Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Media can't back down from harassment coverage

Sexual harassment allegations are coming so fast and furious it is hard to keep up: Former CBS and PBS host Charlie Rose , Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan are among the latest public figures to face accusations.

But we in the media must not only keep up, we need to stay strong, focused and intellectually honest even as we report from within the eye of this cultural storm and revolutionary moment. This is history in the making, and we need to help create a climate in which victims feel their testimony will be heard and they will not be punished for speaking truth about powerful men.

If we are serious about trying to change society away from the oppression of patriarchy, we need to understand that now is not the time to start making excuses or applying double standards when we see someone we know, like or even admire characterized as a sexual predator. Change of this magnitude in which power is wrested from a group that has long held control is never smooth or easy. Now is not the time to lose our nerve because things are getting ugly.

Four women who co-host major morning TV shows have recently shown the kind of resolve it takes to change the culture: Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, Mika Brzezinski and Alisyn Camerota. I hope others will take their cues for future coverage from them.

On Tuesday, King spoke to viewers of “CBS This Morning” about her reaction to a Washington Post article the day before that chronicled the allegations of sexual harassment by eight women against Rose. Her words seemed heartfelt, but more importantly, she seemed to understand the responsibility media figures like her have to this moment in history — a responsibility to be an agent of change for the better, no matter how painful it might be personally.

"I really am still reeling,” she said. “After reading that article in the Post, it was deeply disturbing, troubling and painful for me to read. That said, I think we have to make this matter to women -- the women that have spoken up, the women who have not spoken up because they're afraid. I'm hoping that now they will take the step to speak out, too. This becomes a moment of truth.”

She went on to talk about her relationship with Rose at the CBS morning anchor desk, explaining that she was not going to let that get in the way of denouncing what he did.

“You know, I've enjoyed a friendship and a partnership with Charlie for the past five years. I’ve held him in such high regard and I'm really struggling because ... what do you say when someone that you deeply care about has done something that is so horrible?” she asked.

“That said, Charlie does not get a pass here,” she explained. “He doesn't get a pass from anyone in this room. We are all deeply affected. We are all rocked by this. And I want to echo what Norah said, I really applaud the women that speak up despite the friendship. He doesn't get a pass because I can’t stop thinking about the anguish of these women. What happened to their dignity, what happened to their bodies, what happened maybe to even their careers. I can’t stop thinking about that and the pain they are going through. I also find that you can hold two ideas in your head at the same time, you can grapple with things.”

Kudos for King for saying that any man who uses his position of power to violate the privacy, spirit or body of another person needs to pay. And instead of thinking about him, we should be focused on the victims and the price they paid with their careers and lives.

Co-host Norah O’Donnell was just as clear and strong.

“There is no excuse for this alleged behavior,” she said. “This I know is true: Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace or in society until there is a reckoning and a taking of responsibility.”

Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” did something just as important to the moment in calling out Hillary Clinton on Monday.

In a radio interview the previous weekend, Clinton had put the allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama within the context of the multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior against President Donald J. Trump. (The president has denied those allegations, despite having boasted on an “Access Hollywood” tape of sexually assaulting women.)

“We have a man who’s accused of sexual assault sitting in the Oval Office, don't we?” Clinton said in the radio interview. “And the very credible accusations against him have not been taken seriously.”

After NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker finished her report on the Clinton interview, Brzezinski responded to Clinton’s words by saying, “Hillary Clinton needs to stop. She needs to stop talking about this topic unless Bill Clinton wants to come forward and apologize for being a sexual harasser.”

Then, speaking to the camera as if addressing Bill Clinton, she continued.

“But if you're not going to apologize and it's clear you've done something wrong, please, please, you the politician and your wife the politician need to not talk about these issues,” she added. “Just don't, OK, unless you want to come to the table with some honesty, because this is why we're here. This is why we're here with Donald J. Trump, the guy … who is destroying every step that we have made in the past 10 years for women, setting us back. This is why he's here, because of hypocrisy.”

I applaud her clarity and courage. And if you don’t think it still takes courage to call out the Clintons, check out the blowback to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, after she said in a recent New York Times interview that she thought Bill Clinton should have resigned as president after having a relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.

The other impressive aspect of Brzezinski’s saying it on MSNBC is that it runs against the way cable news has gone tribal the past few weeks in reaction to the allegations of sexual harassment and assault. On the one hand, you have Fox News programming almost entire shows devoted to the allegations against Bill Clinton, while MSNBC and CNN extend the current news of the allegations against Moore with replays of the allegations against Trump. Given that he is president, it is hard to criticize that kind of Trump coverage. But it is striking to cut from channel to channel and see allegations against Trump on one channel and allegations against Clinton on the other. As if we need an even more politically polarized media.

No one on cable TV has been as steadfast the past month in trying to communicate the historic nature of this moment as Alisyn Camerota, co-host of the “New Day” morning show on CNN. Camerota has talked publicly about her own allegations of being sexually harassed by the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes when she was at Fox News, and on Nov. 9, she moderated one of the most informative and moving TV town halls of the year: “Tipping Point: Sexual Harassment in America.”

Her guests included Gillibrand, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson and Brandeis University Professor Anita Hill, who testified in 1991 to a Senate committee on the ways in which then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas allegedly harassed her when he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Each of them expanded the conversation in original ways. The words that stuck with me were from Carlson, who said that instead of worrying about the men who are accused and what’s going to happen to their careers, we should think about the several generations of women over the decades who have tried to blow the whistle on sexual harassers and have had their careers ruined. Let’s go out, she said, and try to bring some of them back into the workforce instead of feeling bad about the harassers being kicked out of it.

God bless her for momentarily giving voice to all the women who were silenced by the power of patriarchy — labeled and blacklisted as problem employees, troublemakers or just plain crazy by the old-boy network that controlled hiring in mainstream media for far too long.

Women like Camerota, King, O’Donnell, Brzezinski, Carlson, Hill and Gillibrand showed us what moral authority looks and sounds like this month. Let’s support it and not lose the momentum of this historic moment by trying to make excuses for or defend those offenders whom we made the mistake of liking or trusting because they seemed to be members of our tribe. Let’s help make that reckoning O’Donnell spoke of happen.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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