Fired Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson might not be allowed to trash-talk her former employer under the terms of her $20 million settlement agreement, but that didn’t stop her from delivering a call to action against workplace sexual harassment during Thursday’s session of the Women in the World Summit.
“I’ve heard from thousands of women from all across our great country and from all over the world. It’s pervasive,” said Carlson, whose sensational lawsuit last July—after Fox News chairman and founder Roger Ailes declined to renew her contract—resulted in Ailes’s abrupt resignation in disgrace (albeit with a $40 million severance package).
“To change that, we’ve got to stand up and say we’re not taking this anymore,” Carlson added to rousing applause from a packed house in the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
Over several private meetings in Ailes’s office to discuss her work, Carlson alleged that Ailes ogled her while she reportedly secretly used her iPhone to record him soliciting sex with her in return for career advancement.
Ailes’s $20 million money quote in Carlson’s lawsuit: “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.”
“Gathering evidence is just crucial if you find yourself in this situation,” Carlson told the audience as her attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, listened approvingly onstage. “In this type of situation, we still live in a ‘he said, she said’ culture, and they’re not going to believe you. Whether it’s journaling or telling somebody else, it’s just crucial.”
The panel discussion, moderated by CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, took place as Carlson’s former colleague, Bill O’Reilly, is facing intense and possibly job-threatening scrutiny, along with a growing list of defecting advertisers, over his long history of allegedly subjecting female coworkers to unwelcome sexual advances and retaliation.
That history, as the New York Times reported this past weekend, has prompted Fox News and O’Reilly personally to pay out $13 million to settle with various women who said they were victimized by the right-leaning cable network’s biggest star.
The panel was also occurring the morning after President Trump defended his old friend, O’Reilly, claiming, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” in an interview with the Times during what the Trump White House has declared National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
“I think he’s a person I know well—he is a good person,” said Trump, himself of the object of multiple sexual harassment and assault accusations during the 2016 president campaign. “Personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way”—i.e., O’Reilly should have hired lawyers to fight the complaints.
Carlson’s attorney Smith—who this week filed another sexual harassment suit against Ailes and Fox News on behalf of on-air personality Julie Roginsky—is decidedly not restricted in what she can say.
Trump “called a bunch of women liars, and that’s designed to shut us up. That’s the whole goal,” Smith said, to applause and cheers. “We’re not gonna be quiet anymore.”
When Stahl asked if the president’s comments might affect a lawsuit, Smith answered, “It’s absolutely outrageous, but we’re going to try out case in front of a jury, and juries understand truth and evidence.”
Smith added: “They understand that the president admitted to grabbing women by the pussy”—a reference to comments Trump was caught making in 2005 to then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, which surfaced a month before the election. “Are we going to listen to him about what is or is not sexual harassment?”
Asked if her goal is to attack the sexual harassment culture at Fox News, Smith responded: “Our intention is to go after the culture in the United States of America and the world.”
Smith and Carlson, who revealed she’s writing a sexual harassment “playbook” to help women navigate the often-perilous consequences of filing a complaint, were joined on the panel by Fairfax County Fire Department management analyst Patricia Tomasello.
She said she was denied a promotion from lieutenant to captain, and forced give up her dream of fighting fires, after confronting abusive male coworkers, and was ultimately compelled to take a civilian job.
“They tell you to suck it up, grow a thicker skin, or they start to take it personally and they start retaliating against you,” Tomasello said. “We have a president that is…making it seem like this is the norm. I am telling you, this is not the norm.”