How Gretchen Carlson Became a Feminist Heroine
Since filing her sexual-harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, Carlson has transformed her image from predictable right-wing view-spouter to heroic icon of female empowerment.
Whatever happened to Gretchen Carlson? How did the one-time beauty queen who spouted right-wing bromides and conspiracy theories on cable television suddenly became a feminist icon?
In July, Carlson filed a lawsuit against Fox News’ then-CEO, Roger Ailes, claiming he had sexually harassed her—beginning a process that has seen dozens of other women make similar allegations.
Carlson has been little heard from in recent days, with the exception of her Twitter feed chronicling the cuteness of her daughter’s Lagotto Romagnolo dog, Bella, and a family vacation in her native Minnesota, along with the occasional shout-out to female empowerment.
Yet Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom—whose practice, like that of her mother, Gloria Allred, specializes in sexual harassment and discrimination cases—calls Carlson “a true heroine in the field of sexual harassment, and that is not a term I use lightly. A heroine is someone who exposes themselves to personal danger by taking a stand that helps a lot of other people—and that is what she chose to do.”
Former ABC News executive Shelley Ross, who wrote for The Daily Beast about her own early-career encounters with Ailes and sexual harassment in the television business generally, said of Carlson’s public stand: “I hope it represents a way forward for women. I hope it is, whether intentional or not, a watershed moment.”
While the 50-year-old former Miss America quietly awaits a reported eight-figure settlement in her July 6 lawsuit against the 76-year-old Ailes—in which she claims he vindictively ended her 11-year career as a Fox News anchor in June after she repeatedly complained about a hostile work environment and rebuffed his sexual advances—the particulars of Carlson’s circumstance have been overtaken by even more lurid headlines.
They include: tales of high-level corporate intrigue involving James and Lachlan Murdoch’s behind-the-scenes efforts to dislodge Ailes, a favorite of Rupert Murdoch’s; Ailes’s alleged 20 years of psychological torture and sexual abuse of a female Fox News employee (denied by Ailes’s attorneys); his alleged paranoia and use of paid spies to report on perceived enemies (even to the point of sending a young female staffer a decade ago to “date” then-college kid, now-CNN media maven Brian Stelter in order to learn Stelter’s attitudes about various media outlets when he was running his influential TVNewser blog); the massive, bunker-like door with a closed-circuit camera that Ailes installed to protect his private office from unwanted visitors; and what former Fox News personality Andrea Tantaros, in her lawsuit this week against Ailes and four other Fox News executives, described as the conservative-leaning channel’s “sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency, and misogyny.”
Bloom, who is representing onetime Donald Trump business associate Jill Harth for alleged defamation in an oft-denied, two-decade-old attempted rape complaint against the Republican presidential nominee, told The Daily Beast that Carlson deserves credit for bringing the Fox News evidence to light.
“Most women are scared to death to come forward, and when the alleged perpetrator is a very powerful person, that fear is only multiplied,” Bloom said. “I know what Gretchen had to go through before she filed that complaint—the kind of emotional pain and fear she had to go through to go up against the most powerful man in media, the man who has a reputation for retaliating against people in the most ugly and vicious ways. I’m sure her career is just as important to her as mine is to me. But that’s what it takes to move forward.”
Bloom, an avowed liberal, added: “It’s true that Gretchen and I disagree on political issues but, listen, sexual harassment happens to conservatives, it happens to liberals, it happens to women, it happens to men, and it shouldn’t be a political issue.”
Indeed, Ailes, a legendary former Republican political consultant, retained liberal Democratic attorney and Fox News contributor Susan Estrich to defend him legally and in the court of public opinion. Estrich, a University of Southern California law professor and a senior partner in Quinn, Emanuel—the law firm that defended Bill Cosby—is something of a feminist icon herself, having written about being raped as a young woman and later, in 1988, becoming the first female campaign manager of a major-party presidential nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Estrich didn’t respond to an interview request for this article, but she spoke at length to The Daily Beast last month about the allegations of Carlson and others, including a report that Fox News star Megyn Kelly also claimed privately that Ailes harassed her.
The interview occurred the day before Ailes abruptly resigned the chairmanship of Fox News with a reported $40 million severance package.
“I’ve known Roger for 20 years and it’s very hard for me to believe,” Estrich said. “When I started reading these stories, I thought, ‘This is nuts. What’s going on here?’”
Estrich continued: “You know me. I’m pretty sensitive to sexual harassment. I’ve been writing about it for 30 years. I’m the sexual harassment officer of my own law firm. And bawdy talk is not sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is either quid pro quo or a hostile environment that is severe and pervasive, according to the standards of a reasonable person or a reasonable woman…
“But if you look at all the women who have come out for Roger”—including Fox’s Greta Van Susteren and Jeanine Pirro, who both suggested Carlson’s lawsuit was payback because her contract wasn’t renewed—“it would be very hard to make a case… Yes, he’s made comments on people’s appearance. This is television. It’s a visual medium. But this is not somebody who sexually harasses women.”
It’s a rich irony, of course, that Ailes, as Vice President George H.W. Bush’s take-no-prisoners media strategist and admaker in 1988, played a decisive role in the defeat of Estrich’s candidate.
Bloom, who has been friendly with Estrich, said: “Most lawyers will represent just about any client. I didn’t go to law school to represent the Roger Aileses of the world, but I’m not going to judge Susan. Most lawyers would be thrilled to represent him.”
On the other hand, Bloom said, “it’s the oldest trick in the book for the alleged harasser to hire a female attorney”—especially one with Estrich’s feminist bona fides. “When I do a racial case, it’s never a surprise that there’s an African-American attorney on the other side.”
Carlson, for her part, is no stranger to sexual harassment, and Ailes is not the first man who apparently didn’t figure on her hard-hitting response.
In her 2015 memoir, Getting Real, Carlson recounted a situation, early in her career as a local TV reporter, in which a cameraman reached under her blouse to clip a microphone to her bra for a standup, and then, on their way back to the office, asked her: “How did you like it when I put that microphone under your shirt? I was touching your breasts…”
“Suddenly I was terrified,” Carlson wrote. “We were in the middle of nowhere and I was in the car with a lunatic. For a moment I actually thought about opening the door and rolling out of the car, like you see in the movies. I wondered how much it would hurt. He kept talking in a low, seductive voice about my breasts and his feelings, and I was seriously frightened.”
Still shaken when she arrived at the office, she reluctantly related the cameraman’s behavior to the assistant news director.
“I really didn’t want to talk about it, but he was extremely intent on making sure I told him what was wrong. I finally caved. It turned out there were other issues with the photographer, and the station let him go. Like so many young women who are the victims of harassment, I worried for months that I had invited his advances in some way—that I had done something wrong, which was not the case.
“In the years since, I have always felt great compassion for women who are caught in the vise of a sexual harassment scandal.
“Even though we have laws against it and HR departments to handle it, a woman—especially if she is young and just starting out—can never be sure that reporting harassment won’t hurt her career.
“Had my boss not pressed me to talk about what happened to me, I probably would have said nothing and been alone with my misery and shame. And even then I was worried that people would find out and blame me. I cling to the hope that with more and more women in the workplace, we can teach younger generations to be respectful, and also encourage young women to speak up when they’ve experienced abuse.”
As Carlson was writing these fine sentiments, she had already experienced repeated instances of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation—according to her lawsuit—by Ailes and Steve Doocy, her co-anchor on the popular morning show Fox & Friends.
Yet in her book, she heaped praised and affection on both men—a fact the Fox News media relations department relentlessly pointed out during the two weeks that Ailes kept his job after Carlson filed her bombshell complaint.
Carlson’s attorneys explained the discrepancy this way: “Ailes does not allow his employees to speak to the press or publish anything without prior approval… In her book Gretchen told her story while trying to keep her job—knowing that Ailes had to approve what she said.”
Carlson’s metamorphosis to outspoken truth-teller is, for several people who have worked with her, a revelation.
The calibrated caution that she apparently brought to her book was in fact typical of her reserved manner at Fox News, where, according to colleagues, she treated most people politely, and others—especially female on-air personalities with whom she was competitive—with a coolness reminiscent of a Minnesota winter.
Carlson had come to Fox in 2005 from CBS News, where she anchored the Saturday edition of what was then called the Early Show. She was considered hardworking, reliable, and diligent, the opposite of a diva, but was continually frustrated in her wish for a more prominent on-air role.
“She wanted a career path that was going to be more than anchoring the Saturday Early Show, and it was clear that wasn’t happening at CBS, and there wasn’t anything that was going to lead anywhere different for her at CBS,” recalled former CBS News executive Marcy McGinnis, who supervised the program as head of the network’s hard news operation.
“She knew what she wanted and was probably more focused in her ambitions, so she was willing to leave CBS, which not everybody would do it because it was still the ‘Tiffany Network.’” (CBS was dubbed the ‘Tiffany Network’ under the aegis of its 1927 founder, William S. Paley, because of the quality of its programming.)
Another CBS News colleague, a former co-worker who asked not to be named, was surprised “when I caught her on Fox & Friends and saw how completely she had drunk the Kool-Aid. I was kind of shocked. I had no idea. I didn’t find her to politically motivated at all, and I was so shocked at how easily she adapted to this vitriol at Fox, which she spewed like she was Ann Coulter.”
Although Carlson never really aspired to Coulteresque levels of spleen, Media Matters, the left-leaning media watchdog group founded by Hillary Clinton acolyte David Brock, has assembled a voluminous file of her offhand snarks concerning President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, among other Democrats, her claims that the administration has something against Christians, and numerous other Fox News memes.
Jon Stewart once devoted a segment of The Daily Show to how Carlson—a violin virtuoso who was a high school valedictorian, graduated with honors from Stanford University, and studied at Oxford—had “dumb[ed] herself down to connect with an audience that [she thinks] sees intellect as an elitist flaw.”
Shelley Ross applauded Carlson’s image makeover, which seems to be grounded in something deeper.
“It’s never too late to learn,” she said.