Gretchen Carlson on #MeToo, from Fox News to McDonald's: "We need men in this fight"

Salon sits down with the journalist and whistleblower to discuss her new documentary series "Breaking the Silence"

Published January 29, 2019 3:00PM (EST)

Gretchen Carlson (Brigitte Lacombe)
Gretchen Carlson (Brigitte Lacombe)

Over two years after former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson settled her sexual harassment lawsuit against the channel’s ex-CEO Roger Ailes for $20 million, she is helping other women tell their raw and real stories of harassment in the workplace.

In the latest episode of "Salon Talks," Carlson tells me how she's trying to get answers for other women affected by harassment, including calling out the companies who are failing them, like McDonald's, and why men are key in dismantling the tangled web of on-the-job abuse.

Carlson and I sat down to talk about her latest project as host and executive producer of the new Lifetime documentary, "Gretchen Carlson: Breaking The Silence," the first of a series of documentaries she is developing for the network.

Read the Q&A of my "Salon Talks" episode with Gretchen Carlson below, or watch it here.

When you were thinking about coming forward about what happened to you at Fox News, there wasn't the Me Too precedent, there wasn't the idea that other women are talking. I want to start off talking about you. Take us back to that moment when you came forward with your story.

It seems hard to believe even now because every day for me is still surreal, because I had no way of knowing how this was all going to turn out. If you fast forward to present day it's like we're in this cultural revolution and it's just been an amazing experience, but I would start off by saying that it's not an easy decision for anyone to make, especially when I did it two and a half years, and courage building is a process, so it took me some time to come to the decision of what I was going to do, not knowing what would happen in the next minute.

But I think in my story people saw consequences. Within two weeks of my case coming forward, my alleged perpetrator was fired, and he was a very high level television executive, and I think other woman across the country thought, holy cow, maybe I have a shot if I come forward that somebody might believe me. I think it started this whole wave that we've been experiencing where people have felt comfortable, more comfortable, coming forward, and the whole #MeToo movement then spun off that, and it really brought me to the documentary that I wanted to feature more of the every women's story instead of just famous Hollywood actor's stories. That's really what our focus was, because those are the women that I've heard from by the thousands since my story broke.

Yes, women reached out to you in emails. Did other women start coming out about their stories to you after you went public with yours?

The amazing thing was that here I was, after my story, not knowing what was going to happen, and I thought I was going to be sitting home and crying every day because I had been fired from 27-year career in television. And actually what really buoyed my spirit during some of those darkest times were all the women that started reaching out to me.

I mean, now, their stories were incredibly sad because they were all very similar, unfortunately, they were all [like] I was harassed on the job, I had the courage to come forward, I was promptly demoted, blacklisted and fired, and I never worked in my chosen profession ever again. I mean, so they were incredibly sad stories, but at the same time they buoyed me because I realized, oh my gosh, I am not alone in this pervasive epidemic. And it made me realize that there was so much work to be done and that this crossed every socioeconomic level, and every state, and every profession, so in a way it made me feel really empowered that so many of these women felt comfortable enough to reach out to me and, basically back then even, saying "me too."

Absolutely, and you really see it in your film because you go to so many different cities. You follow a firefighter, a nurse’s aide, a news producer, and then you really focus in on these McDonald’s workers. Can you tell us a little bit about Tanya from New Orleans in the film?

Tanya was one of the first people that we went to visit over the summer time. I spent a couple of months traveling across the country getting to know these women. We featured six women, three of whom worked at McDonald’s. Tanya was working for minimum wage at McDonald’s. She was supporting her entire extended family on her salary. She's 21 years old and told me horrific stories of alleged, not only harassment [and] when she went to complain nothing happened, but also she had the really dark, horrible story of attempted rape in a bathroom while she was working, allegedly by a McDonald’s colleague.

I think aside from sharing these horrific stories, the documentary “Breaking The Silence” also is me trying to get answers for these women. That was really important to them because they trusted me to tell these really painful stories. But I think that they also felt like, wow, Gretchen's jumping out of cars and trying to chase these people down.

You actually do jump out of a car.

And it's because I care about them.

One of the things that's quite different about how you approached your film is that you get into the really disgusting details of what happened to these women, whether you're quoting from cases that they put forward, or you're asking them directly. Why did you make that decision?

Yeah, we had a lot of bleeps when I was reading from the complaints because there's a lot of F-bombs, and not from these women reacting to what happened to them, which might be logical, but actually what men were saying what they wanted do to them. Listen, if I was going to tell these stories I wanted give it to the American public raw and real because this is what's happening every single day in the workplace for millions of women, so why sugarcoat it? It wouldn't have had the same impact to say, yeah, somebody said that they liked her body or something like that. No, it was much worse than that.

And I have to tell you, of all the thousands of women who have reached out to me, these are not just little stories about, hey, I like your haircut, or I like your blue top. These are horrific things like asking for a promotion just two years ago and a woman being told to get up on the desk and spread. The idea that somebody still has to listen to that garbage while they're in the workplace is just absolutely unconscionable, and I think that . . . one of the reasons this whole thing has continued is because the American public could not believe that this kind of stuff was still going on.

And it continues. You went face-to-face with some of the men who are in the line of command of management at some of these places, one of them is the Fairfax County Fire Department. You talked to the interim chief there and you asked him about the sexual harassment policy. His response was, well, we have a zero-tolerance policy. What does that really mean “zero-tolerance policy?”

I know, it's so frustrating, especially after all the work I've been trying to do for the last couple of years because I think really companies can hide behind this zero-tolerance policy. It's kind of a cover-your-ass façade. It's like, well, we say that we have zero tolerance for it, but if we're really honest with everyone, that's not working. I mean, you might say you have a policy, but my dad told me all the time growing up that people would be able to tell what kind of person you are by your actions, not your words, and the same thing holds true for corporations. If they think they can hide behind these so-called policies and think that they're safe, and really they're not providing a safe work environment for the majority of women, who when they sill come forward, are maligned, hidden or fired.

My greatest hope for this documentary is that companies will become more introspective and realize that this is not a passing fad and that if they really want to be progressive and in front of the system and, by the way, increase their bottom line by retaining women, that they will then start thinking about better changes and getting away from just saying having these zero tolerance policies because they're not working. They're absolutely not working.

From your perspective, why aren't companies willing to do this hard work? Why haven't we moved the needle at all? Why is it so hard to have harassment training?

That's a great question. A lot of companies do have harassment training. You're probably too young but the Anita Hill hearings 20-something years ago I think woke up a lot of companies to actually incorporating policies and training. But then they also found about this little thing called an arbitration clause in employment contracts. What that means is that — 60 million Americans have these clauses — it means that if you have any kind of a dispute at work you don't get to go to an open jury process if you so choose. You're forced into this secret chamber called arbitration, and the problem with that, regarding sexual harassment, is that nobody ever knows about your story. And if you go complain about it, the person in human resources might be like, phew, woo, yeah, nobody will ever hear about this women's story because we can hide her in arbitration. That's what's been happening to a huge majority of cases.

And then the other side is that a lot of them are being settled, like my story, and so then there are all these confidentiality clauses within those settlements and so the women can never tell you their stories from that perspective either. So I think that that's how companies have been able to shield themselves from any negative press about what may be going on.

Instead, wouldn't is just be so much better to own up and try to fix the problem from the beginning? Imagine if an executive running a company would say that the buck stops with me and from the top-down I'm not going to allow this to happen inside of my company, and by the way if you come forward we'll actually celebrate you for having the courage for doing so. We need to really flip training in a way that we're looking at this issue 180 degrees.

Let’s talk about McDonald's specifically. From what I saw in your film, it looks like the company is trying to hide behind this idea that they franchise out all the restaurants and that the franchisee is really responsible for what goes on there, including alleged harassment incidents. You mentioned jumping out of cars, you actually did that when you tried to confront one of these restaurant owners. It feels like it's impossible to really hold anybody accountable because the blame is all spread out.

The first interesting thing is that another network actually did some of these interviews with these McDonald’s workers and chose not to air them, so that shows you the power of big corporations in America in advertising dollars. They would have, I guess, felt the wrath of a big company not advertising on their network anymore. We've seen that happen with other sexual harassment stories. I have to give a shout out to Lifetime for having the bravery to allow me to go out and do these interviews really focused on McDonald’s. We had many conversations with the PR people at McDonald’s about how it would be so much better if they would just come on the record and do an interview with me, similar to the fire chief who, I'm sure that wasn't a great day for him but at least he did the interview, and they chose to just give us a statement.

I guess the main focus on their statement is that they do have all these franchises across the country and so they really pass along the responsibility to them individually to come up with sexual harassment training for their employees and the consequences that they might face. But as we point out in the documentary, if McDonald’s has a tainted lettuce problem across America or in just one region, they don't just say, well, let's have the franchisees handle that on their own. They come up with a policy from the top on down. Similarly, everyone has the same recipe for french fries, I mean it's not like they just allow people to go off and do whatever they want, so I was just trying to get them to respond to whether or not they were going to actually make a change with policies regarding sexual harassment.

I appreciate that you're giving it attention because it's one of these things where if we continue to allow big companies to be able to hide and shy away from this because they're powerful with advertising dollars, we're never going to fix this. That's kind of this sick, horrible cycle that we found ourselves in is that if we don't tell the stories then we're not going to make it better.

When we see all the #MeToo stories trickling out — sometimes it's a tidal wave, sometimes it's one after another — you see these big executives all across the media industry being taken down, many of their careers are sort of over now, it's easy to think OK, maybe some change is happening. But then when I see stories like the ones you've uncovered it's clear we have so much work to do and, wow, there are so many hurdles for these women. I'm trying to find reasons to be hopeful and I want to know how you're staying hopeful, because it's hard.

Since this has become sort of my lifework over the last two and a half years I have to wake up every morning optimistic. In fact, I keep this bracelet on 24/7, which says "be fierce," which is the title of the book that I wrote after all of this. It reminds me when I wake up every morning that, even if I don't feel like it, there's a lot of work to be done.

Here's the really scary thing, is that there's not just a silver bullet fix for sexual harassment in our society, it's a tangled web, and that's why I've really been spending a lot of time on the key areas.

For example, I introduced legislation in Capitol Hill to get arbitration clauses out of the employment contracts as we discussed earlier to try and make this more transparent. I've been on a college campus tour to try and get to our young people early on. I wrote the book. I've been speaking at various other institutions, companies, to try and get them to pay more attention to are they doing enough. I've been talking a lot to parents, because a lot of this goes back to how do we parent our girls, but more importantly, how do we parent our boys, which kind of gets lost in a shuffle in this discussion because it really actually is a man's issues, predominantly, and yet we call it a women's issue. That in and of itself gives it a negative connotation and it kind of lets men think like, well, I don't have to pay attention to that because it's a women's issue, not because they don't care, but because they just think that it's not their issue.

The way I sum it all up, is that we need men in this fight. We need them to pay attention to this issue, we need them to hire more of us, pay us fairly, put us in roles of promotion and in board rooms. Because the interesting thing that doesn't happen when you have more women in powerful positions is sexual harassment, so that is the starting point. So really this is a rallying cry for men to join us in this fight. The responsibility to fix this shouldn't all be on women's shoulders. This should be a partnership. So that's my greatest hope. But it's a tangled web.

You’ve been a journalist for decades, and now you have this sort of second life as an advocate and documentarian. Did you ever anticipate that you personally would have shifted directions so much?

It's not like you wake up one day and go, hey, I'm really glad and happy and thought that I might be one of the poster children for sexual harassment in the workplace. But here's the thing — and I actually think this is a really positive message to younger people if they haven't found exactly what their passion is in their lives is — it's never too late to be something different, or to make yourself over, or make yourself really useful.

I grew up in a small town in Minnesota. I thought I was going to be a violin player, then I went to Stanford University and I thought I was going to be a lawyer, then I got side-tracked and I ended up in journalism, and then this whole thing happened. So I guess I never say no to any opportunity and I think it's a great life message for anyone that life works in mysterious ways. The constant for me has always been to make the most of every single day and opportunity, and that's why I'm working so hard on this.

You are putting in so much on-the-ground work, and I think that's really commendable. It sounds like you are seeing some change as it happens, and being an agent of that change. Does it feel at all like a little bit of revenge?

I'm actually doing this for all the women out there who never had a voice, predominantly all these thousands of women who still reach out to me every single day. It's sad because there's so many millions of stories out there, but they all feel like they were never heard. I had a national platform and I had the resources to be able to hire great lawyers, I want to be able to give a voice to these women who don't have those same opportunities. It's one of the reasons that I setup the Gift of Courage Fund right after my settlement, I set up the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, which is shops all across the country for underserved women for that exact reason, women who don't have the resources to get help on this issue, and there are millions of them. It's something that was really important to me to try and give a voice to all those women who nobody has ever cared about, or nobody has ever heard, and it actually brings us full circle to “Breaking The Silence” and the doc because it's actually the every women's story. It's not famous people. It's you, or me, or anyone else down the street, or anyone else, the police officer, or the firefighter, or the teacher, or the member of the military, it's everywhere, and I wanted to let all those women know that I cared about their stories

There are a couple big Hollywood film projects in production out there that are using your story. Do you think now is the right time to be telling your story in that narrative fiction way?

You used an interesting word: fiction. There are two movie projects going on. Actually one is a Showtime miniseries, which I think will be eight parts when that comes out in June, and it's a lot about what happened to me at Fox. Then there's a major motion picture that will come out after that. The thing is that because of my settlement I can't have anything to do with these projects, and that can be frustrating because when it's about your life and about something that was such a painful experience you hope that it's accurate, and if you can't participate in it there's no guarantee that it will be. So I'm a little hesitant about whether or not the projects will be true to life, and my greatest hope is just that they did as much research as possible so that story is true.

What’s next? Do you have more projects lined up with Lifetime?

I signed a production deal with them last April, so “Breaking The Silence” was just the first documentary. People can see that on the Lifetime app now since it already premiered, but then we have two other docs that we're brainstorming about now for ideas and those will be coming out in 2019.

By Alexandra Clinton

Alexandra (Lexie) Clinton is Salon's Executive Producer.

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