The era of sexual harassment against women in the workplace did not end Tuesday. But the resolution of former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit provides a high-profile warning to the powerful and predatory: Don’t be so certain you’ll be able to brush off an accusation or slink away with your reputation intact in exchange for writing a check.
That message is the big news in Carlson’s settlement of her suit against dethroned TV titan Roger Ailes. Yes, the Fox News chairman, who played a role in propagating the modern conservative movement, was ousted from his position, as he should have been. And, yes, Carlson got a huge check to end the litigation: a reported $20 million. But what we also hope resonates is the public apology Carlson received, which cited her talent and professionalism, and then acknowledged that at Fox exemplary ability didn’t guarantee equal treatment. Carlson still got harassed by the boss.
What parent company 21st Century Fox wrote:
“During her tenure at Fox News, Gretchen exhibited the highest standards of journalism and professionalism. She developed a loyal audience and was a daily source of information for many Americans. We are proud that she was part of the Fox News team. We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”
The statement provided no details, not even Ailes’ name, another shortcoming typical of the way corporations historically have confronted these allegations. They’d prefer to take minimal action to end a crisis than rip off the bandage and examine cultural rot. Frequently, settlements of these types avoid apologies or acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Which is why Fox’s apology stands out: This is a major media organization with profound influence on the country’s political and cultural climate — and it acknowledges wrongdoing. Fox said Carlson, like other women at the network, deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. She just wasn’t.
Much of what we know comes from the lawsuit Carlson filed against Ailes. Carlson alleged that when she complained to Ailes about the hostile and sexist atmosphere on the set of the show “Fox & Friends,” Ailes called her a “man hater” and advised her to “get along with the boys.” In his own polluted mind, that advice to “get along” apparently involved Ailes. Carlson alleged in the suit that he ogled her and said at one point, “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.” In retaliation against Carlson for her complaints, the suit alleges, Ailes took away important interview assignments and reduced her airtime.
That Carlson dared to file a lawsuit at all may be the most significant step toward stopping workplace harassment. Her decision to take on a powerful boss led to complaints by other female employees at Fox of Ailes’ predatory behavior, which he has denied. Carlson thanked “all the brave women” who came forward to tell their own stories or supported her. There were reports Tuesday, attributed to unnamed sources, that at least two other female employees reached settlements with Fox. Those settlements reportedly followed statements the women made to a New York law firm investigating the accusations against Ailes. If there is more action the network needs to take, we hope Fox does it.
What actions would guarantee that all employees are treated equally, and that sexual harassment in particular won’t be tolerated? There are none. But time — the passing of new generations into authority — helps because ultimately that’s how cultures change. Short of that, it’s important to see that offenders are held accountable and that bad behavior, especially by powerful figures, is loudly and publicly rebuked.