So, now that the dam has burst on sexual misconduct at media companies, we’re good, right?
Don’t believe that for a moment.
The appalling behavior that has been in the headlines for weeks isn’t going to stop just because some high-profile men have fallen from grace.
Yes, maybe, after this month of eye-popping revelations about influential media figures such as Bill O’Reilly, Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier, news organizations will do a better job of taking internal complaints seriously. For a while.
And maybe high-powered men will keep their pants zipped and their hands to themselves so that they won’t lose their positions atop the totem pole. For a time.
The revelations do matter. But something deeper — more difficult — has to happen, too.
Media companies have to address the deep-seated gender inequality that’s at the root of this mess.
“It shouldn’t be forgotten that sexual harassment is often more about abuse of power than sex,” wrote former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who with journalist Jane Mayer chronicled Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings in their book, “Strange Justice.”
When Abramson was the top Times editor — the first woman to hold that coveted post — she promoted talented, qualified women so that half of her masthead was female. Good thing she moved fast; Abramson was fired after less than three years.
That kind of equity makes a difference. Having a critical mass of female decision-makers, rather than a token presence, allows ideas to bubble up and voices to be heard in new ways. This is, of course, true for racial diversity, too.
It’s rare, though — and not just in media-management ranks.
When “CBS Evening News” named Jeff Glor to replace Scott Pelley as anchor last week, he joined NBC’s Lester Holt and ABC’s David Muir to, once again, make it three men in the anchor chairs across the networks. (An outdated measure in 2017? Hardly. The network evening news still pulls in more than 20 million viewers a night.)
And men still do most of the news reporting at newspapers, broadcast networks, wire services and online outlets, according to the Women’s Media Center. In some places, including The Washington Post, that gender gap is small; in others, like the New York Daily News, it’s substantial — three of every four news stories is written by a man.
As for Wieseltier, the longtime New Republic literary editor who lost funding for a magazine start-up, he “simply did not consider women to be public intellectuals,” wrote Clio Chang in Splinter.
He harassed women, according to credible accusations, but he rarely published them or chose for review books written by women. “The lowest points were in 2012 — when there were only nine female reviewers compared to 79 male reviewers — and in 2013, when Wieseltier’s section published four reviews written by women,” Chang wrote.
And in all these ways, our culture is formed. Who do we see in power positions on TV? Whose books get visibility? Whose point of view is reflected?
Now, the media world finds itself confronting an odd emotional cocktail: equal parts hope, righteous indignation and fear. “The sound you hear,” said a Post Style story, “is a million men quaking in their wingtips.”
If this amounts to a crisis, that’s good news.
“We’re in a unique moment of reflection and accountability, and it’s an opportunity to consider huge systemic change,” said Nikki Usher, associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
These instances of self-scrutiny, she noted, come along every few years.
For example, in the wake of the flawed reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, newspapers tightened their rules on anonymous sources. After the financial meltdown of a decade ago, journalists acknowledged that they had missed the red flags waving in their faces.
“In times like these, journalism asks itself questions that it normally asks of others,” Usher told me. And, sometimes, it makes reforms.
But change is often superficial: Hey, employee, watch this training video, and don’t be afraid to contact your friends in human resources!
Real change? Remember, a year after powerhouse Roger Ailes stepped down in disgrace over sexual misconduct at Fox News, Sean Hannity was proud to bring another accused harasser, Bill O’Reilly, on his Fox show for a mutually promotional interview.
Now, a few powerful men have been shamed or demoted, but the underlying issues of gender inequality and power dynamics live on. In all kinds of insidious ways, women remain underrepresented in media, and their voices remain muted.
Until these issues are seriously addressed, nothing will change.
Then this moment of reckoning will be lost and the opportunity wasted.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan