Sexual Harassment Scandals Force Media Companies to Become the News

David Folkenflik has what some might call a plum assignment. As NPR’s media correspondent, he can on one day find himself interviewing the editor of The New York Times, and on another analyzing whether AT&T will ever be able to acquire Time Warner.

But sometimes he must take on a more daunting task.

After The Washington Post revealed in October that two women alleged NPR’s then-senior vice president of news, Michael Oreskes, had sexually harassed them while working at The New York Times, Folkenflik had to turn his reporter’s gaze on his own employer. It’s not the first time he’s had to investigate goings-on at NPR, but this particular story was a tough one to tell.

“I would say this is complicated, because it involves, among other things, the interactions of people on a human scale, and those people are often folks who are familiar to the audience and to those of us doing the reporting and editing,” says Folkenflik. “And that’s sobering.”

But the reports are also riveting. The media knows its audience wants to hear more. Between the time allegations first surfaced about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in early October and Nov. 20, the evening-news programs of ABC, NBC and CBS devoted a total of 218 minutes to sexual harassment stories on their weekday nightly newscasts, according to Andrew Tyndall, an industry consultant who monitors the programs’ coverage. The lion’s share of that coverage has gone to news about accusations leveled at Weinstein and Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. Over the same time period, the probe into Russian influence on the U.S. presidential election drew 85 minutes of coverage; the wildfires in California wine country 82 minutes; and the Baptist church massacre in Texas 67 minutes, Tyndall reports.

Covering the spate of harassment scandals that has followed the Weinstein disclosure has forced some media outlets to examine themselves, too. CBS News has placed Charlie Rose, the former co-host of “CBS This Morning,” under a microscope since disclosures surfaced, again in The Washington Post, about eight complaints by women alleging Rose harassed them. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski had the unenviable task of outlining the fate of Mark Halperin, a longtime contributor to “Morning Joe,” after CNN disclosed past allegations of sexual harassment against him.

Says Kris Macomber, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Meredith College, a women’s liberal arts college in Raleigh, N.C.: “We are in the midst of a cultural shift, and the media is right there, not just showing it but experiencing it too.”

In many cases, the media outlets aren’t the first to alert the public to misbehavior by executives in their organizations. But once revelations surface, they have little choice but to explain to viewers what’s happening and to pursue the story rigorously.

Both “CBS Evening News” and “CBS This Morning” offered little sentimentality in reporting allegations against Rose. Indeed, CBS News staffers found new accusations from three women at the network that the Post had not included in its original report. A person familiar with the matter said those women were discovered by CBS News reporters and were not immediately known to management.

The efforts made for startling television. One day after the first allegations against Rose surfaced, his co-hosts on “CBS This Morning,” Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, condemned the behavior described in the Post report on air: “This will be investigated. This has to end. This behavior is wrong, period,” said O’Donnell. King also expressed uneasiness with her now-former colleague. “This is not the man I know, but I’m clearly on the side of the women who have been very hurt and very damaged by this,” she said.

The episode repeated itself a week later, when co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, clearly shaken, informed viewers in the opening moments of the Nov. 29 broadcast of NBC’s “Today” that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate sexual behavior.

In other instances, stories about misconduct have put news organizations on the defensive. NBC News found itself having to explain why reporting that started under its aegis by Ronan Farrow on Weinstein ended up being published by The New Yorker. More uncomfortable still: The situation was inflamed by an appearance Farrow made on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” where the host asked Farrow the same question. “You would have to ask NBC and NBC executives about the details,” he replied.


Meanwhile, Megyn Kelly’s new morning show on NBC has been among the most active in keeping up with the news on sexual harassment. Since allegations against Weinstein surfaced, Kelly has hit the topic hard nearly every day she’s on the air. She has won exclusive interviews with accusers of Weinstein and Halperin, as well as women who have leveled allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Brett Ratner and Kevin Spacey. Kelly’s ratings among viewers between 25 and 54 — the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming — reached a new high the week of Nov. 20. She has also made remarks about her experiences with sexual harassment at Fox News and about her interactions with Rose.

Covering these incidents will continue to be a challenge for media companies, notes NPR’s Folkenflik. When reporting on internal matters, staffers tend to get distracted, even wound up, about information that hits close to home. But NPR has protocols in place so that proper coverage is ensured, he says. There’s also a feeling of responsibility to listeners who are interested in how NPR conducts itself, he adds.

Media outlets that find sexual harassment cases within their own walls, he says, “have the obligation to confront fairly and fully issues like this if they are going to have the standing to challenge it in others.”

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