For Gretchen Carlson, a big settlement in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes might be the best outcome personally.
The former Fox News host would get to make her point, pick up an eight-figure check, pay her legal bills and move on with her life, which includes raising two middle-school-age children.
But, although I wish her well, I hope that she doesn’t do that.
Already, the righteous wound she has inflicted on a misogynistic culture has begun to scab over. There are signs that not much has changed or will change. Consider:
■Ailes is out of Fox, but the longtime news executive reportedly is re-emerging as a consultant to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
■Fox News apparently has not cleaned house in any substantial way, and there are signs that it has no intention of doing so.
■Many members of Ailes’s team remain in place, and his deputy has been promoted. An internal review by the parent company, 21st Century Fox, seems to be in a closing-out phase.
A settlement — which could happen within days — would allow the whole thing to fade away. Ailes might pay part of it, as Sarah Ellison at Vanity Fair has reported, but with his reported $40 million golden parachute, that wouldn’t hurt him much. And 21st Century Fox can certainly afford whatever it costs; the news division earns over $1 billion a year in profit.
If the settlement also includes a nondisclosure agreement — essentially, “we pay, and you keep your mouth shut” — the whole subject goes quiet again, at least from Carlson.
A trial, on the other hand, would keep this important subject alive and in the public eye. While it would take many months, maybe even years, to get to court, it would eventually bring all of the ugliness out into the light of day.
Silence and secrecy have been at the root of the problem all along.
No matter what happens, Carlson has done something brave and important in publicly describing how Ailes tried to get her to trade sexual favors for professional advancement and then punished her when she refused.
When she filed suit in July, she had no reason to believe that her claims against Ailes would open a floodgate of similar claims from other women. When they did, she felt profound relief that, as she told me last month, “Now I would be believed.”
More than 20 women have now come forward, many using their names, to say that they experienced similar treatment at Fox. Their stories are horrifying, especially that of Laurie Luhn, a former Fox booker, who told New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman that Ailes turned her into a kind of sex slave over a 20-year period.
The stories are credible, but already the shock value has faded. And Ailes is poised to rise from the ashes. The New York Times reported this week that he will help Trump prepare for his debates; the campaign has denied it.
Some media watchers have speculated that Ailes and Trump — and now perhaps Trump’s new campaign chief executive, Stephen Bannon, formerly of the arch-conservative Breitbart.com — will form a new TV network after November. (Ailes’s noncompete agreement might prohibit that, but few underestimate his ability to resurrect himself.)
That would amount to a near-complete comeback for the 76-year-old Ailes. He could brush off the claims against him as the politically correct whining of disgruntled employees. All along, his attorney has characterized Carlson’s complaints as nothing but retaliation for being fired and denied all the charges.
Jill Abramson, who wrote a book with Jane Mayer about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against Clarence Thomas before he became a Supreme Court justice, told me recently that there’s been tremendous progress since the early ’90s.
The Senate hearings were “a national education on sexual harassment and its malevolence,” Abramson said. “Many people, including male senators on the Judiciary Committee, didn’t even understand what sexual harassment was.”
Gretchen Carlson already has made an important difference, too. I hope she’ll find a way to finish what she started.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan