What the Roger Ailes’ Drama Says About Sexual Harassment in 2016
When New York Magazine broke the news two weeks ago that Gretchen Carlson was suing her former boss, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, alleging sexual harassment, Kellie Boyle knew what she had to do. She had to speak up. The Virginia communications consultant called Carlson’s lawyer to share her story of how, in 1989, Ailes had sexually harassed her, then retaliated against her.
“I just couldn’t not come forward. I knew what kind of abuse Gretchen was going to get,” Boyle said. “I wanted to support her.”
But then a funny thing happened. Unlike the public trashing that other women have gotten when accusing powerful men in the past—think Anita Hill, called “nutty” and “slutty” in 1991 or the long line of Bill Cosby accusers who, until very recently, were dismissed as gold diggers—Carlson’s claims that Ailes ogled her and forced her out when she rebuffed him were taken seriously, listened to, and investigated.
Yes, Ailes denied the allegations and publicly attacked Carlson’s motivations, as did some Fox News hosts. But several women, including Boyle, came to Carlson’s defense, telling their own stories of alleged harassment by Ailes. Some not only spoke to reporters but also reportedly talked to investigators hired by 21st Century Fox (FOX), the parent company of Fox. Most notably, Megyn Kelly, the Fox News superstar, reportedly told the investigators that Ailes had made unwanted sexual advances a decade earlier and she called another woman and encouraged her to come forward, according to New York‘s Gabriel Sherman. (Ailes has denied these allegations, too.)
Now, a mere two weeks after Carlson filed her bombshell lawsuit, it appears that Roger Ailes, the media titan who co-founded Fox News, is heading for the exit. It’s a stunningly fast fall—and one that suggests there may be some kind of sea change in how women who allege sexual harassment by powerful men are treated.
Certainly, Kelly’s clout can’t be underestimated. And as Fortune’s Roger Parloff noted, Carlson took an unusual legal strategy of suing Ailes, and not Fox (which may have given Fox more incentive to cut Ailes loose).
But there is also something else at work here. Boyle says that when she talked to the press, including Fortune, she braced herself for attacks. After all, she spoke in graphic detail about how Ailes had propositioned her in 1989, and then, when she rebuffed him, she found herself “blacklisted,” her career derailed for years. (You can read the story here.) Yet that’s not what happened after the stories were published. “I was amazed,” says Boyle. “I was flooded with support from women and from men. Literally the only people who cast aspersions were the Fox News [anchors] like Sean Hannity.”
There are probably a lot of factors at work. More women are in positions of power, and the younger generation of men in power just don’t hold those Mad Men-era attitudes. But it also seems as though women are reaping an unexpected benefit of social media. Although Twitter especially has enabled trolls to harass and threaten women, it’s also meant that a young woman’s letter calling out a judge and the Stanford student who sexually assaulted her can go viral and create a firestorm. More people are willing and able to speak out on social media to hold powerful men and institutions accountable. It’s no accident that after Carlson filed her suit, she immediately began tweeting with the hashtag #StandWithGretchen, and she’s been using her feed to speak out on how employers handle sexual harassment allegations.
Regardless of what happens to Roger Ailes (he’s reportedly negotiating a $40 million severance and possible consulting gig), Boyle said she is thrilled at the outcome. “This could be a seismic shift in American culture,” she said, adding, “Gretchen Carlson is the real hero here.”