A good place to start telling the unfolding story of sexual harassment in newsrooms is July 6th, 2016. That’s the day former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, saying she was fired in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances. Within days Gabriel Sherman, who was working at New York magazine at the time, had heard from about a half dozen other women describing incidents of Ailes’s harassment. Ailes’s behavior toward women at Fox, going back decades, was not a revelation when Carlson sued. Sherman had detailed on-the-record allegations against Ailes in his 2014 biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room. Sherman was disappointed those initial allegations were only lightly covered. But something had by the time Carlson sued. “I definitely noticed a marked sea change in the impact of my reporting on Ailes’s harassment after Gretchen Carlson filed her lawsuit,” says Sherman. “Those stories [of other harassment incidents] exploded on social media and were picked up by other news outlets.” Fifteen days after Carlson sued, the Murdoch family forced Ailes to resign. Carlson’s lawsuit had done what might before have seemed impossible: It brought down a powerful man who many viewed as untouchable. “When we start to look back at this whole thing years from now, what Carlson did will loom very large,” says Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan. We now know that Fox is far from the only news organization that has very real problems with both sexism and sexual harassment. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, a cascade of men in leadership positions at prominent news outlets have fallen — Mark Halperin, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Oreskes, Hamilton Fish. More allegations and revelations come out almost daily — and it’s not just in the U.S. The BBC says it currently has 25 active sexual harassment investigations (up from just a few a year) after leaders explicitly encouraged staff to come forward following the Weinstein story. “This is the predictable outcome of continuing to have newsrooms without gender equity,” says Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, publisher of Nieman Reports, and former editor of the Chicago Tribune. The issue facing journalism is not simply about preventing sexual harassment; it’s about also acknowledging that this behavior is often a part of a sexist and unequal work environment. Newsroom cultures need to change in ways that both stop sexual harassment and foster supportive work environments for women. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done, inside and outside newsrooms. Three months after Carlson came forward, David Fahrenthold and The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Donald Trump brags about grabbing women by the pussy. About a dozen women subsequently came forward to say Trump had sexually assaulted them. Sexual harassment is a persistently common feature of the American workplace. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 30 percent of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work. A total of about 33 million women in the U.S. say they’ve been sexually harassed—and 14 million say they have been sexually abused—in work-related incidents. Most Americans, 75 percent, consider sexual harassment in the workplace a problem. A year after Trump’s election, “a lot of women have a desire to take some of that power back,” says Jessica Valenti, columnist at The Guardian and author of Sex Object: A Memoir, which examines the toll sexism has taken on her life. As part of the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, thousands of women donned pink pussy hats as a symbol of defiance to protest Trump’s agenda and the attitude toward women expressed by his “Access Hollywood” remarks. Since the 2016 election, Emily’s List, an organization that trains women to run for public office, says over 20,000 women have reached out in less than a year about running, smashing the previous record of 920 over a two-year period. In November’s local and state elections, women won mayoral races for the first time in cities like Manchester, New Hampshire; Boston elected a record number of women to City Council seats; and 11 of the 16 Democrats who flipped Republican-held seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are women. Employment lawyers are reporting record numbers of calls from potential plaintiffs interested in filing workplace discrimination and sexual harassment claims. “Maybe you can’t get this total asshole out of office, but you can get the total asshole out of your office,” says Valenti.
Editor’s note: This piece by 2017 Nieman Fellow Katherine Goldstein is the cover story in Nieman Reports. We’re sharing it with Lab readers as a sneak peek.
Women participate in the Take Back The Workplace March on November 12 in Los Angeles. Like Hollywood, the news industry has been plagued by a cascade of sexual harassment allegations against newsroom leaders. Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic via Getty Images.