Fox News announced a settlement with Gretchen Carlson on Tuesday, ending the first in what could become a series of legal battles involving allegations of sexual harassment against former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.
Lisa J. Banks, a partner at Washington D.C.-based civil rights and employment law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP told TheWrap that the settlement is essentially an admission of guilt.
“I think because a number of women had come forward and this happened to a number of women over a long period of time — and, as I understand it, there were audio tapes to prove the allegations — I don’t think there was any question that [Fox News] had a problem with liability,” Banks said. “If they let this go forward, a jury was likely to find that [Ailes] did, indeed, sexually harass [Carlson] and judgment could be enormous. Not to mention the bad P.R.”
Banks said Fox execs “saw the writing on the wall” and needed to “stop the bleeding” before publicity got any worse regarding Carlson.
The No. 1 cable news network still has to deal with an ongoing internal investigation of Carlson’s claims that has resulted in numerous women coming forward with similar allegations. 21st Century Fox also must figure out what to do with additional lawsuits that name other executives and the expiring contract of host Megyn Kelly — who is not only the network’s biggest female star but also the most high-profile Ailes accuser.
Former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros has filed her own sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News, Ailes and newly appointed co-president and former Ailes’ protege Bill Shine.
“They can go one of two ways here: they can settle all the viable allegations and declare they have cleaned house and move forward in a positive direction, or they could say, ‘Gretchen Carlson’s case was different, these other women are opportunists and we’re going to fight them vigorously,’” Banks said. “Because they don’t necessarily want to set a precedent of just paying off anybody who comes forward with claims of harassment. Each one will be taken individually, I would imagine.”
Vanity Fair, which first reported the Carlson settlement, also claims Fox News has reached a settlement agreement with two other women who accused Ailes of harassment. However, Fox News recently shot back at Tantaros in new court papers, in which the network seeks arbitration, calling Tantaros “not a victim” but “an opportunist.”
Banks said it would be difficult for Fox News to declare it has “moved on” and changed the way things work if Shine ends up being culpable of covering up Ailes’ harassment, which Tantaros claims in her suit. However, if they believe in Shine, it’s even more of a reason to fight Tantaros.
“The people they have at the helm, they’d like to keep at the helm unless they’re forced to do something different. With Roger Ailes, they were forced to do something different,” Banks said.
Banks explained that the evidence each individual accuser has, such as tape recordings or emails, will dictate Fox News’ action concerning in each case.
“My guess is that anyone with a credible claim of harassment is likely to have a settlement negotiated,” she said.
Typically, the Friday before a holiday weekend is when major companies dump news, hoping it will be forgotten by the time everyone returns to work. Fox News did exactly the opposite on Tuesday morning.
Moments after the press release confirming the Carlson settlement, the network announced that Greta Van Susteren would depart immediately after 14 years.
Van Susteren, who defended Ailes to TheWrap when Carlson’s claims first broke, wrote on Facebook that the network “has not felt like home to me for a few years” and New York magazine reporter Gabe Sherman, who has been out in front of the Ailes story from day one, wrote that Van Susteren left because “she is troubled by the culture” at Fox News.