You’ve got to hand it to Gretchen Carlson: She’s a brave woman. Any woman willing to risk a public showdown with Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and Fox News over sexual-harassment charges would have to be. Carlson no doubt has her own reasons for suing Ailes after having worked for him for 11 years. The longtime Fox News host was fired in June, ostensibly for a ratings slump. She argues, however, that Ailes terminated her contract after she complained about unwanted advances he had made toward her.
From a merely human standpoint, one cannot help but wish her well. But for the rest of us, the question is whether her complaint, filed July 6 in the Superior Court of New Jersey, will bring down Ailes and transform the malignant virus that is Fox News into something less damaging to our democratic discourse and journalistic self-respect.
As Gabriel Sherman’s energetic reporting in New York magazine makes clear, Roger Ailes has long been the protagonist of stories in which a powerful man attempts to demand sexual favors from women who work for him. Six such women spoke to Sherman, two of them on the record. One told a particularly gruesome story in which Ailes allegedly removed his penis from his tuxedo and instructed her to kiss it. She was 16 at the time. Another alleged he pimped her out to friends and work associates, a humiliation that led to a suicide attempt. This is in addition to the three former Fox anchors Sherman quoted in his 2014 Ailes biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room. Carlson’s law firm, Smith Mullin, claims to have binders full of women ready to talk and expects more to come forward. Ailes, through his lawyers, denies everything.
The stories are consistent with what we know about Ailes. There was no hint of attempted seduction or charm in any of them. Prejudice and sexism are two different phenomena, but it’s not surprising that a man who left NBC after allegedly calling an adversary a “little fucking Jew prick” would term a woman who refused his sexual proposal to be a “man hater” who needed to “learn to ‘get along with the boys.’” Nor is it surprising that the station he runs is filled with similarly offensive behavior. (Remember Bill O’Reilly’s falafel fetish?) And finally, it is hardly a shock that Donald Trump is just fine with all this. “Totally unfounded,” he said of Carlson’s allegations.
Carlson says she hopes her lawsuit will inspire other women in similar situations to come forward, and it could happen. But the whole story could just as easily be swept under the rug. Carlson has signed an arbitration agreement with Fox that could keep any further information from coming to light during the discovery process. Her contract holds that “all filings, evidence and testimony connected with the arbitration, and all relevant allegations and events leading up to the arbitration, shall be held in strict confidence.” It’s almost as if that clause were written explicitly to enable the kind of gross behavior for which Ailes is being sued. The legal question is whether it applies to a suit against Ailes, who is not a party to her contract with Fox.