Three days after Moonves stepped aside, Jeff Fager, the executive producer of CBS’s news program “60 Minutes,” under investigation for allegations of inappropriate conduct toward women, resigned after sending a threatening text to a female CBS journalist reporting on the allegations.
The revelations about CBS — like those uncovered at NBC, Fox News and the New York Times — expose the way media organizations have long fostered a culture of discrimination and harassment toward women. Such organizations are ripe for this kind of destructive culture, thanks to an overwhelmingly male leadership, blurred lines between professional and personal lives, and powerful superiors with extensive, even excessive, control and discretion over their subordinates.
Given that, it should come as no surprise that in 2013, 64 percent of women surveyed by the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute said they had experienced “intimidation, threats, or abuse” in the office or in the field.
Yet female journalists are expected to objectively report and comment on the broader #MeToo movement without acknowledging that they, too, experience discrimination and harassment within their own workplace. This is nothing new. In the 1970s, female journalists had to fight an often explicitly sexist internal culture while trying to report “objectively” on the broader second-wave feminist movement that was trying to transform American society.
To report on the feminist movement, women at major media outlets first had to convince their usually male editors that the women’s liberation movement was worth covering in the first place. Associated Press reporter Peggy Simpson later described the friction at media outlets between individual women who were attempting to cover what they saw as a good story, and the “virtually all-male management” who thought the women’s movement was a “joking matter.” The movement was such a nonissue to editors that in 1971, on the eve of a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment in the House of Representatives, one New York Times woman was shocked to discover the paper had run only a single five-paragraph article on it.
As female journalists in the 1970s fought to cover the story of feminism, their reporting provided an informal process of consciousness-raising by exposing them to a range of radical ideas. They brought these ideas back to their own outlets and shared them with female colleagues. Yet they could not join the feminist groups on which they were reporting, lest they give their editors a reason to pull them off such an important story — or worse, to believe their reporting included veiled advocacy.
But the ideas fueled quiet workplace activism among female journalists. During the 1970s, they used Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to file sex discrimination complaints at Newsweek, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Time Inc. (which operated Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated), Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit News, the Baltimore Evening Sun, Reader’s Digest, Reuters, NBC and even The Washington Post.
Their paradoxical familiarity with and isolation from the feminist movement put female journalists in a unique position. Even as they experienced the same discrimination and harassment common in all industries, they did not have access to the same avenues of recourse or support.
Their advocacy dealt primarily with discrimination, mainly because the rhetoric and concept of sexual harassment was not yet prevalent. But there was also a strategic and legal consideration: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn’t consider harassment a form of sex discrimination until 1977. Discrimination — including excluding women from certain jobs and pay disparities between men and women in the same job — was safer ground from which to launch a legal challenge.
The majority of women undertook these lawsuits while still employed at the organization they were suing, which presented additional difficulties. While the New York Times was settling with women who had sued, the company’s own lawyer commented that “if the case comes to trial, it will be like the worst divorce case that ever happened … because the worst part of it is, these people who get divorced will then have to live with each other afterward.”
Somehow they did live with each other, for six years until the lawsuit was settled in 1978 and then for decades afterward, as the women who remained at the Times dealt with the repercussions.
And although women did not sue for harassment, it was certainly part of their daily lives. In 1970, 46 women at Newsweek filed a sex discrimination complaint against the magazine. One researcher at the time referred to the overt, gendered hierarchy at the magazine as Newsweek’s “caste system.”
Just as the discrimination at Newsweek was more overt, so, too, was the harassment. Decades later, one woman characterized the office as being a “ 'Mad Men’ kind of atmosphere,” saying “you had to be charming and witty and be able to banter and not cringe at their dirty jokes.” As another woman described, that meant laughing when the male sportswriters would stand outside their office and “audibly rate the women on their physical attributes as they walked by.”
For the men, it may have been more than “banter.” One said when he was hired in 1962, Newsweek was “a discreet orgy” and he was told, “The best part of the job is that you get to screw the researchers.” It was not uncommon for employees to disappear to one of the two single beds in the infirmary for an hour or two. Sometimes they wouldn’t even get that far, and someone would walk into one of the back offices to find a couple getting busy on the floor under a desk.
Newsweek writer Lynn Povich believed most of the sex was consensual and that it wasn’t sexual harassment because “if you said ‘no,’ you didn’t have to.” However, the culture of Newsweek certainly encouraged women to say yes, because individual men were known to promote subordinate women who had sex with them. And once, an editor stalked one of his female researchers, telling her, “If you don’t marry me, you’re going to have to leave Newsweek.” There was no understanding that women should be allowed to go to their place of work without being solicited for sex, wanted or not.
The settlements for these lawsuits varied from publication to publication. Almost all were settled out of court, usually for a combination of back pay, the introduction of an affirmative action program and an agreement that the media outlet had not been found guilty of any discrimination. These terms ensured that a number of new female journalists were hired in the 1980s, a legacy that continues to shape journalism today.
By increasing the diversity within news organizations and through their reporting on movements such as the women’s rights — and, later, gay rights — movements, female journalists in the 1970s substantially changed the media landscape.
But the #MeToo revelations at CBS and elsewhere demonstrate that despite Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the broader movement, the cultural problem is far from solved within the media itself. There were certainly hard-won improvements following the 1970s lawsuits, but the industry at large failed to grapple with its culture and system of misogyny. In part because the lawsuits never went to trial, outlets rarely had to admit any wrongdoing, and no legal precedent was set to stop such cases arising in the future.
Today the gender pay gap in the media remains endemic, and the #MeToo stories are evidence of the pervasive nature of harassment. In an industry where professional bleeds into personal, it is impossible to separate discrimination from harassment; both serve to disadvantage and silence women, often driving them out of their jobs.
These problems are systemic, and not simply the result of a few bad actors taking advantage. Rather, the system was set up to allow men to take advantage of women, and until those in power take steps to address this aspect of the media, no number of individual #MeToo exposés can fix the problem.