Cecily Coleman and Christine Craft, former employes of national news organizations who have filed sexual discrimination cases against their employers, yesterday joined with the legal unit of the National Organization for Women to form a fund to help fight sexual harassment.
"We hope we could publicize what it is really like for a woman alone, a woman who has been in the industry, to take on the industry single-handedly. I can tell you that it is a very difficult thing. It is expensive, it is very emotionally draining. It also has implications about your future work in the field. We also thought our causes were just," said Coleman, who worked for more than a year as staff director for the Voter Education Project at ABC News. She has sued the company for $10 million, charging sexual harassment.
Coleman charges that from March 1983 to May 1, 1984, she was repeatedly the object of unwanted sexual advances from her supervisor, the former vice president of corporate affairs for the network. She said that within days after she told an ABC personnel official of the situation, she was fired and her office at ABC News' Washington bureau was "ransacked." ABC has denied the charges of sexual harassment and yesterday a spokesman said the network does not comment on pending litigation. The Coleman trial is scheduled to begin here June 28 in U.S. District Court before Judge Barrington Parker.
Craft joined Coleman at a press briefing and evening cocktail party to announce the fund, sponsored by NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund, Women's Media Project. In the two years since she sued her former employer, Metromedia Inc., Craft has galvanized considerable interest in women in the broadcasting industry.
Craft, a coanchor at Metromedia's television station in Kansas City from January to August 1981, said she was told by her news director that she "was too old, too unattractive, did not defer to men and did not hide her intelligence to make men look smarter." In January 1983 she filed suit and has won in two trials. The decision is being appealed by Metromedia.
Craft said: "I worry about the average man or woman who has a Title VII case in this country under existing law, what sort of path he or she would have to find justice. It is incredibly expensive. I have been very lucky. I have been able to go out on the collegiate lecture tour for the last two years. I have been able to pay off the first trial and am working on the second one now."
"Discrimination is rampant in the industry," said Marsha Levick, the legal director of the NOW-LDEF. "While we ought to feel discouraged about the state of justice in our society right now, we have been energized by the very low level of enforcement on the federal level. The message from on high has created a climate in both the public and private sectors that says to employers 'It is okay' . . . but we are going to be much more aggressive in pursuing you."
Other situations and suits have brought attention to women in the media.
For more than a year a group of women at ABC has been meeting to discuss sexism, sexual harassment, mobility and visibility with management. Elissa Dorfsman, the general sales manager of a CBS-owned radio station in Philadelphia, has filed suit against CBS, Inc. Another harassment case has been filed against Cable News Network. In a local case, Gloria Gibson, a former anchor at Metromedia's Channel 5, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging sexual and racial discrimination.
NOW-LDEF has joined some of the cases as a counsel or co-counsel, with a friend-of-the-court brief, and as a fundraiser or resource service. Kathy Bonk, the director of the NOW-LDEF Women's Media Project, has requested meetings with the companies currently involved in mergers, including Capital Cities Communications Inc. and ABC, as well as the Federal Communications Commission on this issue.
"We are vigorously meeting with management. We are making no bones about it -- we want to see some progress," said Bonk. The new fund, Bonk said, hopes to raise $50,000 to $100,000 a year. "That is about what it takes to keep two cases going," she said.
At the wine and cheese party later, a crowd of about 100 listened intently as Coleman, Craft and Gibson stressed the importance of the harassment issue.
"It is breaking a code of silence" to discuss sexual harassment, said Coleman. "Probably everyone in this room knows a story. In my case it worsened to the point where I was afraid to be in the room alone with him. You start wearing your clothes up to here, making sure the door is never closed, never sitting down, holding books in front of you." A number of the women in the room nodded in agreement.
The idea of urging Congress to hold hearings on employment discrimination in the media, proposed by the fund sponsors, was endorsed by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who added: "These three courageous women are in the tradition of real American womanhood."