Rarely has there been an employment harassment suit with the explosive impact of the one filed by Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News Channel host. Its first (but I suspect not last) casualty was the very public resignation of Roger Ailes. On July 21, he resigned from his role as chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, and his role as chairman of Fox Television Stations, 21st Century Fox.
For many, it was a shock. Ailes was once considered to be one of the most powerful men in media. Until his resignation, most in the media thought of him as untouchable. But that was before ex-anchor Gretchen Carlson filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The suit has unleashed an avalanche of stories from other women, including one of the network’s most prominent, Megyn Kelly, who piled on to confirm Fox’s locker room culture, headed by its influential CEO.
Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit claimed she was fired because she “refused to sleep” with Ailes. In addition, she also believed it was in retaliation for speaking up about the “….disparaging treatment in the newsroom,” including what she said was the “sexist and condescending” way her co-host, Steve Doocy, dealt with her.
The complaint alleges that: “Ailes has unlawfully retaliated against Carlson and sabotaged her career because she refused his sexual advances and complained about severe and pervasive sexual harassment…When Carlson met with Ailes to discuss the discriminatory treatment to which she was being subjected, Ailes stated: ‘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,’ adding that ‘sometimes problems are easier to solve’ that way.”
On the day the suit was filed 21st Century Fox said it had “full confidence” in Ailes and Doocy and has “commenced an internal review of the matter.”
Ailes initially claimed Carlson’s allegations are false and in retaliation for the company not renewing her contract, which he blamed on bad ratings. Before Carlson left Fox on June 23 (when her contract expired) her program, “The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson,” was the leading cable news show in its afternoon time slot. At the time of her termination Gretchen’s total viewership was up 33 percent year to date and up 23 percent in what Fox calls its “key demographic.”
According to the lawsuit, Carlson complained to her supervisor in September 2009 that Doocy, one of her co-hosts on “Fox & Friends,” had allegedly created “a hostile work environment by regularly treating her in a sexist and condescending way, including by putting his hand on her and pulling down her arm to shush her during a live broadcast.” Despite Carlson’s complaint the problems continued.
The potential for financial and reputational damage is real. Because Carlson believes that Ailes hurt her career advancement, she is looking for damages that compensate her for lost wages and mental anguish. She also expects to get punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and reimbursement for negative tax consequences.
This employment harassment lawsuit has the potential to be one of the most explosive of our time. Carlson’s suit and Kelly’s confirmation that she too had been sexually harassed by Ailes years ago have opened up a box of shame for Fox that will be tough to close. Ailes’ departure signals the beginning of a long, hot summer for the company. Stay tuned…