Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes has been sued for sexual harassment by a longtime Fox News host and anchor who alleges her career suffered at the network because she refused his sexual advances.
Gretchen Carlson's contract at the network expired late last month after a long stint as the co-host of the morning show Fox & Friends and nearly three years hosting her own show in the afternoon.
The accusations are not subtle.
In a lawsuit filed in a New Jersey civil court on Wednesday, lawyers for Carlson allege Ailes repeatedly dismissed her concerns that her colleagues on Fox & Friends had created a pervasively sexist atmosphere, telling her to learn to "get along with the boys."
When Carlson met with Ailes to complain, she alleges Ailes replied, "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago." The suit says Ailes explained, "Sometimes problems are easier to solve that way." In other conversations, Carlson contends, Ailes underscored what he could do for her career if she would look upon his invitations favorably. And she says he frequently ogled her, commenting on her figure and telling her to turn around so he could see her rear.
Carlson alleges she had high-profile interviews taken away from her. Ultimately, she says, she was reassigned from Fox & Friends to a role anchoring an afternoon show and given a pay cut for raising objections. And she contends that she was cut from Fox altogether for rebuffing Ailes' sexual advances.
Carlson sued Ailes individually; Fox News is not an official party to the suit, though it can be expected to bear Ailes' costs.
Ailes has issued a statement on the lawsuit, which reads:
"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."
A statement issued by 21st Century Fox said the company has seen the allegations. "We take these matters seriously," it read. "While we have full confidence in Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy, who have served the company brilliantly for over two decades, we have commenced an internal review of the matter."
In perhaps the most explosive part of her lawsuit for the network, Carlson appears willing to force female Fox on-air personalities to testify about whether they experienced sexual harassment — and whether they traded sexual favors with Ailes or other executives for jobs or financial gain.
In detailing what she called her demotion to the 2 p.m. slot, Carlson's lawsuit states that Ailes reduced her pay though her workload as a solo host increased and "refused to provide her with anywhere near the level of network media support and promotion provided to other Fox News hosts who did not complain about harassment and rebuff his sexual advances."
On the air, Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade offer the program something of a frat house ethos. In her lawsuit, Carlson alleges that Doocy routinely belittled, shunned and isolated her, even putting his hand on her during broadcasts to silence her. Kilmeade, who has referred to women as "babes" and "chicks" on the show, once inspired Carlson to walk off the set after one sexist comment too many. (She later said it had been a joke on her part.)
Carlson is a well-regarded violinist who is both a Miss America winner and a Stanford University graduate who went on to study at Oxford University. She wrote in her memoir that because of her looks, she felt self-conscious about whether people took her seriously. According to Ailes' unauthorized biographer, Gabriel Sherman, Ailes once pointed out Carlson to an associate as a Miss America, and then added, "It must not have been a good year."
Carlson's lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for damages.
In the past, Fox News has proved willing to settle cases rather let them fester; a former producer sued top-rated host Bill O'Reilly for sexual harassment after capturing his explicit sexual come-ons on tape. The network paid what was reported to be a seven-figure settlement to keep that lawsuit from going to trial.
Lachlan and James Murdoch, the brothers who run 21st Century Fox on a daily basis, have a wary relationship with Ailes. Their father, Rupert Murdoch, Ailes' patron and still the company's controlling owner, is all but certain to reward the years of loyalty and strong annual profits the Fox News chief has offered — almost regardless of what facts emerge.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is the author of Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And one of the most prominent female anchors on Fox News over the past decade is suing the channel's chairman, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment. Gretchen Carlson says Ailes demoted and then fired her because she refused his advances. Carlson co-hosted the morning show "Fox & Friends" for over seven years. Parent company 21st Century Fox says it is launching an internal inquiry into these allegations. NPR's David Folkenflik has more.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: It should be noted up front that Roger Ailes explicitly denied the claims in Carlson's lawsuit last night, calling it retaliation because Fox did not offer her a new contract. The allegations themselves could not be more blunt. In her complaint filed yesterday in a New Jersey civil court, Carlson said Ailes had told her, quote, "I think you and I should've had a sexual relationship a long time ago" and that the two of them would have been on better terms if she had done so.
Carlson alleges Ailes ignored her complaints of pervasive sexual harassment from her "Fox & Friends" co-host Steve Doocy. Instead, Carlson alleges he said she needed to get along with the boys. "Fox & Friends" often has a fraternity house vibe. Another co-host, Brian Kilmeade, has called women chicks and skirts on the show. Carlson sometimes came off as a homeroom teacher who wandered into the wrong place, as in this exchange in 2013.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")
STEVE DOOCY: Headline time.
BRIAN KILMEADE: Women are everywhere. We're letting them play golf and tennis now. It's out of control.
GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know what?
KILMEADE: You know...
FOLKENFLIK: Carlson walked off camera. Kilmeade pressed on.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")
KILMEADE: She's out.
CARLSON: (Laughter) You read the headlines, since men are so great. Go ahead. Take them away.
CARLSON: Take them away. Go ahead.
KILMEADE: OK. Leaving an all-male crew.
CARLSON: In all your glory, go for it.
KILMEADE: In all my glory. Now your headlines - she needed a shower.
FOLKENFLIK: Carlson later told viewers that was all a joke. In Carlson's suit, however, she alleges she first complained about sexist behavior on and off the set to the show's executive producer in 2009. In May, the Fox News star Megyn Kelly was asked on a show on the Bravo channel what sexist behavior she had witnessed in TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MEGYN KELLY: In my industry I have heard tales of executives telling the young women to spin. And executives, you need to stop doing that.
FOLKENFLIK: In the lawsuit, Gretchen Carlson claims Ailes told her to spin around just like that so he could check out her body. In 2013, Carlson had her pay cut and was shifted to a less popular early afternoon slot. She was ultimately forced to leave all, she contends, because she refused Ailes's advances.
Last night, Ailes released a statement saying Carlson's lawsuit was defamatory and false, noting Carlson had thanked him in a recent book and saying he hadn't renewed her contract because her ratings had been a drag on the rest of the afternoon's shows. Despite announcing an inquiry, 21st Century Fox also said, we have full confidence in both Ailes and Doocy - the we presumably meaning Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James, who together control the company.
Ailes can probably count on Rupert Murdoch's loyalty, yet Ailes has strained relations with the Murdoch sons. Succession is much on the minds of people at the network. Ailes is 76 and in flagging health. This is not how he would want to leave. There is already precedent for settling, whatever the cost. Fox paid millions to settle a sexual harassment case against its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, after he was caught on tape by a Fox News producer. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.