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When an alleged sexual harasser is in the anchor's chair

Powerful men accused of sexual harassment and assault have promoted skewed narratives of men and women, politics and power.

Matt Lauer on September 4, 2017
Matt Lauer on September 4, 2017.
Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, Leon Wieseltier, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Oreskes — all these men and more have been ousted from high-profile media jobs in recent months after being publicly accused of predatory behavior toward women colleagues.

Among the questions about safety and equality in the workplace raised by the recent revelations, another has arisen: What happens to the news when it’s delivered by men like these?

For many, concern for the women whose lives and careers have been harmed by abuse has been coupled with the worry that all of us may have been affected, in ways large and small, by a version of our country’s past and present filtered through the perspectives of sexual harassers.

In particular, Rebecca Traister at the Cut and others have wondered how coverage of the 2016 presidential election might have been distorted by the men who reported on the campaigns, many of whom have since been the subject of harassment allegations. This view is receiving some pushback. Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, “and many other powerful media men may well be lecherous sexual predators,” writes Damon Linker at the Week. “But that had about as much impact on the outcome of the election as a minor bit of routine turbulence has to do with causing the catastrophic nosedive of a jumbo jet from out of a clear blue sky.”

Airplane metaphors aside, this isn’t just about the outcome of the election. It’s also about how we learn about the world around us, and who gets to tell us about that world.

A look back through the work of some powerful men accused of harassment reveals double standards, demeaning stereotypes, and dismissive attitudes about sexual assault that, together, add up to a skewed portrayal of men and women, politics and power. Zeroing in on three men in particular — Lauer, Wieseltier, and Halperin — shows how that portrayal has the potential to influence many areas of news and American life, including and beyond the presidential election.

Leon Wieseltier, culture police

The former literary editor of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier was not known as a prolific writer. He was, however, highly influential in his sphere. Wieseltier in his heyday played “the rarefied role of aesthetic and moral arbiter,” wrote Lloyd Grove at Vanity Fair in 1995; “he once described his job as ‘policing the culture.’” That job apparently included dispensing bon mots like this description of Hillary Clinton, which Maureen Dowd quoted in a 2007 column: “She’s like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won’t stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone.”

By 2016, Wiesltier had adopted a more measured tone with respect to Clinton. In a conversation with Chelsea Handler for the New York Times’s T Magazine, he said, “She’s a rational, sound human being who does her homework. But she’s not going to do anything bold and brave.” He also worried about her chances of beating Trump: “She’s not very nimble and nobody loves her.” To this, Handler responded, “I get so annoyed when people say nobody loves Hillary Clinton. I don’t need to love her! I’m not hanging out with her.”

Handler was far from the only person to note that you don’t necessarily need to love your presidential candidate — plenty of people voted for Trump despite believing he was neither honest nor trustworthy. But the narrative that nobody loved Hillary Clinton remained pervasive, propped up at least in part by men like Wieseltier.

In the portions of the New Republic edited by Wieseltier, women appear to have been notable for their absence, as Clio Chang has noted at Splinter. VIDA, which measures gender diversity at literary and news publications, found that in 2013, the year before Wieseltier left, the New Republic published 55 male book reviewers and four women. The numbers for books reviewed aren’t much better — 73 were by male authors, 14 by women. The numbers in 2012 were similar: 79 male reviewers and nine female ones, 80 books by men and 16 by women. As the editor responsible for the New Republic’s “back of the book” culture section, Wieseltier presumably would have overseen these reviews.

“Just the way that he talked about prominent women, it was clear they were second tier to male intellectuals,” a former New Republic employee told Chang of Wieseltier. The former literary editor also “had a list of five or six people who he would always talk about how he couldn’t believe they got so far in life for being so stupid,” an employee said. The list included former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Hillary Clinton, and Nora Ephron. John Kerry was the only man.

There may well be powerful men accused of harassment whose creative or journalistic work shows no trace of sexism. But in Wieseltier’s case, “policing the culture” seems to have meant, in many cases, policing women out.

Mark Halperin: “Donald Trump can celebrate this story”

Mark Halperin’s journalism — at ABC, MSNBC, Bloomberg, and elsewhere — has shaped not just how Americans think about today’s political leaders, but how they think about politics in general, as Eve Fairbanks points out at BuzzFeed. Particularly influential — and noteworthy in the context of allegations against him — is his 2010 book Game Change, co-written with John Heilemann, about the 2008 presidential election. At one point in the book, Heilemann and Halperin describe Hillary Clinton as “prideful, aggrieved, confused — and still high on the notion she was leading an army, Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-sized fake pearls.” Recounting Clinton’s reaction to her loss in the Iowa caucus, they write, “Losing always tests a politician’s composure and grace. Hillary had never lost before, and she found little of either trait at her disposal.”

“The advisers in the room were all long-time intimates of the Clintons and had experienced their squalls of fury many times,” the authors continue. “But to a person, they found the display they were witnessing now utterly stunning — and especially unnerving coming from Hillary. Watching her bitter and befuddled reaction, her staggering lack of control or command, one of her senior-most lieutenants thought for the first time, This woman shouldn’t be president.”

In her review of the book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Karen R. Long writes that the authors’ approach of interviewing all sources on deep background, meaning their observations were not for attribution, “frees former campaign staff to tell tales, grease anecdotes, and very likely settle scores.” It can also make it hard to tell what was an observation from a staffer and what came from Heilemann and Halperin themselves.

But the authors, ultimately, had the power to decide what went into the book and what stayed out, and how to describe what sources told them and what they themselves observed. They were the ones who chose phrases like “bitter and befuddled,” “staggering lack of control or command,” “Napoleon in a navy pantsuit.” They chose to portray Clinton as, in Rebecca Traister’s words, “a grasping and scandal-plagued woman” who had no idea what to do when she was denied the power she craved.

This portrayal turned out to be exceptionally lasting, dominating media and public perceptions of Clinton to such a degree that it became more powerful than confirmed truths about Donald Trump, such as his own words, caught on tape, about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Going into election night, Clinton had the second-worst favorability ratings of any candidate at that point in the race since 1956, according to Gallup — worse even than the famously unpopular Barry Goldwater. The only candidate to poll worse was Trump — who, of course, went on to win anyway. Perhaps tellingly, a quarter of all voters in one poll said they cast their vote because they disliked the other candidate more.

No one outside the Clinton campaign can say with complete certainty whether Heilemann and Halperin’s portrayal of her was fair. But, as Traister noted, it stands in sharp contrast to Halperin’s coverage of Trump’s 2016 campaign.

While Heilemann and Halperin criticized Clinton’s lack of composure after her 2008 Iowa loss, Halperin largely gave Trump a pass when, in the third presidential debate, the candidate refused to say whether he would concede defeat if he lost the election. Halperin called it “a moment that offends the sensibilities of elites.” The answer “was wrong,” he allowed, but “normal people won't care about that answer. That's why I say again, elites control a lot of this process.”

Halperin was also relatively cavalier about reports of harassment and assault by Trump, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen noted in October. “If that's the best they got on these issues and Donald Trump, Donald Trump should be celebrating that story,” Halperin said on Morning Joe in May 2016, referring to women’s reports that Trump groped them or kissed them without their consent. “There's nothing illegal, there's nothing even kind of, like, beyond boorish or politically incorrect, which is built into the Donald Trump brand. So if that's the best they have in this score, Donald Trump can celebrate this story, politically.”

“Halperin wrote about Washington like it was an intriguing game,” Fairbanks writes, “the kind that masked aristocrats played to entertain themselves at 19th-century parties.” By treating allegations of sexual harassment and assault like just another move in the game — one Trump could “celebrate” — Halperin made women’s safety and equality sound like side issues, and helped create and sustain an environment where such concerns could be easily brushed aside.

Matt Lauer’s sexist interviews

Matt Lauer’s dismissal from NBC after a report of sexual misconduct has already prompted scrutiny of his past interviews. And there’s a lot to go through. In fact, Lauer had been criticized for his treatment of female interview subjects long before his firing. His grilling of Hillary Clinton at last year’s Commander-in-Chief Forum was called sexist at the time. So were his comments to Anne Hathaway in 2012, about a recent upskirt photo, and his question to General Motors CEO Mary Barra in 2014, about whether she could be both a good chief executive and a good mother.

Other interviews take on a disturbing cast in light of the allegation against Lauer. In an interview in October, Lauer took a condescending tone with Corey Feldman, who was talking about his childhood sexual abuse. Why hadn’t he named his abusers? Why wasn’t he going to the police? Lauer’s questions, wrote Daniel D’Addario at Time, “seem to blame Feldman for being a victim in the wrong way.”

Lauer’s influence at Today extended beyond his own interviews, according to Ramin Setoodeh and Elizabeth Wagmeister of Variety. “According to producers, Lauer — who had considerable editorial clout over which stories would ultimately air on ‘Today’ — would frequently dismiss stories about cheating husbands,” they write. They also note that Lauer was forced to cover the issue of sexual harassment after allegations against Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein became public, which “often made for awkward moments on TV for staff members who knew about Lauer’s private interactions.”

How men like Wieseltier, Halperin, and Lauer have shaped Americans’ thinking

“We routinely underestimate what it means that our political system has been constructed and interpreted by men, that our expectations for politicians have been set by generations of male politicians and shaped by generations of male pundits,” Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote in October. Too many people also underestimate the way that disrespect for women in life — a refusal to respect their boundaries and their equality as colleagues — can infect a person’s work.

Journalists ordinarily take pains to avoid conflicts of interest, recusing themselves from covering people or stories to which they have a close personal connection. You could see the coverage of sexual assault and harassment by journalists who have committed such acts as a kind of conflict of interest — they have every reason to downplay the seriousness of allegations, and question the integrity of survivors, both to prevent their own misdeeds from coming to light and to convince themselves that what they’ve done is acceptable. The result is a media landscape all but designed to keep survivors quiet and perpetrators in power, not just within media but across society. It’s a testament to the strength and will of survivors that they have been able to speak up in this environment — and their reports are still discounted or dismissed.

It’s entirely possible that even with a media ecosystem free of harassers (at this point, it’s hard to imagine what that would even look like), Hillary Clinton would still have lost the presidency. But the influence of men like Wieseltier, Halperin, and Lauer goes beyond any single election. Their attitudes affect who is taken seriously in workplaces, in classrooms, and in homes. They affect who is seen as confident and who is seen as “prideful,” who is seen as strident and who is seen as strong. They affect who is able to come forward and who is believed.

Maybe alleged harassers in media didn’t cost Hillary Clinton the election. But they have deprived us all of a fair accounting of ourselves and the world around us, a loss whose ramifications we are only beginning to understand.