Why are so many journalists outed at sexual harassers? Because of the “fraternity” culture of silence

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

After the recent Weinstein scandal broke many people have come forward to report sexual harassment and work environments that did nothing to confront it. Although the entertainment industry and politicians are one crowd that has been exposed, journalists make up a disproportionate number of those accused. Everyday brings new scandals. Today it is a story about Vice, but yesterday it was a story at Vox about a prominent NYT journalist and another story about Charlie Rose. Accusations against, Ari ShavitSam Kriss, the Ames and Taibbi story, with awful details. 21st Century Fox has reached a $90 settlement over harassment claims.  There was the Wieseltier scandal. It goes on and on, Halperin (ABC), Oreskes (NPR), Charlie Rose, Lockhart Steele (Vox),   Most of these scandals tell a similar story. “The women who worked with Wieseltier, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, felt he could make or break their careers.”

In most cases the stories of harassment are not just about one man, they are about cultures of harassment. They are about power structures, elites, networks, nepotism, cover-ups, friends and colleagues. Almost everyone accused is white and male. Many of them come from upper or middle class backgrounds and from urban areas. Many of these men also know eachother. They are part of the same boys club, the same fraternity.

Journalism is a fraternity. Often journalists see the world in “us and them” terms. We are journalists. We are an elite. Then there are others. We are righteous. They are corrupt. We speak truth to power. We have freedom of expression. We are special, untouchable and any criticism of our circle, our group, is an attack on us all. It’s an attempt to “bully” or “silence” the journalists. This culture of entitled privilege exists because people cater to journalists. Free trips, junkets, red carpets, VIP section, backstage. In foreign countries journalists can go where others can not, they can see terrible suffering and then go back to an “expat bar” for drinks. The rules that might apply to many people, such as social workers, don’t apply to journalists wandering among refugees. The ethics that might apply to others often also don’t seem to apply. The nature of the job is to cut corners, to find ways to get in, go under, go over the line. It’s better coverage the more outlandish and risky it is. The same laws that apply to the public often don’t apply to journalists. Recording devices, private property, harassing people for questions. Pestering, hectoring, that’s part of the job.

So why would someone expect them to stop there? When there are no lines, and the group is so defensive about critique and feels it is entitled, why would you expect anything less than a culture of sexual harassment that goes along with it. It’s not just about “toxic masculinity,” its about the environment itself. Many journalists openly identify with the left and social justice values. They are at the forefront of most causes, many of which are driven by media in a cycle of sycophantic self-righteousness. Most male journalists, asked to describe themselves, would say they want to “empower” women and are “allies” of women, and they “champion” women. They do a lot of championing of minorities as well, just not in the news room. News rooms tend to be almost exclusively white and some of them tend to be disproportionately male. When you hear about these older male “mentors” you realize they’ve been doing the “mentoring” schtick for years. You also hear a lot about women who feel these powerful men can “make or break careers.” That’s the culture. It is shielded from critique of its chauvinism and Misogyny by its very nature. it is the one doing the expose and speaking truth to power and revealing scandals. It doesn’t do a good job of that amongst its own. it’s good at critiquing others, not critiquing itself.

Anyone who has worked in this field knows that. When I was starting out I recall posting negative things on social media about other journalists. I critiqued their stories, the facts they got wrong, their lazy coverage, their invented narratives. I called them racist. And then came the pushback. The threats. Powerful journalists don’t threaten the normal way. They call their friends from their school days, they call in favors from people they know. And they know a lot of people. And many journalists have gone from one organization to another. They know how to quash information. I was told eventually “don’t critique other journalists, its not allowed.” It’s not allowed. “Journalists shouldn’t criticize other journalists.” And that was the end of that.

These days it seems some of that has eroded. People are speaking out about cultures of silence. They are speaking out about channels and networks of “friends.” They are asking why no one protected them. They are looking at power structures and institutions and workplace cultures. For a long time journalists controlled the information and by doing so they could control whether or not stories about their colleagues and former colleagues got out. But now that isn’t being seen as quite the fraternity virtue it was. Exposing sexual harassment is just one step. Exposing racism and other issues is important. For a long time the major cultural changes affecting society, the standards and diversity, have not penetrated the world of journalism. That is largely because it refused to be self-critical.

 

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