"America Divided": Gretchen Carlson talks about D.C.’s War on Women

Salon talks to Carlson about how #MeToo is playing on Capitol Hill, as well as her return to TV for Epix and A&E

By Melanie McFarland
Published April 29, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)
Gretchen Carlson (Getty/Paul Morigi)
Gretchen Carlson (Getty/Paul Morigi)

Before there were hashtags and a movement, before the calls rang out to believe women when they come forward with stories about being sexually harassed or assaulted, Gretchen Carlson took a huge swing at her former employer, Fox News CEO and chairman Roger Ailes, and landed a knockout.

When she filed a lawsuit against Ailes in 2016, not long after she had been fired from her anchor position at Fox News, no one before her had dared to take him on for perpetuating a hostile work environment rife with sexual harassment.

She could have remained silent and, to utilize the industry parlance, “pursued other opportunities.”

Instead, Carlson made waves that preceded a sea change: Her lawsuit against Ailes revealed a wide-reaching pattern of sexual harassment and retaliation, describing how her refusal of his sexual advances resulted in him sabotaging her career. Other women came forward in the wake of her lawsuit, leading to Ailes’ resignation in July 2016 (he died in May 2017).

Carlson has been crusading to change policies and the culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment since her accusations made headlines. Her contribution Norman Lear’s documentary series “America Divided,” returning to Epix with a four-episode second season on Friday, May 4, marks one of her first major projects since she left cable news.

This is merely the start of a new chapter for Carlson. On April 23 her deal to create three specials produced by A+E Networks was announced; the first, focusing on sexual harassment in the workplace, is set to air on Lifetime.

But her effort to push legislation through Congress that would curtail secret, forced arbitration agreements in employment contracts provides a focal point in the “America Divided” season opener, an episode titled “Washington’s War on Women.”

Carlson, who serves as an executive producer this season alongside “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, uses the episode to examine why #MeToo has not had the same impact in Washington, D.C., as it has in Hollywood and other industries.

In addition to providing a sobering look at the extensive work yet to be done, it also contains footage of former Minnesota Senator Al Franken that was filmed days before he was accused of harassment, ultimately leading to his resignation. Franken was the first senator to get on board with her bill, as she notes in this exclusive clip from the episode.

“My life has worked in mysterious ways,” she recently told Salon. “So many things about this episode are a microcosm of that. How could we have ever predicted that all of that would have unfolded regarding Senator Franken? And that he would be a central figure in my piece?”

That’s only the latest in a spate of coincidences. After reaching a multimillion-dollar settlement with Fox News, she wrote, “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.” That book hit shelves in October 2017, just as the storm of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was intensifying.

Carlson’s current mission is to ensure that the voices of everyday women are heard, and “Washington’s War on Women” is a part of that. Many of the women who appear in the documentary agreed to speak because they’ve retired from government service. (Some were pushed out, as in the case of Marion Brown, the woman who went public with allegations of sexual misconduct by Michigan representative John Conyers.)

And Carlson knows her $20 million settlement and subsequent career resurgence is not the typical fate of women who go public with their harassment. Brown, who worked for more than a decade, only netted $27,000, which was paid from Conyers' office funds. She hasn’t been able to work in government since.

In this interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Carlson talks about these stories and other harsh discoveries made in the course of producing her “America Divided” installment.

What informed your decision to place your journey of pushing legislation through Congress at the center of this story? Understandably, your story is an obvious hook. But as a journalist, I'm sure you must have considered the risk that comes with that, just in terms of making yourself part of the story that you're also covering.

Sure. Two answers to that. First of all, Norman Lear reached out to me. He wanted me to do this story because he considered me to being one of the first voices in this latest cultural revolution. He came to me long before this exploded on Capitol Hill. He said, "We should really focus on Washington," and so, it was like prescient timing. By the time we started to tape, this was all unfolding on Capitol Hill, as well as my legislation. So, it wasn't that he specifically came to me and said, "Hey I want to cover your legislation." He said he wanted to cover the issue of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

That's what makes this episode so fascinating, is that we were able to capture both of these things happening in real time and we could have never predicted that. When we started taping, that was when the floodgates had started to open. So it's really an amazing episode because you start seeing my story and then the Weinstein revelations trickled in, and then it trickled through Capitol Hill, all at the same time. Other bills were coming to the forefront, too, because of public pressure and political pressure. So then my bill became much more center-stage.

The second answer to that question is that sexual harassment is apolitical. I'm a registered Independent, I don't see this an imposition on my journalistic credibility at all, to be part of the story. This is part of an apolitical mission; we've seen titans from both sides fall. And that's my first pitch when I go and meet with members of Congress, that's why we should all care about it. Because it is not a political issue.

This is also the first piece that I can recall where we’re seeing a behind-the-scenes of your conversation with Al Franken prior to his own resignation from the Senate in response to being accused of sexual harassment. It must have been very interesting to view the progression of that storyline through the documentary when you saw the finished product.

I happened to be in D.C. on the day that he resigned on the floor of the Senate, and so the episode shows my real reactions to all of that. I think it makes it all the more real, because again, it shows that this is apolitical.

The second part of that is, a lot of times you hear with harassment claims, “Well I know that person; that could have never happened.” You don't really know who people really are in their totality, and that's one of the greatest myths about harassment. The problem is we don't know the underbelly sometimes. That's become crystal clear as we've been seeing all of these people who we revered fall down for the same reason.

Another achievement of “Washington’s War on Women” is that it illustrates the fact that until only recently, many of us had no idea that something, or some of the things that may have happened to us actually constitute harassment or even assault. To bring it back to Franken, it seems that both men and women have had to closely examine those definitions. How have you seen those sensitivities shifting? Do you think those shifts may be permanent?

For sure. There are many different levels of harassment, and I think that's really important to point out. Certainly what Al Franken was accused of versus what Harvey Weinstein was accused of are two totally different things: The Weinstein allegations are so horrific in the sense that they involved alleged rape. That's quite different than what Al Franken was accused of.

So it's really important that we make that delineation, but also I think it's incredibly educational for the general public to see that harassment is a complicated issue. It's also complicated to fix it, and that's what I've been working on for the last 21 months, as well as getting back into television now. But if it were just one easy fix, we would have probably already done it.

It's what I laid out in my book "Be Fierce": it's a tangled web of many different factors from the way in which we raise our kids with regard to gender equality, all the way up to changing laws, and many things in between.

Look at all the changes on Capitol Hill. That's what else this piece points out. I'll never forget the day that I was watching some network and they were talking about, "Oh my gosh, this Office of Compliance on the Hill, nobody ever knew that this was secret." Well, we'd been working on this piece so we knew it. We had already uncovered that they had this secret place that people on the Hill had to go report their harassment cases, which is very akin to what I've been fighting for on the Hill, which is secret arbitration clauses in employment contracts.

So, we were already working on this and I think that's what you'll see, if you haven't already in the piece, is how we had already uncovered this big secret on the Hill. Not only that victims had to go . . . when they complained they went to this secret chamber called the Office of Compliance, but that taxpayer dollars were paying out the settlements on behalf of members of congress. I mean that was an outrageous claim that I think the American public was especially upset about. And so, it was fascinating for us as we were working on this piece because we already knew that, but we couldn't expose it because our piece doesn't air until May 4, but we were working on that long before the mainstream media actually started reporting it.

Are there any elements of your work that have changed, that perhaps you haven't been able to adequately cover in the “America Divided” piece, that you'll explore with greater depth in your upcoming A+E specials?

Only the first one will be focusing on sexual harassment. My other projects with A+E are part of a production deal that's wider and broader, about inspiration and empowerment and stories of struggle and success. So, it's just the first one that we're working on, the first documentary that will be about this issue. But really, one of the focuses will be on something that is near and dear to my heart, which is making sure that we tell the “everywoman” story. It’s really why I wrote my book, because I started hearing from thousands of women across the country, and their stories of pain and shame and never working in their chosen profession ever again, simply for having the courage to come forward.

What we've seen unfold now is a lot of stories about famous Hollywood people and well-known journalists, and well-known people on Capitol Hill. My hope and dream is that we continue to uncover the stories of the “everywoman.” And some publications have been doing that with regard to talking about shift workers at auto plants, and hospital workers, and restaurant workers — those are the stories that we really need to tell completely. We need to come full circle on the fact that this is really a pervasive epidemic throughout every profession and throughout every socioeconomic level in every state.

Those are the women that I'm focusing on in the first special for Lifetime. They're not famous people, but what happened to them matters just the same.

I actually think it's more important to focus on their stories because it proves that this is so pervasive across, like I said, every single spectrum of society. And it makes one wonder how many thousands, if not millions, of women have been crushed as a result of simply having the courage, for coming forward. I would say that of all the people that reached out to me, 99.9 percent of them never worked in their chosen profession again. That is outrageous.

You’re talking about all economic levels.

At all economic levels. The lengths to which our culture will go to protect harassers, no matter if they are the moneymakers or not within a company, are drastic. I have seen countless examples of the people at the top and the people at the bottom who are harassers, and for whatever reason, companies and society protect them. And it's the woman who comes forward — whether she's famous, not famous, makes a lot of money, doesn't make any money — all of the retaliation and firing and blacklisting unfortunately happens to women. Black and white, gay and straight, Republican, Democrat, Independent, doesn't matter.

To that point, in the past couple of weeks there have been a spate of road to redemption stories, asking, "How can Louis C.K. find his way back? How can Charlie Rose, and even Matt Lauer find their ways back?" And I --

Have they? They haven't, have they?

Not yet, but the fact that there are even these stories being written about how these men, can they find their way back, is telling in itself. We're not seeing the same stories being written about women, which speaks to the point that Lin Farley [the former Associated Press reporter who coined the term sexual harassment] makes in the piece. She says that she doesn't think that #MeToo" represents a true turning point. Are you still as optimistic as you said that you were in that exchange?

Yep. You saw my reaction, that was several months ago.

Listen, I'm spearheading this mission. I am an optimistic person, I have to be optimistic about this. I'm putting my heart and soul into this. I wear bracelets that say "Be fierce," and I keep them on at night. And I wake up every morning and some days I don't really feel like it, but I remind myself when I look down at my wrist, that this is part of what I'm doing right now. And, so I have to stay optimistic about it.

There may be articles being written about those alleged harassers coming back, but let's wait and see. Look at how much change has happened since my story broke, when those men were accused and were let go from their jobs. A cultural revolution happened in between that year's span of time. That never happens in society, where we see society shift so dramatically.

So, for example, in the Matt Lauer case, they looked at the allegation quite seriously. Immediately, they believed the women. Imagine that. They fired him pretty soon after the allegations came forward, and he issued an apology on the day of. Now if you go back in time and look at how my story played out, none of that happened.

The idea that we have come this far on behalf of women -- listen, we have to look at it that way, in a positive way. And yes, it does irritate me that before that time when somebody would be let go because of harassment and then the next week I'd see scrolling across the bottom of the TV screen, "When will such and such return?"

It'd be great if we could actually shift the way we look at this in society and say, "Well what about hiring back all those women who've lost their jobs?" What about their American dream, and their professions? Imagine how heroic a company would be if they actually did that. If they actually went back and said, "You know what, this woman was treated horribly, and we're incredibly sorry for it, and we're going to bring her back."

And there's still very visible work to be done. Even now, we have reports of people like Ryan Seacrest and a couple of other TV showrunners who are still working despite harassment claims.

Yep. Like I said it's a tangled web. I mean, the only really simple way that you solve this problem is for men and women to stop harassing. But, in light of the fact that that's not going to happen tomorrow, we have to work through all these other more complicated ways to try and solve it.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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