Gretchen Carlson’s break with Fox News was one of the defining moments in the recent evolution of the much-debated news network. The former “Fox & Friends” anchor sued the network in 2016, claiming sexual harassment by then-chief Roger Ailes, and settled for $20 million and an exceedingly uncommon public apology. It was a seismic shift for a network congenitally repulsed by admitting to any wrongdoing. Thanks in part both to Carlson’s and then-Fox host Megyn Kelly’s openness around issues of harassment at Fox, both Ailes (who died in 2017) and, eventually, popular Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (the subject of several sexual harassment suits he was forced to settle at great expense) were pushed out of the network.
And now, like her former colleague Kelly, Carlson is pivoting into a future in which her own personal history provides context and motivation for what lies ahead. On “Breaking the Silence” — a two-hour newsmagazine-style investigation of sexual harassment in the workplace airing on Lifetime — Carlson travels the nation in order to witness the stories of those impacted by inappropriate conduct in businesses from McDonald’s to fire departments to TV newsrooms, and to attempt to nail down those whose negligence allowed such harm to occur. She also narrates her own experience in, at first, strikingly casual, un-newscaster-like fashion; “I literally was sick,” she tells us of the moments before filing suit, in a voice unfamiliar from the android-like readings required from the women of Fox News.
It’s in telling other women’s stories that the show is performing valuable, close to vital work. Carlson’s core audience is conservative America — even beyond the fact that her most recent work on camera was at the talk show with which the current President begins his day. Carlson first rose to prominence as a small-town Minnesotan who rose to become Miss America (and, indeed, is now the controversial head of the Miss America organization). Pleasant, blithe middle Americanness is baked into her image, and for that reason, placing her into conversation with, say, Tanya Harrell, a black woman from New Orleans who accused a McDonald’s coworker of unwanted touching and assault, exposes that under-covered story to an audience who might never otherwise hear it. (Said audience, for instance, is likely not watching the vastly more focused and deeply analytical “Surviving R. Kelly,” a documentary about harm done to young women of color also airing on Lifetime, though they ought to.)
A bit too much of “Breaking the Silence,” though, is focused on Carlson burnishing that same image, as though these important stories were the raw material for a comeback. (This, incidentally, was what came to ring so false about Kelly in her second act on NBC: So evident is her ambition that her well-meant concern for and assiduous attention to those affected by harassment and assault couldn’t help but seem rooted in self-interest.) Carlson includes multiple sequences of chasing after McDonald’s franchisees in order to demand answers as to why their employees hadn’t been better-protected. That they give her nothing comes as no surprise, but the inclusion of the sequences at all — presenting Carlson as a hard-nosed fighter even as her fight is far more effective when actually sharing victims’ stories — is a distraction from the effective core of “Breaking the Silence.” (That no comment was available can be communicated in less attention-getting ways than a parking-lot chase.) Less resonant still are early sequences in which Carlson visits her hometown, meets with her parents and a childhood friend, and reminisces about a billboard erected in her honor in her hometown. “People in Minnesota are proud of other people’s accomplishments from this state,” she muses, unguarded and indeed revealing perhaps too much. “It’s nice.”
The purpose of “Breaking the Silence” is, and should be, Carlson blazing a trail forward; this sort of crown-polishing is unseemly. (And her glorification of small-town life runs at cross-purposes with her advocacy for people living in urban areas; it’s not opposed, exactly, but it is a contrast that’s both random and distracting.) After all, some portion of the audience is required to swallow a fair amount of disbelief in order to see Carlson as the sort of crusader for all that she presents herself as. It’s not that she doesn’t care, and care deeply. But she’s reinventing herself, and over the course of a breakneck two hours at that, after having set her public image as a mouthpiece for conservative policy presented with a smile warm enough to be palatable over the first cup of coffee. Fox News, in this special, is mentioned only as the place where Carlson suffered harassment and from which she won a settlement. It is not the place where her work, over days and years, advanced causes detrimental to the women she now champions.
Credit her with this, though, Carlson is trying. People are complicated in ways that often make for bad or at least incoherent television; Carlson can hold the closed-ranks beliefs required of a “Fox & Friends” anchor while feeling painful shards of empathy for people wildly unlike her. (Admirably, and un-Kellyishly, she resists the temptation to draw overt parallels between her work at Fox News and that of interview subject Karla Amezola, a Latina reporter allegedly fired as retaliation from her newsroom.) After reading Harrell’s long, startling list of allegations against a McDonald’s co-worker, Carlson looks into the camera and says, with a tone of bewilderment, “This is, allegedly, what Tanya had to put up with just trying to do her job.” Her rattled and unsettled tone makes the viewer feel a bit as though Carlson knows this all too well and a bit as though she’s learning of the pervasiveness of the problem only for the first time. It’s a note that communicates more than reminiscences about small-town life or staging the most glamorously adversarial parts of journalism for a camera ever could, because it’s about Carlson’s reaction to someone else. She may no longer be Miss America, but, when she lets herself, she’s an effective conduit for a larger portion of this nation than she likely once allowed herself to believe.
“Gretchen Carlson: Breaking the Silence.” 120 min. Lifetime, Jan. 14.
Executive Producers: Steve Ascher, Kristy Sabat, Shoshana Guy, Liz Gateley, Gretchen Carlson, Gena McCarthy, Brie Miranda Bryant