On this day five years ago — July 6, 2016 — Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes, the larger-than-life founder and CEO of Fox News, for sexual harassment. The allegations in the lawsuit were explosive, and were levied against one of the country’s most powerful men: “Ailes has unlawfully retaliated against Carlson and sabotaged her career because she refused his sexual advances and complained about severe and pervasive sexual harassment,” it asserted.
The effects of the lawsuit were seismic. A number of other women at the network quickly came forward during a 21st Century Fox investigation to bolster Carlson’s story with tales of their own. Two weeks after the filing, Ailes — the Roger Ailes!, the king-maker, and adviser to Donald Trump, among many others — was unceremoniously fired from Fox News. That September, Carlson received a $20 million settlement, and an unheard-of apology from the company for how she’d been treated. The lawsuit would prove to be Carlson’s own Independence Day, setting her on an entirely different course.
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More than a year before the explosion of the #MeToo movement in the fall of 2017, which brought down sexual predators in multiple industries, Carlson had established a crucial precedent. Giants, we learned, actually could fall.
When Carlson settled her lawsuit, though, she didn’t realize that by signing a non-disclosure agreement — standard for sexual harassment litigation — she would find one of the seeds of her new mission as an activist. She’d also learned about forced arbitration clauses — which deprive employees access to the public court system — when her own lawyers told her she “didn’t have a case” because of that clause in her contract. “That was one of the darkest days in my life, when I found out what it actually meant to have an arbitration clause,” Carlson said.
That was why, Carlson said, her attorneys crafted a “brilliant strategy” in which she sued Ailes personally under New York City Human Rights Law. (Though Fox News’ parent company ended up paying her settlement.)
As a result of her experience, Carlson testified before Congress, and advocated for the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act,” a bipartisan bill she’s helped promote over the last four years. She also co-founded Lift Our Voices, a non-profit with the goal of banning NDAs and forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts for toxic workplace issues.
Along the way, Carlson — a Stanford graduate, former Miss America and longtime television journalist — inadvertently became, as she put it, a “poster child for harassment in the workplace.” And she’s trying to use that role to effect change. Her story was fictionalized in the Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice” (she was played by Naomi Watts) and in the movie “Bombshell” (she was played by Nicole Kidman), though she wasn’t allowed to advise or consult on either project because of her NDA.
And the limitations imposed on Carlson by that NDA certainly do come up during an interview. “You have to understand that when I get asked these questions, my brain goes into overdrive,” Carlson said at one point. “Because I have to sit here and not only think about the question you asked, but I have to analyze, ‘OK, can I talk about this? Can I not talk about this? Could I say it nuanced? Could I say hypothetically?’”
“This is the emotional turmoil on people who have to sign NDAs,” she continued. “So I’m not trying to be difficult by any stretch of the imagination. I’m trying to answer as much as I possibly can without breaking the NDA.”
On the occasion of the five-year anniversary of her lawsuit, over the course of two interviews, Carlson talked with Variety about its shocking aftermath, her resolve to change the laws, Bill Cosby’s conviction being overturned — and taking her kids to see “Bombshell.”
When did you know it was the time to file your lawsuit?
I have to be very careful how I answer this question. But I can say that when my career was going to be taken away from me, for nothing that I had done wrong, that’s when I finally decided that if I didn’t do this — I just didn’t think anyone else would. I figured at that point in time that I should just jump. The most important thing to me, other than my family and my children that I’d worked so hard for, was I’d been fired. It was over. So I just decided that I’m just going to go for it.
Can you talk about what you did in the lead up to July 6, 2016?
I can say that very few people knew what I was thinking about doing; I had to keep it insular. I did find out that I could go to my minister, actually, and tell her what I was about to do. We cried a lot together.
My parents got on board, I would say, in, like, April. You have to keep in mind that I grew up in Minnesota where everyone’s nice, and the idea of suing people is not something that anyone ever wants to do. They finally both called me one night, and said, “You have to do what you have to do.” And my husband, of course — my children had no idea until the night before. I had to tell them, because I just didn’t know how the news media was going to descend on my life, and obviously they were my paramount concern.
My husband and I obviously didn’t sleep very well. We were up really late in the kitchen. And I just remember him saying to me, “They really underestimated you.”
<img class=”wp-image-1235010922 size-large” src=”https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?w=1024" alt=”. – Credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Cowan” width=”1024″ height=”576″ srcset=”https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg 1920w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?resize=150,84 150w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?resize=300,169 300w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?resize=125,70 125w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?resize=681,383 681w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?resize=450,253 450w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Gretchen-Carlson.jpg?resize=250,140 250w” sizes=”(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px” />Courtesy of Stephanie Cowan
I remember that day so clearly — it was like a bomb had gone off. Can you describe it from your perspective?
Well, listen: I didn’t feel so good that morning. One of my lawyers picked me up in his car from my house, and we drove to my other team of lawyers in New Jersey. They filed it in court at 9 am. My lawyers were on the phone nonstop, and then we turned on the TV and we just started seeing it get covered.
I think the main thing was that we were surprised that there was no comment from the other side for such a long period of time. My lawyers had told me a couple of things: They’ll try to kill you. They will malign you, which they did. And they’ll deny it, obviously. I think we waited until maybe 6 pm Eastern, and what was interesting was that the first statement was from 21st Century Fox — and they said they were starting an investigation. That was stunning. That’s not usually the way these things work, and that was a good sign. Then 15 minutes later, the statement came out from Ailes, and of course he called me a liar and denied it and said it was because of my ratings that I got fired. Typical things that we were expecting.
As a result of the investigation, numerous women — including Megyn Kelly — came forward to talk about their own experiences with Roger Ailes at Fox News. I assume you were hearing, not just from news reports, but from friends at the network that that was going on. How did that feel on a personal level?
Actually, I wasn’t hearing from hardly anyone at Fox. I can still tell you that I have more fingers on one hand than people I’ve heard from at Fox — still.
Yep. The people who’ve reached out to me know who they are, and I will be forever grateful for that. It’s men and women, but it’s some really tough women. And then other women followed suit, they maybe didn’t reach out to me right away. But Julie Roginsky and Diana Falzone, who I’m in Lift Our Voices with — they all filed their own lawsuits. They like to say, and I like to say, that courage is contagious. I’m so thankful that so many other women found the courage to even tell, like, 10% of their stories. Some that reached out to me, they were like broken birds. They told me like, “I’m so sorry, I can’t be as brave as you are. But I’m gonna say what I think I can say.” And it was enough.
We’ll never know the rest of the 90%, right?
Probably not, because they’re probably all under NDAs as well.
But listen, that happened so fast. He was fired in two weeks! My lawyers said to me, “They’ll probably protect him, like every other company had done in the past.” You have to keep in mind that it’s really hard to figure out where we were five years ago compared to where we are now, because we’ve made so much progress. But back then, that was how it worked. They were going to protect him, and you were going to be a liar and that was going to be that. You know? So it happened fast. I remember the day that he got fired, that was the first extensive conversation that I had with my father [since filing the suit]. It was really hard on my family. And my dad just said to me, “You did it.”
Tell me about founding Lift Our Voices, and what you’re doing with the organization.
What really buoyed my spirits in those days of dark despair was all these other women that started reaching out to me. That’s when I realized, “Holy crap, this is a pervasive epidemic!” So first of all, I wanted to pay tribute to all of these women who were voiceless. And, by the way, they never worked again — they just were stripped up their lives, and they went off into oblivion.
I realized that one of the things that was holding women back — and not just women, but people of color and other disenfranchised groups — were arbitration clauses. The only reason that we’re arguably in this movement, and that we’re having this conversation, is because my lawyers figured out a way to strategically make my case public even though I had an arbitration clause. I would have been forced into the secret chamber of arbitration, and nobody would have ever heard from Gretchen Carlson again.
That’s when I realized, “Oh my gosh, I have to use my voice and my platform to change this.” I met with just dozens of members of Congress. Whether they were Republican or Democrat, the first thing they would do when I walk in, they’d want to tell me their stories. If they were men, they’d be like, “Oh yeah, you should hear the stories from my wife and my daughter.” And if they were women, they shared their own stories with me. It really proved my point that this was apolitical, and why we should come together. In an incredible gesture of bipartisan unity, we introduced the bill in December 2017, and then all the Trump stuff started to happen, so it really got lost in the shuffle. But I’ve already testified before the House in the new Congress a couple of months ago, and I know for a fact that this bill is going to be reintroduced very soon. When this passes, this will be my greatest achievement in my life besides my children. This will be a gamechanger for people in the workplace.
A little less than a year after your lawsuit, Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News. What that was like for you to watch?
Incredibly emotional. I was in my house, and I had the TV on, and I couldn’t believe it. My phone rang, and it was a close male friend of mine. He said, “Gretchen, oh my God, are you watching television? You did this. You did this!” I just started crying so hard. I was like, “I can’t talk to you right now. Thank you so much, but I can’t talk to you right now.”
I’m sure you’ve seen mash-ups on YouTube of your “Fox & Friends” co-hosts making lecherous remarks about you on air. Can you talk about what that was like at the time, or is that off limits?
I can say that if you went back and looked at certain things that I did later on, when I built up courage and guts, there’s a lot of small protests that I did. For example, I walked off the set during one of those times. That was not something I planned, but that was just me getting bolder. Three weeks before I got fired, I came out in favor of reinstating the assault weapons ban. I did a poll at the end of my show to see how my viewers felt about it, it was 97% against me! In fact, when I got fired, people actually thought on social media I got fired because I came out in favor of that.
I’ve watched the clip of you walking off the set of “Fox & Friends” many times. Were there repercussions?
I don’t think I can discuss that. But I would just say that hypothetically, when women are in situations where they’re being sexually harassed and they do something to call attention to it, that’s when retaliation sets in — or it continues if it’s already been in place.
What was it like watching Fox News during the Trump administration, when the two were in lock-step with one another?
I guess I wasn’t surprised. I think to a certain extent, Fox became rudderless. So I wasn’t surprised at it. But glad I wasn’t there.
Your story has been the focus of two scripted projects, obviously, the feature film “Bombshell” and the Showtime series “The Loudest Voice.” Has it been frustrating that you can’t talk about those, and how accurate they are or aren’t?
Funny story: I actually went to see “Bombshell” in the movie theater. I never planned to do it, but my kids wanted to see it. I went incognito, because it just was uncomfortable for me, and kind of surreal. I put on a baseball cap that said “Women Rule,” and my kids were like, “Mom, everyone’s gonna know it’s you!” So I had to change my baseball cap to appease them. And then when we got in the theater, I said to them, “OK, now, if you guys see characters playing you, you can’t say anything, you have to be quiet. We’re not discussing anything out loud. We’re just going to watch it, and then we’ll talk about it later.” And of course, their characters came on, and they started laughing out loud, and they’re like, “That doesn’t look like me!” And I’m like, “You said you weren’t gonna say anything!”
Obviously, it was surreal for me to watch it on the screen, my story playing out. And having these amazing actresses who decided to take on these roles. I’ve had to look at it from the positive point of view: Five years ago, this movie, the miniseries would not have been made because nobody gave a flying you-know-what about sexual harassment in the workplace. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me, saying that they saw either “The Loudest Voice” or “Bombshell” or both, and they share their stories with me, they say, “Thank you for the courage. Thank you for kicking this whole thing off.” I hear from men and women.
I can’t change the fact that I couldn’t participate in them, so I have to look at it in a positive way. And I got a funny little experience with my kids out of it.
Have your politics changed because of what you’ve been through?
I have always been a registered Independent. I’ve always fought for women’s rights. Call my mom — she would say to me, “Why do you always have to call me and talk about women’s rights and pay equity?” I have always been a person who has lifted women up at work, I have scores of interns that I’ve helped along the way because I got a lot of help. Ask my husband about how much I’ve talked about women’s rights in our relationship over the last 22 years, or ask my kids how I’ve raised them. Friends who know me well have said to me after all this, “You know, this is what you were really supposed to be doing with your life.”
Right after Roger Ailes was fired, you told Margaret Sullivan from the Washington Post, “We’ve moved the conversation, but we haven’t changed the world in three weeks.” Five years later, can you talk about how the world has changed?
Cultural shifts take a tremendous amount of time. But in five years, we’ve made immense progress. First of all, women are being believed. Perpetrators are being held accountable. They’re not able to just hide behind a denial. They’re actually in many cases being fired. And payouts to predators are stopping. Look at the difference in what Roger Ailes was paid in an exit package versus what they did with Les Moonves’ money. I mean, that these are massive victories.
I also want to credit journalists, because the reason this movement has continued is three things in my mind. You and I both know this, being journalists, if we would have pitched a sexual harassment story six years ago, nobody would have given a damn. Nobody. So, number one, journalists started covering these stories. Number two, social media had a huge impact in this, because people could come forward with their stories anonymously or with a name and a face. And it exploded because of that. And number three, the American public was pissed off. Because they started hearing about these stories, and they were like, “What the hell? We haven’t solved this yet?”
I mean, women knew what was happening. It comes full circle, because why didn’t the American public know about it? Because everything was going into secrecy in arbitration and NDAs. When you get rid of that, you can’t hide it anymore. I had friends who said, “Why don’t you just go home and spend more time with your kids and your dog?” And I’m like, “Because that wouldn’t be me.” My life has worked in such weird, mysterious ways. I was supposed to be a famous concert violinist, for God’s sake. And then I was Miss America? Like, what? I mean, I was a short, chubby tomboy from Minnesota. I happen to play a mean violin, and talent was worth 50%. And I was smart. Then, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and then I ended up being a journalist. It’s not like I aspired to put on my resumé, like, poster child for harassment in the workplace. But it happened!
What did you make of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction being overturned, and him being released from prison?
Of course, I do not agree with the fact that Bill Cosby is out of prison. He still was convicted, and I believe that one of the biggest reasons why he was convicted is because America became woke on this issue — which included members of the jury potentially. They started believing women. That’s a huge-ass victory! I wish he would have served the entire term that he was supposed to.
I get dismayed when the throughline is, “Oh this is a negative for the #MeToo movement.” No. This signifies that Andrea Constand was proven to be telling the truth, along with 59 other women who had the courage to come forward about Bill Cosby — this will never take away from his legacy that he was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting women.
And a caveat to that is that when people like Phylicia Rashad put out tweets celebrating his release from prison, that to me is almost as dangerous as the fact that he got out. Because people like that have influence!
Finally, Fox News was just fined $1 million for violating human rights law, and was made to take arbitration provisions out of contracts for four years. What’s your take on that?
I was asked to give testimony to the NYC Human Rights Commission several years ago. And so I guess that this was the conclusion of their report, and it’s stunning that it’s the largest fine — although, that’s like a lunch tip. I wouldn’t be patting Fox News on the back. Because if, as they have said, they have changed since my case five years ago, then they would have gotten rid of forced arbitration on their own, instead of being forced into it. This is what I’m fighting for all companies to do. It’s a step in the right direction, but if everything has changed, then why am I still under my NDA, along with a ton of other people?
This interview has been edited and condensed. Regarding the recent fine against Fox News, a spokesperson for the network said: “We are pleased to reach an amicable resolution of this legacy matter. FOX News Media has already been in full compliance across the board, but cooperated with the New York City Commission on Human Rights to continue enacting extensive preventive measures against all forms of discrimination and harassment.”
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