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Opinion Fox News has settled Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment suit for $20 million

Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson settled her sexual harassment case against former boss and Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for $20 million. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Fox News has paid $20 million to settle the sexual harassment lawsuit filed on July 6 by former host Gretchen Carlson against former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, according to a report by Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison. The news marks a quick and tidy disposition of the case, which Carlson filed on July 6, alleging that Ailes had objectified her over an 11-year tenure at Fox News. Not only did Ailes make sexually suggestive comments — asking her to turn around to show him her “posterior,” for example — but also cut her salary and otherwise diminished her standing at the network, the complaint alleged. She was fired in late June.

Just after Carlson’s suit hit the media, Ailes issued this statement: “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.”

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So much for the “vigorously” part. Ailes was the sole defendant in the lawsuit, which did not name Fox News or any of Ailes’s lieutenants. Yet the settlement, reports Ellison, is the work of Fox News, which is handling the matter “on behalf of” Ailes. A public apology from 21st Century Fox reads as follows:

21st Century Fox is pleased to announce that we have settled Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit. 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. We know Gretchen will be successful in whatever endeavors she chooses in the future.

That’s some strong language. Companies don’t cough up that sort of apology based on a weak case. As New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported last week, Carlson, starting in 2014, took to recording conversations with Ailes in which the executive used insulting language. For example: “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 settlement ends a flurry of legal maneuvering. After Carlson filed her complaint, lawyers for Ailes attempted to push the matter into secret arbitration, citing a clause of her contract mandating that disputes be handled by the American Arbitration Association (AAA). Such a move would have shielded the proceedings from public scrutiny. Of course, the settlement has the same effect. This blog had urged Carlson to stay away from settlement talks, the better to bring transparency to Fox News.

It’s unclear, notes Ellison, what amount Ailes himself may have had to pay toward this settlement, though there have been tensions between Ailes’s personal lawyers and the legal team from 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News. Per a severance deal upon his July departure from Fox News, Ailes received about $40 million.

Carlson issued this statement: “I am gratified that 21st Century Fox took decisive action after I filed my Complaint. I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life in which I will redouble my efforts to empower women in the workplace. I want to thank all the brave women who came forward to tell their own stories and the many people across the country who embraced and supported me in their #StandWithGretchen. All women deserve a dignified and respectful workplace.”

Indeed a number of former Fox News employees seized on Carlson’s complaint as an opening to tell their own stories about Ailes’s treatment.