Gretchen Carlson is an unlikely feminist hero. She spent eight years on Fox News’ propaganda morning show Fox & Friends wearing short dresses and laughing at stupid guys’ vaguely racist banter, but in real life she was a violin prodigy who went to Stanford, studied Virginia Woolf. And in 2014 she changed the world, kind of: She started taping her boss sexually harassing her. Her boss happened to be the most powerful man in conservative media, Roger Ailes.
She recorded him saying things like, “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. Sometimes problems are easier to solve.” After more than a year of taping, on July 6, 2016 at 9 a.m., Carlson came forward and sued Ailes (but not Fox).
Her lawsuit fundamentally changed the power relationships that had governed the network since its inception 20-plus years before. Numerous suits followed, including one that alleged that “behind the scenes, it (Fox News) operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.”
In 2016, Carlson won. Fox agreed to settle, giving her $20 million. But along with her “winning,” she got silenced. And so you can now go into any movie theater and watch Carlson’s story Bombshell on the big screen—but Carlson herself cannot tell you her story. You can watch Naomi Watts tape record Russell Crowe on Showtime, but Gretchen can’t tell me the story of how she tape-recorded Roger.
Why? Because of her non-disclosure agreement.
Meanwhile, former Democratic strategist and Fox News contributor since 2011 Julie Roginsky also sued Roger Ailes (and Fox, and Bill Shine), alleging that Ailes conditioned an on-air host job offer on her having sex with him. In December 2017, Fox settled with her, too (for an undisclosed sum). She signed an NDA as well, meaning that she can’t tell me her story, either. But oddly, she can tell me Carlson’s, because Roginsky’s NDA didn’t start until a year after Carlson settled.
And so I had lunch with both of them to talk about Lift Our Voices, the organization they cofounded to combat the reason that neither of them can talk about their experiences: NDAs. The two women tried as best as they could to fill in each other’s stories, to talk about the blank spaces the NDAs didn’t cover.
Julie started by explaining to me how she learned about Gretchen’s lawsuit. “So, I was getting ready to do [a segment about] what was the real story with Gretchen Carlson,” she recalled, “since she wasn’t there and we all assumed she was on vacation, it was July. And then somebody who I was doing the show with, my Republican counterpart, came up to me and said, Wow. Gretchen Carlson.” Julie explained to me that the Republican counterpart showed her the story about Gretchen taping Roger. “Everybody was stunned and everybody felt sorry for Gretchen. Everybody said, poor Gretchen.”
I asked if there was still a fair amount of fear at that time about Ailes. Julie nodded and continued, “Roger was crazy. Not only was Roger there, but Roger was so ensconced. Roger was all-powerful there.”
Were you surprised by Carlson’s allegations, I wondered.
“I wasn’t surprised by the allegations, but I was surprised that she came forward,” Roginsky told me. “It was such a monumental, impossible task. It was almost like a suicide mission, and everybody kind of whispered about it and talked about it and subsequently it became clear that Fox was going to do some sort of investigation. But then it spiraled and spiraled into the media. Attention became so monumental, and other women obviously started to come forward privately and to each other. And I confided in a woman there.”
I asked who the women were who defended Ailes.
“Greta Van Susteren, Jeanine Pirro, Kimberly Guilfoyle,” she continued. “And there was always like a weird paranoia about so-and-so was a spy. ‘Oh, you can't trust so-and-so. She's a spy. She's a spy for the Murdoch sons.’ I was one of the women they came to and said, ‘I come out in support of Roger, he's been very good to you, too.’ And I said, ‘OK, I'm not going to do it.’ And I can't go much into the rest of it because it affects me.”
Julie can’t talk about anything that happened in her suit against Fox. She stayed another year, but she said there was a seismic shift after Gretchen left. Throughout the conversation, both women were constantly stopping themselves to be sure they were not talking about something that could get them in legal trouble.
“After she (Gretchen) left,” Roginsky continued, “it became clear that she really shook people up and not just at Fox, but really shook up the world because this was really high-profile. This was before Les Moonves or any of the other big names. Matt Lauer. She was first, and I think it really gave a lot of women permission to come forward.” It was 10 months later that Julie came forward.
And that’s when you reconnected, I asked.
Julie said, “When Ronan Farrow went on Rachel Maddow and Rachel Maddow announced that NBC was letting the women out of their NDAs. And then the other founder, Diana Falzone, texted us and was like wait a second, why can’t we get out of our NDAS?”
Gretchen continued: “And I forget who texted who first. But within a matter of moments, I remember because I had the flu. And even though I had the flu, I'm like, we're doing this. We are going to demand that we get rid of these things. And NBC is doing it. They're going to break the dam. So we got together, and then it just morphed organically into this, and we set up an organization. What we needed just didn't really exist.”
In November 2019, Gretchen and Julie formed Lift Our Voices with the goal of abolishing NDAs, by having the rest of the country adhere to something like the NDA ban passed last March by New Jersey. It bars companies from “the purpose or effect of concealing the details relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment.” The group has also created a pledge for candidates to sign “to eradicate NDAs for these purposes in their workplaces,” So far all the Democratic presidential candidates have signed on with the exception of Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, and Bernie Sanders.
In December, Carlson wrote in The New York Times, “Today I call on Fox News to release me, and all employees forced to sign NDAs as a condition of harassment settlements, from these agreements immediately.”
But Fox didn’t, and Gretchen and Julie are still bound by their NDAs.
Ultimately the people who suffer the most under these NDAs are not the women like Gretchen and Julie, Gretchen explains to me: “You hear stories about women who are making next to nothing who have signed these (NDAs) as part of her severance package. And then that's it. They can't discuss it. They can't talk about why they got terminated from their jobs. They can’t tell future prospective employers, and the really sad thing is that the majority of them never work. That's one of the things we're trying to eradicate is that one of the main reasons that they don't work is because they can't tell anyone what happened, even though they didn't do anything wrong.”
Some people will be tempted to dismiss Carlson because of her time working at Fox, and her role in the propaganda network. I think that’s a mistake. We live in the time of Trump, of imperfect messengers and flawed heroines. Women who are bound by non-disclosure agreements are voiceless, they need someone to speak for them, Gretchen Carlson is doing just that.
Later on, I texted her to ask her if she had any thoughts about Fox now. She responded, “I don’t watch Fox News.”