In a genuinely shocking development, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a bombshell sexual harassment lawsuit against CEO Roger Ailes Wednesday. The suit alleges that her contract wasn’t renewed in late June, after she refused years of demands from Ailes for sex. It also says she suffered severe professional consequences as a result. What’s amazing about all this is how tightly Carlson seems to have held it together, right up until the day she declared war on Ailes, and even as she wrote publicly about being sexually harassed and assaulted earlier in her career.
The former Miss America winner has always comfortably and energetically inhabited Fox’s steely blonde white lady mold: Carlson joined the network in 2005 from CBS after she got a personal call from Ailes, she told Bill O’Reilly in an interview last year. She spent seven years on Fox & Friends, which Erik Wemple at The Washington Post once memorably and accurately called “TV’s dumbest news show.” Here she is bringing co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade “Turkish Viagra”:
Unlike Megyn Kelly, who’s been promoted by Ailes and the network as the star in their crown, and who’s getting her own interview show in a primetime slot, Carlson was never a particular headline-grabber or a maker of big TV moments. She generally made news, if we’re being frank, for occasionally doing and saying some extremely dumb things—like googling the word “ignoramus” on live TV after announcing she didn’t know what it meant:
In 2014, she seemed legitimately shocked and confused by the existence of transgender rights, suggesting, a la Mike Huckabee, that kids would use trans-inclusive bathroom policies to sneak into the “wrong” bathroom.
I want to be very clear: I am not against transgender people or transgender kids in any way, but to make an entire population start calling each other “purple penguins” because maybe one child in the entire school system will turn out to be transgender is crazy.
All of this suggests a broad comfort with the unique Fox worldview and with her co-hosts, but behind the scenes, things were significantly more tense, she claims in her suit. Doocy, she alleges, was also guilty of gender-based harassment, “regularly treating her in a sexist and condescending way,” including putting her down during commercial breaks, “shunning” her off air, refusing to talk to her on-air, and, the suit says, “generally attempting to put her in her place by refusing to accept and treat her as an intelligent and insightful female journalist rather than a blond female prop.”
Carlson did semi-famously walk off set when Kilmeade was being particularly sexist. She was laughing, but she also refused to do the headlines, forcing a fumbling Kilmeade to try his hand at reading:
Carlson was moved from Fox & Friends to her own daytime show in 2013, The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson. At the time, in a Fox News press release, she framed it as a dream for a working mother:
Carlson added, “I am thrilled that Roger Ailes has given me the opportunity to host a signature show for Fox that will focus on the real stories of the day. From in-depth interviews to social media interaction live during the show, I look forward to joining viewers in the afternoon for smart and straight-forward talk. Plus, I now get to have breakfast with my kids and maybe even drive them to school! How great is that?”
But the suit says that the move was retaliation by Ailes for her refusal to have sex with him and his capacious jowls. It also alleges that Carlson’s workload increased even as her pay was substantially reduced.
This is not, let’s say, beyond the realm of possibility. A biography of Roger Ailes by Gabriel Sherman published in 2014 alleges that in the ‘80s, Ailes offered producer Randi Harrison $100 extra per week if she would have sex with him on-demand. The book alleged numerous other incidents of blatant and extra-gross misogyny from Ailes, who is, Sherman claimed, obsessed with the appearances of his female employees. He once reportedly got very upset when former host Catherine Crier appeared on-screen in a pants suit, telling producers, “Tell Catherine I did not spend x-number of dollars on a glass desk for her to wear pant suits.”
Sherman spent much of Wednesday spilling additional tea he’d gathered about Ailes’ fun attitude towards women:
In a blog on the Huffington Post, Michelle Fields quotes anonymous Fox News sources who also say Ailes is a creep:
One female Fox News contributor, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she had a similar encounter with Ailes.
“He asked me to turn around so he can see my ass,” the contributor said, describing one of her meetings with the chairman.
Another Fox News employee, who likewise asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that Ailes told her she could only wear dresses on air. She also described a story that she said Ailes often told about his hiring process for on-camera personalities.
“He always brags to people about how he doesn’t do polling or testing when he chooses his on-air talent. He told me that if he was thinking of hiring a woman, he’d ask himself if he would fuck her, and if he would, then he’d hire her to be on-camera,” the employee said. “He then said if it was a man he’d think about whether he could sit down for a baseball game with him and not get annoyed of him. If he could, then he’d hire him.”
In a maybe-related tidbit, here’s Megyn Kelly saying she’s heard tell of executives in media asking female talent to “twirl.”
“Executives, you need to stop doing that,” she says, with a steely smile, before adding, quickly, “I’m not saying this is at Fox News.”
But about the only interesting thing Carlson ever said about Fox & Friends came three years ago, when she mentioned on Kilmeade’s radio show that pants were not allowed. (For her. One assumes they were mandatory for Kilmeade and Doocy).
“I have jeans on, Brian!” Carlson exulted. “Welcome to the new Gretchen!”
For the most part, though, Carlson always politely refused to say anything noteworthy at all about the environment at Fox News, even after leaving Fox & Friends. From a typical interview with the Star Tribune, to promote her book Getting Real:
She cannot be cajoled into sharing any juicy behind-the-scenes gossip from Fox headquarters. Nor will she bite when a suggestion is made that her male colleagues don’t always come across as being at the forefront of gender equality. She does say there’s a “camaraderie” between the women who work there.
“I joke about hitting the bimbo trifecta when I was hired there — blond, Miss America and working at Fox,” she said. “I graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford, but when people don’t want to debate you on ideas, it’s easy to call me the dumb blonde from Fox.”
Here she is on the Christian Broadcasting Network around the same time, in an oatmeal-bland interview about her faith.
Yet Carlson did occasionally venture into more substantive and darker territory; in her memoir, Carlson wrote vividly about being sexually harassed and groped by a “top television executive,” some time around the time she graduated from Stanford. An excerpt, via The Daily Beast:
Early on I went to New York to meet with a top television executive I was told could help me. He spent a lot of time with me that day. He called a bunch of shows for me while I was sitting in the office and said, “I’m here with this great young girl. You got to take a look at her. She has a lot of talent.” He smiled at me across the desk, and I smiled back, thinking how lucky I was to have such a powerful advocate. Later, he took me out to dinner, where he started imparting “valuable” career advice, including the suggestion that I change my name to “Kristin” for TV. I thought that was strange. Not only is Kristin my sister’s name, but I was already pretty well known as Gretchen.
Afterward we got into his car and he gave the driver the address of the friend I was staying with. We were sitting in the backseat together when suddenly he threw himself on top of me and stuck his tongue down my throat. He was all over me, and I can still feel his mouth on my mouth. It makes me a little sick even now. I pulled away from him, desperate to get away. Luckily, we were close to where I was being dropped off. I jumped out of the car and slammed the door without a word, racing into my friend’s apartment building. When I got upstairs I broke down and sobbed to my friend Chele. Why would he do that? I thought he respected me. I thought he truly wanted to help me. I was so confused about who I was and what I would face as I moved forward in what appeared to be a really scary world.
She also talks about meeting with a “top public relations executive” who tried to sexually assault her:
He suggested we get some dinner. As I got into the passenger seat of his car, he suddenly put his hand on the back of my head and shoved my face into his crotch. Sickened, I yanked myself up and sat frozen, not knowing what to do. This was a very powerful man, and I felt powerless. Somehow I got through the dinner—I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t flee, although in that unfamiliar setting I’m not sure where I would have gone. But I spent sleepless nights wondering what I should do next.
In June 2015, Carlson wrote a Huffington Post blog about sexual harassment, writing again about the incidents earlier in her career:
First, we have to stop blaming the victim. Too often the narrative about sexual harassment is that women bring it on themselves by the way they dress, act or look. Harassers get a pass in our culture, and it’s clear to me that we have to speak with one voice on this matter and say it’s wrong and we aren’t going to stand for it. Even when I was harassed, I always knew that my brains and talent were responsible for my success, not my looks. Unfortunately, I still have to put up with the constant drumbeat of “lookism.” People think it’s okay to refer to a professional woman as a “blonde bimbo.” We should refuse to tolerate this attitude when it occurs.
Yet Carlson never indicated that sexism or harassment were affecting her work at Fox. And yet there have been, over this year, two interesting cracks in her on-screen persona. In March, she yelled at a Trump adviser who was defending Corey Lewandowski when he was accused of assaulting reporter Michelle Fields.
“I’ve been doing this 25 years, I’ve never walked away with bruises like—and we can show the bruises here again,” Carlson said. “So how do we account for these bruises on Michelle Fields’s arm?”
And in mid-June, she and Bill O’Reilly both broke ranks with Fox News’s usual party line to call for bans on assault weapons. Carlson complained the next day she’d been deluged with “F-bombs” by unhappy viewers.
But for the most part, Carlson’s on-air persona remained as safely sanitized and her smile as flawlessly laminated as ever. On her 50th birthday in late June, she aired a flaming hot take entitled “Grateful on my 50th Birthday.”
“Turns out 50 isn’t so bad!” she beamed.
And here’s Carlson’s broadcast on June 23, the day she says her contract expired and she was fired. Absolutely nothing interesting happens.
Carlson was replaced in subsequent broadcasts by Kimberly Guilfoyle, who said she was “filling in.”
Bloomberg Politics did a pretty incredible supercut of the sexism Carlson experienced at Fox & Friends, as well as her mostly stoic response. The tone of her laughter throughout will likely resonate with anyone who’s had to sit through casual sexism at work before.
“HR’s on the phone, because you called me a skirt,” Carlson tells Kilmeade in one clip.
“I apologize,” Kilmeade responds. “I gotta read that manual again.”
Carlson laughs: “I’ll bring it to your office right after the show.”
Gif by Bobby Finger via Bloomberg Politics on YouTube