A growing contingent of Fox News employees are coming forward to publicly support embattled chairman and CEO Roger Ailes in the wake of the sexual harassment claims by former anchor Gretchen Carlson.
“I have had a great personal and professional relationship with Roger. He’s always been very open. We’ve had a lot of great one-on-one conversations,” Martha MacCallum, who co-hosts America’s Newsroom with Bill Hemmer, tells The Hollywood Reporter. MacCallum, who has been at Fox News for 12 years, describes Carlson’s allegations as “shocking. Everybody I know at Fox was shocked.”
“I was very surprised and a little bit confused,” adds Sandra Smith, who hosts the all-female afternoon program Outnumbered and came to Fox News in 2007 from Bloomberg.
Mercedes Colwin, a Fox News legal analyst since 2005 and a veteran employment lawyer, says she was “furious” when she heard about the suit.
The women join a list of female Fox News employees including Greta Van Susteren, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro, a former New York prosecutor, who have come to the defense of Ailes. Megyn Kelly, the most high-profile female anchor on the network, has yet to speak out about the controversy.
Carlson, who left the network last month after 11 years, seven and a half them as the lone female co-host of morning show Fox & Friends, alleged in a lawsuit filed in New Jersey Superior Court that she was terminated after rebuffing sexual advances from Ailes and complaining of pervasive sexual harassment at the hands of her Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, with whom she was known to have an icy relationship.
A devout Christian who taught Sunday school and is married to sports agent Casey Close, Carlson was taken off the show in 2013 and given her own 2 p.m. program. According to Carlson’s suit, Ailes responded to her complaints about Doocy by “calling Carlson a ‘man hater’ and ‘killer’ and telling her that she needed to learn to ‘get along with the boys.'” Carlson’s attorney also alleges that Ailes ogled her, at one point asking her to “turn around so he could view her posterior” and encouraging her to wear clothes that accentuated her figure.
“Amazing, a television executive who cares what his television screen looks like. I mean, this isn’t a shocker,” says Smith, who adds she has “never been instructed on the length of my skirt or the color of my lipstick. It doesn’t happen. I do work with women who do like to look good and feel good. Many of us are athletes and we work out, some of us work out together. That’s just the environment we’re in. We do care about — not just what we sound like and what we know — but what we look like. And image is important, believe it or not, when you’re on a television screen.”
Since the allegations exploded into public view on July 6, six more women have come forward with stories of alleged harassment at the hands of Ailes, all of them before Ailes started Fox News Channel in 1996. The stories are lurid and include propositions of sex and in many cases retaliation for fending off advances. Ailes‘ attorney has denied all of the allegations.
Combative and fiercely competitive, Ailes, 76, is known to have little patience for what he views as the out-of-control political correctness of today. But many Fox News employees past and present often describe him as “loyal,” especially to talent. Television news divisions have endured a particularly male-dominant hierarchy. But there is a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment in today’s corporate culture. And while news organizations are also known to be hotbeds of office gossip, all three women deny that there were rumors about the treatment Carlson is alleging.
“There’s a big difference between that kind of thing and the allegations that are being discussed here,” says MacCallum. “So I would say no, nothing like sexual harassment or impeding someone’s career. No. I would put that in a whole different category from anything that I have ever heard.”
Adds Smith: “If I ever felt like I was working in a hostile environment, I wouldn’t be here.”
Says Colwin: “By her demeanor and the way she comported herself, you would never ever conceive that [Carlson] had these allegations and would bring them to light, ever.”
But people who know Carlson, who earned a sociology degree in organizational behavior from Stanford, suggest she went into the lawsuit with her eyes fully open to the potential consequences. In her 2015 book, Getting Real, Carlson recounted vague sexual harassment encounters when she was on the Miss America pageant circuit and also first attempting to break into the TV news business.
“It had never occurred to me, because I hadn’t experienced it, that there were people who thought women weren’t equal to men in the workplace — much less that some men would try to take advantage of me,” she wrote.
Her suit, suggest multiple sources who know Carlson and believe her charges against Ailes are true, could burnish her credentials as a defender of women’s rights — and just may help revive a flagging TV career. “She has nothing to lose,” says one.
In response to Carlson’s claim, Ailes released a statement on July 6: “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.”
In a statement released the same day, Fox News parent 21st Century Fox said the company takes “these matters seriously,” voiced “full confidence in Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy” and announced that they have “commenced an internal review of the matter.”
It’s unclear if results of that review will be made public. Neither MacCallum nor Smith have been contacted by 21st Century Fox personnel handling the review, they say.
Meanwhile Ailes‘ personal lawyer David W. Garland filed a motion on July 8 attempting to get the dispute to confidential arbitration, citing a provision in Carlson’s contract stipulating that disputes be arbitrated by a three-member panel. Such provisions are common in employment contracts, but Carlson attorneys argue the arbitration clause doesn’t apply because she sued Ailes individually, not Fox News. Ailes‘ outside counsel Barry Asen countered in a statement: “Ms. Carlson voluntarily entered into an agreement with Fox to arbitrate all claims and disputes related to her employment; she cannot avoid that agreement because she now wants to soil Mr. Ailes’s reputation in the media. She did not object to the arbitration clause when she signed her lucrative employment contract three years ago. The first time that she objected was last week in the media.”
Asked what the atmosphere at Fox News is like today, Smith answers: “Business as usual.”