Maureen Dowd interviewed Hollywood mogul Barry Diller for a story that ran in the New York Times Style section this weekend under the provocative headline “All Men Are Guilty.”
But despite the headline (a Diller quote), this is not a conversation about a man coming to grips with sexual harassment. It’s a portrait of how powerful people help abusers get away with their crimes.
Diller’s description of what happens to men caught sexually harassing the women around them sums it up. “You get accused, you’re obliterated,” Diller says — completely unchallenged by Dowd. “Charlie Rose ceases to exist.”
Rose, the piece doesn’t mention, is alive and well and rich. He wasn’t executed. He was fired by CBS from his self-titled show after the Washington Post published a story about how he’d spent years harassing his underlings, including groping them and walking around with an open bathrobe, exposing his genitals.
Dowd doesn’t follow up or question any of Diller’s outlandish thoughts or claims (even when he says men have stopped sexually harassing women altogether). The interview is a modern version of Bill Clinton-era Dowd. In the 1990s, she smeared Monica Lewinsky in humiliating terms and concluded the 21-year-old White House aide was a “predator.” This time, even amid a significant cultural moment of reckoning, Dowd is promoting a man who wants to undermine and distract from it.
Diller’s musings and Dowd’s complicity are one of the reasons women are so reluctant to speak up about their experiences of harassment or sexual assault. The people at the top of our most powerful institutions and industries — from Hollywood to the New York Times Style and Opinion pages — don’t seem to accept the extent of the problem or how terrible individual incidents are. Or if they do, they just don’t seem to care.
The #MeToo movement has had an incredible effect on the national conversation around sexual harassment and abuse. Reporters in the New York Times news division, unlike their opinion colleagues such as Dowd, have led the charge in exposing powerful bad actors. But this week, Jodi Kantor, who has contributed to the Times’s groundbreaking work, reported that real change for women in the workplace has so far been elusive.
Until moguls like Diller, who have the power to change the system, and columnists like Dowd, who can force them to confront reality, decide to help make change, things will almost certainly stay the same.
“You get accused, you’re obliterated”
Diller says that men are all guilty of various harassment-style misdeeds, a tantalizing admission that became the headline to the interview. But read down a few more lines and it’s clear what he really thinks.
Diller believes there’s a problem with what to do about cases of harassment that fall along a spectrum. “Are we really going to have only capital punishment? Because right now, that’s what we have,” he says. “You get accused, you’re obliterated. Charlie Rose ceases to exist.”
Narrowly, it’s worth noting that Rose is doing just fine. More broadly, Diller is responding to what has become the most extreme punishment for sexual harassers who have been outed in the media. Besides the small handful who caught the eye of law enforcement, the worst punishment these men have faced is losing their job. (And not all of them even face that.)
People lose jobs for all kinds of reasons. Usually, it’s mundane stuff, like chronic tardiness, poor performance, frequent mistakes (in journalism, plagiarism will generally get you frogmarched out of the building). But when getting fired is punishment for assaulting or harassing a colleague or industry associate, according to Diller, it’s practically the death penalty.
If Dowd asked a follow-up question about this line of thinking, it doesn’t appear in the text. One approach to interviewing is to just let the subject talk, and maybe that’s what she did here. But elsewhere in the article, Dowd sets the context of their conversation. She openly agrees with Diller several times. The omission of any follow-up here says plenty.
Let’s go back to assuming women are lying
#MeToo shifted the calculus for women thinking about speaking out. Victims sensed a moment that might mean they would be believed — that they might not be attacked or smeared or belittled.
Diller and Dowd are game to shift the premise back.
“Other than psychopaths, I think all of this bad behavior is finished,” Diller tells Dowd.
A comment like this poses a real threat. Just as we’re getting an opening to encourage women to speak out, Diller is trying to shut it. He is putting the premise back to a place where we assume first that women are lying: If men aren’t doing this, why is a woman saying one is?
And again, Dowd doesn’t confront Diller, even though his opinion is a clear misstatement of fact. Instead, she lets him assert that the problem is solved (obviously, it’s not).
In the past few years, writers, most notably Amanda Hess, have looked back at Dowd’s coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Dowd called Lewinsky, among other things, tubby, slutty, and nutty. She ultimately decided Bill Clinton was the real victim: “It is Ms. Lewinsky who comes across as the red-blooded predator, wailing to her girl friends that the President wouldn’t go all the way.” And “It is Mr. Clinton who behaves more like a teen-age girl trying to protect her virginity. … Ms. Lewinsky is the one who bristles with testosterone.”
Diller doesn’t want to believe women now. Dowd didn’t want to believe women then. It’s time they started to.
Forget Hollywood. Blame porn.
Diller and Dowd don’t get into any questions about how Hollywood may have contributed to a culture where sexual harassment is so common or, really, the extent of harassment in the industry itself. But they do take a look at porn.
“I mean, if you take the effect of pornography on young people today. Pornography until recently was fairly staid. Today, online, pornography is so extreme and so varied, with such expressions of fetishism and other things that boys are seeing. The idea of normal sex and normal romance has to be adversely affected by that,” Diller says.
Dowd agrees, adding that men accused of sexual harassment are dropping like flies. It’s time to look ahead to the next big threat or perhaps what triggered this whole problem in the first place.
“Once, Hollywood taught us about desire and sex and romance, giving us a vocabulary for these experiences. But no more,” she writes. “I wonder what will happen as girls emboldened by the fall of male predators collide with boys indoctrinated by pornography.”
Neither Diller nor Dowd touches the very obvious questions about Hollywood’s gender problem. We know that women are way underrepresented in front of the camera and behind it. Few women direct films at all. Far fewer women get starring roles than men. When they do, they are paid less.
Meanwhile, the evidence we have about the kind of porn Diller describes “doesn’t support the hypothesis that it does major harm.”
But what we do know is this: A media mogul and a prominent cultural critic are both eager to misdirect the conversation around sexual harassment. This sleight of hand lets Diller distract from the role he might have played in an industry with a rampant problem. It lets Dowd pretend she didn’t lead the conversation in the wrong direction. It’s time for both of them to look hard at themselves, their power, and this moment and do better.