There’s more than one way to harass women. A raft of men in recent weeks have paid for accusations of sexual harassment with their companies, their jobs, their plum political posts. But one point has been overlooked in the scandals: Men can be belittling, cruel and deeply damaging without demanding sex. (Try sloughing off heaps of contempt with your self-esteem intact.) We have no consensus — and hardly any discussion — about how we should treat behaviors that are misogynist and bullying but fall short of breaking the law.
Twenty years ago, when I was a Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, two Americans named Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames ran an English-language tabloid in the Russian capital called the eXile. They portrayed themselves as swashbuckling parodists, unbound by the conventions of mainstream journalism, exposing Westerners who were cynically profiting from the chaos of post-Soviet Russia.
A better description is this: The eXile was juvenile, stunt-obsessed and pornographic, titillating for high school boys. It is back in the news because Taibbi just wrote a new book, and interviewers are asking him why he and Ames acted so boorishly back then. The eXile’s distinguishing feature, more than anything else, was its blinding sexism — which often targeted me.
At the time, the paper had its defenders, even those who acknowledged its misogyny and praised it anyway. A Rolling Stone article by Brian Preston in 1998 described the eXile’s “misogynist rants, dumb pranks, insulting club listings and photos of blood-soaked corpses, all redeemed by political reporting that’s read seriously not only in Moscow but also in Washington.” A 2010 Vanity Fair reminiscence by James Verini wrote: “They call Ames and Taibbi, singly or in combination, children, louts, misogynists, madmen, pigs, hypocrites, anarchists, fascists, racists, and fiends.” But “what made The Exile so popular, and still makes it so readable, was its high-low mix of acute coverage and character assassination, sermonizing laced with smut — a balance that has also characterized Taibbi’s work at Rolling Stone, where he has been a contributing editor for the last five years.” Taibbi still writes for Rolling Stone; Ames, too, works in journalism, running a podcast on war and conflict.
I remember the eXile as a mishmash of nightclub listings (rated on how easily a man could get sex), articles on lurid escapades (sex with a 15-year-old girl, an account Ames now says was a joke), political pieces (“Why Our Military Shopping Spree Has Russia Pissed Off”) and press reviews savaging mainstream Western journalists. It ridiculed one female reporter as a “star spinster columnist” and mentioned women’s “anger lines” and fat ankles. The paper even had a cartoon called the Fat Ankle News , about a woman who tweezes her nose hairs and gorges on doughnuts while editing a story. Some male reporters came in for scorn as toadies or morons or liars. But their outrages concerned their minds and not their bodies.
I came into the eXile’s sights because David Johnson, a Russophile living in Washington who edited an online news group devoted to serious writing about Russia, asked his readers whether he should circulate the eXile’s press reviews. “I’d like to encourage some discussion,” he wrote.
Accepting his invitation, I replied. “Let a thousand flowers bloom, let Matt Taibbi print whatever he wants,” I began. “But why reprint it? . . . In a recent eXile, the editor [Ames] wrote about how he dealt with his pregnant girlfriend when she refused to get an abortion. She wouldn’t listen to reason, so he threatened to kill her. That worked! Then he muses on forever about another pregnant acquaintance who aborted and about his relief that this child — who would have been a ‘sloped-head idiot’ — was instead a dead fetus properly wallowing in the sewers.”
The Chicago Reader , in a review of the 2000 Taibbi-Ames memoir, “The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia,” described what happened next. “They decided to give [Lally] the treatment. They had a female friend call her and, posing as an anti-Exile sympathizer, ask her to help shut the paper down by giving a statement” to a reactionary Russian intelligence agency.
I remember getting a call from a woman whom I couldn’t quite understand over a crackling Russian phone line. I had never heard the acronym for the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information. We got many odd calls at the bureau, some from the mentally ill, some from those with serious grievances, some from people with mysterious motives. I tried to put her off pleasantly by telling her I’d “think about it.” It was a bogus sting, and its aim was to humiliate me.
The eXile published what it said was a transcript, which didn’t sound at all like me. The paper quoted me agreeing to organize a boycott of the eXile’s sponsors and saying I would consider being a witness in a criminal investigation of Taibbi and Ames. I don’t remember my words of 20 years ago — I made an effort to forget the eXile and its editors — but I never had any intention of organizing a boycott. And all I ever said about the eXile publicly was in that email to Johnson. But after that, Ames and Taibbi seemed certain I wanted to shut the paper down, censor them and oppose free speech generally. They ridiculed me in the eXile and, later, in their memoir.
When I wrote an article about advertisements that used sex to sell cigarettes — new for Russia — Taibbi addressed my Baltimore Sun editors in his eXile column: “Lally’s article is pathological, illogical, inaccurate, makes no point, and is insulting and hypocritical besides. . . . Lally’s gaffes may be comic, the wild meanderings of an aging woman nearing derangement.” Once, the eXile declared me the winner of its “Gnarliest Elephantine Ass on a Journalist With No Ethics Award.” Another time, it published a cartoon showing me in bed with my editor.
I wondered if I should write a story about the eXile, and I started asking Western correspondents what they knew about it. Taibbi had accused a friend of mine of being paid by Russian oligarchs to write favorable stories, so I thought it was worth asking about the eXile’s connections. Do you think any oligarchs are financing them? As a reader, can you tell the difference between what they are making up and what they are not? Are they here on journalist visas? Who are their journalistic role models? I never pursued it, but Taibbi found out about my queries. In the eXile, he described “a full frontal attack by, of all things, a matronly middle-aged American print journalist.”
Of course I was angry and upset. I worried about my daughters; the older one was in high school. She had to watch her mother’s character assassination unfold — witnessed by her classmates.
When “The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia” came out, the memoir had a few more surprises in store. “We dragged . . . Lally’s charred [corpse] through the dust-and-fly-infested streets of our newspaper for all to have a laugh,” Ames wrote. In the most unexpected anecdote, Taibbi said that another reporter, Fred Weir, described in great detail how the eXile had made me cry. “Good!” Taibbi describes himself shouting. I was aware of Weir; probably we had bumped into each other at news conferences. But I didn’t know him. I couldn’t imagine why I would ever have wept in front of him.
I didn’t think about Taibbi and Ames for years; my self-esteem remained intact and my life moved along. Then, just as more and more men were being drummed out of public life for long-ago behavior, Taibbi landed in the news, bringing Ames along with him. Taibbi recently published a book about the death of Eric Garner, “I Can’t Breathe,” and in an interview about it, an NPR host asked him about the eXile years and a passage, written by Ames, in their memoir that described routine sexual harassment of women.
Taibbi apologized on the program and later on Facebook. “The behavior [Ames] describes is reprehensible. It is also, like a lot of things in the eXile, fictional and not true.” He said he regretted putting his name on a book “that used cruel and misogynistic language to describe many people and women in particular.” In a second Facebook apology, he wrote: “The eXile did have a satirical idea, at least in the beginning. It was supposed to be an obscene send-up of the Americans who stood behind the crooked Yeltsin government.” Ames recently told reporters that the eXile was obviously satire and complained that he is being smeared for that satire.
But so many of their sins were real. Taibbi once wrote in the eXile that women had no business wearing “painter’s pants and sneakers” when they ought to be more like Russian women, with “their tight skirts, blowjob-ready lips, and swinging, meaty chests.” Ames described going to the senior prom of an international high school with a 17-year-old date he called his “Jew-broad”; he was 34. Back home she would be “jailbait,” he wrote in the eXile , but Russia “permits sex with a fourteen-year-old, so long as you had reason to believe she was sixteen, the legal statutory age.” A photo shows Ames in the front row with his date.
Before I became a favorite target, Taibbi and Ames took regular aim at Carol Williams, the Los Angeles Times Moscow bureau chief in the late 1990s. After she wrote about terrible Moscow roads in 1997, they proclaimed her the “ultimate press villain.” They said she was “translator dependent,” even though, she told me, she was the “only one in the four-person bureau to travel without a translator. They were trying to provoke me. They were making up stuff and accusing me of complicity with bad actors in the Russian government. It was completely false. They were pigs.”
At the time, silence in the face of its bullying seemed the best way of dealing with the eXile. Criticizing it only brought on attack. But now women are regaining their voices, and I’ve found myself regaining mine.
First I sent the memoir’s passage about my tears to Weir, the alleged source for that anecdote. He remembered me. “That is a totally invented conversation,” Weir wrote back. “I can’t recall you ever calling me up in tears or otherwise.” He hadn’t read the book and had no idea that the authors had attributed the tale to him. “If that sounds odd to you,” he said, “just consider how bizarre it is that you yourself are only just bringing it up with me.”
Then I got in touch with Taibbi and Ames, neither of whom has ever met or spoken to me. Ames did not reply to requests for comment. He has, however, described his stories of sex with 15-year-olds as satire. In a Facebook exchange with me, Taibbi gave some ground. “I certainly would not go about things now the way I did back then,” he wrote. “And I apologize for the physical descriptions. That was gratuitous and uncalled for.” But before he stopped answering my questions, he took some jabs, complaining about the “efforts to get us removed from the Johnson’s list.”
Finally, we are confronting men who have abused and sexually harassed women for years. That reckoning has been too long coming. But you don’t have to grope a woman or force a kiss on her to humiliate her, to make her doubt herself, to silence and diminish her. Bullying, treating women with contempt, freezing them out of the lunches and meetings that build networks and authority: All are damaging, insidious and difficult to root out. That will take time — and more women who call men out. That’s why I’m saying #MeToo.