Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson is suing network chief Roger Ailes, claiming she was fired after refusing his sexual advances. Carlson, 50, spent 11 years at Fox. (Richard Drew/AP)
Media Columnist

When Harry Waters came to Newsweek magazine in 1962, “it was a discreet orgy,” he later told journalist Lynn Povich. When he interviewed, his editor described the perks: “The best part of the job is that you get to screw the researchers.”

The researchers, of course, were young women. The reporters and editors were men.

But that was five decades ago. Surely, the workplace as meat market is long over?

Not if you believe Gretchen Carlson, the veteran Fox News host who is suing the network’s chief, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment. 

And not if you believe a survey done by Cosmopolitan magazine last year, which found that 1 in 3 American women said they had been sexually harassed at work, many by male managers. The vast majority said they never reported it.

The new Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt” explores sexual discrimination at a newsmagazine in the late 1960s. (Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Television/Amazon)

Lynn Povich was one of the ringleaders of the nation’s first class-action sex discrimination suit, filed in 1970 by the women of Newsweek magazine. Their success gave rise to many other legal actions, including against the New York Times. Newsrooms were never the same. Now, Povich’s 2012 book about the women’s suit against Newsweek has inspired a TV series that will debut this fall, “Good Girls Revolt.” It’s a little “Mad Men” and a little “The Newsroom.” With its soundtrack of Iron Butterfly and Buffalo Springfield, it takes place at a thinly veiled Manhattan magazine, News of the Week, where fetching female researchers do the digging and their male colleagues get the bylines. In the pilot, a character named Nora Ephron — based on the real scribe — is the wised-up smartest girl in the room. She brings her wide-eyed and beehived co-workers to a consciousness-raising session where, in an “Our Bodies, Ourselves” moment, women pull out their purse compacts to take a gander at their vulvas. 

Povich’s reaction to Carlson’s claims against Ailes and those of other women who say they experienced similar — or worse — harassment from him:

“It sounds like the ’60s,” she told me, evoking an era when bosses chasing their secretaries around the desk was de rigueur. “I assumed overt discrimination had become more subtle, that it all went underground. That’s the part that amazes me.”

But she finds it credible, in large part because of those other women who came forward in the past few days, telling New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman about how Ailes treated them many years ago. Ailes, through his attorney, has strongly denied all of these claims, and he has noted that the alleged incidents happened long ago.

“Women wouldn’t come forward for no reason. There’s a lot of penalty for coming forward,” Povich said. (Her father was the celebrated Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich.)

Kellie Boyle told Sherman and then Fortune magazine how her public relations career was decimated after she dined with Ailes as a 29-year-old in 1989, just as she was about to sign a career-making contract with the National Republican Congressional Committee. She recounted the dinner’s aftermath: 

“He had a driver and a car, and after dinner he said, ‘Can I take you to your friend’s?’ So we get in the car and that’s when he said, ‘You know, if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.’ I was so taken aback. I said, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know that. How would that work?’ I was trying to kill time because I didn’t know if he was going to attack me. I was just talking until I could get out of the car. He said, ‘That’s the way it works,’ and he started naming other women he’d had. He said that’s how all these men in media and politics work — everyone’s got their friend.”

Boyle told him that she was not interested in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and then she not only lost the contract, she said, but was also blacklisted for years in media and political circles.

Some high-profile female journalists expressed their disgust after reading her account. Heidi Moore, formerly of the Guardian, suggested: “Try reading this without becoming enraged,” and Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker called it “repulsive and amazingly straightforward.” Many women at Fox, by contrast, have circled the wagons around their boss and touted his integrity and support.

Ailes’s attorney has accused Carlson of being an opportunist who wants to try her case in the news media. They are trying to move the suit to arbitration, which would make its proceedings private.

Dana Calvo, the executive producer of “Good Girls Revolt” (a Sony production for Amazon.com, whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post), said the show will “grapple with sexual harassment at a time when it had no name. That was the outrage — it’s just how things were.”

In her book, Povich tells of a researcher who was stalked by a senior editor, who sometimes waited outside her apartment building until 2 in the morning. 

“The women in our writing room could speak to those experiences firsthand,” Calvo said. She said she never experienced sexual harassment in the newsrooms where she worked, including the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.

I asked Calvo if she found the women’s claims against Ailes believable.

“When you have one person willing to come forward and what follows are a number of other accounts, consistent in their details, by women who were under no obligation to do so,” the claims become credible, Calvo said. Several women, for example, said that Ailes demanded they show him their legs in garter belts as a prerequisite to career advancement.

This consistency causes Povich to invoke the name of another prominent figure.

“It sounds like the Cosby stuff,” she said. Allegations against comedian Bill Cosby are now making their way through the courts. There is little doubt, though, of some of Cosby’s actions, such as giving drugs to women.

Ailes depicts Carlson’s suit and her actions as retaliation for Fox’s recent decision to drop her show. And, as former NPR ombudswoman Alicia Shepard wrote in USA Today, her timing, soon after her show was dropped, is far from ideal. 

But none of that explains why other women would come forward with similar stories, some of them brave enough to put their names out there when Ailes is still powerful. And the similarities make it hard to dismiss this as nothing but sour grapes.

Discreet orgies may be over, and newsmagazines much faded, but some ’60s wrongs seem to live on. 

For more by Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.