Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox Studios
Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox Studios
How Freelancers are Harassed – With No One to Tell
When female journalists are bullied out of the media, it’s not only their individual careers that suffer; it alters the entire scope and tone of the world’s news.
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When I was a budding young freelancer with a handful of clips and ideas shooting out of my ears, I targeted Philadelphia Magazine. I’d lived in the Philadelphia area most of my life and saw the magazine as a place for local but important investigative journalism—and, for freelancers, a stepping stone to bigger, national things. I read every issue of the magazine, emailed letters of introduction, cold-pitched ideas, and, at a networking event, asked someone associated with the magazine how to break in.
“F*ck someone on the masthead,” he replied.
I don’t remember who told me that (this was more than a decade ago), but at the time, the person in charge was Larry Platt, who resigned in 2011 after a reported “history of inappropriate and unprofessional remarks and jokes to his employees,” which included giving a female staffer a framed photo of his testicle and taking off his clothes at work.
I wasn’t aware all of this was going on at the magazine; but at that networking event, I tried to laugh off the remark. What else could I do?
In the years since, I’ve almost forgotten about that off-handed insult thrown out at a professional networking event. It’s blended into so many suggestions that I “stick to fitness and diet” or turn a source’s inappropriate advances into a “fun” part of a story, and all the insults and threats any woman in publishing, and especially women who belong to other marginalized communities, faces when building a career. I went on to land plenty of stories, including eventually at Philadelphia Magazine, without exchanging my body for a byline. But recent revelations of rampant sexual harassment at media organizations from PBS to the New York Times have me wondering how much everything from casual sexism to outright assault impacts the careers of independent writers, whose ranks have been growing exponentially in the past decade as publications increasingly reduce their staffs.
According to VIDA’s most recent byline count, the majority of both editors and writers at the nation’s top publications are still white, straight men. This holds true at progressive magazines and literary magazines as well. At The Nation, more than twice as many men as women received bylines, The Paris Review’s male-dominated masthead only assigned 35 percent of stories to women, and The London Review of Books continued a several-year streak of low marks on gender parity, with just 22 percent of bylines by women, 18 percent of women who review books, and 26 percent of books by women reviewed. VIDA itself just began specifically evaluating bylines with an intersectional lens–counting bylines from women of color, LGBTQ and non-binary folks–in 2015, and all signs point to women of other marginalized communities faring even worse than women overall. That same year, the American Society of News Editors reported that U.S. newsroom jobs had dropped 10.4 percent–down to 32,900 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 U.S. dailies, a loss of 3,800 jobs in just one year. It’s always been a competitive freelance market–and it tightens every time another publication lays off another bunch of people. We don’t have a lot of room to say anything if an editor says or does something inappropriate.
This holds true for authors trying to promote their books too. In my case, while trying to promote a book about running, I was repeatedly asked by male interviewers to focus on the few parts of the book where I had mentioned sex. Those interviews made me supremely uncomfortable but–again–who was I going to tell?
On December 1, The Cut published Suki Kim’s exposé on John Hockenberry, former host of WNYC’s The Takeaway. Unlike most pieces on gender discrimination and sexual harassment in media, it started with an outsider: Kim had been a guest on the show, and then Hockenberry pursued her. She writes about how he allegedly pushed women, especially Black women, out of the station.
When independent writers face discrimination and harassment, there’s no real recourse—no HR department to report it to, no union to alert. I’ve been a freelance writer for 13 years at this point. Kim’s story led me to take stock of how many times my path has been rerouted or blocked, or my safety put at risk. After being cornered at a happy hour during a conference by an older, married male editor who was very drunk, I now no longer stay in the dedicated conference hotel when I attend journalism conferences. I want to avoid any possibility of an editor I think might want to hire me following me to my room instead. I do this to keep myself out of harm’s way, even knowing that in doing so, I lose possible networking opportunities and chance meetings that could lead to a breakthrough.
These incidents may sound minor, but stack them up over 13 years, and I know they’ve had an effect on where I’m at today–or where I’m not.
Whatever lack of recourse staff writers have when a boss or a source behaves inappropriately goes double for freelancers, because, really, why would publications have any reason to believe us—or care—if we kick up a fuss? When there’s a line of eager writers behind us, someone hungry and perhaps more “low-maintenance,” or someone with a book they’re eager to promote, we’re disposable.
“I don’t know what to do with this sort of stuff because the media world is small and these editors hop from publication to publication, and you don’t know where you’re going to run into them again,” says freelance journalist and author Simran Sethi, who said she has experienced everything from sudden, unwanted sexual advances from a male journalist whom she thought was her mentor to an editor reaching out with what sounded like a work opportunity but ended up being about a potential date. “It’s always a constant negotiation and it’s exhausting.”
Peter Moskowitz, a queer freelance journalist and author of How to Kill a City, left a full-time journalism job because they never “really felt comfortable in office culture. The irony is now I have less protection than ever,” they said. “Anything like sexual harassment or racism—it’s extremely hard to hold anyone accountable if you’re in your own little silo.”
That’s one reason why Moskowitz and freelancer Kyle Chayka started Study Hall, a shared office for freelancers, as well as a listserv where freelancers can talk about anything, including whether editors are receptive to working with all kinds of writers, not just people who look like them.
Since I started freelancing, I’ve done what Moskowitz suggests: Connect horizontally with other freelancers and warn them about editors who behave inappropriately, the same way we warn each other about late-paying publications or high-maintenance editors. When a publication was recently heaped with praise for saying they would continue to cover sexual harassment, I laughed because I’d been warned off pitching two of their editors by another writer who described them as sexist pigs who regularly sabotaged women writers’ work.
Media companies have a long history of failing to protect their employees, and the few editors who have been outed as harassers, and those who supported them, don’t just go away. Platt was quickly hired at the Philadelphia Daily News after leaving Philadelphia Magazine and still runs another local publication. WNYC’s CEO admitted that she knew about some of what was going on at The Takeaway.
“I’m very angry. I don’t know where the anger begins and ends anymore. But what #MeToo did was it ripped the Band-Aid off and I didn’t even know it was a Band-Aid,” Sethi said. “I didn’t know how much I had curtailed my own behavior. I didn’t know how much of myself I sacrificed in the interest of security and safety, none of which exist.”
Watching this ignoble parade of media giants shown the door has been gratifying but it’s also been a reminder of how much time and energy we waste just trying to dodge predators who know independent writers have no recourse, and of all the opportunities we don’t even know we missed along the way. I have cried in making my own tally, and kicked a few trash cans too.
My friend gave me some good advice: that it was OK to mourn for young, excited 26-year-old me and what could have been. But the only thing I can try to change is what’s ahead, which is why I’m writing this piece, even if some dudebro editor sees it and thinks I’m a hysterical woman whose pitch he’ll now ignore, even if it’s great.
He doesn’t deserve my work anyway.
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