By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Wednesday, July 6, 2016
The issue of sexual harassment and TV news has gone back decades. It was even (wink, wink) joked about in the film “Anchorman.”
But the media world shuddered when news came out today that Gretchen Carlson is suing her former Fox News boss Roger Ailes, accusing him of belittling her and punishing her for refusing his sexual advances. She also said he frequently made comments about her appearance she construed as sexist. In a private meeting last fall, according to the suit, Ailes said she would have had fewer issues if she had just slept with him, an ironic statement to say the least if it were true. (Read more details here.)
In the lawsuit, she said she was taken off “Fox & Friends” in 2013 and placed in the afternoons at lower pay and stature after complaining that co-host Steve Doocy had harassed her. Her contract was up June 23.
Monica Pearson, an anchor for more than 35 years at Channel 2 Action News before departing in 2012, can’t recall anyone filing a sexual harassment lawsuit at any local TV news station in Atlanta since she arrived in the city 41 years ago.
“All the suits I’ve heard around town were over non-competes,” Pearson said. She said it may be difficult for Carlson to prove her case, but she learned in her own career to jot notes down whenever she had a meeting of any sensitivity – just in case. She hopes Carlson did the same.
Pearson doubts that either MSNBC or CNN would hire her given her ties to Fox News, but she wouldn’t be surprised if a major market local station tried her out.
Michael Castengera, a media consultant and senior lecturer at the University of Georgia, called this lawsuit highly unusual. He has seen age, gender and race discrimination cases but he was hardpressed to think of an example of one regarding sexual harassment.
“You don’t take this step lightly,” he said. “The hard part is trying to establish a pattern of behavior.”
HuffPost today quoted an unnamed woman in the newsroom claiming: “He asked me to turn around so he can see my ass.” And another unnamed female said Ailes told her one of his primary hiring criteria for women anchors was whether he would want to sleep with them.
A 2014 biography of Mr. Ailes, by the journalist Gabriel Sherman, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,’’ recounted an episode in the 1980s, when Mr. Ailes was at NBC, involving a woman named Randi Harrison who said he offered her an extra $100 a week in salary in exchange for having sex with him “whenever I want.” (Fox News denied the claim at the time; Ms. Harrison corroborated the account in a phone interview on Wednesday.)
There has been a long-running joke that Fox News prefers to hire attractive blonde women.
Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and current director at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said he doubts the lawsuit will hurt Fox News or Ailes in isolation.
“He’s a giant in the media industry,” Sesno said. “There’s a high threshold of inflicting substantial harm. Short term, it will be noise. It will be a distraction. It remains to be seen if it will meaningfully damage Roger Ailes or Fox News institutionally. Is this an icicle or the tip of the iceberg?”
Sesno said Carlson is going to have to brace herself for inevitable flak that comes with filing this type of lawsuit: “It becomes mired in reputations and charges and countercharges and denials. It becomes a very long, messy public process.”
Later on Wednesday, Ailes came out with a statement, pulling no punches:
“Gretchen Carlson’s allegations are false.This is a retaliatory suit for the network’s decision not to renew her contract,” which he said were related to ratings he called “disappointingly low. 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.”
Fox, the parent company of Fox News, said it has started an internal investigation but has “full confidence” in Ailes.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Bergen County.