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'Bombshell' Tells The Story Of Sexual Harassment Allegations At Fox News


The new movie "Bombshell" opens wide today. Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly in 2016 in the middle of the contentious presidential campaign, wrestling with what to do after former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against then-Fox CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.


CHARLIZE THERON: (As Megyn Kelly) It's like we're telling women, go on, speak up for yourself. Just know the entire network is with Roger. No one will believe you. They'll call you a liar.

CORNISH: Now here to talk more is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

Welcome back, David.


CORNISH: And Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, here we are again.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: So, David, I briefly described it, but just remind us of how big a deal this scandal was at the time which essentially kind of took down Roger Ailes.

FOLKENFLIK: It was a cataclysm and a thunderclap. It was early July of 2016. And you got to remember, this is more than a year before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein that really inspired what people think of as the national consciousness about #MeToo. And Gretchen Carlson essentially went out on a limb and said, I'm going to take on the guy who's the most powerful figure at the most, to be honest, powerful cable news outlet in the country. And she sued him for sexual harassment.

And in the days that followed, he fought for his professional life. And he fought against her and tried to really rally a lot of people, particularly women at Fox News, to go against her publicly as well. And yet, behind the scenes, woman after woman came forward to reveal the culture that Ailes had created at Fox, which was one that really enabled and fostered a climate that allowed him to sexually harass women for decades.

CORNISH: The movie tries to kind of set the scene about the culture of Fox in other ways. Here is a producer, played by Kate McKinnon, talking about essentially the news ethos.


KATE MCKINNON: (As Jess Carr) The world is a bad place. People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick but interesting. Ask yourself, what would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather? And that's a Fox story.

CORNISH: Linda, what were your impressions? Are we looking at a comedy? Are we looking at a docusoap (ph)? So this is a fictional creation, this producer role.

HOLMES: Right. It's a combination of characters. There's a composite, kind of a young producer played by Margot Robbie who is kind of the third woman alongside Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and then Theron as Megyn Kelly. So it's a combination of real and fictional people. It's certainly not a comedy.

I think what they're trying to do is, you know, make one of these politics-as-drama stories. The trick is, you know, you heard Kate McKinnon in that clip give a very full-throated explanation of what that character thinks Fox News is. But other than that, there's not a lot of exploration of, what is it like to have a scandal like this unfolding at this particular place?

So it's not that they don't say what Fox News in the opinion of this movie is, but they don't sort of talk about any nexus between what might make it particularly challenging or different to have this happening at Fox News, I don't think.

CORNISH: David, let's talk more about that because Megyn Kelly is positioned as the key player in the pushback against Roger Ailes. No. 1, does that track with your reporting? I mean, what about Gretchen Carlson's role in this?

FOLKENFLIK: I think you have to give the first place - if there was a Mount Rushmore to women who took down Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, you've got to start with Gretchen Carlson. Megyn Kelly held her fire publicly and in many ways privately as well for a while. She wanted to see the landscape.

She wanted to make sure that she had the backing of the sons of Rupert Murdoch, who were sort of in the wings to help their father lead this organization as their father very gradually transitioned control to them. And she wanted to figure out whether she wanted to reveal that, a decade earlier, as a young reporter in the Washington bureau of Fox News, that according to her, Ailes had sexually harassed her as well.

CORNISH: But does she make for a principled protagonist in a film that's ostensibly about the complexity between feminism, the #MeToo movement and Fox?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think Megyn Kelly, it's almost as though she delivers the final blow. You know, she finally knocks out the pillars, the foundation on which - which are so, by this point, rickety and damaged on which Ailes is trying to keep standing.

And so when she attests to this, there was nowhere for Ailes to go. This was a primetime star. The Murdochs and Ailes had basically settled on her as the future face and star of Fox News. And for her to do that meant there really was no support left that Ailes could hold on to.

But this doesn't happen without Gretchen Carlson. It was an act of - she had been let go by the network. Her contract lapsed a couple weeks earlier. But it was a real act of bravery of her because it essentially assured not only would she not get a job at Fox, but that it'd be very unlikely she'd work again in conventional television news.

CORNISH: In the end, who is this movie for, Linda?

HOLMES: I think fans of Charlize Theron probably. I think if you're going because of how you feel about Fox News, you'll be disappointed in any direction. I think this is mostly to admire the Charlize Theron performance.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Linda Holmes.

Thanks so much.

HOLMES: You bet.

CORNISH: And David Folkenflik, our NPR media correspondent, talking to us from New York - thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.