Naomi Watts, her hair styled in the signature volumized blonde bob of Fox News hosts, is sitting on a black leather couch playing with her phone. Watts is portraying Gretchen Carlson, who is frustrated. When she sees Russell Crowe, barely recognizable in the role of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, she jumps up from the couch to grab his attention. She tells Crowe that her Fox News co-host grabbed her arm on air to shut her up. It’s part of a larger pattern of gender bias at the network, and she’s sick of it. Crowe pats her arm, attempting to brush her off, and advises her to rise above. And when she protests, he makes it clear where she stands.
“Gretchen, Gretchen, you’re Miss America,” he says. “How would Miss America handle this? With grace, charm, you’d smile, give a little twirl, wouldn’t you? So let’s see it. Why don’t we see a little Miss America twirl?”
It’s a brief but chilling scene in Episode 5 of “The Loudest Voice,” Showtime’s new limited series about Ailes. Three years ago, Carlson, who was a Fox News host from 2005 to 2016, filed a lawsuit against him, alleging that she was terminated from the network because she refused Ailes’ sexual advances and questioned gender-based inequities at the network. She also alleged that her former co-host, Steve Doocey, had treated her in a sexist and condescending way.
When I got on the phone with Carlson last week, I wanted to ask her about that scene with Watts and Crowe. But I couldn’t, because in 2017 Carlson signed a settlement agreement that prevents her from discussing in depth what happened to her at Fox News.
“I can’t take part in any of these projects, so I just hope for accuracy,” Carlson said, “because in watching what I’ve seen thus far, it’s an incredibly emotional experience for me. When you experience [harassment and assault], you go through a certain recovery process, and there’s a sense of PTSD that can affect [you] for life.”
Coming forward with allegations against a very public and powerful man made Carlson a national symbol of workplace harassment and gender-based discrimination overnight. More than 15 other women, including fellow news host Megyn Kelly, came forward with allegations against Ailes after Carlson did. Fifteen days after Carlson’s suit was filed, Ailes resigned. Carlson eventually received a $20 million settlement. Then, a little over a year after Carlson’s story became public, The New Yorker and The New York Times published their bombshell reports about sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, marking the kickoff of a renewed national dialogue about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
Women from all over the nation have reached out to Carlson with stories of their own, she said. And those stories have fundamentally changed her view of the world, as well as her purpose in it. Since she left Fox News, Carlson has dedicated much of her personal and professional energy to trying to change the conversation surrounding and the laws that govern gender-based workplace discrimination and its aftermath. She wrote a book about her experiences, aptly titled “Be Fierce.” She launched the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, spearheading free leadership workshops for women. She testified before Congress, pushing legislators to ban forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment. (The bill she backs, H.R. 1443, the End Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act, is currently sitting in Congress.) She made a documentary called “Breaking the Silence.”
HuffPost caught up with Carlson just ahead of the three-year anniversary of her lawsuit against Ailes, who died in 2017. She talked about what’s changed since that day in 2016, what still hasn’t, and why she’s glad that her story is being told and retold even if she can’t always be a part of that retelling.
It’s been three years since you filed a very public sexual harassment lawsuit against then-Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. What has changed for you on a personal level since then?
Everything. Some days it feels like it was yesterday; some days I wake up and I’m like, “Three years already?” When you do something like this, you have no way of knowing what the outcome is going to be. So from that perspective, it’s been overwhelmingly positive.
As a nation, we’ve made such great strides in just a short period of time. We certainly have had many important women [pave] the way, from Anita Hill to the creator of the Me Too movement 10 years ago, Tarana Burke, then to my story and then it exploded with the Me Too movement [in late 2017]. We really are still in this cultural revolution, and I don’t believe it’s going away this time. But I’m also here to tell you that there’s a tremendous amount of work to do. And that’s really what I’ve been doing for the last three years.
If you and I would have had this discussion three years ago that media would be covering harassment cases, we would have both laughed at each other. Gretchen Carlson
It is sort of wild to consider that three years ago, we weren’t in this moment of extended national dialogue about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and now we are. What are the things you can pinpoint in terms of the things that have changed on a cultural level over those three years?
I would say the biggest changes culturally are that women are believed. That’s just astounding to say in 2019, but we haven’t been believed before this time. The number one thing my lawyers said to me when I brought my case public was, “People are going to trash you, and you have to be prepared for that.” And they were right. But I’ve recently seen less trashing of women and more women believed.
Number two, we’ve seen swifter consequences [for perpetrators of harassment and assault]. My story had swift consequences [for Roger Ailes], and I actually believe that that was a huge reason why so many other women felt compelled to come forward. It’s important for society to have people held accountable.
The other reason I think that the revolution has continued is the media. If you and I would have had this discussion three years ago that media would be covering harassment cases, we would have both laughed at each other. And I do say that as a journalist of 25 years myself ― because nobody cared. But the media has cared. The general public has cared. They’ve been horrified at these stories. And one of the reasons they were fooled into thinking we had solved this problem goes all the way back to how we kept it under wraps. And then I would say that social media has played a really impactful role in allowing women and men to come forward with their stories.
The final two pieces of the puzzle that I think really bring this full circle are, one, how we raise our kids. How we raise our sons to respect women from an early age is crucial. And the second thing we really have to work on is men. And men, unfortunately, or however you look at it, still run our businesses, so we need them. We need them to help us, and we need them to pay us fairly and promote us. All of this is connected, and this is not male-bashing. This is an invitation to men. Please, come join our fight because we need you and we cannot succeed in this mission unless men stop being bystanders and become allies. It’s the only way it’s going to work.
What are the biggest gaps that you see in our culture and in our legal system that we still need to address?
Fixing sexual harassment is a tangled web. Forced arbitration clauses have been one of the main reasons that we’ve kept this issue silent in our country. Companies figured out how to utilize them in employment contracts starting around 20 years ago. They were never intended for human rights violations, but it’s been a great way for us as a nation to not know what’s really going on [with sexual harassment] because you go into this secret chamber instead of to the courtroom.
So I have been an advocate for trying to get my bill passed [which would prohibit a pre-dispute arbitration agreement from being enforced in cases of sex discrimination]. Right now it’s H.R. 1443. I testified before the House in May, and I’ve been a staunch advocate to try and get legislators on both sides to understand that this is an apolitical issue and that we really need to take it out of the shadows of secrecy.
In March, New Jersey [enacted] a law that banned mandatory non-disclosure agreements in harassment settlements, because that’s the other way we keep this whole issue silent. Including me. In my case, I signed a [non-disclosure agreement as part of the] settlement. One of the greatest exceptions in my settlement was the public apology [from her former employer 21st Century Fox], which never happens, and also the ability for me to talk about this issue, as I have been for the last three years. So those were victories, but we need to continue to move in a direction of not silencing women.
It feels like we’re, for the first time, having a real national conversation about masculinity and the way we raise our sons. Do you think that we’re starting to see those conversations become more mainstream?
Completely ― and it’s all folded into millennials and their view on the world. When I travel the country speaking, either on my college campus tour or just in general for my book “Be Fierce,” I have as many men in the audience as I do women, and I think that’s a really, really important factor because it shows our younger men are interested in trying to solve this problem. And that’s the only way we’re going to do it. I also think that more men taking paternity leave also helps with this issue. It shows that it’s OK to do that and that [child care] shouldn’t just be on the shoulders of women. It all comes together into how we’re paid, too, and how we’re seen in the world.
Sexual harassment is just one element of the inequity that women face in society. So that’s why I come back to how difficult it is to solve because it’s not just a silver bullet.
This is an invitation to men. Please, come join our fight because we need you and we cannot succeed in this mission unless men stop being bystanders and become allies. Gretchen Carlson
But I do think we’ve made great strides. I’ve seen it in my own son. I’ve seen him say things to me that are unbelievably mature for a boy who has watched this experience with me from age 11 to 14. He told me he wants to be a part of fixing this, and damn, if that’s the only thing I’ve done, it’s been worth it, because that’s the kind of conversation [that should be happening] in every family across America.
So we’re heading into a presidential election year. A recent Time’s Up report found that very few questions about sexual harassment and gender-based workplace inequality are asked during presidential debates. What are some things that you hope to see presidential candidates across the political spectrum address leading into 2020?
I would have liked to see more discussion about this issue during the [first round of] Democratic primary debates. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is the co-sponsor of my bill in the Senate. (Bipartisan bill, by the way. It’s Lindsey Graham on the other side.) Unfortunately, women or men on [the debate] stage can’t dictate the questions. So I’m hopeful that moving forward we’ll have more of a discussion, because look at some of the issues that they discussed and how viral things went and how many millions of people were interested in watching. And I think that the more we talk about this in huge platforms like that, the better. But certainly we talked about racial inequity in those debates and I hope we will spend more time on pay inequity. I think that [debates are] a wonderful arena to be able to talk about these issues and educate more people.
You also worked on the Lifetime documentary “Breaking the Silence.” I’m wondering why you feel like it’s so important to lift up and illuminate the stories of the “every woman,” not just women who perhaps were already in the public eye.
That was really my central goal of writing the book because all of those women reached out to me after my story became public. And they actually believed me and made me realize what an epidemic we have, and what was so mind-boggling to me was that it was every kind of woman, from the fast food worker to the fire chief. And even I didn’t understand the scope of it.
After the Me Too movement kicked off, we were talking a lot about well-known journalists and Hollywood actresses ― and to some extent, women who were making minimum wage, but not to the extent that we were talking about well-known people. So when Lifetime approached me with a production deal, I said, “Look, my first project, I really want to focus on the women that nobody’s talking about because these are all the thousands of women who’ve reached out to me, and I want to have their voices heard. And I want to let them know that I care about them.”
It was this fascinating experience traveling the country last summer to put the documentary together because people would say, “Well, what do you have in common with a fast food worker from McDonald’s?” Well, it’s actually everything when you’ve experienced something like this. And when I met these young women, we honestly didn’t even have to say that much to each other because we just knew from our shared experiences that we understood and trusted one another, and that made it an incredibly meaningful personal experience for me. And to watch their transformation from so-called victim to becoming advocates themselves throughout the documentary is really ― I’m really proud of that and I’m proud of them. Any time that we can have more discussion is the way that we’re going to make progress.
Speaking of the power of television, I know that you can’t comment directly on “The Loudest Voice,” but I am wondering if you are able to speak to how it felt to have your story and your experiences used as a launchpad for these larger conversations?
Listen. Any time, again, that we can bring it to the national or international scene, I think that it’s positive. I think a lot of women and men are going to be having conversations after they watch “The Loudest Voice” and they’re going to probably decide to come forward for the first time. So from that perspective, I think that it’s a great project.
As you mentioned, going back to settlements, I can’t take part in any of these projects, so I just hope for accuracy, because in watching what I’ve seen thus far, it’s an incredibly emotional experience for me. When you experience [harassment and assault], you go through a certain recovery process, and there’s a sense of PTSD that can affect [you] for life. In talking more about this issue and showing miniseries like “The Loudest Voice,” we are able to help people get past that.
And I imagine it must feel quite unreal to see your story portrayed by people like Naomi Watts, who plays you in “The Loudest Voice.”
I’ve been so grateful to listen to her [speak about the show] because she’s really researched me, she’s read my books, she wanted to get the story right, and she has great empathy for the courage that it takes [to come forward]. Having been able to meet her last week, it was like this instant connection.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.