I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to be the little gal taking on Goliath.’ –Gretchen Carlson
WASHINGTON–Journalist Gretchen Carlson offered some frank details around the sexual harassment she and other women have experienced during their lives, and called on her credit union audience to make changes, show courage, and create a “chain of inspiration.”
In between, she also weighed in on the state of journalism and the media in the U.S. and even related how good a little “revenge” can feel when overcoming those who tried to keep her down.
“Nobody is too big to fail. It turns out that Bible story is right–a well-placed rock can bring down a giant,” Carlson told NAFCU’s Congressional Caucus here, before making clear she believes the biggest giants that need to be slayed—sexual harassment and bias in the workplace—are going to require a lot more stones.
Carlson’s high-profile story is well-known and the subject of a recent mini-series, but much of the sexual harassment she experienced during her young adulthood and early career aren’t as well known, and she shared some intimate and difficult details with her credit union audience.
Portrayed in Mini-Series
In 2016, Carlson settled for $20 million lawsuit against Roger Ailes, the president and driving force behind Fox News. Prohibited by a forced arbitration clause in her contract from suing Fox News, Carlson famously filed against Ailes personally, a story that is prominent in the Showtime mini-series “The Loudest Voice,” in which Russell Crowe plays Ailes and Naomi Watts plays Carlson. As noted below, Carlson is now active in legislation related to forced arbitration and sexual harassment.
“I get it. I know what it’s like to be the little gal taking on Goliath,” said Carlson. “In 2016, when my sexual harassment claim was made against my former boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, I felt all alone. There was no #MeToo hashtag. Back then it felt like it was just me. The morning (news of her lawsuit broke) I was alone at a nail salon in New York City and in an instant I went from reporting the news to being the news. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. And to be honest, my first instinct was to retreat rather than engage. But then I went to a hair salon across the street, and the first person I encountered was a woman with tears in her eyes and she said, ‘Thank you.’”
In no time, Carlson said she heard from a few dozen to hundreds to thousands of women who wanted to share their stories.
“And the stories were eerily familiar,” related Carlson. “A woman is sexually harassed at work. She files a complaint. She is blacklisted, and then she is fired.”
Two stories that Carlson said have been particularly memorable for her:
- A woman who was a commander in the military said her own subordinates would hold up dollar bills and ask her to dance for them. When she complained to her own commander, he responded by saying, “One dollar? You’re worth five at least five.”
- A television anchor in her early 30s who had just been promoted to her own show was warned by other women about a boss named Al who was “handsy.”
“And he wasn’t even in a top position. But guess who paid the price when she went to complain? Within six months she was moved out of her contract and guess who’s still working there? Al.”
Those stories and others have been gathered as part of Carlson’s book, “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.”
“I never intended or expected to ignite a cultural firestorm,” said Carlson. “My lawsuit, my settlement and the apology I received changed culture--not because they happened to me, because they happened at all.”
Carlson noted her complaint against Ailes and Fox News went public 15 months before news of allegations against Harvey Weinstein went public and the #MeToo movement was launched. She said that movement has gained traction for three reasons:
- Social media. “Women and men knew they could come forward with their stories, anonymously or not.”
- The media cared. “The media was actually putting aside groups of reporters to cover sexual harassment stories.”
- “The American public got pissed. They were hearing stories and saying, ‘Why the hell is this still going on in our country?” And so they cared.”
Carlson said the battle for equality and respect in the workplace is by no means over, reading from a recent story in Forbes that stated in part, “The unintended consequences of #MeToo just seem to get worse and worse…New research shows women may be less likely to be hired for jobs where they may have to interact with men in close, interpersonal relationships…In addition, a bias against attractive women has emerged.”
Looking back to her audience, Carlson asked, “What century are we in?”
How did Carlson ever reach the top of television journalism and find her name in the same news she used to report? She described her backstory as “truly believing in the American dream.”
Born in Anoka, Minn., to a family that owned an automobile dealership that her 78-year-old mother still runs, Carlson said the story of David & Goliath was one she learned as a child where family and faith “came first.”
“My mother told me daily, ‘You can be anything you want to be in this world.’ But there was a caveat: ‘God gave you talents, but you have to work incredibly hard at it.’”
Carlson was a musical prodigy, playing a violin solo with the Minnesota Orchestra at age 12. She also excelled academically, attending and graduating from Stanford and Oxford.
At her mother’s suggestion, she said she took a leave of absence from Stanford to enter a competition she said she had not previously heard of, the Miss American competition. After a year of preparing, she was crowned Miss American in 1989.
“It was an honor to compete and win, but winning Miss American did not insulate me from anything,” Carlson said, citing a book that was written a year later by one of the competition’s judges, the director William Goldman, who died in 2018. In the book, Goldman referred to Carlson as “Miss Piggy.”
“That was pretty demoralizing for a 22-year-old woman,” said Carlson. “Then, at my first press conference, and another female reporter had dubbed me ‘Smart Miss America’ because she wanted to prove I was stupid. She wanted to test my intelligence.” After a series of various academic questions, the 19thquestion was “Have you ever done drugs” followed by “Have you ever had sex?”
“That was pretty insulting to a young woman on stage,” said Carlson.
The reporter who asked those questions was Penny Crone.
“Now I’m not one for revenge, but…,” said Carlson, eliciting laughs and sharing the story of how she later again ran across Crone when reporting a story in New York.
“I said you probably don’t remember me, but 10 years ago you tried to take me down. And I want you to know that right now I’m a correspondent for CBS National News, and you’re not,” related Carlson.
Earlier, as her career progressed at television stations in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Carlson said she was sexually harassed and assaulted during her 20s, and didn’t realize that while trying to “break into the business” men would be “trying to break into my pants.” Riding in the back of a car with a PR executive, Carlson said, “He pushed my head so hard into his crotch I couldn’t breathe…I found myself thinking how much it might hurt to roll out of the passenger side of a car like I had seen in the movies.”
But it isn’t just physical assaults that are a threat to women in the workplace, said Carlson. She shared how after her boss at the Cleveland TV station fired her a week after she got married and commented, “You’ll be OK now that you have a husband.”
“These situations in my life had one effect: they made me work harder,” said Carlson. “Eventually, the sacrifices paid off and I began to cover some of the biggest stories of my life.”
Other Points Made by Carlson
Carlson touched on a number of other points during her remarks, including:
Carlson called for support for the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act in Congress, on which she has testified.
“I know it’s controversial. This has been my passion project. It restores victims’ rights to the jury process,” said Carlson, who said 70-million Americans have forced arbitration clauses in their employment contracts that “force them into a secret chamber. It keeps sexual harassment secret and stops others from coming forward.”
The State of Journalism
Carlson said all journalists should be registered independents.
“There is a whole generation now who will not know anything but hyper-partisan reporting,” said Carlson. “It’s about being first, and it only leads to more fake news. Bias does exist and the lines have been so blurred over last two decades because something really smart happened in television. People realized you have to have opinion TV to get people to watch. What is the middle ground?
“Bias also exists in what is covered. That matters more than anything else. What do they decide to cover? That’s where the bias shows up,” she continued. “If there’s bias in mainstream media it should be called out. When we call something fake we are on slippery slope. We start rejecting as false any news we don’t like. My challenge to you is to watch one hour a week something you don’t agree with.
“This is really evident in the arguments around guns. I support the Second Amendment, but I also live near (Sandy Hook Elementary School) in Connecticut. Kids should worry they might be shot when going to school or the movies or the mall. My kids actually asked me that. I called for an assault weapons ban. When did compromise become the ugly C word in our Congress and in our statehouses across America? To me it’s not liberal or conservative to want your children to be safe from gun violence. It’s not liberal or conservative to want a workplace where you are not fondled or groped or verbally harassed.”
“Pay people equally,” said Carlson. “It’s unconscionable in 2019 that some people are paid more for having a certain body part. You heard me. You should also offer paid maternity leave, and the hiring and promoting of women is crucial. Men still overwhelmingly control the C suite. If you need an economic reason, consider McKinsey’s findings that having women on the board adds to the bottom line.”
Sexual Harassment Training & Cultures
“Most of it is about covering your ass. Turn people into allies, don’t punish them. The buck stops at the top. If the person at the top says I will allow this in my workplace, it’s a trickle-down effect. If you have a person at the top who is harassing, it creates a toxic culture.”
A Future in Politics
Carlson said she has been asked to run for Senate in Connecticut, but decided not to. “I am an independent, and we don’t fund independents. But I never say no to any challenge, so I leave the door open.”
“We have a choice: go home or go find a stone,” said Carlson. “I choose the latter. I choose to fight. Along this unknown journey I have had an unknown commodity: how would this effect my children. My children were 11 and 13 when I filed my lawsuit. And I was incredibly concerned over how it would impact their lives. I was called a skank. A gold digger MILF. I was told I was too ugly to be harassed. If I have not impacted anyone more than the lives of my two children, then it has been worth it. But I know it has done so much more.”
Carlson, who has created the Gift of Courage Fund and the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Institute, told her credit union audience, “We still have so much work to do. As we know millions of women never get what they really want, which is an apology. The vast majority who are the victims of sexual harassment never work in their chosen professions again.
“Courage is contagious. When the little guy or gal speaks up, others feel the power to follow. It’s a chain of inspiration.”