Fifteen months ago, former Fox news anchor Gretchen Carlson triggered a seismic change in American media when she sued for sexual harassment the late television executive and Fox News founder Roger Ailes. Her decision led to his resignation, and arguably has encouraged scores of other women to come forward with their own experiences of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. Most recently, they included celebrities such as Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, Gwenyth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, and Lena Headey, to name a handful, who've detailed a decades-long history of sexual assault and harassment from Harvey Weinstein.
There's, of course, also Bill O'Reilly, the anchor who got a new contract from Fox News even after a $32 million settlement with network analyst Lis Wiehl, who accused him of sexual assault. As Carlson learned, though, while writing her book Be Fierce, which serves as both an account of stories like these and a guidebook for how to process sexual misconduct and speak out against it, these instances aren't just isolated to Hollywood. "This is an epidemic," she said, in conversation with fellow journalist Maria Shriver as part of the former First Lady of California's Architects of Change series presented by Ford Motor Company earlier this week. "This is everywhere, from Des Moines to Wall Street. Once we start changing the culture of more women feeling comfortable to come forward it has to be the same course with men feeling comfortable to come forward and not be bystanders. I wish that would have happened in the Access Hollywood tape with [Donald Trump and] Bill Bush."
Outside of her book, Carlson is fighting against sexual assaults on a political level. Currently, she's in the process of creating a bill with help from both Democrats and Republicans that would make arbitration clauses in employee contracts — like the one she had at Fox that prevents employees from having the right to a jury trail—obsolete. She's also considered running for office herself, as she revealed to W after her conversation while sitting alongside Shriver—though don't expect her to do so immediately. Below, Carlson discusses why she's waiting to run, why Weinstein was so quickly taken down by his accusers but Trump has not been, and what it will take for the country to recover from a place where there isn't even a consensus on what facts are.
You recently said that no one pays out $32 million in settlements for false accusations. Why even after a settlement like this does our society still often assume innocence in these situations for the man?
Because women are still [seen] as liars, unfortunately. That’s what we’re trying to change. We live in a he-said, she-said culture, which is one of the reasons I say in my book that we have to document, document, document. You have to make sure that you have evidence so that you’re more believed. The second thing I would point out as a tip is that, if you can find the courage, tell at least one or two colleagues what’s happening so that you have a witness. Tell a man, because until we change this problem, it may have more weight if a man comes forward. I think part of it is our justice system to be honest with you. You’re innocent until proven guilty, and we shouldn’t change that. But, on this issue, it’d be nice if women would feel comfortable coming forward without automatically being assumed to not be telling the truth.
Why are men like Bill O’Reilly even given second chances?
[Laughs] You’d have to ask his employer that question. I think it shouldn’t automatically be the next step [to think] are people like that employable again? It should be what about all of the women who lost their jobs as a result of the bravery of coming forward and filing a complaint. Nobody is talking about that.
In your conversation, you brought up that if employers want to make a statement they should rehire the women who got demoted or lost their jobs because they spoke out against sexual misconduct.
Imagine the credit that a company would get right now if they actually stood up and publicized that and said that we’re going to do that as a statement hire and as a cultural shift.
Throughout this process, how have you been protecting your mental health while telling other women’s stories and reflecting on your own?
It’s not something you choose. If there has been one constant in my life it’s that if there’s a goal or challenge in front of me I usually take it on. I felt like if I don’t do it, who will? Yes, it’s an incredibly emotional process to go through writing the book and listening to all of these women’s stories. It can be, quite honestly, depressing to hear so many lives shattered. At the same time, it was cathartic for me in knowing that I wasn’t alone and knowing that I did have a voice to potentially make a difference for others. So their stories are what buoyed me to keep going on days when I didn’t have all the passion in it myself.
What have been some of the more emotional moments for you over the past year?
Meeting women who come and share their stories with me on the book tour. I’ve met some of the women I responded to initially via email, who I included in the book and spoke to over the phone to interview them and [then] put their face to their story. I’ve met several of them just in Los Angeles since I’ve been there. So I would say being able to see the real person and have them say to me that they felt braver to tell their story as a result of mine, that’s really emotional.
What do you think needs to happen for us to get to a place culturally where women won’t face repercussions for telling these stories?
Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to know how soon that might happen. I’m trying to approach this baby steps. For example, I know that I’ll never get a bipartisan bill if I ask to eradicate all arbitration clauses. While there are Democrats who would really like that, I know that I won’t get the Republicans to do that. So you have to be smart in your strategy. My feeling is nothing gets done on Capitol Hill anyway so wouldn’t it be great if we could find some sort of compromise on this issue for women? That would be a big victory for this movement and, to get to your question, that would be a baby step towards the end game. As Maria and I were discussing, cultural shifts don’t happen overnight. We’re still working on a bunch of them. That’s why I feel that working on this is so important: If I’m successful in getting this bill through Congress it’s going to end up on President Trump’s desk.
Why do you think the condemnation of Weinstein was so swift but the condemnation for Trump wasn’t?
Because we were further into the process of all these other women coming out. If mine was 15 months ago, then we had Susan Fowler at Uber. The Sterling Jewelers’ case. Then we had more from Silicon Valley and VCs. Then we had the Harvey Weinstein story. I think it’s proof of how, as we’ve gone along in this process, more and more women have felt courageous. Giving the gift of courage is contagious because more people are joining the bandwagon to say ‘me too.’ I was very upset with the way that Trump’s accusers left the forefront. That’s why I feature Natasha Stoynoff’s story in my book. She gets to tell her story in her own words. I think another difference is that he’s an elected official and what I’ve found out from doing my work on Capitol Hill—it sounds kind of obvious but you don’t think about it until you say it — you can’t fire an elected official unless people just don’t vote for them anymore. You can fire a person from a private company, but you can’t fire someone who’s elected into office. Ultimately, it’s up to the voter.
Why do we need things as drastic as something like Trump’s 2005 Access Hollywood interview for people to take his sexual abuse claims more seriously?
You can look at it both ways. Some people didn’t take it seriously. I wrote an op-ed shortly thereafter that said, for me, that tape was an amazing and sad learning experience for my children about how you don’t treat a human being. I stopped thinking about political parties and policies when I heard that tape. All I thought about is how that isn’t how you treat people. The idea that political policies would supercede human dignity was beyond my realm of being able to think about it.
You’ve mentioned before that you’ve been asked to consider stepping into politics. Are you considering it at this point?
Carlson: Maria, how many times have you been asked that question?
Shriver: [Laughs] I’m waiting to hear your answer.
Carlson: I have been asked to run for Senate in Connecticut. Right now politics is not in my near future. However, never say never. I think I say in the book that one time [my son] Christian said to me in the car, ‘Mommy, are you going to run for president?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ He was so cute. He said, ‘Well, can you announce tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I wish. That’s not how it works. I wish it did. I wouldn’t have to go through all of the hard work.’ If politics wasn’t such a game, I think more people would obviously get involved. I’m just hopeful that the idea of an outsider being able to become president hasn’t changed. I hope that it’s still an option for people knowing that they can be what they want, even if they haven’t been in politics their whole life. Their voice might be essential for us.
You’re a figure who appeals to both sides of the political fence. What do you feel would take for the country to become united again?
I’ve always been a registered independent. I actually feel in my heart that it’s good as a journalist to be a registered independent. I wish that we had a political party that was up and running that was independent. I think the last figures show that 43 percent of the American public considers themselves independent and they decide every election. If there was money behind the independent party I think that would be great. For instance, if I would decide to run, maybe I don’t want to pick either of the two political parties. But then, how do you get the funding and the financing? Which was actually the first thing that went through my mind when I was asked to run for Senate. I don’t know if I want to pick one of the two parties right now because we’re so divisive. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. So many Americans see things from both sides. So maybe we should be thinking about financing the independent party more.
As divisive as the country is, we live in a time when people can’t even agree on what facts are. How do you think we can recover from that?
Carlson: I think it’s more important than ever to advocate for journalism. I’ve been a target of fake news so I know personally how it feels to try to get out of that tunnel of trying to prove yourself as valid. I believe it’s been incredibly detrimental to the way in which we do journalism. Just because you don’t like a story doesn’t mean it’s fake. That’s where we are today. Shriver: There has also been a surge in great journalism. I think great journalism has been emboldened in the last 15 months. Subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post are all up. Good journalists triple check their facts and their sources. This is a great moment. I think it’s up to individuals to actually be reporters themselves and figure out if something is true and where it’s coming from. I have this discussion all the time with my kids. I think all of the information about Russian sources on Facebook has been a real eye opener for people.
Carlson: When you and I were coming up in journalism, the rules were so strict. I remember having so many stories that I wanted to go with but we didn’t have two sources. It didn’t mean stories weren’t true. It just meant we didn’t print them.
Shriver: We also didn’t have [the pressure to] put up now.
Carlson: Once a story gets out, even if it’s accurate or not, everyone picks it up. Then you have to retrace steps to figure out what’s accurate or not. That has fed into the validity of the fake news concept. Certain people have been smart in taking advantage of that and saying fake news because some things have been erroneous when [people] are trying to be the first to do it. So I do agree with Maria of going back to the basics.
Do you think your lawsuit against Roger Ailes sparked this current movement of women coming forward with their stories?
Yes. I call it the Be Fierce movement. When I was writing the book, I was saying out loud to myself that this is more than a book. It’s a movement. Then, look what happened. I could have never predicted we would have had these other explosive stories. It proves to me that it is a movement people are joining. The idea that we’re still going with these stories and news outlets are hungry to find other stories, that is such a victory. Because we’ve never had a voice on this issue.
What do you say to the men who say—eye roll—that this movement is becoming a witch hunt?
That’s just a deflection from the truth. What I found in my research is that, for most of the women who told me their stories, their was no subjectivity in it at all. They were so outrageous and over the top that it was by anyone’s standards sexual harassment. We’re not talking about starting a huge movement because there was one little joke that I would find fine but my colleague would not. We’re talking about over the top sexual harassment where women come forward, lose their jobs, and never work again.
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