Lara Setrakian is chief executive and executive editor of the digital media outlet News Deeply.
I was one of the five anonymous women who shared with CNN strikingly consistent accounts of sexual harassment by political journalist Mark Halperin while he was at ABC News. My story, which was published Thursday by CNN, was excruciating to tell. To do so I had to overcome the pleas of my family and the whispers of fear in my own mind.
But I feel compelled to come forward, because we need to understand what went wrong and what it says about television journalism. We can’t expect the culture of our newsrooms to get better if we’re not honest about what’s happening. We can’t pretend these incidents are isolated to a few salacious cases at Fox News or call out other flawed industries and institutions with self-righteous indignation. We have to clean our own house.
This isn’t a witch hunt, targeting Halperin for all the sins of our industry. I was personally relieved to get the quick, though qualified, apology that Halperin provided to CNN — perversely, it was more than I was expecting. He said he regretted making “inappropriate” advances to colleagues — some of them junior to him — though, frustratingly, he denied our accounts of unwelcome physical contact. (When contacted for comment on this op-ed, a representative repeated his acknowledgment to CNN that his “behavior was inappropriate.”) Halperin needs to take responsibility for his actions, and I would like to know how he plans to make things right. But let’s not forget that the problems we face are bigger than him.
Since his case came to light, three other women have come forward, by name; others have called Halperin’s behavior an “open secret” at the network. Yet the four other women who first shared their stories with CNN have decided to remain anonymous, for fear of the backlash, counterattacks or lost opportunities they imagine could follow from speaking out. I fully and empathetically respect their decision. But it’s sad that we can’t feel comfortable telling the truth — we, who are professional truth-tellers. That’s how fearful our culture remains.
Seeing this paralysis actually emboldened me to come forward. As journalists, we ask people to confide in us every day, to put themselves at risk through the information they share. We need to show the same bravery.
I felt like an idiot walking out of Halperin’s ABC News office in November 2006. He was running our midterm election coverage; I was assigned to it as a junior reporter, one year into my job. He praised my professional work and invited me to his office to talk politics over a Diet Coke. When I got there, he kissed me and touched me inappropriately. I left that room shaken. I told some trusted colleagues but didn’t directly file a complaint. I was worried about the consequences of speaking out — just as many of my colleagues still are today.
I speak out now because I should have then. And because we need the broadcast industry — everyone in it — to acknowledge what happens to women in our newsrooms, including but beyond the physical abuse. Young television journalists in their 20s are often under intense pressure to look sexually attractive and physically flawless — as judged by their supervisors. Intense anxiety, self-loathing and eating disorders can ensue. With time, newswomen in their 30s and 40s can feel terrorized by the same pressure; it implies a “sell by” date to their time on air. Losing one’s sex appeal can mean losing one’s seat as a reporter. That fact stings even deeper when men can not only age gracefully, but lie, plagiarize, assault women and stay on air.
I understand that television is a visual medium. But we are reporters, not fashion models. We are putting ourselves forward for our journalism. We should expect some dignity in how we are treated, both on air and off. Something toxic happens in the newsroom when men can comfortably comment on the sex appeal of their female colleagues. Less of a meritocracy prevails; innovation, retention and morale suffer. We’re at an existential moment in news, with business models and public trust eroding. We need all the best talent on the job. This is a time to fix how we fundamentally operate.
I’ve had amazing male mentors in my career who would shudder at learning what happened to me. They have been among my greatest supporters, coaches and friends. This moment of reckoning shouldn’t cast a dark cloud over all male media executives. But in the cases where harassment and abuse have taken place, those responsible need to be called out and held accountable.
MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski taught me an important lesson in her book “All Things at Once.” She said we can’t let our jobs become a “bad boyfriend,” something that takes the best of us, abuses us and doesn’t give us due credit for what we contribute. The news industry, riddled with abusive habits that we have normalized and internalized, risks becoming that “bad boyfriend.” We need to break these habits — for the future of our profession and for one another.