Just days after former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against former CEO Roger Ailes alleging that he sexually harassed her and retaliated against her for complaining, a chorus of her former coworkers rose up to defend their boss and question Carlson and her lawsuit.
But now that Carlson has settled, netting not just a reported $20 million settlement from Fox but also a public apology — a rare outcome for a sexual harassment case — some of those former coworkers are rethinking what they said in the initial days after she went public.
Geraldo Rivera, who originally tweeted that he’s known Ailes for 40 years and no one should “believe the crap” about him, was the first to recant.
On Facebook on Thursday night, Rivera walked back his statements and even went as far as to apologize, calling Ailes a “deceitful, selfish misogynist.” He said he was “totally blindsided” by the lawsuit and all the women who have since come forward with claims and stories against Ailes, arguing that’s why he initially responded with “extreme skepticism.”
“Now I am filled with regret for stubbornly discounting their various allegations,” he wrote. “I apologize for my skepticism. Like victims of sexual assault, those alleging harassment deserve the presumption of credibility.”
“Like victims of sexual assault, those alleging harassment deserve the presumption of credibility.”
“To all the victims of sexual harassment, direct and indirect, I am sorry for what happened to you,” he said at the end of his note. “[I]f you see harassment, say harassment, even if the alleged offender is an old friend.”
Rivera’s apology may have been at least partly motivated by personal profit. In the same note he said, “I was wrong, and am paying the price,” saying that his publisher said it won’t be publishing his forthcoming book because of his initial support for Ailes and flattering portrayal in the book itself.
But Rivera wasn’t the only one eating some virtual crow.
Greta Van Susteren was one of the first to come to Ailes’s defense, calling Carlson “disgruntled” and saying a day after the lawsuit was filed that “this doesn’t have any ring of truth to me.” But on Friday, Van Susteren — who last week left Fox News — put out her own statement on Facebook changing her tune. While she wrote that she initially found Carlson’s complaint “inconsistent” with her own experience, she admitted that she was “working 200 miles from the ‘scene of the crimes.’”
“We all regret it,” she said of those who defended Ailes initially. But she said her regrets went even further than what Rivera had written. She aimed her criticism squarely at Fox as a company. “I regret that Roger Ailes was not supervised by those in a public corporation who had the duty to supervise him,” she wrote. “This included his seniors, the CFO’s of both Fox News Channel and 21CF (and its predecessor NewsCorp), the Board of Directors and what I assume this public corporation had, outside auditors. Checks written that were suspicious should have been spotted.”
Fox probably knew about at least some of Ailes’s behavior, judging from reporting that has implicated other executives like Bill Shine and Dianne Brandi. But Carlson’s coworkers’ initial public responses of, in Rivera’s words, “extreme skepticism” are also a big part of the problem.
The vast majority of people who experience harassment at work don’t do anything about it, mostly because they fear that no one will believe them. Carlson’s experience proves why those fears are well-founded. It wasn’t until she was able to prevail against Fox and extract a public apology that coworkers came to her defense.
And even that outcome is quite extraordinary. Most sexual harassment cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission don’t result in a victory for the plaintiff, and among those who do prevail the median settlement amount is just $30,000. Trials can drag out for years, and victims can find themselves publicly slandered during the entire process only to end up with nothing.
Carlson may have had a particularly strong case against Ailes, which could have helped hasten the settlement and extract strong concessions. She reportedly recorded him harassing her with her phone. She was also backed up by a huge number of other women making similar claims against Ailes, including another lawsuit from former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros, some of whom are also reportedly getting settlements from Fox.
Most victims of sexual harassment, however, aren’t so fortunate. Their cases often rest on their own testimony against that of their harasser. So the step that it took for Van Susteren and Rivera to believe Carlson — a strong settlement — doesn’t usually happen.
Meanwhile, most of Carlson’s former coworkers haven’t walked back their original attacks on her and her case. Fox Business host Neil Cavuto wrote an essay calling the allegations “a lot of nonsense” and “sick.” Fox News host Sean Hannity called them “BS” on Twitter and said he had talked to “hundreds” of women at Fox with positive stories about Ailes. Maria Bartiromo, Bret Baier, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Jeanine Pirro, and a number of other high-profile hosts immediately took to the press to make similar statements in the days after the allegations became public. They have all since remained silent on the matter.
Ailes himself reportedly coordinated the public campaign against Carlson, using it as a “loyalty test,” to try and intimidate any other women who might come forward. It doesn’t seem to have worked, given how many stories are now public. That may have been at least in part thanks to the seriousness with which Fox took Carlson’s lawsuit, launching an internal investigation that encouraged women to come forward. That, too, is incredibly rare. One study found that three-quarters of employees who spoke out about being mistreatment suffered retaliation, rather than being taken seriously.
But Ailes’s campaign shows the power that harassers can often marshal against anyone who might dare to speak out against them.
And even buried within Rivera’s apology was some backward thinking about the nature of workplace sexual harassment. “As society evolved from the ‘Mad Men’ era of the 1950–60’s, giant steps have been taken to protect subordinate employees from harassment and unwelcome advances, particularly by superiors. Sure, there is far to go, but as the seismic response to Gretchen and the other purported victims makes clear, the news business will no longer tolerate boorish conduct by anyone, however powerful,” he wrote. “Perpetrators do so at tremendous peril to their careers and families.”
Except that harassment is incredibly common, making up the vast majority of the EEOC’s caseload. And while Ailes lost his top role at Fox, he is now advising Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, after getting a reported $40 million golden parachute from Fox.