Peggy Drexler: Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson suing former boss Roger Ailes for sexual harassment
She says media have obligation to hold off judgment until facts are in, but also to not disbelieve a woman's harassment claims
Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Recently, longtime Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court against her former boss, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, saying Ailes forced her out of the company after she refused, over a number of years, his sexual advances. The New York Times called the lawsuit an “unprecedented public attack” on Ailes, who is one of media’s most powerful figures.
Indeed, Carlson’s move is gutsy. Any time a woman files a claim against a man of sexual misconduct, she must not only prove her allegations are true, but also defend her motives — and, too often, her character.
Already, Ailes has responded to the allegations by saying the retaliation was hers, and not his; that Carlson’s contract was not renewed due to poor ratings and that she’s acting out of revenge. If that’s the case, she’s certainly not going quietly.
The New York Times reports that the public nature of the suit — which included Carlson linking to a copy of the lawsuit on her personal website and launching a Twitter campaign, with the hashtag #StandWithGretchen — is unusual, given the fact that many such suits are settled privately.
But perhaps Carlson recognizes that’s part of the problem — and part of the reason such incidents continue to occur, not just in the workplace but also on college campuses and in communities around the country. Too many victims stay quiet for too long, if not forever.
Carlson details her allegations in the suit, in which she accuses Ailes of an ongoing pattern of harassment and describes a corporate culture of sexism; she names at least one male co-worker who, she alleges, would condescend and belittle female colleagues. In her suit, she describes a boys’ club atmosphere at Fox News, where for a long time, she alleges, she was ogled and “treated like a blond female prop.”
She’s discussed other incidents before, as have others – including a “leg cam” and a “no pants rule” – during her tenure as a co-host on “Fox & Friends.” Last year, she wrote about her experience with sexual harassment for the Huffington Post. “I sometimes feel guilty about my trepidation,” she wrote. “Perhaps I could have moved the conversation forward if I had come forth.”
And so now she is.
Carlson is both beautiful and brilliant, a former pageant winner — she was named Miss America in 1988 — and trained violinist who graduated from Stanford University and spent a year abroad at Oxford. She is also a journalist with decades of experience working in a male-dominated field. She is in a unique position to make a splash, but most certainly not unaware of the challenges ahead.
There will be some who question her motives, or wonder what else went on between Carlson and Ailes that’s yet to have been revealed. There will be some who do so in the crassest of ways. Some will suggest that she’s a woman who used her looks to get ahead when it suited her and, angry that she’s been fired, is using them still.
Perhaps. But it seems unlikely. Carlson’s attorney (not a disinterested party, of course) told The New York Times that “several women had contacted her saying they had similar experiences with Mr. Ailes,” while “other Fox News hosts who did not complain about harassment and rebuff his sexual advances,” were, in turn, given “media support and promotion.”
The media has so far taken a cautious approach to reporting on the lawsuit (far more cautious, one might argue, than the famously aggressive Fox News itself might have taken were Ailes the head of another network). Some might say that’s because Ailes is powerful, and few are eager to take him on. Or perhaps the media has received the warning of jumping to conclusions in cases like this.
But while the facts are still emerging, we have an obligation to hold off judgment until they are all in. But we also have an obligation to believe a woman is not making up sexual harassment. It’s just hard to imagine many women willingly subjecting themselves to the sort of scrutiny Carlson is about to face unless they’ve got a very real reason.
Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.