During a Tuesday panel discussion on sexual harassment in the media industry, “Nightline” founding anchor Ted Koppel advised the audience that he had been invited to provide a certain “generational” point of view. “Let me acknowledge the obvious here: I’m here because there’s a need for old fogeyism to be represented on this panel,” said Koppel at the National Press Club.
“If they ever existed, we need a restoration of good manners,” said the 78-year-old Koppel, who went on to provide an example. “I do think people need to dress for work. That, I am sure, is an unpopular notion today. But the fact of the matter is I would be just as upset by a guy coming in wearing a T-shirt and torn jeans . . . as I am by a woman who comes in wearing a skirt that is so short that it is provocative. Does that permit or encourage or excuse the sort of behavior we are talking about here? No. It. Does. Not.”
Actually, Ted, women wearing baggy sweats get catcalled while jogging; women in parkas get groped at the grocery store; and women who wear conservative fashions in the office get harassed. So there.
The occasion for Koppel’s remarks was the launch of Press Forward, a nonpartisan initiative whose co-founders include several victims of sexual harassment at NBC News, CBS News and ABC News. According to the group’s literature, the co-founders are “current, former and aspiring female journalists who were impacted by powerful men in media whose misconduct has been publicly exposed.” The group’s ambitious agenda includes partnerships for sexual harassment training, creating a “blueprint” for cultural change within newsrooms and organizing town-hall meetings on the topic.
An opening panel showcased views and testimonials from Press Forward’s co-founders. Dianna May, who last year spoke to the Post about her experience with Mark Halperin when she worked years ago at ABC News, gave a moving account of her experiences: “I’m here today because like my fellow joyous warriors here onstage, I was also subjected to abhorrent behavior in the newsroom that left me feeling ashamed, embarrassed and powerless. . . . It was the result of a leadership vacuum that permitted it to happen, a leadership system that, I believe, valued ratings over human decency.”
She continued: “I’m a lawyer now, but my primary job is raising my two young sons, and to me that means growing them into men who are respectful and kind and honest, empathetic and fair and who will stand up for others when they need help and who, in the parenting vernacular, make good choices. Perhaps the most salient point is that I hold them accountable for their actions. And perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect of industry executives what we expect of our children.”
Addie Zinone, another co-founder, had a consensual affair with NBC’s Matt Lauer in 2000 — when she was a 24-year-old production assistant and he was a 40-year-old broadcasting titan. Lauer’s advances, Zinone has said, amounted to an “abuse of power.” In a heartfelt testimonial at the National Press Club, Zinone said she, like everyone else, is accountable for her actions. “But this wasn’t right and it affected my entire life, it affected my entire career. He made me feel like an object, and he didn’t make me feel like I had any substance. . . . And you turn on the TV, and there they are. And their contracts are being renewed, and it’s constantly just reinforced that their behavior is okay.”
Eleanor McManus, another Press Forward co-founder and a Halperin accuser, told the assembled crowd of having learned recently of a series of events that may well not have taken place before October 2017: A freelancer who does work for a prominent news organization told a female manager that she was being harassed by a “well-respected, longtime employee. There’s probably a good chance you’ve read or seen his work,” said McManus. The manager convinced the freelancer to go to Human Resources, and they went together for the meeting. “The manager stood by her, supported her,” said McManus. The harasser was fired, said McManus. “So, the company did the right thing. . . . The system worked.”
Co-founder Dianna Pierce Burgess worked for more than a decade with Koppel at “Nightline,” and credited him with helping to create a professional environment that was both “respectful and inspiring.”
After listening to these stories, Koppel sounded impressed. “I must say I was very touched by the combination of passion and moderation. I was a little bit nervous before I came here because I thought it would be much heavier on the side of passion and not as much attention given to moderation,” said Koppel, somehow. He later said: “I think equality is a very important point to stress here. Because equality doesn’t mean that we’re constantly going to be walking around worrying about offending you because language is inappropriate. Language in a newsroom tends to be inappropriate and frankly I don’t think any one of you is here because you heard some bad words in a newsroom. It went way beyond that. My concern is that. . . . Don’t become extremists.”
Press Forward wasn’t going to allow people to leave with any such impression. Lara Setrakian, a Press Forward co-founder and also a Halperin accuser, delivered this message at the end of the proceedings: “In case you haven’t noticed already, we are idealists but we are not fools. And we have been harmed but we are not hysterical. The likelihood of us going extreme is nil. We are management consultants, we are lawyers, we are systems makers, we are journalists, we are structured about this, and we are absolutely intent on building it for a lasting impact.”