A Secret No More  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1992

A Secret No More   

At long last, the press is struggling to confront its own sexual harassment problem. But much remains hidden behind confidential settlements.

By Carolyn Weaver
Carolyn Weaver is a Washington-based writer.      

Related reading:
   » Sexual Harassment Defined

Earlier this year, Denver Post Executive Sports Editor Woody Paige got mad at Carrie Ludicke, a 24-year-old editorial assistant, and began to yell at her. According to Ludicke, Paige called her a "cunt." Paige, 45, denies ever having uttered the word in his life.

Ludicke accused Paige of sexual harassment and, according to a Post official, received $25,000 in a confidential settlement. The Denver Newspaper Guild, which represented Ludicke, said in a press release that it had amassed evidence that she had been victimized by a "pattern" of sexual harassment, but union officials refused to offer specifics. However, two staff members say Ludicke had complained to them that Paige had made lewd comments to her on two occasions before his outburst.

Ludicke left the paper after agreeing not to discuss the alleged incidents or settlement. Paige, who also agreed not to talk about the matter, was forced to resign as executive sports editor but kept his column and salary.

Post Sports Editor Bob Jones, a close friend of Paige's, says the paper "hung him out to dry." In contrast, sports reporter Natalie Meisler – who alleges Paige discriminated against her and the paper's other female sports reporter when he made assignments – says of his demotion, "It proves that there is some justice in this world."

Post Editor Gil Spencer refuses to discuss Ludicke's allegations but says there was no determination of sexual harassment, only "bad management." Spencer defends the confidentiality agreement as necessary to protect everyone involved. "There was a great deal here that we felt was nobody's business," he says.

"Nobody's business." It might serve as an epigraph for the news industry's reluctance to confront allegations of sexual harassment. Evidence suggests that female journalists have had as much trouble with harassment as women in other white-collar professions. Yet recent surveys and anecdotes indicate that the media, which will report on sexual harassment in government, the military and private business, has more often denied its own problem than addressed it.

"We're behind the rest of corporate America in dealing with it," is the blunt assessment of Ben Johnson, an assistant managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times who organized a panel on sexual harassment at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention last spring. "We're not spending enough money, we're not spending enough time, we're not serious about it."

While recent surveys suggest that 50 percent to 75 percent of U.S. daily newspapers have policies prohibiting sexual harassment, many policies don't appear to be backed by explicit enforcement plans. Only 30 percent of workers in 19 newsrooms around the country said their newspapers have guidelines for filing complaints, according to an Associated Press Managing Editors Association survey released in April. Another 20 percent said their newspapers did not have clear guidelines, and the remaining 50 percent said they didn't know.

Two professors at the University of Maryland journalism school who surveyed 102 newspaperwomen in the congressional press galleries also found enforcement procedures lacking. "Women seem to be left on their own [as to how to make a complaint] or counseled to remain silent," their report concluded.

In broadcast news, the three networks and CNN have had longstanding sexual harassment policies; there are no data on the prevalence of such guidelines at radio and television stations.

All this is changing in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, whose impact on female journalists cannot be overstated. That was the week when newswomen learned that harassment has happened to almost all women in some form, and that they, like other women, had somehow cooperated in denying or deprecating their own most galling experiences.

For many journalists, the crystallizing moment was the revelation that Washington Post writer Juan Williams, one of Thomas' most ardent defenders, was himself an alleged harasser. The Post had printed a Williams column minimizing the gravity of the charges against Thomas without disclosing that Williams had been accused of verbally abusing female staff members over a period of at least four years. Post management also initially held back the paper's media writer, Howard Kurtz, from reporting on the angry reaction among Post staff members. It wasn't until WRC-TV, a local NBC affiliate, broke the story that the Post mentioned the controversy in its pages. And only after a protest by 116 newsroom employees did the paper concede that the charges against Williams were founded. Unlike most incidents of sexual harassment in newsrooms, the Williams case was widely reported, largely because of its intersection with the Thomas hearings and the conflict-of-interest question it raised.

In the months since the Thomas hearings some very different attitudes have begun to take hold in American newsrooms. If it ever were possible to be a naive offender or victim, it is no longer. Nearly one in four editors surveyed at the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors convention last spring said that following the hearings their newspapers had received formal sexual harassment complaints from employees. More significantly, the number of sexual harassment complaints by news media employees to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agencies jumped dramatically in the nine months following the hearings. In recent years, EEOC agencies received an average of 50 complaints a year against media companies; between October 1991 and the end of June they had received 74.

There are also signs that more news managers – who are predominantly male – have been persuaded that harassment is a legitimate problem. Some news organizations have reviewed their sexual harassment policies; others have established more comprehensive awareness training programs. Nancy Woodhull, a founding editor of USA Today and now a business consultant, says media managers "used to call me for advice when they were fearful of NOW picketing. The calls I'm getting now are from men truly wanting to understand."

But it is difficult to understand, let alone resolve, a problem that never has been aired. Interviews with nearly 100 reporters, editors and producers at more than 30 newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets reveal a largely untold story of sexual harassment within the media. It's a story – oddly enough in an industry dedicated to uncovering the facts – of a lot of little cover-ups.


Keeping it Quiet

Like other female workers, about half of female journalists surveyed report having been sexually harassed at some time during their careers. Their experiences range from the annoying to the traumatizing.

During the weeks and months after the Thomas hearings, the first surveys indicating the extent of the problem began to appear:

Nearly 40 percent of women working at 19 newspapers around the country said they have been sexually harassed, citing incidents such as unwanted touching and annoying or degrading comments about sex, according to the Associated Press Managing Editors Association survey. (The survey found 95 percent of newsroom harassment victims are women.)

More than 60 percent of 102 female journalists working out of the congressional press galleries in Washington who responded to a University of Maryland survey said that sexual harassment had been a problem for them.

Forty-four percent of 199 newspaperwomen, most of them managers at smaller papers, surveyed last fall by the trade magazine News Inc., said they had been harassed. Approximately half of the incidents had taken place within the previous five years, and about 20 percent during the previous six months.

Fifty percent of 55 female television news directors said they have experienced some form of sexual harassment – usually verbal – on the job, according to a survey conducted by two researchers at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Most of the respondents said they never reported the incidents.

" 'Harassment' is the important part of the term, not 'sexual,' " says Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women Policy Studies, a nonprofit research group. "It isn't about lust, it's about power, control, domination. It's about 'I can make you uncomfortable and you can't do anything about it.' "

Women who say they've been victimized agree, noting that whatever else it may be, sexual harassment is not "sexy." They say the problem with men who harass is that they don't like women, not that they like women too much. It's a useful distinction, given that even some newsmen persist in thinking the issue is about workplace flirtation. In fact, say experts, it is unwelcome attention based on a person's gender that constitutes harassment; there need be nothing overtly sexual about it.

Sexual harassment law dates from the late 1970s, when feminist lawyers began winning cases arguing that sexual harassment was a form of illegal sex discrimination. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lower court decisions in its first sexual harassment decision, ruling that illegal harassment need not include a direct threat of job loss, but encompasses any conduct that creates an abusive working environment.

Despite a growing number of cases in the past 10 years, news organizations have given harassment only cursory attention. The issue barely rated as news before coverage of Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas. Yet even 11 months later, there have been few in-depth examinations of the phenomenon. Sixty-five percent of editors polled last spring at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention said that despite the enormous interest in the Hill-Thomas controversy, they had given the issue of sexual harassment no special attention in subsequent coverage.

Moreover, anecdotal evidence shows that news organizations confronted with allegations of sexual harass- ment in their own workplaces have tended to deny and discount them. And when faced with a harassment lawsuit, news outlets frequently propose confidential settlements that gag all parties involved.

For example, of eight threatened or filed lawsuits against media organizations settled since 1985 examined for this article, only two were not settled confidentially. In one case, Elissa Dorfsman, a sales executive at a CBS-owned radio station in Philadelphia, sued CBS in 1984 and settled nine months later. Although the amount of the settlement is secret, Dorfsman says the company never asked for her silence about the substance of her allegations and that she never would have agreed to it. In the other case, former editorial writer Lynne Carrier says she refused an extra $10,000 to remain silent when she settled her case against the Copley-owned San Diego Tribune (now the San Diego Union-Tribune) for $201,000 late last year. "I told them I thought it was outrageous for a newspaper that makes its livelihood by public disclosure to have a confidential settlement," she says.

Agreements without gag clauses appear to be the exception. Defendants almost always demand confidentiality, says Vicki Golden, a lawyer who specializes in employment cases. "Defendants say they won't settle otherwise, unless you keep quiet," she says. "It's pretty hard to say 'No, I'd rather take my chances to vindicate myself in court two years down the road.' "

Bruce Meachum of the Denver Newspaper Guild, who negotiated for Carrie Ludicke, says, "That's basically what we were bargaining about – her silence. I think it's pretty clear that it's worth more money with a high-profile case, to have confidentiality. What else would they be settling for? There's no other reason for a company to settle up front, unless they think they have a dead loser of a case."

Editors and managers at news organizations that have made such settlements say they are intended to protect those involved from endless charges and counter-charges. They note that no one is forced to sign the gag agreements, and that plaintiffs at times are happy to draw the curtain on an ugly episode. "If you don't have confidentiality, you're still fighting," says one editor. "All kinds of blood can get spilled."

It appears, however, that such secrecy often serves mainly to protect the alleged harasser and the organization from answering discomforting questions. Confidential settlements also treat the actual details of harassment as unspeakable, thus perpetuating the stigma many victims feel. It is difficult to imagine, for example, a news organization bidding for lifelong silence from a group of employees suing over racial harassment. But that is exactly what CBS did in settling a 1986 lawsuit brought by seven women who charged they had been sexually harassed and sexually assaulted, despite repeated requests for help from top managers, while working at "Nightwatch," the network's now-defunct overnight news program.

The case involved one of the most prestigious news organizations in the country. It also involved very serious charges.Even so, it received almost no coverage; the Washington Post reported on it in passing several times in its television column. According to a friend of one of the plaintiffs, the 1987 agreement includes a clause requiring the plaintiffs to repay CBS their settlement plus a substantial penalty if they ever violate confidentiality.

Douglas Jacobs, an associate general counsel for CBS, says there is no reason for a news operation to handle its own employment discrimination cases with greater openness than any other kinds of lawsuits.

One former plaintiff reached by telephone at first agreed to talk about the case off the record, then changed her mind after consulting with her lawyer. "Just sitting here thinking about it again makes me shake," she said. "Reliving it makes me sick. I just want to put it behind me." All but one of the seven women left television news, she says. The single exception is an independent producer.


Trouble in Kansas City

Despite CBS' success in quashing publicity about the "Nightwatch" case, confidential settlements are more efficient at suppressing the facts when there is only a single plaintiff. Secrecy may then be rationalized as simply a confidential severance agreement, presumably involving little more than a personality conflict. Last year, for example, 30-year-old Elizabeth Flansburg, a deputy national editor at the Kansas City Star, agreed to a confidential settlement following her threat to sue for sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

Flansburg's former supervisor, Steve Buttry, who until recently was editor of the Minot Daily News in North Dakota, wrote a column about the controversy during the Thomas hearings . He also spoke on the record with WJR. Buttry says Flansburg had confided in him nearly a year before she left in February 1991 that she felt uncomfortable as one of the few female editors, that some top editors were hostile, and that some of them referred to women as "bitches" and "cunts." One top editor did not use such language, Buttry says, but he had a proprietary way of touching Flansburg that Flansburg told Buttry made her very uncomfortable.

There was one alleged incident of "sexual" touching that Buttry says Flansburg told him about after she had quit her job. Flansburg told Buttry that one Saturday in the newsroom, the editor had repeatedly pressed his thigh up against hers as they sat together in front of her computer screen going over a story.

Flansburg quit after being told she was being demoted, says Buttry, just a week after refusing to accompany the editor on a business trip she regarded as "dubious." When she refused, the editor put his finger under her chin and raised her face to his. "Look me in the eye when you're talking to me," he said, according to another editor who said he witnessed the incident.

Executive Editor David Zeeck noted in a detailed letter to WJR that an attorney from Capital Cities/ABC Inc., which owns the Star, investigated Flansburg's charges and "concluded that no sexual harassment or misconduct occurred." Zeeck wrote that he could not discuss Flansburg's specific charges, but defended the legitimacy of the business trip, which he said was to attend an afternoon Missouri Press Association meeting in Jefferson City, the state capital. Zeeck also provided a lengthy list detailing his paper's commitment to equal treatment of women.

The paper chose to settle, Zeeck wrote, because "we thought it was in the company's interest to resolve the dispute and move forward, and to allow [Flansburg] to do the same. Further, we believe publicly discussing harassment claims or publicly debating our differences with claimants might discourage legitimate cases of harassment from coming to light."

Flansburg says she sent out scores of job applications but was unable to find an equivalent job in journalism. She will attend law school at Drake University in Des Moines this fall.


Secrecy in Cincinnati

Even news organizations that have moved swiftly to investigate complaints and discipline harassers sometimes attempt to keep the incident concealed from staff members as well as the public. If the attempt at secrecy succeeds even partially, many of those interviewed for this article say it can make it impossible for others to reach any informed judgment about the truth of the allegations and the justice of the outcome.

Such secrecy may also create the impression that complainants are partly to blame for a distasteful episode and do not have the support of management. This may result in new complaints of retaliation and sexual harassment even when the alleged harasser has left the organization.

Late in 1989, for example, Assistant Metro Editor J. Frazier Smith resigned from the Cincinnati Enquirer following allegations by a group of female staffers that he had sexually harassed them. One of the women, metro reporter Nancy Firor, subsequently filed suit against the Enquirer in federal court, charging that management retaliated against her for complaining about Smith.

After Smith left the newspaper, management told the women that they could say nothing about the alleged incidents, according to Firor's lawyer, Lynn Pundzak. "The newsroom was full of rumors as to why this editor had left," she says. "No one came down and said, 'This man acted inappropriately toward women. We forced him out and therefore you should take notice that any other similar conduct will be dealt with in a similar fashion.' All that was known was that certain women were involved in his leaving. My client couldn't defend herself because she'd been told not to talk about it."

According to Pundzak, Firor's coworkers began making comments such as, "I shouldn't talk to you, it might be sexual harassment." Some of the scuttlebutt suggested that Firor, who is white, hadn't wanted to work with Smith, who is black. Pundzak says that Firor's superiors ignored her requests for help in clearing the air, began treating her as a problem, and denied her a promotion.

George Blake, editor of the Enquirer, says he doesn't know whether the five women were indeed asked not to talk about their complaint. He also says he doesn't remember whether his newspaper reported the existence of the lawsuit. (Bill Sloat, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who broke the story, says the Enquirer has yet to mention it in its pages.) Blake refused to comment further on the matter, saying "We don't discuss personnel matters outside the company." But Blake did say that the Gannett-owned paper has long circulated a written policy against sexual harassment and has held management seminars on the issue. (Pundzak disagrees, saying the paper has offered no evidence that it had a sexual harassment policy prior to the Smith episode.)

Smith negotiated a confidential severance agreement and refuses to discuss the matter. He now teaches at Ohio University, where his performance is highly praised by the journalism school's director, Ralph Izard.



The Newsday Model

The Associated Press Managing Editors Association, made up of newspaper editors from around the country, has called on all newspapers to establish policies forbidding sexual harassment. But having a policy means more than promulgating a written ban, say experts; to defend against a lawsuit, companies must be able to show that they enforced it with well-publicized procedures for investigating and resolving complaints.

Effective sexual harassment policies are very much alike, varying mainly in the degree of management commitment. One newspaper some people in the business cite as a model is Newsday. Newsday's top male managers talk about its longstanding anti-harassment policy – which includes any kind of harassment or intimidation – with a matter-of-fact respect.

Printed in the handbook that is given to all employees, the policy explains how to make a confidential complaint, warns of discipline for harassment, and even stipulates that certain conduct may result in separate legal action against an offender. "It is and ought to be straightforward and simple," says Alberto Ibarguen, Newsday's senior vice president. "We're not talking rocket science here."

Both Ibarguen and Richard Greene, Newsday's employee relations manager, say that investigations begin by examining the complaint from the complainant's perspective. This approach means not assuming that women are apt to make false or trivial complaints. It also means not taking a legalistic approach, but rather dealing with it as an issue of common courtesy and professional behavior.

Employees found to have harassed coworkers are usually required to get counseling. Depending on the nature and degree of the offense, this can range from a talk with Greene to private psychotherapy. Serious abusers are also disciplined. Besides one firing, Ibarguen says, the company has demoted a couple of other employees, and reprimanded a handful of others.

During the past five years, Ibarguen and Greene say, the paper has received 20 to 25 complaints that were then substantiated by internal investigations. Beyond those, they say, a few other complaints were found to be the result of misunderstandings.

Complainants at the paper also are informed, in general terms, of the resolution of their complaint, including the fact that a harasser has been required to get counseling. The form of counseling is not disclosed, but Ibarguen says, "Part of the system's credibility is that the complainant has some satisfaction that appropriate action has been taken."

Newsday has put considerable money behind the policy. In a case that ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the paper spent $250,000 to reverse a federal arbitrator's order reinstating a Newsday compositor fired after he ignored repeated warnings to stop touching female coworkers. Newsday won last year when the Supreme Court declined to review a federal appeals court ruling that the arbitrator could not prevent the newspaper from "carrying out its legal duty to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace."

Another reform-minded paper, as WJR reported in October 1991, is the St. Petersburg Times, which responded with dispatch and candor when a group of about 100 women staff members issued a report describing incidents of harassment and sex discrimination. Times Editor and President Andrew Barnes drafted a plan to remedy the problem. Among other things, the paper established a detailed sexual harassment policy and awareness training program.

The paper also fired the supervisor responsible for the most offensive remarks, and covered the embarrassing contretemps in its own metro pages. Assistant Managing Editor Ben Johnson says, "I'm proud of being part of a newspaper that dealt frankly and forthrightly [with the issue] and moved to make some changes."

One of the more striking aspects of the Newsday approach is the company's insistence that the four or five complaints it receives yearly are a sign of its policy's success . "With a good policy, you get more complaints, not fewer," says Employee Relations Manager Greene. "It's a sign that you have established an environment where women feel they will be listened to and their grievances redressed."

Yet until women are fully represented at all levels of the news business, media companies of any size must expect that sexual harassment will remain a perennial issue. As Newsday officials note, the existence of the problem is not a news organization's fault; tolerance of it is. l

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