June 10, 2019

Don’t Underestimate Gretchen Carlson

by Without Fail

Background show artwork for Without Fail

Gretchen Carlson, the long-time co-host of Fox & Friends, set off shockwaves in 2016 when she filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Just two weeks later, he was ousted from the network. But it had taken years of enduring abusive behavior before the former Miss America spoke out — and she's not done yet.

Without Fail is hosted by Alex Blumberg. It is produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany and edited by Alex Blumberg and Devon Taylor. Music and mixing by Bobby Lord.

Where to Listen


From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and failures, and what they’ve learned from both.

[Music: Violin solo]

ALEX BLUMBERG: What song is this?


ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh. This is -- this is you playing this. Do you recognize ...


ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. What --what is -- what's the occasion?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: This actually was when I was playing the talent portion I think for the Miss Minnesota competition.

My guest on the show today has been a lot of things. A violin prodigy, Miss Minnesota. She went on to win Miss America, actually. But if you know her name -- and her name is well known -- it’s possible you know her as the person who brought down Roger Ailes, the longtime chairman of Fox News, the man who built that network into what it is today. 

My guest’s name is Gretchen Carlson. In the summer of 2016, she filed a lawsuit accusing Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. Before that, she was an anchor at Fox, best known as one of the three hosts on its morning show, Fox and Friends. 

And during our conversation, we talked about the many influences and decisions that led her to the role she eventually came to play: the woman who, in bringing down one of the most powerful men in all of media, helped jump-start the Me Too movement. 

And what I realized during our conversation was that in many ways, it all began with the violin.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Tell me about playing the violin as a kid. Like, how -- how did it start? What do you remember about it?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, I don't distinctly remember this but my parents have said that I would hear commercials on television and then I'd go to the piano and kind of plunk out the tune. And so they thought to themselves, "Hmm, maybe we should sign her up for piano lessons," right? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] Uh-huh. 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: And so we actually went up the road to the neighborhood piano teacher, and she took one look at my hands and said, "Oh, my goodness. Her hands are way too small. She's never gonna be any good."


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And she recommended that I up to the local school and check out the instruments.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So it actually -- starting to play the violin was this fluke thing.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And, you know, it just -- I don't know, it just clicked. It was like, I just loved it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: From the beginning.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Yeah. I just -- I just loved it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Even when you're squeaking through everything.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Yeah. And I mean, I -- I guess I loved it so much and maybe had a knack for it that the squeaks were not around that long. 

Gretchen continued to advance in the violin, and pretty soon she wound up auditioning for one of the premier teachers in the Midwest, who was at the state university in Minneapolis.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: To be taken on as a student I had to perform in front of all of her college students.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So there I was at, like, seven or eight years old. And I still remember I played The Bumblebee …

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, the [hums Flight of the Bumblebee]

GRETCHEN CARLSON: [hums Flight of the Bumblebee]

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, okay.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: And -- and it was hotter than hell. You know, no air conditioning in an old college building, windows up. Probably August. And I can still, you know, feel myself playing this song. And she -- she took me on as a student.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You made the cut.


ALEX BLUMBERG: She took you on.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: And that really, you know, put me on a different trajectory because her students were all at a different level.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So, you’re like sort of on a musical prodigy track at that point.



GRETCHEN CARLSON: I mean, I don't know how much kids think about what they want to be in life. But yeah, I'm sure in my -- I'm sure in my parents' mind, this was what I was gonna do. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: What was -- what was your relationship like with your parents? 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: My dad was a softy and my mom wasn't. [laughs] But you know, I got all my drive from my mom.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: Like, she told me every night when she put me to bed, "You can be anything you want to be in this world." But, it was my dad who understood music. And so, we would go down into the living room, and he would sit in the same chair, and I would perform what I was gonna do at the competition.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What would he say? 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: He would always close his eyes while he was listening. And then he would tell me what, you know -- what he thought. And then I knew I was ready, after I'd performed for my dad. But that all changed.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, so -- so how did that all change?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, it was great at the beginning, but then I didn’t really like being known as the violin girl.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, it was -- I was, like, this weird, young kid who happened to play the violin well. And so I was hanging out with -- when I went to these camps, like the Aspen Music Festival -- I started going when I was 10 and I would sit out in orchestra break on this rock and I'd cry my eyes out. Because who the hell wanted to talk to the 10-year-old kid?


GRETCHEN CARLSON: Everyone else was 18 to 25.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And so it was such a lonely, lonely experience to actually be really good at something. And I realized that to be at the level that I wanted to be, which was a concert artist, one of the premier soloists in the world, that I was gonna have to give up everything else in my life. And thankfully, I loved so many other things. I loved academics. I loved sports. And that would all have had to have gone away. Even boyfriends would have had to have gone away. And I liked them, too. [laughs] So, you know, there were just these distractions. And so I told my parents that I -- I remember I went up to their bedroom -- and I grew up on the Mississippi River in Minnesota -- and I remember saying to them, "I'm gonna throw the violin in the Mississippi River!" Which I'm sure came as, like, a huge -- they were like, "No, no, no!" But I just -- I had had it, you know? I just -- I wanted to do other things in life. And they were devastated.

ALEX BLUMBERG: How did they let you know they were devastated? What did they say?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: They were devastated [laughs].

ALEX BLUMBERG: They told you. Like, "Gretchen, we're devastated."

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Yes. And it wasn't -- it was -- it was because of -- I think it was because of all the time I had put into it, and to the level that I had achieved, and they felt like I was making a mistake by throwing that all away.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So you graduated from high school. You're valedictorian, an elite-level musician. You go to Stanford. What were you thinking about your life, your future at that point? If you had a career goal in mind, what was it? What was it?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: [laughs] Everything. 


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So luckily at Stanford, you don't have to declare your major 'til you're a junior.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: Which was fantastic for me because I changed my major, like, a gazillion times. I thought I was gonna be a doctor, and then I realized I couldn't look at blood. I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I mean, my -- my life is sort of like all these different zigs and zags. And there's been a lot of unexpected turns. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: I think one of the sidetracks you're referring to then is Miss America, right? Like ...


ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so ...

GRETCHEN CARLSON: That was not anywhere in my realm of possibility as a kid. Never.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And how did you take that zig to Miss America? Like, what -- what prompted that?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: My mother. So she called me when I was studying at Oxford and she said, "I got this brochure in the mail, and I think I found something perfect for you to try." And I said, "What is it?" She said, "It's called the Miss America competition." And I said, "Mom, are you nuts?" I said, "I am not doing that. I -- I am not a pageant person. 


GRETCHEN CARLSON: I love to eat, and I'm not gonna give that up. So, you know, I'm not interested." She goes, "Well, 50 percent of your points, it says right here, are based on talent. And 30 percent is how smart you are in the interview. And those are things you have."


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And I said, "Not interested." So we didn't talk about it. And then she called me back, and I was supposed to stay in London for another program, actually through Georgetown that summer. And it was really hard to get into. And I was really looking forward to it. And somehow she convinced me that now was the time. She had read an article about the person running the organization, that they were specifically looking for more Ivy League kinds of candidates and things like that. She said, "So the time is -- the time is right for you right now. And you have this talent."

ALEX BLUMBERG: I'm -- so I'm -- I'm fascinated. So your mother has come up twice now as, like, sort of a motivator. What -- what was going on there, do you think? Why was that important to her? 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: I think that they -- both my parents were looking for a way to get me back to the violin.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: Yeah, because obviously if it was worth half your points. I had to practice again.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Fascinating!


ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, so they wanted to get you back into concert violin playing.


ALEX BLUMBERG: Via Miss America.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It's the same reason why I think they really wanted me to go to school on the East Coast, because they thought that I would be closer to New York and the teacher that I had been studying with at Julliard, and that I would rekindle my -- my interest. They were the antithesis of stage parents. So I don't want anyone to get that depiction at all. It's that, you know, in the Midwest especially, and in my family, it was this Protestant work ethic, you know? You've been given talents, and God expects you to make the most of them. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So not pursuing the violin was sort of like -- in their minds it was just like a squandering of this gift that you had.


ALEX BLUMBERG: So they thought like, "Okay, well this -- maybe through Miss America, this can -- this can get you back to that." How -- how did they convince you to do it?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: My mom's an incredibly convincing person. 


GRETCHEN CARLSON: I mean, she still is today.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What did she say?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: I talk to her almost every day. I mean, you know, listen, I'm blessed to still have my parents in my life.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And they've been my rock and my foundation through everything.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: Especially as of late. So, you know, my mom just has convinced me to do a lot of things in my life.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And it's always to -- in her mind -- fulfill my life. So, that's what Miss America was all about. So I -- I came home from Oxford, whether or not I wanted to. And um, and I think I entered the first competition that August. And -- and then I won. And so then I was, you know, going to be going onto the state thing. And then I had another huge decision, because I went back to Stanford in the fall of my senior year. And then I realized, you know, if I really want to try to achieve this, I really can't be going to Stanford at the same time and carrying all these credits, you know? So I dropped out. And that was a huge thing, because I went to the female dean and told her -- she was the only person I told on the entire campus, because I had to.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And I said, "You know, I'm gonna stop out." That's what it was called. "I'm gonna stop out from Stanford, and I'll come back, but I'm -- I'm stopping out." And she's like, "Why?" I'm like, "Uh...Because I'm gonna try and win Miss America." And she was like, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." And I was like, "Thanks." So that was sort of the reason to not tell anyone else and plus I just didn't, you know -- the stereotypes that come with competing in Miss America back then were not necessarily, you know, who I thought I was. And, you know, I was a tomboy, my entire childhood.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So that didn't seem to fit.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And -- and brainy, and driven professionally. And like ...


ALEX BLUMBERG: And all these things that are sort of like not necessarily what you think of front of mind when you imagine, like, sort of Miss America and pageantry.

RETCHEN CARLSON: I know, but unfortunately that stereotype has sort of gone on way too long, and it's something I fought, you know, after -- after I achieved that, too. Listen, I fought that anyway, with just having blonde hair and being short.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know? I think it's sort of like the theme of my life of being underestimated in almost everything. And a lot of that was because of -- of really stupid things.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: But that's the world we live in. So, you know -- so I didn't tell anybody. And I went home and I -- and I just really immersed myself into preparing. So I did go back to the violin, you know? I went back to practicing a lot. And, you know, I was a novice in the pageant world. So my mom and I sort of came up with a strategy which was, you know, we're gonna have to -- to study this because we don't know this.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So that's what I did.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It's so interesting though, because it's like you were just talking about how, like, you're -- you're frustrated by people assuming less of you because of -- because of your appearance, because you're a woman, because you have blonde hair.


ALEX BLUMBERG: But this -- but, like, this competition is also featuring those very things. Like -- like, I know a part of it is about, like, the talent competition and part of it is, like, how you do in the interview. But then there's a big part of it that's about, like, how you look in a swimsuit.


ALEX BLUMBERG: And it's about your appearance.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, back then even it was only worth, like, 15 percent of the points.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, I know. But it's also like -- were you sort of like aware of the contradiction, and what did you do with it in your mind? You know what I mean?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, see, I don't remember spending a lot of time -- as analytical as I am -- I don't -- I don't remember me spending a lot of time going, "Wow, this is a contradiction in my life." I think I looked at it like another violin competition, you know? And what did I have to do to work as hard as I possibly could to do —


GRETCHEN CARLSON: the best job? 

[CLIP: “Miss America is Gretchen Carlson, Miss Minnesota….” (music & crowd roar)]

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It was -- it was after the fact, that that night after that happened, I remember looking in the mirror in my hotel suite after I'd just partied with Merv Griffin and Eva Gabor and had pizza -- which was a surreal experience -- um, and I remember looking in the bathroom mirror and being like, "Well, hell. Now you did it. Now what?" 

Good question. What do you do when you’ve just been crowned Miss America? That’s coming up  after the break.


Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Gretchen Carlson.

Now that she’d won Miss America, Gretchen embarked on the work of being Miss America, which meant a lot of public appearances. And one of those public appearances would turn out to have an especially big impact on her life. 

She appeared on a show that was popular at the time -- this was the late 80s. It was hosted by Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. It was called TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes. As you can probably guess from the title, it was a prank show. She thought that she’d been invited to make a presentation to a bunch of engineers and executives on a private TV feed about this new satellite system dubbed Miss America. The gag is, as she’s getting ready to make this presentation, they all the sudden go live before she’s ready, without even her co-hosts on stage with her. And she has to vamp and improv her way through this presentation. In this clip, you’ll hear Ed McMahon and Dick Clark narrating the action.

[CLIP: “TV’s BLOOPERS and Practical Jokes”]

ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] Do you remember that?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Like it was yesterday. It was horrible. Listen, I had been Miss America for a week, and then I go out to Denver. And ...

ALEX BLUMBERG: And what were they -- what had they told you about ...

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Yeah, nothing. So -- so they -- they -- they -- I thought I was speaking in front of 5,000 engineers via satellite who were all back in Washington D.C.


GRETCHEN CARLSON:  And me being me, in the makeup and prep room, I'm like, "Okay, I actually like to be prepared for things. So could somebody give me some notes?" And they're like, "Don't worry. You don't have to know anything about this." I'm like, "No...” And so, they never really gave me any notes. And so I went out there, and then all of a sudden, the floor director stands up. He goes, "Oh, my gosh. We're going live early, in five, four, three, two." And he looks at me and goes, "Just start talking." And I'm, like, standing there panicked. Like, my worst nightmare, because I don't know anything about this system.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So I give my, like, little spiel that I'd learned in the last seven days, which wasn't very long. You know, "Hi, I'm Gretchen Carlson. I'm the new Miss America, and I'm very pleased to be here," and whatever else I said. And then I stopped. And he was like, "Oh, no, no, no. You got to keep going." And this went on for 14 torturous minutes.



ALEX BLUMBERG: What's -- what's fascinating watching it was I was like -- I actually felt more sorry for the producers of the show than for you.


ALEX BLUMBERG: Because you don't look panicked.


ALEX BLUMBERG: It's not -- it's like, it's not -- 'cause as the producer of the show, you want somebody who's gonna, like, fall apart a little bit more. Because that's what's funny about it. And I'm just -- I remember watching, and I was like, “They should have cast a different person,” because, like, you -- you just -- you look...completely calm.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, thank you. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: There's one moment where, like, I feel like I can see in your eye where you're just sort of like, "Who are the bozos who let this happen?"

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, maybe. But I was also thinking I was gonna get fired. 

Gretchen did not get fired from her job as Miss America. Instead, when the show finally aired, people noticed the same thing that I noticed –– how remarkably poised she seemed under pressure. 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: After that, a couple agents called me, and they were like, "Listen, if you can do that, you can do TV." And I was like, "Really?" You know, it -- it got me into television.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: This Bloopers and Practical Jokes got me into television.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. You had a couple of meetings with TV executives, with PR people, and very quickly it seems like, from what I've read in other places, you -- you found yourself getting harassed. 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Actually assaulted. Although, I never called it that until recently.  You know, I was doing the right thing in my mind. I was cold-calling executives, because I --


GRETCHEN CARLSON: I knew like, "Oh, I should probably strike while the iron's hot,” and -- and try to, you know, get into this business and meet with these people while I can. And so, I spent this day with this high-ranking television executive, and he made all these phone calls for me and I was like, "Wow, he really believes in me." And we went to dinner, and then we were in a car service, and he was dropping me off at my friend's apartment in New York City. And all of a sudden he was on top of me, lunging at me, and he had his tongue down my throat. And I was like, "What?" Like, I was completely panicked. And I asked the driver to stop and somehow I rolled myself out of the car. And I went up to my friend's apartment, and I was just a mess. You know, I think when women go through something like this, like, the first reaction is you -- you think about what did I do? Like, what did I do to bring this on? We were simply having a conversation, he was helping me, you know, break into the business. I didn't really understand at the time that that also meant he wanted to break into my pants. And, so I told nobody. And then unfortunately it happened just like a couple of weeks later. So, I was in L.A. Again, I was cold-calling top PR executives. And again, I was in a car. And just like without warning at all, we'd got into the car, and he grabbed my neck with his hand and he stuffed my head into his crotch and I couldn't breathe.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And, you know, again I managed to escape. And it's like these horrible experiences of not -- not really having a conversation, like, "Bye." You know, it was just like, you just assaulted me, and now, like, I -- I'm panicked for my life and I'm trying to get away from you. And -- And it wasn't until everything had happened at Fox that I was interviewing another woman who was actually one of the Trump accusers, and she was a writer for People magazine. And I was telling her about these stories, and she's like, "You realize that was assault, right?" And I was like, "No, it wasn't." She goes, "Yeah. You realize that was assault. Both of those situations." And I said, "I guess." She's like, "Gretchen, it was assault." And that was the first time I called it assault. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: How'd that feel?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It made me really vulnerable. But also, I think it was freeing in a sense of being able to talk about it and really label it what it was.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Because it felt …

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It felt -- that's what it was.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know? But at the time I just bottled it up and put it somewhere in my psyche. And then unfortunately, you know, it happened at my first job, too. So I sort of became familiar with it. And at that job it was just -- there was so much irony involved, because one of the first stories I covered was the Anita Hill hearings. And I remember, you know, watching those hearings and thinking to myself, "Why don't they believe her?" And then, you know, I was out on this shoot and then I got -- I got harassed by one of my photographers. And that -- that episode actually I felt was life-threatening, because we were in a rural part of the state, and I was just with him in a car. And he started talking to me about how I had enjoyed it when he put the microphone on my breasts, and -- and it kind of went downhill from there. And when we got back to the station, of course I wasn't gonna tell anybody. And the um -- the news director at the time kept approaching me and asking me what was wrong.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: He knew something was wrong. And I kept saying, "Nothing, nothing, nothing. And he finally convinced me to tell him. You know, I give him a tremendous amount of credit, because that was a lot of years ago, and it was a man who cared.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So yeah, so I had -- I had these things happen to me early on that I, you know, I didn't really talk about. And then I had a lot of years where nothing happened.


But those bad experiences with men early on in her career would turn out not to be the last of it. Not by a long shot. That’s coming up after the break.


Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Gretchen Carlson. 


In spite of the experiences she had with assault and harassment at the very start of her career, Gretchen stuck with TV. And she climbed the ladder. Her first job as a reporter at a station in Virginia opened the door to another job at a slightly bigger station, and then a slightly bigger job after that. By the year 2000, with a decade of experience under her belt,  she landed a job in New York, reporting for CBS. And then, in 2005, she made the jump to Fox News.


ALEX BLUMBERG: What did you think when you first got the job and you showed up on your first day? Like, what were you thinking? How was that fitting into your career?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It was a great opportunity. I had been doing this Saturday morning early show at CBS, and this was potentially an opportunity to do a morning show five days a week, which was always my goal.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, doing morning TV was an opportunity to sort of showcase all the range of your personality. In fact, my mom would always -- back in the olden days when I'd send her tapes of my work and I'd have, like, a triple-alarm fire behind me, and she'd be like, "You know, it would just be so much more entertaining if you could just smile a little bit more." And I'd be like, "Mom, I'm covering a triple homicide, okay? You don't really laugh during that." And she'd be like, "But I just want people to know who you really are," you know? And so when I finally got this opportunity to do five days a week and really show this all-encompassing range, I remember the first day that I went there, my mom happened to be in New York City. And I saw her after the show, and she was like, "This must be the happiest day of your life." And I said, "Yeah, pretty much."

ALEX BLUMBERG: Because it was just -- it just felt like -- Why? Why?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It was a culmination of a tremendous amount of hard work, and moving to all these different cities and making my way up in my career, and um -- and finally getting to the epitome of what I had, you know, worked so hard to -- to achieve. An amazing life lesson about how, you know, you can think you're sitting at the pinnacle of your career, and you have no idea the horror flick that's about to be shown.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. So you started there in 2005. And, this was not just moving to another sort of like network, this was moving to -- Fox had staked a position. There was a take and there was, like, one side and there was another side. And, like, at CBS you can sort of be like, "Well, we're like you know, in the middle." And now you're, like -- you're -- you're part of the fight.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, I would say that back then, it -- it's hard to remember that in 2005 it wasn't like it is in 2019.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It was -- yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: But it was still, like, very much, like, there was the “Faux News” and, like, that was in the -- 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Not when I -- no, not when I started there. I have to be totally honest with you. For me it was like, it was opportunity.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And it was also learning new skills. Going from network to cable was like relearning the whole craft. You know, you got 24 hours to fill, as opposed to just a half hour newscast on the network, right? So there's a lot of ad libbing, and there's a lot of, like, you just got to go with the flow and talk. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Describe, like, your day-to-day. Like, sort of before the horror movie started. Like what -- just -- just a day in the life of.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: So, you know, when I was doing the morning show, I -- I got up really early. My husband had this amazing idea to move out to the suburbs [laughs] when I was already getting up, you know, in the middle of the night, and then I was gonna add another hour to getting up extra early. But he's from the Midwest too, and he's like, "Wouldn't it be great if our kids could have a yard?"


GRETCHEN CARLSON: It's like, "Yeah, kind of." So, anyway, so I got up, like, I think I set my alarm for 3:47 and -- because it would literally, you know, I could be out of the house in...I think I got it down to eight minutes. You know, I would brush my teeth, jump in the shower, put on my clothes in the dark, and run downstairs, and -- and get in the car, and then immediately start studying non-stop, like for a final.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Studying what?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Everything for the, you know, all the interviews, all the -- 


GRETCHEN CARLSON:  Yeah. Massive amounts of material. Because listen, you had to be up on every world event, anything that had happened in the news. And a lot of stuff happened overnight, so you know, I had to be really prepared. So that was, you know, I spent a lot of years not sleeping a lot, and I had two babies at the time, and so I didn't nap. I'm not a good napper anyway. I wish I was. But um ...

ALEX BLUMBERG: You don't seem like a good napper.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Gosh, I know! I'm so envious of my husband. He, like, sleeps standing up. You know, the minute we get on an airplane he's, like, out, and I'm, like, wide awake, like, waiting for the next thing to happen. But, um, anyway. Yeah. So -- so, you know, I just got into -- into a routine.

From the outside, Gretchen had gotten her wish –– a job co-hosting a big morning news show five days a week. But as we’ve since learned, through news reports and through the lawsuit she ultimately filed against Roger Ailes, the reality behind the scenes was very different. 

According to her suit, the harassment started early on. There were demeaning remarks and treatment from one of her co-hosts, which Fox management didn’t take seriously. And then there was the overt harassment from Ailes himself. 


Gretchen’s lawsuit says that when she didn’t give in to Ailes’ come-ons, she was demoted: taken off the morning show and moved to a lower-rated afternoon slot. And eventually, in late June of 2016, she was fired. And that’s when she realized she had a big decision to make. 


GRETCHEN CARLSON: The decision to come forward was painstaking, and the most -- the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. But, you know….when I realized that a career that I had worked so hard for was gonna be taken away from me and it wasn't my choice, if I didn't figure out how I could find the courage to jump off the cliff, then who was gonna do it?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm. You said it was the hardest decision that you've ever made. What were -- in your head, what was the on the one hand, on the other hand?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: [laughs] When you do something like that, first of all you know for sure that you're gonna be maligned. And my lawyers had prepared me for that. And I was.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: But there would be no way that I could have been able to predict how it was all gonna end up. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: I'm curious, like, I also got the sense that this has been a journey for your whole family. How's that evolved?


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, no matter how old you get you always want your parents' approval. 


GRETCHEN CARLSON: I mean, it’s sort of just the way life works. And, growing up in Minnesota, everyone's -- it's like, there's this Minnesota nice thing. And so, suing people's not really on the top of mind for people.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That's not nice.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: No, it’s not nice. And, so, I think my parents were not too keen on that idea originally. But one of the biggest points in my decision-making was a phone call with them. And I can still see exactly where I was sitting, and I was in the dark, and it was night, and they were both on the phone with me. And they said, "We're behind you."

ALEX BLUMBERG: You laid out this is what I want to do?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, I'd been talking about it, yeah, for a long time. And they said -- finally said, "We're with you." Not that that was the discerning moment, but it certainly made a big impact on me, that I knew I had their support. 

[NEWS CLIP: Fox news host Gretchen Carlson has filed a lawsuit against the network’s CEO Roger Ailes…

NEWS CLIP: Next tonight, a lawsuit against the head of Fox News. Former anchor Gretchen Carlson today suing chairman and CEO Roger Ailes…]

It’s probably no surprise that Gretchen’s decision to sue came only after a lot of preparation. In fact, it was reported in New York Magazine that she had been secretly taping conversations with Roger Ailes for many months, if not years.

When she eventually settled her claims – in an agreement reportedly worth $20 million dollars – the conditions of that settlement prohibited her from talking publicly about almost anything that happened in her time at Fox. Which is why, in our interview, a number of the questions I asked didn't get an answer…


ALEX BLUMBERG: You recorded conversations with Roger Ailes, and, like, those recordings became part of the lawsuit that you filed against him. Um... I think I know the answer to this, but can you even tell me about, like, how -- you can't tell me about how that felt to, like, actually go into the room with the recorder going, can you?  

GRETCHEN CARLSON: I can’t talk about that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay. Figured. Um. So you’re not allowed to talk about it, but here's a partial list of the things your suit accuses Roger Ailes of. Calling you a man-hater and killer who tries to show up the boys. Asking you to turn around so he could view your posterior. Commenting that certain outfits enhanced your figure, and urging you to wear them every day. Commenting on your legs. Wondering how anyone could be married to you while making sexual advances. He embarrassed you by saying in your presence that he'd slept with three former Miss Americas but not you. Telling you that you were sexy but too much hard work. And saying to you that, "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago.” That's a partial list. What's it like to hear all those things listed out? 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: I mean, I think I would just say unfortunately that's probably really familiar for millions of women. You know, women are socialized to be really nice and not make a ruckus. Don't be too aggressive, you know, don't be too ambitious. And also not to be a troublemaker. So when these things happen to women all too often in the workplace, they don't say anything. And when they do, they're done.


The fact that we have a public record at all of Gretchen’s account is the result of a very canny decision by her legal team. According to reports at the time, Gretchen was subject to a clause in her contract with Fox News called an arbitration clause. It basically obligated her to work through any dispute she had with the company in private, keeping it out of court and shielded from public view.  


By suing Ailes personally, Gretchen’s lawyers got around that. Her account of what she had experienced became a public document, one that people can see and read, and have read aloud to them on podcasts. 

And the strategy of making her claims public through that suit? It worked. Roger Ailes, one of the most powerful men in television, resigned just two weeks after it was filed, forced out by mounting evidence that he’d harassed many other women at Fox.  


ALEX BLUMBERG: You settled with Fox News in the fall of 2016. This was weeks before the Access Hollywood tapes came forward of Trump. 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: That was October. These are dates you never forget.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. What was it like when you heard that Access Hollywood tape in the midst of all this? 

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It was really ironic because I had just shot the cover of Time magazine. The first interview I did on my story. And so I hadn't been looking at the news for a couple of hours. And I was in the car coming back from the photo shoot. And on the radio, they were talking about it. And the first thing I thought to myself was, "Billy Bush is gonna lose his job." I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying that ...


GRETCHEN CARLSON: That was the ...



ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you think that Donald Trump would get elected at that point?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, I had seen so many other things, having covered presidential candidates for two decades, I had never seen any other presidential candidate be able to say a myriad of things that he had said and still be in the race. You know, he had already said the things about McCain. He had already said the things about Mexicans. He had already said so many other things, that I think that's why my first thought was about Billy Bush.



Looking back on the Me Too movement, from our vantage point in 2019, it can feel like it all happened at once. But when you map out the timeline, Gretchen was way out in front. She filed her suit in the summer of 2016. And it wasn’t until almost a year later, in April of 2017, that a New York Times investigation exposed other instances of harassment at Fox News, this time by host Bill O’Reilly. And the Harvey Weinstein story didn’t break until months after that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You were essentially a year and a half before -- before the Harvey Weinstein stories. And the MeToo movement as we think of it really took off. And I think in our heads, I think we sort of put them all together. But, like, that was a year and a half of just sort of waiting around and, like, not -- not -- how was that? What was that year and a half like for you?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: I immediately started hearing from these women, first dozens then hundreds and thousands of women, and then I realized that I had a lot of work to do.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You immediately start hearing -- who was the first woman you heard from?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Oh, God. There wasn't just one. I mean, they just started pouring in. And of course, my good Midwestern work ethic was like, "I need to write back all these women," just like I wrote all those handwritten thank you notes as a kid. And so I started writing back to all of them. And then it turned into hundreds. And I'm like, "Wow, I hope I can keep up with this." And then it was thousands and, you know, it wasn't an easy process to read all these stories, because they were all horrible and painful.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And I started printing them all off in my home office, and I had stacks of them.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It was just emails?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Yeah. Yeah, they found me on my website. And they just -- they knew that I got it. And they trusted me because they knew I would understand them. And so they just poured out their entire life story. So that was really the beginning. What really buoyed me, to be quite honest with you, in my darkness was all of these other women making me realize it wasn't about me anymore, it was about our culture. And what I have figured out is that fixing this issue is a tangled web. I mean, it's complicated. And, my husband will joke with me like, "Hey, how can you be more busy now than when you had a full-time job being on TV every day?" I'm like, "I know." Because there -- there's just so much to do. And other people say to me, "You know, you could have just gone home and just spent more time with your dog and your kids." And I'm like, "Yeah." But that wouldn't have been the right thing to do, and it wouldn't be like me to do that. Because I realized that I could help. At least try. 


Since settling with Fox News, Gretchen Carlson has been speaking out against the policies and practices that so often keep women from talking about the conditions of their work. The same policies and practices that have kept her from speaking openly about the conditions of her own work at Fox. Settlements and forced arbitration.

She’s pushing for federal legislation that would prohibit forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements and testified before Congress just last month.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: The way we've decided to resolve harassment cases in our culture is to shut women up. And, you know, I actually feel like it's -- it's one of the main reasons why this movement has stayed alive is because the American public was so pissed off when they started hearing about these egregious cases and things that happened to women, and they were like, "We're still doing that to women?” They were like, "Why have we not been hearing about these cases?"


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And I would argue that one of the main reasons is because they were all going to these secret chambers. So these were not being broadcast, you know? And so we -- we sort of lost 20 years of time from Anita Hill until -- until now, where there's no court sessions happening with these cases.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. We lost 20 years of ...

GRETCHEN CARLSON: 20 years of precedent!

ALEX BLUMBERG: ... what should have been public record...


ALEX BLUMBERG: ... of all of this stuff happening.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: And precedent and moving forward with laws and, you know, the way in which the law has evolved in -- in every other aspect of the law.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, when you go to arbitration, you don't get the same amount of depositions or witnesses, there are no appeals, so it's not really like going to court. And it's secret.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: So there's, like, this vacuous, you know, space where the court system has not dealt with these issues, and therefore the general public didn't know about them.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: And -- and so in a weird way, I think it's actually helped to keep the movement going, because the American public has stayed interested in wanting to know why.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, the general public did know about them, but they all -- they didn't know that it was happening to anybody else. They thought it was happening ...

GRETCHEN CARLSON: To themselves.

ALEX BLUMBERG: To themselves.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: It's a great point  because as it turns out, almost every woman has a story and that's tragic.


GRETCHEN CARLSON: You know, what I found out after I jumped off the cliff was that it wasn't really about me. All of these stories of these women who reached out to me were eerily similar. And the outcomes were eerily similar. And it was -- they were all painful.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Say more. What was similar?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: They were all -- “I finally mustered up the courage to come forward, and I was promptly blacklisted, demoted and fired.” I would say that 99.9 percent of all the women who reached out to me never worked in their chosen profession ever again. And that's outrageous. And so when you think about the lost dreams of all of these women in our country.They've worked just as hard as everyone else. I don't care what their job is. Because it crosses every socio-economic level, every profession, you know, from fast food workers up to Wall Street. And the idea that we're okay with all these women having their careers and their lives taken from them, I'm not okay with that.

Since settling with Fox in September of 2016, Gretchen has started The Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, which offers training sessions and legal counsel to women dealing with workplace sexual harassment and assault. Her documentary about the struggles of everyday women who have spoken out against their own experiences is available through Lifetime. It’s called Gretchen Carlson: Breaking the Silence.

Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.

Music and mixing by Bobby Lord.

If you like Without Fail, follow us! You can get every episode for free through Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.