A still from a black and white movie featuring mostly men and one woman.

Charlie Rose

Why Are So Many Media Men … Shitty?

They flirt with you as you pitch your stories. Your meetings feel like dates. How can a female journalist feel good about her work when newsrooms are predominantly controlled by men?

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I was young and naïve, but not stupid. The powerful editor held the key to my career. I sent him a pitch and clips, and to my surprise, he said yes, please send more pitches. I met him in person, and we hit it off. I was so excited, a door that had been closed to me before was now open. I sent the pitch, long and detailed, and he sent me a long, detailed response, and then I wrote back, and we did this again a few times, back and forth.

But it felt a little too … intimate, these emails. They felt like flirtation, like courtship. I had been warned by a few female publicists about the editor, and I had brushed them off. I didn’t want to believe that I was only getting a shot because the editor thought I was hot. I wanted to know that it was my talent that had opened the doors. 

The women who came forward this week with allegations of inappropriate sexual advances on the part of powerful political reporter Glenn Thrush and Charlie Rose are also probably wondering, “Did he only talk to me so he could hit on me?” In a Vox exposé, Thrush is being accused of getting drunk with women and making advances, and then allegedly starting a whisper campaign that compromised the younger female reporters’ reputations, by insinuating that it was them, not him, who made the advances. He issued a statement to the New York Times where he has been suspended while the paper investigates the allegations. “The encounter was consensual, brief, and ended by me,” he said of Laura McGann, who wrote the Vox article. “She was an editor above me at the time and I did not disparage her to colleagues at Politico as she claims.”

The other women at Politico either looked askance, or brushed it off because Thrush, one of the hottest political reporters in the world right now, could mentor them, could offer them introductions to powerful editors, give them notes on their stories and reporting tips. 

The Rose allegations in the Washington Post are even more outrageous—he allegedly Weinsteined his assistants and underlings, coming out of the shower half-naked, making sexual passes in cars, and allegedly retaliated in passive aggressive verbal abuse. (Rose issued statements apologizing for his indiscretions and claimed that he had misread the situations as being consensual).

But the thing is: There are Roses and Thrushes working in your office right now, editing the stories you are reading, getting pitches from men and women, and giving them mostly to other men. To any woman who’s ever been 20 and new to journalism, a guy like Thrush is a dime a dozen. That’s because journalism is still dominated by men, especially at the top.

Women’s Media Center reported in its 2017 study that “20 of the nation’s top news outlets, men produced 62.3 percent of news reports analyzed during a studied period while women produced 37.7 percent of news reports.”

Julie Burton, the president of the Media Center, wrote in the introduction to the report: ”Too many male CEOs, producers and editors remain in their comfort zones and default to hiring and promoting those who are like them. Male executives must be willing to intentionally chart a different course, expand the talent pool without trepidation and develop a more concerted and, perhaps, radical strategy for equally sharing power with women.”

VIDA, a “non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape, has been tracking the number of women published in high-end literary magazines and journals such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and N+1, finds that there is more work to do: in 2016, there was “a decrease in women’s share of the pie overall from last year. In 2015, 58% of counted publications demonstrated gender parity, while this year, only 48% of counted publications published as many bylines by women writers as men, or more.”

What happened to me and thousands of women before me, and thousands of women after me, and is still happening now, is upsetting on several levels. This behavior is insidious, it’s institutional, and it’s not even acknowledged as a problem, because that would mean burning the entire thing down.

It might have been both. But what’s most upsetting is that no male writer would ever have to question whether or not they got an opportunity based on their looks. They might have gotten opportunities based on their ability to bond with the male editor, or the fact that they went to the right school, or gotten hired through nepotism, but most men don’t even realize that those things also get them through the door. They are so self-assured of their own power and intelligence. That’s male privilege, undoubting, unquestioning of their rightful place in the world. The irony is this male editor was instrumental in giving a lot of female writers a shot in an arena that was male-dominated—whether for the same reasons as he gave me mine or not, it was hard to say.

The male editors (they were almost exclusively male) were ten or twenty years older, better paid, higher ranking, and they were always very interested in what I had to say … perhaps over dinner, perhaps drinks. Maybe it was nothing, just a nice introduction into the new world of media that I had entered, a friendly, collegial meeting of the minds. But, I think about it now, I don’t take any young writers out for drinks, male or female, I don’t take them to dinner to talk about their future. Maybe I should. But, me 27 years old, pretty, ambitious, it happened over and over.

The male editor I pitched at the big glossy magazine was undeniably flirtatious but was also discussing a big story over drinks in a crowded bar. We sat close to each other as we dissected the possible angles and the pitch. I wanted that story, it would jump my profile up a notch, but I was confused by the energy. Was he hitting on me? Was my story good? Was I being strung along for attention? People around me thought he was flirting with me, that we were flirting with each other. My excitement for the possibility of a big break, granted by this man, had me flush with excitement. They didn’t realize we were having a business discussion. The story floundered, and the editor disappeared from my view.

Another editor, another magazine, a meeting of minds, over dinner, which felt like a date. But we clicked, the same way you do on a date, but the underlying subtext of attraction flowing in one direction felt like an undercurrent, pulling like the tide. The thing about journalism is that it’s a collaboration. Any writer who says, “I loved that editor, they never touched a word,” is a coward, afraid to learn how to get better, afraid of their ego being bruised. So, as a writer, you look for that editor who really gets you, the first sign is how you hit it off when you are bouncing those ideas around.  And when there’s a good edit, oh, it’s like digging a Q-tip into your ear after a shower, getting a good scratch on a part of your back that you can’t reach. And relief that you have found someone who can make you better.

And because so many editors are men, most of them are older than you, that “click” can be confusing. 

There are those who will insist this date-like dynamic is impossible to escape when men and women have intimate conversations over drinks. This is a preposterous idea that’s not only heterosexist but also demonstrably wrong. When I was in my mid-20s, I interned at the Village Voice for Frank Owen, a loud British journalist with long, glossy black hair who had a penchant for wearing pink and getting into political arguments. He was a former music journalist who had started covering the seedy underworld of nightlife, breaking news on murders, drug rings, and the Mafia. He took me everywhere with him as he made the rounds at various clubs. He took me to meetings and interviews, introducing me as his associate, never his intern. It was a sign of respect, and he gave me real tasks, and never asked me to fetch coffee or open his mail. We shared a byline on a cover story about female DJs, an idea of mine that we had executed together, and that he wrote. I sat with him during the editing process, watching Richard Goldstein nimbly edit the story. I interviewed DEA agents for him, I listened to him conduct interviews, and factchecked his stories. At the time, I was acutely aware of how different Frank was‚ how he was never creepy or inappropriate, and I was grateful, and still am.

And, to be sure, these tactics employed by men like Thrush had worked on some women in the media. There are a few women I know who’ve slept with the harassing boss to get a leg up, literally and figuratively, whose careers saw a real boost from their exchange of sex for power. And the media perpetuates the notion that pretty female journalists all sleep with their bosses and/or sources—see also: House of Cards, Newsroom, Trainwreck. These women are not the norm, but the exceptions. Most of us did everything in our power to make sure that we were not sleeping or flirting with the boss or editors, or our subjects and sources. We needed our work to be taken at face value, to know that our worth as journalists, our talent, was valid. It’s ironic that in the male-dominated media landscape, we still needed male validation, albeit of a different kind.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best editing experiences I’ve had in my career are with other women. There is no confusion. They like your writing. They like you. They have been where you are, they want to lift you up. They want to help. They want you to be better. You click.

The conversation about diversity in media is more than just filling in the Xs and Os to meet the diversity standards. It is about how people who are from similar backgrounds and lifestyles, similar genders and races, can often see eye to eye more easily than not. An all-white-male upper-class newsroom naturally engenders more all-white-male reporters and editors who pursue stories that reflect their interests and points of view. In a job market where it’s almost entirely “who you know,” the cycle is never broken.

I’m still friends with most of those male editors from my youth. They are all good people. But I’ve never told them that I felt our original interactions were compromised by power and an imbalance of attraction. I’ve never told them that they made me feel uncomfortable instead of valued for my ideas. I don’t know that they meant our interactions to feel that way or were even aware of their actions. Over the years, that awkward interaction has faded as I’ve gotten older, as they’ve moved on, as I’ve grown into my own power. But sometimes I will wonder if I am where I am because someone thought I was pretty enough to fuck.

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