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Whether Fox News is sued over Gretchen Carlson’s claims that she was fired for rebuffing chairman and CEO Roger Ailes‘ sexual advances could depend on how the network publicly responds to the anchor’s allegations.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Carlson’s New Jersey-based attorney Nancy Erika Smith says local law allows the victim to sue the perpetrator separately. So they started with the source and sued Ailes on Wednesday in state court in New Jersey. “Gretchen and we have no indication that Fox News authorized Mr. Ailes to behave this way or condoned it in anyway,” Smith says, adding that “unless in the near future we learn otherwise,” Carlson’s “beef” is with Ailes and Ailes alone.
But Smith says she and her client will be watching to see how the network responds to Carlson’s allegations. “It’s not clear to us yet that Fox is going to stand with Ailes,” says Smith. “If that happens, we will definitely consider what our options are.”
Carlson, 50, claims in the suit that she was fired in late June after Ailes, 76, ostracized, marginalized and shunned her, docked her pay and curtailed her appearances on primetime shows — all because she refused to “engage in a sexual relationship or participate in sexual banter” with him. She says Ailes removed her from the Fox & Friends morning show in 2013 because she complained that her co-host Steve Doocy created a hostile work environment by engaging in a “pattern and practice of severe and pervasive sexual harassment.” Carlson claims that Doocy mocked and belittled her and treated her as a “blond female prop” instead of a journalist. Doocy isn’t being sued.
On Wednesday afternoon, 21st Century Fox released a statement, saying: “The Company has seen the allegations against Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy. We take these matters seriously. 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.”
Ailes also released a statement himself, saying: “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.”
“Once she got away from [Doocy] she was hoping that things would improve for her, but it didn’t,” Smith tells THR. “We decided not to go backward in time that far and to focus on what happened most recently.”
Smith says what happened to Carlson isn’t an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of behavior, and the widespread media coverage on Wednesday has prompted women across the country to come forward. “We’re getting emails constantly this morning and this afternoon from women that say they have experienced similar behavior at the hands of Roger Ailes,” she says.
Any of those women who are willing to come forward would be witnesses in Carlson’s lawsuit, not parties themselves, Smith says.
It is somewhat surprising that Fox News was not named as a defendant in the case, as sexual harassment plaintiffs typically include deep-pocketed employers in such litigation. Carlson’s lawsuit says Ailes was pursuing a personal agenda, but it also reads like a warning to the network. “His retaliation against Carlson was outside the scope of his authority, employment and agency at Fox News, which has adopted and professes to support anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies,” states the complaint.
Fox News previously stood behind popular host Bill O’Reilly after a former producer filed a $60 million sexual harassment lawsuit against him. That case settled on confidential terms. A Fox staffer wrote about the incident in his book about the company. “Reaction among the newsroom staffers was surprisingly gleeful,” Joe Muto wrote in an excerpt published by Salon. “Schadenfreude reigned, as most people agreed that Bill had it coming.”
Smith says Carlson’s legal team likely will seek to depose some Fox News employees, but she adds, “We don’t really need a lot more evidence than what we have.”
In addition to holding Ailes accountable, Smith says she wants to send a larger message that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace, a topic on which Carlson wrote a Huffington Post essay last year detailing her experiences with harassment.
“Women shouldn’t be the ones who lose their jobs over this,” says Smith, adding, “I’ve been doing this for 36 years and so often it’s my client, the victim, who loses her career. That has to end.”
July 6, 3:40 p.m. PT: Updated with Fox, Ailes statements.
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