In her new book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, the former Fox News Channel anchor Gretchen Carlson examines the prevalence of sexual harassment and different ways to combat it. Carlson herself was the victim of such harassment; she left Fox and received a $20 million settlement for her harassment claims against former network head Roger Ailes. She says she received so much support and information from other women who had faced harassment that she felt compelled to pen Be Fierce.
Carlson admits to a “rebranding” in the book. She may be known to many readers as the former co-host of Fox & Friends, the conspiratorial, racially paranoid morning show that, on her watch, tackled such subjects as whether Obama attended a “madrassa” and why Americans aren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore. Jon Stewart once did a segment mocking Carlson, which implied that she was playing, essentially, an intentionally dumb caricature to get the Fox message across to an anti-elitist audience. (“When I looked up czar in the dictionary, the word that came up was ‘king!’ ” the woman who graduated from Stanford with honors once exclaimed.) Carlson, who in her book takes aim at forced arbitration clauses, which play a large role in preventing lawsuits and keeping stories of harassment hidden, has not always been a consistent voice on “women’s issues.” When Herman Cain was accused of sexual harassment in 2011, for example, she cast doubt on the story, bemoaning that the media was writing about it using anonymous sources.
I spoke by phone recently with Carlson, and was told prior to the interview that she was unable—because of the settlement—to discuss Fox matters. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, was conducted via speakerphone, which allowed some interjections from her representatives.
Isaac Chotiner: Did your feelings about sexual harassment and how to talk and think about sexual harassment change based on your own experience, or have they always been what they are now, but it felt like the right moment, because of what happened to you, to write this book?
Gretchen Carlson: It was because after working 25 years in the business and working my way up from local news to the national scene and finding out that my career was going to be ended for me, not because I wanted to, at least at that place, I determined that if I didn’t speak out about it, who would? And after that happened I started hearing from so many women and they had never, ever had a voice, and I felt this sense of duty to tell their stories. And so that was really the impetus for the book: How can I use my voice to bring more national attention to this issue?
And look where we are today. It appears to be working. We have major national, international dialogue going on right now in regards to this issue, and new revelations coming out of Hollywood and elsewhere, and I really feel like if I had anything to do with that it makes me proud.
What message do you want to get across to people who have experienced harassment about how they should both think about it and act on it?
Actually, Chapter 4 is an entire playbook. It’s my 12-point plan for women if they are going through this right now. And some men: I have also spoken to men victims. And so I really lay out—it’s like if you can put it in your back pocket and use it as a guidebook to have a sense and a plan of what to do. Some of the highlights are be sure to document what’s happening to you, be sure you call a lawyer first—it’s really important in terms of a case. And to tell two or three trusted colleagues because you want to make sure you have witnesses. Unfortunately we are still in a he-said, she-said culture. And when women come forward, they are called liars and troublemakers. And I am hoping that that’s changing now, but as long as it’s still in our environment and culture, then you have to have a plan.
But the book is so much more than that too. It’s really about being inspired to be fierce in every aspect of your life in which you feel like you are not being heard. So many people have so many other things going on in their lives that are not sexual harassment, when they are bullied in school and feel like they don’t have a voice, sexual assault on college campuses, which is why I am going to be including a college tour on my book tour. And for women when they get into the workplace. You still don’t really have a voice when you are not paid equally, when you don’t get a seat in the boardroom, or get a promotion that you deserve. I am sure that every single person reading your story or reading my book will say, “Yeah, I don’t feel so good about this in my life, and it’s going to encourage me to speak up.”
With the Weinstein case, you hear people say, “Everybody knew,” and you certainly hear about that with your former employer. For men or women who hear rumors that people are being harassed, or hear first- or secondhand accounts, what do you think they should do?
Harvey Weinstein’s apparent activity of 30 years of abuse and harassment: There is no way that could have been going on without other people knowing about it, and enablers are actually as big a part of the problem as perpetrators in many cases. And so the way I look at that case is that there were immense cover-ups and it’s all an attempt to shut up the victims. And this is happening not only in Hollywood but all across the country. This is the way for whatever reason we have chosen to deal with these types of issues: keeping it taboo. So it’s incredibly important that we try to turn enablers into allies. We need men especially to come forward and be on our team.
You talk about “rebranding” in the book, and I am sure this book caused a lot of reflection in you. I am wondering how it makes you think about your television career and some of the aspects of it, in terms of what show you were on, and how that show dealt with gender and political issues.
I have always been a strong supporter of women. I have always stood up for women. It wasn’t always reported as such, but trust me: I have never wavered in my support of being a female advocate. I have mentored thousands of young girls. I got a lot of help from women and men along the way. I stand true to my convictions of being an empowerment advocate my whole life.
Talking to you today, it seems like you are partially different than the person you were on Fox & Friends. Is that wrong?
Yeah. I have always been a badass.
Are you talking about politics or are you talking about being strong and being fierce and being an empowerment advocate? Those are two different things.
I meant it in two ways. I am sure you have seen the Jon Stewart segment about you, which is that you are much smarter than you let on in that show. So I was just wondering if you feel like the character you were playing on that show, or the person you were on that show, was presenting womanhood in a different light than you want to present it today.
Well, I can’t talk about specifics about my time at Fox, but I took the Jon Stewart segment as a complete compliment. I graduated from Stanford, I was valedictorian of my high school class, and I studied at Oxford, so I don’t think I need to say much more about whether I am smart.
That was the point I was trying to make.
Exactly. I just want to make sure that I am clear. There is a difference between always supporting women, which I always have done, and have never swayed on that conviction, ever.
You are clearly a smart person. This book has caused reflection. It must have run through your head, and if it hasn’t please tell me, that five years ago I was doing segments on whether President Obama went to a madrassa, and maybe that wasn’t the way I should have been spending my time.
[First person cuts in]: Isaac, we really have to keep the interview about the book. Unfortunately Gretchen is not able to speak about her time at Fox, so we have to keep it about the book.
Can she speak about her feelings about her career, and how she looks back on it, or not even that?
[First person]: No, no, no, no.
[Second person]: I think it was in the wording I sent over earlier today in that email about what she is and isn’t allowed to—
Carlson: Isaac, this is Gretchen. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that this is part of the problem with settlements, which would be great for you to write about. Women are silenced when they sign settlements, too, but this is the way our culture has decided to resolve these issues, either through settlements where the women can’t talk about it, or in forced arbitration, which is also secret and you can never talk about it. Those are the two ways we resolve these issues. I’d love to tell you about what you just asked me about.
There is a certain cultural environment in this country that the right-wing media plays a particular role in exacerbating, about respect for women, about respect for people who aren’t white, Muslims, etc. Does your thinking about people who are disadvantaged, or victims of sexual harassment, make you think differently about this whole media environment, and its political consequences?
I can tell you that I have always put human decency in front of any political policy, and that is where I will leave it with regard to the current administration, and I will follow-up by saying that over the last 15 months, it’s been wonderful to watch all the competitors on television, and I have immense respect for all my colleagues I used to work with. Not at Fox. I don’t mean that about Fox. I mean that about all my colleagues who work in the journalism business.