Veteran Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson, who quietly disappeared from her afternoon shift on Fox News Channel last month, stunned the TV news business Wednesday with the filing of a sexual harassment suit against her former boss, Roger Ailes.
Carlson's complaint, filed in Superior Court in New Jersey, said Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News, "sabotaged" the anchor's career at the cable channel because she complained about a hostile working environment when she was a co-host of "Fox & Friends." The suit also alleges that Ailes made sexual advances that were rebuffed by Carlson and that he directed innuendo-filled comments toward her.
The suit could create a serious cloud over Ailes, 76, who is the strong-willed force behind the top-rated cable news channel that is a major profit center for media conglomerate 21st Century Fox. Since the suit was filed, a number of women have contacted Carlson's legal representatives to convey other alleged harassment incidents involving Ailes.
"Several women have called us and have asked us if they can relate their similar experiences," said Nancy Erika Smith, an employment litigator for Smith Mullin, P.C., who is part of the team handling Carlson's case. "That certainly is relevant in the law. The law allows us to bring other victims of similar harassment for the jury to see that this is a pattern of behavior."
Ailes said the allegations were false. "This defamatory lawsuit is not only offensive, it is wholly without merit and will be defended vigorously," he said in a statement.
Carlson, 50, was a co-host of the channel's morning program "Fox & Friends" from 2005 to 2013. Her suit alleges that Ailes retaliated against her and fired her after she complained about condescending on-air behavior by co-host Steve Doocy. The suit alleges that in 2009, Doocy yanked Carlson's arm down to silence her during a live telecast. It also charged that Doocy mocked her during commercial breaks and refused to engage with her on the program.
The suit goes on to allege that Ailes was dismissive of Carlson's complaints and that they led to his reducing her opportunities on the network and eventually pulling her off "Fox & Friends," the most-watched morning show on cable. After departing the program, Carlson was given her own afternoon hour, "The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson," which she believes lowered her profile at Fox News. The suit says Ailes "significantly reduced" Carlson's compensation and withheld promotional support for her show after the move.
The suit also 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 alleges 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."
Carlson's contract with Fox News expired June 23 and was not renewed. The suit said the dismissal was in retaliation for her ongoing complaints regarding her treatment.
Ailes called the lawsuit a "retaliatory suit for the network's decision not to renew her contract, which was due to the fact that her disappointingly low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup. When Fox News did not commence any negotiations to renew her contract, Ms. Carlson became aware that her career with the network was likely over and conveniently began to pursue a lawsuit. Ironically, Fox News provided her with more on-air opportunities over her 11 year tenure than any other employer in the industry, for which she thanked me in her recent book."
In a statement, 21st Century Fox said: "The company has seen the allegations against Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy. We take these matters seriously. While we have full confidence in Mr. Ailes and Mr. Doocy, who have served the company brilliantly for over two decades, we have commenced an internal review of the matter."
The suit had the TV news industry abuzz as a trial or other allegations against Ailes could test his relationship with James and Lachlan Murdoch, who took over leadership of 21st Century Fox last year from their father, Rupert Murdoch.
The elder Murdoch would probably stand by Ailes in an ugly public storm. His sons are not known for having the same degree of loyalty to Ailes, who built Fox News into a powerful brand at a company that had no track record in news when the division was launched in 1996.
But if Ailes suddenly departed Fox News, it would launch the channel into uncharted territory at a time when its cable news competitors CNN and MSNBC have become more aggressive. Audience levels for cable news have grown during the presidential campaign, and Fox News' competitors would see discord in the executive suite as an opportunity to gain market share.
Ailes, the only leader Fox News has ever had, commands tremendous loyalty among his stars, and two of them – Bill O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly – have contracts that expire next year. Re-signing them would be more difficult without Ailes at the helm, TV news executives say, putting the channel's two highest-rated programs at risk.
Ailes, who had a successful career as a consultant in Republican politics, also designed Fox News to appeal to viewers who perceive a liberal bias in establishment media outlets. His vision and skills as a veteran television producer are credited with making the channel a success. No other executive in the division has the same profile that he does. It's unclear how the channel would evolve under new leadership.
Smith, Carlson's lawyer, said she knows of no other sexual harassment claims filed against Ailes. A recent biography of the executive cited a CNBC employee's complaint that Ailes offered her a raise in exchange for sex when he ran the cable channel in the 1990s. But there was no legal filing of any kind and Fox denied the account.
8 p.m.: Updated with a statement from Ailes.
3:50 p.m. This post was updated with additional information from Fox.