Democracy Dies in Darkness

Post Partisan | Opinion

Welcome to the tournament of champion creeps

September 10, 2018 at 7:58 PM

Leslie Moonves, then chairman and CEO of CBS Corporation, in Beverly Hills, Calif, on May 3, 2017. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

It’s no easy task to add up all the men whose careers and reputations have fallen to the #MeToo movement over the past year. I took a stab at it after CBS announced on Sunday that CEO Les Moonves had resigned, but I gave up. There are just too many open questions about who qualifies as a harasser rather than as a jerk. (Does tweeting rape jokes or occasionally talking about your sex life to coworkers count?) Moreover, the sheer speed at which the movement is steaming forward means that any list will be quickly outdated.

The only safe answer to the how-many-men question is “a lot.” We can also say that their numbers are concentrated in glamour industries: media, Hollywood, music. Which seems … odd. Why do industries that especially pride themselves on their feminist cred seem so unusually prone to harassment scandals? Have America’s aluminum smelters and defense contractors, hospital chains and hotel brands, really managed to expel all the abusers from their ranks, while moviemakers and publishers struggle?

One explanation for the disparity, popular among conservatives, is that an industry that spends a lot of time celebrating the complete sexual autonomy of every individual is going to spend more time focused on sex, period. But a more plausible answer is that a disproportionate number of complaints are popping up not in industries dominated by liberals, but in industries that are run along the tournament model.

A tournament labor market is one where a lot of people compete for a small number of very rewarding jobs. Acting is obviously one of those businesses, with hundreds of thousands of hopefuls aspiring to be one of a few dozen megastars. The music business is a similar story. And so, increasingly, is journalism, because the Internet has destroyed the advertising model that used to support large numbers of ink-stained wretches laboring in the middle of the fame-and-pay scale.

Tournament markets are especially fertile environments for abuse because the gap between making it and not is so wide. When success or failure is close to a binary, there’s a strong incentive for workers to grit their teeth and endure vile abuse, if doing so makes them 1 percent more likely to win the tournament. And when they refuse to grin and bear it, replacing them is terribly easy, so companies have little incentive to crack down on heavyweights who abuse the more junior help.

Indeed, the idea that liberal-dominated industries are uniquely prone to abuse because of their politics may have the causation exactly backward: Working in an abuse-prone industry seems likely, all else being equal, to drive you toward left-wing politics, as you seek a counterweight to the near-totalitarian power of your bosses.

That’s a satisfying explanation. But I’m not sure it’s the right one or, at least, the whole one. For there’s another troubling possibility, which is that the #MeToo tallies are so heavily larded with celebrities not because that’s where most of the abuse is happening, but because that’s where reporters are looking.

One of the striking things about #MeToo is how much of its labor has been done by the media and how little by the law. Statutes of limitations have expired, and tournament industries have paid off victims over and over rather than risk losing star players. So accountability has been left to publicity and shaming.

That publicity is much more likely to be available to victims in glamor businesses. There are many more outlets with well-sourced reporters devoted to covering show biz than the logistics industry. Moreover, a celebrity-studded story about a Hollywood kingmaker simply has a larger built-in audience than an exposé of a wayward executive in the global reinsurance field. All of which means that an outsize share of resources is likely to be devoted to ferreting out misbehavior in a narrow swath of America’s vast economic fabric.

It is, of course, important to curb abuse in those fields. But surely it is no less important to the average American to ensure that women in call-center management and paper milling, in retail and residential construction, have the opportunity to work without powerful men breathing in their ears.

Real change will mean looking into places that still remain in shadow. But for that to happen, we may have to spend less time craning our necks to count the stars.


Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of "The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success."

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