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21st Century Fox settles Gretchen Carlson's sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes

21st Century Fox settles Gretchen Carlson's sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes
Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against her former boss Roger Ailes. (Getty Images / Associated Press)

Fox News parent 21st Century Fox moved decisively Tuesday to end the sexual harassment scandal that has roiled the media company, issuing an extraordinary apology to former anchor Gretchen Carlson and agreeing to pay $20 million to settle her lawsuit against her former boss, Roger Ailes.

"We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve," the company's statement said.

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The unusually candid expression of regret over Ailes' alleged actions demonstrates how much Fox wants the controversy to go away. Coming in the midst of a presidential election, the scandal had raised questions about the future leadership of a network that has long dominated cable TV news ratings.

The apology and settlement caps a period of turmoil at Fox News since Carlson sued Ailes in July, accusing him of sabotaging her career after she rebuffed his sexual advances and complained about a hostile work environment.

The suit prompted 21st Century Fox to launch an internal investigation into Ailes' conduct toward Carlson and other women at Fox News, which led to the ouster of one of the media industry's most powerful figures. Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, replaced Ailes and tapped senior Fox News veterans Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy to serve as as co-presidents overseeing news and business, respectively.

Adding to the upheaval, Fox also disclosed Tuesday the departure of another high-profile news anchor, Greta Van Susteren, who left in an apparent financial disagreement with the network.

Direct acknowledgment of wrongdoing is virtually unheard of in sexual harassment settlements, said Debra Katz, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has handled such cases for three decades.

"This is something every client who walks in my office wants and I tell them to a person this is something you will never get, " Katz said. "Companies do not apologize, particularly when there are other potential litigants out there. Typically, a standard provision in any settlement agreement is a non-admission clause, which says by virtue of paying this large sum we are not admitting any wrongdoing."

Katz believed Carlson demanded the apology as part of her settlement. Her attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, did not comment.

"I'm sure this is something she insisted upon," Katz said. "Companies do not do this out of the goodness of their hearts."

Carlson said in her statement she was "gratified that 21st Century Fox took decisive action after I filed my complaint."

Fox News parent 21st Century Fox was highly motivated to settle to avoid having Carlson's suit go to trial, which would have meant a stream of women testifying against Ailes, who ran Fox News for 20 years. A trial would have also resulted in sustained negative media coverage of the company and potentially cast an unflattering light on other executives at the company.

A settlement also avoids the chances of having a court rule in Carlson's favor and hitting Fox News with punitive damages that could have far exceeded the $20 million in the settlement. Carlson appeared to have strong evidence to bolster her allegations, including reports that she recorded conversations with Ailes on her iPhone.

But it remains to be seen whether the settlement will put to rest any further allegations against Ailes now that Carlson succeeded in getting the company to admit she was mistreated.

"In a situation like this, women who have claims within the statute of limitations might feel more emboldened that Fox did not fight this until the ends of time and they may come forward," Katz said. "It does encourage women when they see the person out there with a good result and an apology."

Fox News does not expect any other suits to be filed. As part of its investigation, several female Fox News employees — including prime-time star Megyn Kelly — revealed sexual harassment incidents. The company has subsequently made settlement agreements with a handful of those women, according to a person briefed on the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Fox News is still defending a suit brought by suspended personality Andrea Tantaros, who filed a sexual harassment claim against Ailes and alleged that other executives undermined her career at the channel. Fox News has maintained that Tantaros was suspended for breaching her contract because she failed to have her recent book vetted by the company before its publication.

Even as it announced a settlement with Carlson, Fox disclosed the departure of  Van Susteren, whose nightly program "On the Record" has aired since 2002. Political analyst Brit Hume will take over for Van Susteren starting Tuesday.

Two people briefed on the matter who demanded anonymity said her abrupt exit was due to a financial disagreement and was unrelated to Carlson's case.

Nonetheless, Van Susteren was a vocal defender of Ailes when sexual harassment accusations were first leveled against the former Fox News chairman. She is one of the Fox News personalities who has a clause in her contract tied to Ailes remaining in charge of the channel.

Van Susteren's husband, John Coale, told The Times that the clause was used to discuss some issues in her contract. But Fox News did not negotiate and used the opening to get out of the contract, he said.

"That's what happened," he said. "We're exploring litigation options at this time.… As for the future, she'd like to stay in broadcasting."

The departure of Van Susteren is just the latest development in the maelstrom that has enveloped Fox News since the allegations by Carlson became public and reports have emerged of other women who have worked with Ailes also saying that he sought sexual favors in return for employment opportunities.

In her lawsuit, Carlson lists a series of sexually charged comments allegedly made by Ailes to Carlson about her physical appearance and suggestions that her standing at Fox News would be better if she had a sexual relationship with him.

In a Sept. 16 meeting to discuss the discriminatory treatment she believed she suffered, Carlson said Ailes told her, "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, then you'd be good and better and I'd be good and better."

Ailes has denied Carlson's claims and all other incidents as well.

He left the influential news division he founded with a $40-million severance package. Ailes was also indemnified by the company for any damages from the lawsuit and did not personally contribute to the cost of the settlement.

Attorneys for Carlson had said they had been contacted by as many as 20 women who said they were subjected to inappropriate behavior by Ailes during his previous careers as a political consultant and a TV talk show producer.

By settling with Carlson, 21st Century Fox is also hoping to get Fox News into a new era and away from a continuing media saga that portrays Ailes as a powerful rogue executive who was able to build and operate his division with little control or authority from his bosses. One report said Fox News authorized a $3.15-million severance payment in 2011 to a longtime Washington employee who said she was forced into a sexual relationship with Ailes.

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Ailes denied the charges and Shine, a top lieutenant at the time, said he had no knowledge of any relationship. But longtime chief financial officer Mark Kranz retired from the company after the payment was revealed.

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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UPDATES:

7 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

7:25 a.m.: This story was updated to include news that longtime Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren is leaving the company.

This story was originally published at 6:55 a.m.

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