In March 1983, Cecily Colema was hired by ABC to direct the voter participation project it was undertaking with Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her salary was $40,000 and her office was in the ABC news bureau in Washington. In October of that year, she was named executive director of ABC's advisory committee on voter education and her salary was raised to $60,000 a year.
By May 1984, she had been fired.
The reason, she says, is that after repeated attempts to handle the situation privately, she finally went to the personnel officer at ABC and complained of sexual harassment by her immediate supervisor. She says the personnel officer assured her of confidentiality, but then, without Coleman's knowledge, the personnel officer confronted the supervisor, who denied the allegations. Two days later, according to Coleman, ABC told her the matter was closed. She says she was never interviewed about the specifics of her complaint. Three weeks later, while she was attending the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, she received a telegram from ABC terminating her employment. When she returned, she says, she found her office stripped and her assistant fired.
Three weeks later, Coleman filed suit against ABC and several of its officers in U.S. District Court here, claiming sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Trial is scheduled to begin June 28 before Judge Barrington Parker. ABC has denied the charges and a spokesman has said the network does not comment on pending litigation.
The National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund joined Coleman's case as co-counsel last November, to provide the same fund-raising support it gave Christine Craft, the Kansas City anchorwoman who sued Metromedia on grounds of sex discrimination. Craft and Coleman were both in Washington recently to talk about their cases and to launch a fund to help women defray the legal costs they incur in suing media giants. The idea is for women who sue successfully to repay the fund.
What Craft and Coleman said drove home, once again, the personal costs to women who are willing to take on powerful employers. Coleman, for example, said she has not been able to get a job in broadcasting. "They said, 'You can't come back to ABC and if you sue we can guarantee no work in the industry.' " Craft said, "It's been four years since I was told I was too old and too unattractive" to be on the air. "I've won two unanimous federal jury verdicts. I'm still fighting. They said, 'You can't fight us. We're too big.' It is incredibly expensive. I've become very politicized by having a Reagan-appointed judge throw out a unanimous jury verdict." She said she was "appalled" at how long it takes to litigate sex discrimination suits.
Kathy Bonk, who heads the Media Project of the NOW legal defense fund, estimated that it has cost $35,000 to get the Coleman case through the deposition process and ready for trial. She hopes to raise $50,000 to $100,000 for the fund, and said it has already received several anonymous donations from women in the media.
Women in television face a particular set of problems: The jobs pay well and there aren't many of them; and there is an extraordinary emphasis on appearance, especially for women who are on the air. Women in television "tend to be hired for their looks," said Bonk, particularly at entry-level positions. "They're told the way to get ahead is to sleep with their boss. We have women coming to us with stories but they are afraid to go public because they are afraid they would lose their careers and they would."
Coleman said that part of her motivation for suing is that she hopes "to publicize what it's like for women in the industry, and to say it's right for you to stand up for what you believe in. You're not there to be someone else's plaything."
The law is fairly clear about that, and it's also fairly clear about the fact that employers can be held responsible if an employe is a victim of sexual harassment. Punitive damages aside, however, it is in the interest of television news to ensure that its news rooms are free of this kind of thing. It is humiliating and debasing to the women who have to put up with it and terribly difficult for the women who choose to fight it. The more they do, however, and the more often highly publicized cases come forth, the worse the image of television news will become. Somehow, the idea of having the news brought to you by someone who had to get a job on a casting couch isn't very appealing.