The New York Times' “gender editor” Jessica Bennett made her debut on Tuesday’s front page, taking on the sexual harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in “How Weinstein Scandal Became the Final Straw.”
Bennett drew out the history of sexual harassment by political figures coming into the media spotlight (predictably skipping liberal Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy). She conveniently dated the sexual harassment “tsunami” to the 1991 allegations by Anita Hill against conservative Judge Clarence Thomas, publicized in an attempt to sink his Supreme Court nomination.
At least Bennett’s discussion of sexual harassment post-Weinstein, unlike that of her Times colleagues, briefly mentioned (20 words) Paula Jones, the state worker who sued President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment during his time as governor of Arkansas.
Still, this was clearly Hill’s story; an enormous picture of Hill testifying during the hearings dominated the top of the online version, with 293 words devoted to her, not including the text box and two photo captions. Bennett also included 153 words related to Donald Trump, and let a source call him an “accused sexual predator.”
Sex scandals involving former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly got 57 words, while the allegations by Jones against Bill Clinton (none of Clinton’s other accusers were mentioned) received a total of 20 words. The Clinton-Jones scandal received a small photo on the jump page of the print story, under a larger photo of a 1991 protest against Clarence Thomas.
Four decades later, as allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others continue to metastasize, it feels as if we have crashed into the iceberg. Disaster metaphors -- tsunami, hurricane, avalanche, landslide -- seem to be in endless rotation to describe the moment, but the point is that a great many powerful men have seen their careers disintegrate, and with astonishing speed.
We have seen this movie before. Sexual harassment complaints to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased 73 percent in the year after Anita Hill’s televised testimony about Clarence Thomas’s behavior in 1991. Still, Mr. Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, while Ms. Hill went quietly back to being a law professor in Oklahoma. In the ensuing years, the issue cycled between headlines and whispers in a seemingly endless loop.
But this sequel seems to have a surprise ending, or at least a plot twist: The public outrage is deeper and more sustained, and the dominoes continue to fall.
Maybe it’s that the accusers this time were famous, media-savvy and mostly white actors with more star power than the accused (unlike, say, Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton). Maybe it’s reflective of a specific period in American history, in which working women of a new generation -- those who had grown up with working mothers -- decided that enough was enough.
“There is no doubt that having an accused sexual predator in the White House is hanging over this,” said Jaclyn Friedman, the author of “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All,” scheduled for publication this month. “People feel like they can’t do anything about that right now, but at least they can do something about this.”
Then came Professor Hill, whose televised testimony about Mr. Thomas, her former boss -- at the E.E.O.C., of all places -- was, Ms. Berg said, in effect “home-schooling a generation of Americans in what sexual harassment was.” Almost immediately, the phone hotline for 9to5, a support group for working women, began ringing off the hook.
Bennett never expressed any doubt regarding Hill’s allegations against Thomas, who has always consistently denied harassing Hill.
But most of those stories were shared in private -- in part because of what the world watched Professor Hill endure. Before an all-male Senate judiciary panel, she was accused of bringing “sleaze” into the nomination process, portrayed as suffering from delusional fantasies, and famously called, by the pundit David Brock, “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
It’s worth noting that the campaign slogan back then, on buttons and bumper stickers rather than Facebook and Twitter, was not “Me Too” but “I Believe Anita” -- a message of solidarity, not self-exposure.
Then came one of the two brief mentions of Paula Jones.
After Professor Hill came Ms. Jones, whose lawsuit against Mr. Clinton was dismissed. Others won in court but struggled in the aftermath: Paula Coughlin, a Navy lieutenant who was sexually assaulted by drunken officers, was sidelined and ultimately quit her job. Rena Weeks, a law secretary who was harassed by a partner, never worked again.
This is how the paper describes Bennett’s “gender editor” beat, which will apparently concentrate on the “gender” (don’t call it “sex”) of “female.”
Her purview: to elevate our coverage of how gender shapes the lives of people around the world....Do you have thoughts about how we can deepen our engagement with female readers? Are there topics you feel are lacking in our news report? Are you curious about Jessica’s goals, or how and why she thinks The Times can improve its coverage of gender?