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Lesson from Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment suit: Roger Ailes is very, very powerful

Fox News chief Roger Ailes (2MK Studio/Fox News via Associated Press)

In a stunning lawsuit filed on Wednesday, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson accused her ex-boss, inimitable Fox News chief Roger Ailes, of the vilest things. Like hitting on her in the office; asking her to turn around, the better to check out her “posterior”; and retaliating against her for refusing to play along. Carlson was terminated on June 23.

Everyone saw the response from Ailes, which Fox News distributed Wednesday evening:

Gretchen Carlson’s allegations are false. This is a retaliatory suit for the network’s decision not to renew her contract, which was due to the fact that her disappointingly low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup. 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.

Yes, Carlson had thanked Ailes in her book. And yes, Ailes & Co. reviewed and approved that book prior to publication.

A second wave of refutation is now making the rounds. The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg quotes Washington-based Greta Van Susteren, host of the nightly program “On the Record”: “She’s disgruntled she didn’t get her contract renewed and the timing is very suspicious.” On the question of Ailes’s alleged behavior, the host commented, “I’ve been here 15 years I haven’t seen it and frankly I’m rather outspoken and I don’t think I’d stick around for it.” Van Susteren declared that she’d decided on her own to speak out, without prodding from Fox News HQ.

Jeanine Pirro, who hosts a weekend show at Fox News and has known Ailes for decades, told Rutenberg, “This is something that is totally inconsistent with the man I’ve known probably longer than most people who work in that building.”

That Van Susteren and Pirro would speak up for Ailes is helpful, though scarcely dispositive. The corner-office creep depicted in Carlson’s complaint needn’t have harassed every woman in the joint to establish his bona fides as a corner-office creep.

More pushback: Fox News shared with Rutenberg “handwritten thank-you notes” that Carlson sent to Ailes after a fateful meeting cited in her lawsuit. “I’d love to stay at Fox,” said one of the notes, in Rutenberg’s telling. That meeting occurred in September 2015 and was punctuated by this alleged statement by Ailes, according to the suit: “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.”

The back-and-forth between Carlson and Fox News proves something that we already knew: Roger Ailes is a very, very powerful man. He sits atop a network estimated to rake in $1.5 billion in profits in 2015. He can decide that they’ll anchor specials, or have a role in the primary debates. He can bump their pay. He can put them in advertisements and promos. He can help them corral high-profile interviews. A remarkably involved executive and plugged-in mogul, Ailes can flick his wrist and make life miserable or wonderful for his people. Make or break.

In light of all that, is there any wonder that Carlson may have decided to grit her teeth over the alleged conduct of her boss and stick around for a high-paying, high-profile job? Nancy Erika Smith, Carlson’s lawyer, stressed to the Erik Wemple Blog the other day that there are few jobs available in cable-news hosting. She is right — the cohort is tiny. Tinier still is the number of comparable jobs available to Carlson upon leaving Fox News. Remember: Carlson for eight years co-hosted the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends,” which is far and away the very worst program in all of televised news. It’s part of the network’s opinion lineup, though incoherent muttering is a better descriptor. Time and again, the three hosts — during and after Carlson’s stint on the show — on that semi-circular couch say patently ridiculous things, skew the news in outrageous ways and destroy their competitors in the ratings.

For just a little taste of the stupidity that Carlson brought to “Fox & Friends,” please sample this January 2013 interview with none other than Donald Trump, a regular guest on the program. In the midst of negotiations between President Obama and Congress over the budget, Carlson asked Trump, “I wonder if John Boehner, other members of Congress have reached out to expert negotiators like yourself and others to see if they could get any advice. I mean, did you ever get any phone calls about anything?” With that bit of praise, and many others from the “Fox & Friends” crew, Trump worked his way toward his 2016 presidential bid.

The awful work of “Fox & Friends” makes the rounds. Other folks in the news industry spot the clown show, which will follow its hosts wherever they go. As for Carlson, she left “Fox & Friends” in 2013 for her own weekday afternoon slot on Fox News, “The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson.” Though the move may have looked like something of a promotion, Carlson’s complaint paints it as the opposite. Her pay went down, and there was no promotional support from the network.

There’s your context for Carlson’s mind-set as she negotiates with Ailes over her future at Fox News. By any industry standard, she has a great job hosting a one-hour program on the leading cable news network. Yet her marketability for a similar job outside of Fox News is minimal — Alisyn Camerota notwithstanding — in large part because of all those doofus conversations in which she’d participated on “Fox & Friends.” She was at once a beneficiary and a prisoner of the cable-news programming that Ailes had pioneered. The existence of thank-you notes, accordingly, challenges not one line of Carlson’s complaint.

And just a parting shot at Van Susteren’s judgment that Carlson was “disgruntled she didn’t get her contract renewed and the timing is very suspicious.” What is being alleged here? That Carlson should be viewed with suspicion for filing a complaint only after losing her job? Like many other victims of sexual harassment, perhaps Carlson wanted to continue doing a job that she loved while hoping that the behavior alleged in her complaint would just go away. For that, she deserves support, not criticism or suspicion, if her claims bear out.

“There is nothing in those notes that is inconsistent with Gretchen’s claims of harassment and retaliation,” write Carlson’s lawyers in a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog. “They show that Gretchen was devoted to her career and confident in her abilities. She wanted the retaliation to stop so she could continue to do her job and return to higher profile assignments like the ones she had before she complained of harassment.”