The ongoing bulletins about men in the news media behaving badly have evoked an all-too predictable reaction:
We are going to appoint committees and task forces to study the situation! We’re going to come up with workplace rules to ensure that it never happens again! We are shocked, shocked that such depraved behavior could have been occurring in our very own workplaces! How could we have missed this story?
As women in the media gather at the Newseum this week to strategize a way forward, I hope they'll recognize this reality: We didn’t miss the story. From National Public Radio’s Michael Oreskes to NBC’s Matt Lauer to Fox's Bill O’Reilly, we enabled it from one end of the news spectrum to the other.
The inevitable questions about who exactly knew what when about the sexual misdeeds are legitimate and worth following up. But focusing too much on them risks missing the much larger, and, for industry leaders, far more damning point:
Sexual harassment is a form of bullying. And while it’s admittedly hard to know and prove that you have a perv working in your midst without victims willing to speak out, the media industry has more than tolerated bullies and mean boys. We have celebrated them. We have promoted them.
While we’ve been quick to call out and condemn the culture of entitlement that exists for the prima donnas of the sports world, we the media have created the same cozy cocoon of permissiveness for our perceived “stars.”
And abusers aren’t the only ones who have been rewarded; so have their enablers. In the circus, somebody has to walk behind the elephants and sweep up their messes. In many newsrooms, those are the people who get paid and (behind closed doors) praised for picking up the pieces — of egos, self-esteem and other pieces of humanity that we let the supposed big shots think they were entitled to shatter.
Women have not been the only victims. But we are particularly vulnerable in especially insidious ways.
On the outdoorsy campus where I now teach, I often cross paths with female undergrads wearing a uniform of leggings and fashionably torn sweats — along with eyeliner worthy of Cleopatra and more foundation than you can find on a Fox TV set.
I stopped being amused after reading filmmaker Scott Rosenberg’s viral Facebook post about his work for Harvey Weinstein and his brother. While condemning Weinstein, the piece waxed candidly nostalgic for the creative hothouse he created during “the glory days in Tribeca” where “the brothers wanted to create a ‘family of film’” and the lucky entrants into those precincts “looked forward to having meetings there.”
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This made me see the hyper-sexualized, preternaturally perfect faces over the carefully distressed sweats in a whole new light: as a strategic career move.
Rosenberg’s honesty about the frat-house atmosphere that Weinstein created and the way it advanced his career got me thinking about the entrance fee for someone who is obviously not a bro and never can be. In a society where bullies rule, the professionally ambitious who happen to be female have no choice but to play a dangerous game: slathering on makeup, availing themselves of whole industries and medical fields that exist to alter their appearances.
Like matadors, women must try to attract the bulls while avoiding being gored.
Journalism isn’t the only profession afflicted by this sort of perversion. Ending the reign of newsroom bullies won’t, by itself, solve the larger social problem. But for those of us who pride themselves on “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” cleaning up our own mess seems like a good place to start.
Kathy Kiely is a veteran journalist and a journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely