retaliation in a case. Maybe women might understand more how damaging this environment is.”
I see how a jury might be convinced that Carlson’s on-air harassment was just an “act,” and part of the manufactured performance for entertainment value, and that Carlson went along with the gag. Nonetheless, reducing long-term harassment to a single act of retaliation is like putting all the eggs not only in one basket, but the wrong one.
I agree with NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who wrote in USA Today,
Carlson loses some of her effectiveness when it can be perceived — as Ailes claims — that the timing of her suit is retaliatory….Would Carlson have filed a bombshell lawsuit if Fox had renewed her contract? Would she have remained silent? She has talked about harassment at her network before, but in her memoir, “Getting Real”, she speaks highly of Ailes.
Carlson says in a statement that she has “strived to empower women and girls throughout my entire career. Although this was a difficult step to take, I had to stand up for myself and speak out for all women and the next generation of women in the workplace.” It is a brave thing to take on one of the most powerful men in the TV news industry. But a quiet settlement — as Fox News has done at least twice before on these lawsuits — is not a win for women except for the person filing the suit and her attorneys.
Carlson had a choice to quit and go public in her career at Fox News and potentially bring about change in the work environment. She didn’t.
My problem with this incident is that Carlson to some extent has built her career on appealing to male hormones, and knows it. She’s no bimbo, a Stanford grad and a professional caliber violinist. It is the qualities that won her the Miss America title in 1989, however, that allowed her to leapfrog over equally accomplished journalists who would flunk out of a swimsuit competition. Then, knowing that she has a glamorous job in part because of her sex appeal, she is faced with the responsibility—and it is a responsibility—of not being a willing party to sexist workplace practices. She blinks, in large part for her own benefit. She makes accommodations. She is being seen being harassed by two male jerks every morning, and when she complains, she’s the one who gets kicked off the show—but she goes along again, because now she has her own show. Not until she is fired does her pride, responsibility and indignation overwhelm her ambition.
Look: I hope Carlson wins, and wins big. She has been treated terribly, and Fox News has been begging to get slammed for its good ol’ boys ways for a long time. She has not made it easy for justice to be done, however.