‘We have taught women consistently … if they speak up, they will be punished’

Julie Roginsky, Gretchen Carlson and Diana Falzone launched the Lift Our Voices initiative this week in Hollywood. The three former Fox News employees are hoping to take the #MeToo movement to the next level through legislation (they want to see laws banning Non-Disclosure Agreements, or NDAs, that cover toxic work experiences past, present and future) and by activism (they intend to call out politicians and progressive groups who don’t walk the walk when it comes to protecting women in the workplace).

Roginsky, who works extensively in New Jersey and the tri-state area as a political and communications consultant, talked with ROI-NJ about the effort.

“We just launched this thing a few days ago, and the response that we’ve gotten is incredible,” she said. “And the fact that we did it at the Hollywood Reporter and in front of people like Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron and Ronan Farrow and Sophia Bush, people who have a massive megaphone and a massive ability to get our message out, is incredible.

“This is a bipartisan issue. It’s an issue that transcends income level. It’s an issue that transcends every industry in every organization. We have gotten an amazing response. It’s been 48 hours; just give us 48 days or 48 months. There’s no stopping us.”

The issue is at the forefront this weekend for another reason. A movie about Fox News, “Bombshell,” is being released this month.

Roginsky, who signed an NDA after settling a lawsuit with Fox News at the end of 2017, talked about the movement and the movie. Her thoughts were edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Tell us why it was important to start Lift Our Voices.

Julie Roginsky: Gretchen Carlson, Diana Falzone and I launched a national movement to give women back their voices. We want to ensure that women who are bound by NDAs for discussing toxic work environment — issues of sexual harassment or assault and other nonproprietary information — are able to do that. This arose in large part because we have been prevented from telling our own stories. Each of us sued Fox News. Each of us received a settlement and signed an NDA as part of that settlement. And each of us did not appreciate how our actions at Fox News would really launch a national movement, the #MeToo movement.

ROI: You’ve spoken glowingly about Carlson. Where do you see her role in this movement?

JR: Gretchen Carlson really was the first person to take on somebody so powerful, well before the (Harvey) Weinstein story became public. She jumped off a cliff without a parachute and with no guarantee of success. In fact, there was an almost certain guarantee of failure and career disruption. The fact that she was able to not just succeed in taking down (Fox News head) Roger Ailes, but succeed in launching a national movement, is a massive credit to her. But, certainly when she did that and when she signed her NDA, and when I signed my NDA as part of my settlement, we did not expect that there would be movies made about us. We did not expect that other people would be free to tell their version of our stories, but we, the people who lived and experienced these stories, would not be free to tell the truth.

ROI: You’ve said the movement is bigger than just the big names. Tell us more?

Twitter/Gretchen Carlson
Gretchen Carlson, who sued Fox News.

JR: It’s not so much about me or Gretchen. We’re going to be just fine. We both have careers that have flourished and a very big megaphone to be able to talk about this. This is really for the women out there who have been silenced and don’t have that megaphone and don’t have the ability to tell their own stories. The woman who emailed me, who was making $35,000 a year and was fired because she got pregnant and had to sign an NDA as part of the settlement, which she signed out of desperation because she had a baby on the way and she needed the money. The women who reached out to me and told me that she was working for a big organization and it was subjected to a layoff and the only way that they would provide her with severance was if she signed an NDA. And the many women who have reached out to me and said that they had to sign NDAs as part of hiring — that they would not be able to walk through the door and get a job had they not signed those NDAs.

None of those women is having a movie made about them. None of those women have the ability to walk the red carpet at the Hollywood Reporter breakfast and talk about this in front of massive celebrities who could amplify this message. All of those women need to have to voice this back. That’s the reason we launched this organization.

ROI: You’ve said you want to not only eliminate the use of NDAs in the future, but void those used in the past. Is that possible?

JR: You can make laws retroactive, and there is a legal theory that when it comes to toxic work environment issues, any NDAs that are signed are no longer valid if the law invalidates them going forward. There is precedent. Let’s say you bought a house from somebody whose family had owned it since 1920. And there was a covenant in 1920 — legal at the time — that said that you could not sell that house to an African American or to a Jewish person or to any designated minority. Now, if you want to just sell that house to me, those covenants are null and void because the law has changed. It could be the same thing here, if the law changes.

I’m not a lawyer. That’s something to discuss with lawyers, but that’s certainly a legal theory that we’ve heard from a lot of lawyers. We’ve had very prominent politicians across the country reach out to us to say that they want to work with us to make the laws retroactive. So, it’s not just about banning NDAs going forward. It’s also about freeing women who’ve experienced this to speak up and to be able to tell their own.

ROI: Why is freeing women to talk so important?

JR: Until Gretchen Carlson publicly spoke up, none of us at Fox News knew that others were experiencing what we had experienced. I had not discussed what happened to me with anyone. I didn’t think anybody was also subject to it. And it is only when people are finally able to speak, that women — and not just women, men as well — will be able to feel that they’re not going through something alone. But also, more importantly, we’ll be able to ensure that predators are no longer able to prey. It is inexcusable that somebody like Harvey Weinstein could pay off his victims.

ROI: Some will say, ‘Don’t take the settlement if you want to state your case.’ How do you respond?

JR: I appreciate why someone would take the settlement. Nobody wants to go through a long trial. Your career is stalled while you’re in litigation. So, I don’t blame people for taking settlements. But, when you have NDAs as part of those settlements, what that results in is that nobody knows what happened to you. You disappear one day. Nobody understands why you’re gone. Your career is effectively over and the man or the woman who created the toxic work environment continues to work and continues to thrive. And that doesn’t just apply to sexual harassment or sexual assault. It applies to all manner of toxic work issues.

ROI: How did filing suit and settling impact your career?

JR: I am one of the very fortunate people in this business who always had a separate career. I never gave up my political consulting business when I was at Fox. When I left Fox, it was not that much of a hit financially because I went back full time to my firms (Comprehensive Communications Group, Optimus Communications), which are thriving.

I have been lucky. But I have friends who have not been so lucky. They have been drummed out of the industry because the industry, while it applauds women who come forward publicly, does not reward them privately by hiring them. A lot of them had their agents drop them. A lot of them had networks that were previously interested in them suddenly lose interest after they filed. So, to anybody who files a harassment lawsuit like that against somebody so prominently, I do want them to understand that they need to go into it with their eyes wide open, and understand their careers will be impacted and not just by the person that they’re filing a lawsuit against. It’s something I did not consider when I filed my lawsuit. I still would have done it, but, again, I was in a very good position to do it. Other people have not been so lucky.

ROI: How can you change all of that?

JR: This is an issue that we have to contend with as a culture, as a society. There are big and small ways in which women who come forward — who do nothing more than publicly speak up about what was done to them — are sidelined while the very men who harassed them or treat them poorly are rewarded and promoted. Bill O’Reilly had to pay tens of millions of dollars out in settlements to women who accused him of sexual harassment. And yet there’s consistent talk, including by Sean Hannity, the most prominent voice on Fox News, about when he’ll return to Fox News. There are constant media discussion about when Matt Lauer will be back. And yet, some of the women who Bill O’Reilly harassed and to whom he paid out all the settlements are unemployed and have lost their house. Some of them have lost any means of support. And, so, as a society, I think we don’t do enough to understand that it is one thing to talk about how supportive we are of the #MeToo movement, how supportive we are women, but then we do nothing to reward those women.

ROI: I imagine this creating a silencing effect, no NDA required.

JR: Absolutely. There are women right here in New Jersey who desperately want to speak up about toxic work situations who are afraid that they will be financially and professionally penalized if they do. The lessons that we have taught women consistently is that if they speak up, they will be punished, and they will be professionally ruined. And that is a lesson that women, especially young women, have learned very clearly. Women who speak up are consistently punished professionally when all they want to do is speak up about toxic work environment while the people who engage in the toxicity and promote the toxicity and enable that toxicity, consistently thrive.

ROI: With all this in mind, why not just call for an end to all NDAs?

JR: I want to be very clear: This is not to lift NDAs related to proprietary information. So, for example, if I knew the secret formula for Coca-Cola, of course I should not be able to share it with Pepsi. And, of course, I should sign some sort of legal document that prevents me from doing that. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about ensuring that toxic workplace behavior is no longer promulgated by people who enforce NDAs.

ROI: Let’s get to the movie, “Bombshell.” They made a movie about you — that’s pretty cool. But, at the same time, you weren’t allowed to discuss what happened to you. What is your take on the movie?

JR: Let me say this, and not just about this movie, but for “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” which is a Showtime series. I’m very happy that Hollywood is making movies about this issue. Two and a half years ago, when I filed my lawsuit, I never imagined that it would create such a cultural shift that Hollywood would be making movies on this. I’m very happy about that — and very happy that more people will learn about issues with toxic workplace environment and very happy that there is a focus on it in ways that I think had not happened before.

I’ve seen the movie, I’ve seen my portrayal in the movie. I’m flattered that someone as accomplished as Ahna O’Reilly is playing me. But, in terms of my own story, it’s something I can’t discuss. I can discuss with you Gretchen Carlson because that’s not in my NDA. And I will tell you that Gretchen Carlson was the leading force in taking down Roger Ailes and, had she not done what she did, I would not have followed suit. I would not have had the courage to do that unless she led the way. I am aware that her story is not portrayed as potently in this movie as it was in real life. I was at Fox for another year after she left and I saw the aftermath of what happened after her firing, which also is portrayed in the movie. Parts of it are accurate. But parts of it really underestimate the strength with which she proceeded in the way that she started the #MeToo movement.

ROI: Have you talked with the actress who portrayed you?

JR: I have not. And she didn’t reach out to me, but even if she had, there’s very limited things that I could have talked to her about. I couldn’t share my experiences with her. The movie makers chose to portray me the way they chose to portray me. And I’ll leave it at that.

ROI: Last question. You’ve been around the political world long enough to know getting politicians to talk a good game is one thing, getting them to take action is another. How will you force action?

JR: Here’s my belief. This is really the next front of the #MeToo movement. We are building an army of women and men who will not stand for people being gagged anymore. And if you consider yourself a politician or a progressive politician, you will not only join us, you will fight to make this cause a reality. For progressive politicians, who talk a good game about how they’re supportive of women, but enforce NDAs, we will say that we are paying attention and you will not be let off the hook. For progressive activists, who talk about how they’re supporters of women, but don’t stand up to politicians that are for NDAs because they don’t want to stand up to one of their own, we are paying attention and you will have to explain yourself.