For Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes—who was slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit Wednesday by fired Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson—a very bad day seems likely to metamorphose into a much worse year.
While Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, promptly announced an internal review of Carlson’s sensational allegations—which include her claim that Ailes suggested last September that having sex with him would help her career—Ailes vehemently denied them in a lengthy Fox News statement.
“This defamatory lawsuit is not only offensive, it is wholly without merit and will be defended vigorously,” Ailes was quoted as saying, adding the claim that Carlson is retaliating against him because her contract wasn’t renewed due to “disappointingly low ratings [that] were dragging down the afternoon lineup.”
Fox News officially declined to comment to The Daily Beast beyond the statement.
A source close to the situation, however, insisted that many of the allegations in Carlson’s complaint don’t square with reality, while her “vindictive effort to viciously harm Ailes after her contract was not renewed,” as this person put it, is suspiciously at odds with Carlson’s previous effusive praise of Ailes in various public statements and her June 2015 memoir, Getting Real, in which she called the Fox News chairman “the most accessible boss I’ve ever worked for,” “brilliant,” and “razor sharp,” adding, “we seemed to have a real connection.”
But the bombshell litigation from the 50-year-old former Miss America—whose 11 years at the network abruptly ended on June 23, when she was terminated moments after finishing her regular afternoon broadcast of The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson, according to the lawsuit—could turn the 76-year-old Ailes, a legendary television executive both admired and criticized, into this year’s answer to Bill Cosby.
“It might be,” Carlson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, said concerning the Cosby comparison, which was suggested to The Daily Beast by a former Fox News employee and alleged sexual harassment victim who asked that her name not be used.
Smith, for her part, said Carlson’s lawsuit has opened the floodgates of female ex-Fox News employees who say that Ailes harassed them as well.
“Since about 11 a.m., we have been contacted by many women who say they were harassed by Roger Ailes and they’ve reached out to us,” Smith said, adding that she hadn’t had an opportunity to talk to them yet. “There are maybe around 10 women who’ve said, ‘I’ve been a victim, too.’”
Smith said she spent the weekend reading Gabriel Sherman’s critical Ailes biography The Loudest Voice in the Room, which included an anecdote from Ailes’s days in the early 1980s as executive producer of NBC’s Tomorrow late-night show. According to Sherman, Ailes hired a twentysomething female segment producer named Randi Harrison who told Ailes that his $400-a-week salary offer was too low. “If you agree to have sex with me whenever I want I will add an extra hundred dollars a week,” Ailes allegedly responded. “I was in tears by the time I hit the street,” she later recalled. At the time, a Fox News spokesperson called Harrison’s allegation “false.”
Smith said that under the law of New Jersey, where Carlson’s suit was filed in Superior Court and the married Ailes owns a home in the suburb of Creskill, a sexual harassment plaintiff is permitted to call other alleged victims as trial witnesses to buttress the case and attempt to demonstrate a pattern of behavior.
Ailes has 35 days to respond to Carlson’s lawsuit, and the pre-trial discovery process can begin after that, Smith said, though it could take as long as two years for a trial to commence, when Ailes, who sometimes walks with a cane and is struggling with the symptoms of hemophilia, would be 78 years old.
While the lawsuit claims that Carlson was sent packing in retaliation for complaining about her allegedly sexist treatment by Fox News management, an alternate version of events has it that anemic ratings—she barely beat CNN in the 2 p.m. time period in the second quarter and occasionally lost to the second-place network, including in June—should have alerted her that her days at Fox were numbered.
Carlson’s contract permitted her to look for a new job at another outlet starting mid-May, and Fox News would have wished her godspeed, according to the source, but apparently that didn’t happen. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote in his nightly newsletter, under the headline “What Ailes and his allies are saying/thinking”: “The key data point: Carlson’s 2 p.m. hour had been falling behind CNN in the 25-54 demo. You think Ailes was OK with that?”
Carlson was handed a severance agreement on June 23 and, saying she’d get back to management after looking it over, left on a planned vacation, according to the source. But instead Ailes received a nasty surprise Wednesday morning when Carlson filed her scandalous lawsuit.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by Ailes and Fox News, several women who formerly worked at the network told The Daily Beast of similar encounters with the defendant.
“One time he asked me if I was wearing underwear, and was he going to see anything ‘good,’” said a former Fox News employee, who said she has spoken with other women at the network who said they were targets of Ailes’s sexually charged remarks. “It’s happened to me and lots of other women… He’s a disgusting pig who’s been getting away with this shit for 20 years.”
A second ex-employee, who also said Ailes verbally harassed her with inappropriate comments during one-on-one meetings, said the powerful and famously combative executive has so far escaped the consequences of his alleged behavior, because “when it comes to this issue, there’s already a conspiracy of silence. The problem is you don’t want to come forward because you don’t want to be personally and professionally destroyed. You don’t want to bring down Roger Ailes’s wrath on your head.”
She added that Ailes is hardly unique in an industry dominated by male executives who sometimes take sexual advantage of their power and position. “Television is really a difficult, arbitrary, and competitive business, and you don’t want to give TV executives a reason to say no,” she said.
A third former Fox News employee told The Daily Beast: “When I met Ailes he wouldn’t stop staring at my legs, and at one point he asked if I was single. I was taken aback and said yes. And he was like, ‘Oh, OK, so you’re not gonna get pregnant any time soon.’ And then he asked my age.
“And I think he could tell I was offended by the questions. And he said, ‘I know I’m not supposed to ask this—HR keeps telling me I can’t ask that because you can sue me because it’s illegal, but I don’t care. I’m [over 70] years old, if you wanna sue me, sue me.’”
Carlson’s lawsuit alleges that Ailes “ogl[ed] her in his office and ask[ed] her to turn around so he could view her posterior”; “comment[ed] repeatedly about Carlson’s legs”; “stat[ed] ‘I’m sure you can do sweet nothings when you want to,” among other off-color remarks. The lawsuit also quotes Ailes as telling her, during a Sept. 16, 2015, meeting requested by Carlson to resolve what she viewed as “discriminatory and retaliatory treatment,” that: “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 added, according to the lawsuit, “‘sometimes problems are easier to resolve’ that way.
“Carlson rebuffed Ailes’ sexual demands at that meeting,” the lawsuit alleges, “and nine months later, Ailes ended her career at Fox News.”
The lawsuit also claims that during the seven years that Carlson co-hosted Fox & Friends, the top-rated cable morning show, fellow anchor Steve 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… mocking her during commercial breaks, shunning her off air, refusing to engage with her on air, belittling her contributions to the show,” and other uncollegial behavior.
Doocy, who is not named as a defendant in Carlson’s complaint, is a close friend of Ailes who has worked for Fox News since its launch; in 2009, Doocy’s son Peter was hired as a fulltime Fox News reporter at age 22. In the fall of 2002, when former Fox News anchor Paula Zahn got into a nasty public dispute with Ailes and left for CNN, and Ailes insulted Zahn to The New York Times by saying, “I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating,” it was Doocy who happily ambushed Zahn at CNN, Fox News cameras in tow, and presented her with a stuffed raccoon toy.
21st Century Fox, the cable channel’s parent company, issued this statement on Wednesday in response to Carlson’s lawsuit: “The Company has seen the allegations against Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy. We take these matters seriously. While we have full confidence in Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy, who have served the company brilliantly for over two decades, we have commenced an internal review of the matter.”
Smith, Carlson’s New Jersey-based attorney, who has spent 36 years specializing in workplace harassment litigation, said the fired anchor’s lawsuit is aimed at Ailes personally, and not Fox News or 21st Century Fox, because “we have no evidence, as of today, that Fox News authorized his behavior or condoned his behavior. They have policies against this kind of behavior… As of today, our beef and Gretchen’s beef is with Roger Ailes.”
Still, interviews on Wednesday with former Fox News employees suggested that Ailes has presided over a corporate culture that values and even demands female pulchritude—or at least Ailes’s blonde ideal of same—over other professional qualities. According to a former staffer, executive assistant-turned-Fox News vice president of programming Suzanne Scott enforces with the wardrobe and makeup departments an aesthetic that features skimpy dresses, high-heeled open-toed shoes, and big hair for the channel’s on-air women.
Showing skin is practically written into the company charter, a former staffer told The Daily Beast.
“A lot of the stuff in her [Carlson’s] suit rings very true to me,” said this person, who worked for almost a decade at the network and, like other Fox insiders quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The stuff about showing of the legs—that was not even a secret—that was open company policy.”
Meanwhile, a fifth former Fox News employee told The Daily Beast that Carlson’s allegations seem credible because Ailes runs Fox News “like his personal fiefdom” and has fostered a culture that is not only sexist but menacing, something akin to a sexual North Korea.
“It’s a malicious and sort of terrorized environment run by pitting people against each other to send information up the chain of command,” she said. “It’s almost like a fascist state where everybody is terrorized and nobody trusts each other. People are friendly in the hallways, but you’re always looking over your shoulder to see who might stab you in the back. You have to be skinny. All the hair and makeup people get strict guidance. You have to wear these kinds of clothes, this kind of makeup, this kind of hair, know how to behave, what to say, how to interact, and if you want to do well and move up, you have to toe the company line.”
This person said of Carlson, “I have a sense Gretchen was aggrieved for a very long time and probably kept very good notes. Nobody sues Roger Ailes without having their eyes wide open, unless they’re just idiots—and Gretchen is not an idiot.”
Former female employees of Fox News described Carlson’s lawsuit as potentially career-ending but also courageous.
“As soon as I heard about it, I immediately emailed her saying, ‘You’re my hero,’” said the fourth ex-Fox Newser who befriended the fired anchor.
“I’m proud of her,” said another.
Carlson, in a statement, said she filed the suit because “I have strived to empower women and girls throughout my entire career.” She added: “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. I am extremely proud of my accomplishments at Fox News and for keeping our loyal viewers engaged and informed on events and news topics of the day.”
—with additional reporting by Daily Beast staffers M.L. Nestel, Kate Briquelet, and Asawin Suebsaeng.
Here is Ailes’s complete statement supplied by Fox News:
“Gretchen Carlson’s allegations are false. This is a retaliatory suit for the network’s decision not to renew her contract, which was due to the fact that her disappointingly low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup. When Fox News did not commence any negotiations to renew her contract, Ms. Carlson became aware that her career with the network was likely over and conveniently began to pursue a lawsuit. Ironically, Fox News provided her with more on-air opportunities over her 11 year tenure than any other employer in the industry, for which she thanked me in her recent book. This defamatory lawsuit is not only offensive, it is wholly without merit and will be defended vigorously.”
Updated 10:00am, July 7, 2016 with statement from Nancy Erika Smith and Martin Hyman, attorneys for Ms. Carlson in response to Mr. Ailes’ statement:
“Ailes’ claim that Gretchen Carlson was terminated because of bad ratings is demonstrably false. The publicly available ratings confirm the allegation in the Complaint that at the time of her termination Gretchen’s total viewership was up 33% year to date and up 23% in the key demographic. After her firing from Fox and Friends for complaining about discrimination, Gretchen was moved to a challenging time slot and denied support and promotion. Despite this, she succeeded and was the number one cable news show in her time slot in total viewers.
Regarding Ailes’ claims that Gretchen’s allegations are false, we challenge him to deny, under oath, that he made the statements attributed to him in the Complaint.
Finally, Ailes does not allow his employees to speak to the press or publish anything without prior approval. Gretchen was chastised for answering a question from a hometown newspaper about her favorite Minnesota State Fair food. In her book Gretchen told her story while trying to keep her job— knowing that Ailes had to approve what she said.”