After a professional life spent speaking before TV cameras, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson isn’t often at a loss for words.
But when I asked her how she felt as she watched Roger Ailes — perhaps the most powerful media figure in America — step down as Fox News chief only two weeks after she had sued him for sexual harassment, she searched for the right description.
“At first, satisfaction — or no, I think validation,” she told me Wednesday. And then, she said, a new round of emotion came rushing in over the sexual harassment she says she endured while working for Ailes. “I felt angry that it took so long.”
“It’s complicated — there was relief that now I would be believed — and I was happy to a certain extent over that.”
Was there any sadness or regret over Ailes’s fate, given their long working relationship? Here, Carlson expressed nothing complicated, answering in a single word: “No.”
In her first interview since Ailes, 76, left his post under pressure more than a week ago, Carlson described the “surreal experience” of life since she filed suit July 6.
Her major focus, she said, has been on insulating her two children — a 13-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy — from the uproar.
“I’m just trying to keep things as normal as possible and be a mom,” she said. Carlson, 50, is a former Miss America and an honors graduate of Stanford University who joined Fox News in 2005, after a stint at CBS.
The night before the news of her suit went public — and viral — she and her husband sat their children down and talked about what was coming, and gave a general idea of why. But, she said, “they don’t need to know the details right now.”
Those details include her suit’s claims that Ailes repeatedly sought a sexual relationship with Carlson and threatened professional harm if she didn’t comply. (“You’d be good and better, and I’d be good and better,” if they had sex — something that should have happened a long time ago, Ailes said, according to Carlson’s complaint.)
Carlson has said that her objections and refusal to comply caused her to be demoted in 2013. She was moved from her longtime co-hosting position on the morning show “Fox & Friends” to an afternoon slot, and her pay was cut.
Carlson and her lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, pushed back against the criticism that her suit is retaliation for being fired by Fox in June.
Ailes, through his lawyer, has repeatedly and vehemently denied ever sexually harassing Carlson — or any of the other women (now well over a dozen) who have come forward to describe similar behavior by Ailes. They have also emphasized that many of these claims are old and made anonymously.
21st Century Fox, run by Rupert Murdoch and his sons, did not tie Ailes’s resignation to the harassment claims, but they had authorized an internal investigation by a prominent law firm that reportedly turned up many similar stories inside Fox News.
Carlson and Smith would not provide a specific timeline, but they said that they had begun preparing a suit well before Carlson’s firing in late June and that she had made an internal complaint at Fox some time ago.
(In a statement, Fox said Carlson did not lodge “a formal complaint” with the company’s legal or human resources office. Carlson and her lawyer, in the interview, would not specify with whom the complaint was filed.)
Smith dismissed the criticism about timing: “The great majority of employment cases of all types, including sexual harassment, are filed when the employee has no choice — she has been fired.”
Carlson said that while still working at Fox, she hung on to “that glimmer of hope that the punishment would stop, and that my work would be recognized.” She said she meant the punishment for making a complaint, but her lawyer noted she was also being punished “for not succumbing” to Ailes’s sexual demands. “We know that would have changed things,” Smith said.
I asked Carlson how she reacted to news reports that Fox News star Megyn Kelly, after a period of silence, had told internal investigators that Ailes had harassed her, too. Many observers saw this as the final straw that caused Ailes to be deposed. (Ailes’s attorney has stated that he never harassed Kelly and that he was a major force behind her success at Fox.)
“I appreciated that she told the truth, and I know it was risky,” Carlson said, but she disagreed that Kelly’s statements made all the difference. It was “the multitude of women” who started to come forward, creating a critical mass that could no longer be ignored.
“I thought I would be fighting this all by myself,” she said. So when other women began to tell their stories, some with their names attached, there was profound relief and a sense of support. She said she’s also been heartened and buoyed by the reaction of women everywhere, some of whom have been tweeting with the hashtag #StandWithGretchen.
Conversely, she was disturbed by the public statements of some Fox News women and men who came forward in the first few days to say glowing things about Ailes’s character, suggesting that he could never have engaged in sexual harassment.
“Some of them were lawyers. They should have known better, so I was surprised. It was like, ‘Wow, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said. “But I was at Fox a long time. I know how it works. You could sense that it all was orchestrated.”
She and Smith referred to Gabriel Sherman’s book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” which described how Fox News, under Ailes, would counterattack critics aggressively. (Many of the women who complained about Ailes recently spoke to Sherman, who writes for New York Magazine, and also talked to The Washington Post.)
I asked Carlson whether she thought the events of the past three weeks should embolden victims of sexual harassment to come forward.
“We’ve moved the conversation, but we haven’t changed the world in three weeks,” she said. “I don’t want to tell women they won’t be retaliated against.”
Her lawyer warned of the “nuts and sluts” attacks that often follow sexual harassment claims. Women are portrayed as unstable or immoral if they have lived anything other than the life of a cloistered nun, Smith said.
What could be done to defeat the problem?
“One of the big parts of this equation is men. It will take men to change the environment, too,” Carlson said. As she thinks about the lessons for her children, she finds herself more focused on her son.
“It’s paramount that he sees me in an environment where I’m respected,” she said. “And that men treat their colleagues like they would want to see their mother treated.”
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan