Gretchen Carlson: Fox News, I want my voice back

(Hilary B. Gayle | Lionsgate via AP)Charlize Theron, from left, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie in a scene from "Bombshell." On Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, the cast of "Bombshell" was nominated for a SAG Award. Theron was also nominated for best actress and Kidman and Robbie were nominated for supporting actress.

When my retaliation and sexual harassment complaint against Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman and C.E.O., went public in 2016, there were no #MeToo or Times Up movements to help rally support for my cause. In the years that followed, many more women have found the courage to come forward, calling out Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and other powerful men accused of abusing their power. When I sued, I could have never known that my story and the stories of other women at Fox would turn into both a television mini-series and a film, and, more important, that I would be prohibited from speaking about these projects.

Three years ago, receiving a public apology from 21st Century Fox and retaining the right to speak about harassment generally felt like big wins. And they were. But had I known my complaint would help ignite such a profound cultural shift and that I would be depicted onscreen, I would have also fought against signing the nondisclosure agreement, or NDA, that prevented me from discussing my experiences while working at Fox News. At the time, I just wanted to bring closure to an ugly chapter in my life; I thought it would, at the most, lead to a week of press attention — not spawn a mini-series, a movie and become part of a global rallying cry.

“Winning” my complaint with a settlement and a nondisclosure agreement meant I was, essentially, forced into silence. NDAs were originally designed to safeguard the sharing of proprietary corporate information (think the formula for Coca-Cola), not to protect predatory behavior. Although NDAs usually prohibit employers from disparaging victims, whisper campaigns often follow women for years. As I documented in my book “Be Fierce,” the vast majority of survivors never work in their chosen professions again. American industry has lost many talented women to harassment, while allowing predators to continue climbing the professional ladder (where they have the potential to victimize even more women).

There are those who say to victims, “You took money in exchange for staying quiet, so what’s the problem?” and “If you want to talk, give your settlement money back.” These sentiments miss the point and perpetuate the lie that victims benefit from being sexually harassed. First of all, buying silence instead of stopping harassment is immoral and unjust. Next, the settlements are made not just in exchange for secrecy, but to make up for lost wages, because once you find the courage to come forward, your “reward” is often that you’ve lost your job (and potentially your career). And lastly, NDAs foster a culture that gives predators cover to commit the same crimes again.

Ironically, while most of the real women involved in the Fox News scandals remain muzzled by NDAs, two high profile Hollywood projects (Showtime’s limited series “The Loudest Voice” and Lionsgate’s upcoming feature “Bombshell”) can freely tell stories without our participation. While projects like these will certainly inspire more women to come forward, and while it’s certainly flattering (and surreal) to be depicted by such remarkable, empathetic actors as Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, my experience is yet another example of why the laws governing NDAs must change.

In practical terms, my NDA means I am legally prohibited from discussing — in public and in private — what happened to me. It means I cannot consult with filmmakers, writers, journalists or anyone else telling my story — whether it’s about the depiction of me, my family, or the events themselves — nor can I comment on the accuracy of a final product. I don’t know precisely what Fox would do if I violated the agreement, but presumably they’d take legal and financial actions. It’s a strange and frustrating reality.

Prohibited from telling my story, for three years I’ve focused on helping other women tell theirs through “Be Fierce” and my Lifetime documentary “Breaking the Silence.” I’ve worked with members of Congress to introduce the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act, a bill that has achieved bipartisan support from leaders including Senators Lindsey Graham and Kirsten Gillibrand. When two leaders so ideologically different are on the same page about forced arbitration, it really says something. Harassment in the workplace is apolitical.

I want my voice back. I want it back for me, and for all those silenced by forced arbitration and NDAs. There is positive movement in this direction. NBC’s recent announcement that it would release former employees from their NDAs is an important step and one that should be emulated across business, media and politics. New Jersey has already passed a law prohibiting NDAs in harassment cases, and California recently outlawed forced arbitration as a condition of employment. This week, former Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky and I launched a new nonprofit organization called Lift Our Voices to advocate an end to the harmful practice of mandatory NDAs, confidentiality provisions and forced arbitration clauses that have prevented employees from publicly discussing and disclosing toxic workplace conditions, including sexual harassment and assault. This is the next phase in the #MeToo movement, and it is one that needs to gain traction if we truly want to change the culture for better.

Today I call on Fox News to release me, and all employees forced to sign NDAs as a condition of harassment settlements, from these agreements immediately. None of us expected or wanted a workplace dispute — we were simply the ones who had the ability and the courage to speak up, and for that, we lost our jobs. We have a right to say what is factually correct or incorrect about what happened. We have a right to our voices and our truths. I urge executives at Fox to do what’s right and take this step today. For the sake of all women, in every workplace. That would be the biggest bombshell of all.

(Jordan Strauss | Invision/AP) Gretchen Carlson

Gretchen Carlson is a journalist and the author of “Be Fierce.”