From CNN's Chris Cuomo to the Washington Post's Marty Baron, the U.S. newsroom has a long tradition of empowering perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment by amplifying their voices and silencing survivors and their allies.
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On July 22, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez filed a lawsuit against the newspaper and the paper’s former editor-in-chief Marty Baron for banning the sexual-assault survivor from covering stories related to rape and sexual assault. Baron felt that her taking on such stories constituted a conflict of interest because she’d report with a bias.
But bias was exactly what was embraced by CNN, where news anchor Chris Cuomo has used the power of his position to act as an accomplice to his brother, the former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who resigned yesterday, in his response to sexual harassment claims. When reports that Chris Cuomo violated journalistic ethics surfaced in May, CNN officials said they didn’t expect “objectivity” from the anchor regarding his brother, and so they declined to penalize him. In other words, CNN was happy to permit Chris Cuomo to overstep the bounds of that divisive journalistic value, “objectivity.”
This double-standard is of course what happens when white men are the gatekeepers of the newsroom. The Cuomo brothers story was dragged out into the glaring light, thankfully, by New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office’s bombshell investigation into the now-former New York governor that not only found 11 credible accusations of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture, but also exposed his brother’s high-profile collusion. But will doing so finally bring about change, or simply generate yet more cynicism and resignation by smart, talented women in both the media industry and the political realm?
Consider just how grievous and outrageous the situation was at CNN: During 2020’s glowing press coverage-a-palooza for Andrew Cuomo, Chris would invite his brother on CNN for chipper back-and-forths highlighting New York’s COVID response. As detailed in the report from the New York Attorney General James’s office—and initially reported in May by, of all places, the Washington Post—Chris Cuomo was part of crafting his brother’s pushback response on the harassment claims. As Jon Allsop recently wrote for Columbia Journalism Review, throughout the pandemic Cuomo was an expert on bringing the press in when it served him, then blocking them out when it didn’t, as if the press is meant to function as an extension of his PR team. The violations of journalistic ethics that Chris Cuomo and CNN engaged in likely gave the former governor that assumption.
The Cuomo brothers are a symptom of an industry that uses the red herring of objectivity to protect and enable abusers, while punishing women, survivors, journalists of color, and anyone else who disrupts or otherwise disturbs the narrative of power. Yet, reporters who come out as survivors, like the Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez, are treated as “unreliable narrators”—an extension of how rape culture treats survivors writ large—while abusive men and their enablers lose nothing.
“The fact this is happening in contrast to the Cuomo case only exposes that objectivity is pretty much bullshit and completely malleable if it’s being claimed by a powerful man with a powerful brother,” Nicole Froio, a reporter and doctoral candidate researching masculinity, sexual violence, and the media, told DAME.
This is no isolated incident; indeed, the real question is, when hasn’t the media functioned as a bizarre PR space for abusers, while shutting down the concerns of survivors and their allies? Four years after #MeToo, complaints of it having gone too far, of “cancel culture,” cynically populate social media. Chris Cuomo even suggested “cancel culture” was to blame for the accusations against Andrew Cuomo. But the true cancel culture is reserved for survivors, working in an industry that protects their abusers and tells them they can’t be trusted to do their jobs, simply by virtue of being survivors. One need only look at the experiences of Sonmez for the evidence.
Sonmez, a national politics reporter for the Washington Post, came forward this past spring about the newspaper’s response to her identifying publicly as a survivor of sexual assault, announcing that former WaPo editor-in-chief Marty Baron had instated a blanket ban on her covering stories related to sexual assault. Baron must have known that, given the pervasiveness of sexual violence, this would include a significant chunk of Sonmez’s work. In late July, Sonmez announced that she was suing the Post, Baron, and other senior leadership at the paper for “subjecting her to unlawful discrimination and a hostile work environment based on her gender and her protected status as a victim of a sexual offense and retaliating against her for engaging in protected activity by protesting [the defendants’] unlawful practices” (per the complaint).
Sonmez’s suit takes a stance against the spinelessness of mainstream media, unwilling to protect survivors even as star journalists profit off their stories. Banning a reporter from covering sexual violence because they came out as a survivor of sexual violence ignores the fact that all newsrooms, statistically, hire many survivors but also shows that their real problem with “coming out” as a survivor is acknowledging it publicly.
Furthermore, taking survivors off sexual violence stories makes explicit that we assume survivors of sexual violence cannot be “objective” about it. “It has been clear in a few news cycles with regards to journalists who are also survivors, the concept of “objectivity” seems to only be used to gaslight and dismiss the perspectives and reporting of survivors,” Froio told DAME. “Reporter-survivors should be able to do their jobs without being interrupted or accused of bias.”
I am a reporter and a survivor, and it is part of why I became a journalist—I have felt a sense of urgency to make my experiences and those of my loved ones visible to the people who gaslighted or ignored us. However, stories like this confirm the narrative that we do not “believe survivors” in spite of the years since the rise of the #MeToo movement. When we preclude marginalized people from being able to access “objective” “truth,” what are we demonstrating and perpetuating? As Kylie Cheung wrote for DAME in April, “It’s about who is and isn’t credible as a storyteller in a media ecosystem and greater society centered around whiteness and maleness.”
And this is all without considering the harassment that women reporters receive for doing their jobs. Sonmez received the coverage ban from WaPo higher-ups after tweeting about the (very public) rape accusations against the late Kobe Bryant in 2020. That incident included an intense online backlash against Sonmez, including doxxing and death threats. Instead of protecting her, Post leaders placed Sonmez on administrative leave for potentially violating their social-media policy.
This week, The Daily Beast uncovered an allegation within Sonmez’s complaint that Baron permitted another WaPo reporter, who had received a misconduct complaint, to report on stories of sexual violence, a clear double standard within her own newsroom. According to screenshots reviewed by The Daily Beast, Simon Denyer, the paper’s bureau chief for Japan and the Koreas, was accused of sending unsolicited nude photos to a colleague.
As Marie Solis wrote about the accusations against Cuomo for Jezebel, “#MeToo focused on what women’s speech can do, but not as much on how men’s speech can still so easily overwrite it … But at many different points over the last few years, it’s been the case that men’s speech is simply more powerful.” Chris Cuomo overwriting his brother’s trespasses, Sonmez stymied by the largely male editors above her from simply doing her job: It is easier to find examples of rape culture winning than losing. “While I’m critical of how the media has turned aspects of speaking truth to power about sexual violence into a spectacle, to censor and dismiss survivors who are trying to expose the truth shows how much progress has been made,” Froio said.
Where do we look for solutions when telling our stories is at best draining and at worst dangerous? Some outlets, like nonprofit newsroom the 19th, encourage its women and nonbinary staffers to use their perspectives to benefit their reporting, rather than seeing those vantage points as a hindrance or somehow inherently disqualifying. This policy honestly reckons with reality where CNN’s and the Washington Post’s fail to: It acknowledges that we are here and we have just as much ability to see truth—if not more—than the men who’ve always been in charge. New media organizations, especially those who have people of marginalized experiences in charge, can move away from the archaic hierarchies that are seemingly intractable from old news.
In the meantime, we don’t just need more brave Felicia Sonmezes; we’ve already expected far too much of them to come forward. And the Felicia Sonmezes we already have need support, resources, and promotions. Because for every Felicia, there are countless others who can’t or won’t come forward—and they shouldn’t have to.We need to stop the Chris Cuomos: Stop hiring them, stop enabling them. And if old news isn’t up to the challenge, we need to keep building something better.
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