It’s not just Hollywood; the media has a sex harassment problem, too

The Observer editorial board

Mark Halperin was relieved of his duties at NBC News after allegations of sexual harassment became public.
Mark Halperin was relieved of his duties at NBC News after allegations of sexual harassment became public. Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

It’s not just Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and the political world and Hollywood. The news industry also allowed sexual harassment and assault to fester within its ranks for decades without finding the courage, willingness or ability to remove that scourge.

An industry which is supposed to be a watchdog, to hold the powerful to account so that power won’t be abused, has been exposed as having maybe as large a problem with sexual harassment as anywhere else. It’s shameful. The latest news was that Mike Oreskes, who headed up NPR’s news division, was forced to resign after reports surfaced of two-decade old sexual assault allegations – which NPR learned about last year but said it handled internally – and new allegations that were reported since the Washington Post published an article about Oreskes’ past.

That came after a growing list of allegations about high-profile political analyst Mark Halperin, which stretched back years to when he was with ABC News. He was relieved of his duties at NBC News after those allegations became public. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine has been grilled about past behavior and misogynistic writings for which he now admits profound shame. Hamilton Fish, publisher of The New Republic, had to recently take a leave of absence, and a former highly influential editor there, Leon Wieseltier, kept working and writing for years despite his awful behavior having been an open secret. And, of course, several Fox News Channel personalities, including star Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, were forced out and were involved in settlements that by some accounts totaled $100 million. There’s no telling who else will be revealed to have committed these kinds of acts and repeatedly got away with it for far too long.

The media also failed when they didn’t highlight the allegations about Bill Cosby sooner, even though they had been floating around for decades. The Weinstein story didn’t get told until he had harmed many women over many years – even though several journalists had been made aware of his behavior – and too many media outlets initially allowed Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey to turn a 30-year-old complaint about his trying to have sex with a then 14-year-old boy into the less important news that Spacey had suddenly decided to live as an openly gay man.

Uncovering and verifying sexual harassment and assault allegations is a task that even well-trained law enforcement officials struggle with. And it’s not fair to lump innocent men in with the abusers because of everyday misunderstandings. It’s not easy. But that’s not an excuse.

Even though media highlighted the horror of a man becoming president after bragging about casually sexually assaulting women and scrutinized Betsy Devos’s decision to rescind Obama-era policies aimed at reducing assault on college campuses, the industry clearly has not served the women in our ranks well, or those among our audience.

Members of the media need to ask themselves why it took so long for such stories to come to light. Were they pushed aside because they are messy and too difficult to prove, or were they dismissed because we are part of a larger culture that looked away too quickly? Those are questions for individual reporters and editors, of course, but also for all of us, in any industry, who need to take a closer look at the way we think about how men treat women.