For those of us who hoped that things had changed, that all the post-Harvey Weinstein #MeToo pledges from the entertainment and media industries to “do better, be better,” were sincere, Monday was a very complicated day.
On Sunday, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was ousted for what he called having an “inappropriate relationship.” On Monday that was revealed to be the subject of a sexual harassment suit filed by CNBC correspondent Hadley Gamble. That same day, both ends of the political spectrum took hits with the near-simultaneous firings of Fox host Tucker Carlson and CNN host Don Lemon.
There are myriad possible causes for Carlson getting canned — his role in the Dominion suit that cost Fox $787 million revealed his contempt for not only the truth and human decency but also for many of his Fox colleagues and superiors. But many with insider knowledge are citing a lawsuit filed by his former booking producer Abby Grossman accusing Carlson of harassment and sexism.
No suit has been filed against Lemon, but continued complaints about his sexist on-air remarks and behind-the-scenes treatment of his female colleagues apparently made him more of a liability than a star.
Taken together, it was difficult not to think, “Well, it looks like all of those sexual harassment training videos were useless.”
But maybe not. Maybe Monday was actually a good day, representing the messy, imperfect, two-steps-forward-one-step-back pattern of actual change.
Yes, Carlson losing his job because of a sexual harassment suit is a bit like Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion. Still, considering that he replaced Bill O’Reilly, a serial offender who got the ax only after it was revealed that Fox had quietly paid $32 million in sexual harassment settlements over the years, Carlson’s firing indicates something that could be called progress. (Or maybe, after spending almost a billion dollars in settlements with O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and now Dominion, Fox is realizing the literal cost of its toxic culture.)
Yes, Shell is open to charges of hypocrisy (not to mention stupidity) as well as harassment. It was Shell who helped orchestrate and then announced Ron Meyer’s 2020 exit from NBCUniversal after it was revealed that an extramarital affair left Meyer vulnerable to extortion attempts. Shell described Meyer as acting “in a manner which we believe is not consistent with our company policies or values.”
But at least, with a final mendacious flourish of “inappropriate relationship,” he’s gone.
Lemon, who in 2021 pushed back against exiting host Brooke Baldwin’s complaint that CNN was a boy’s club (the entire 8 p.m.-11p.m. lineup was anchored by men) by saying “we have plenty of women in power,” may have unintentionally proved how important gender parity is.
Lemon’s sexist on-air remarks — about 51-year old Nikki Haley not being a viable presidential candidate because women are in their prime “in the 20s, 30s and maybe 40s” and women’s sports receiving less coverage because men are more interesting to watch — were met with full-throttle pushback from his female co-hosts (and viewers). Amid the uproar, past allegations of uncollegial behavior resurfaced as well as many tensions that existed between him and his female colleagues.
First, CNN executives announced that because they took these things “seriously,” Lemon would receive “professional training.” Then, apparently, they decided that was not enough, and now he’s gone too.
It’s all about the money, of course — short- and long-term. Lawsuits are expensive, sustained outrage can damage ratings, and certain patterns of personality can harm brands, especially, as seems to be the case with Fox News and CNN, those brands that are attempting to recover and/or change.
But it’s also about the culture. Having seen the ubiquity of sexism and sexual harassment in various workplaces, and the resulting damage, we can never unsee it, though there is much debate about how to prevent it (all those training videos!) or how to respond to allegations that do not include assault, rape or patterns of predatory behavior.
Indeed, in recent years many have feared that some of the earlier cases, particularly that of Weinstein (who is in jail for multiple convictions of rape and sexual assault), were so horrific that workplace sexism would not be taken seriously if it did not involve physical injury or a sustained pattern of abuse.
The firing of these three men appears to suggest otherwise.
Yes, it would be easy, and natural, to look at these guys and think, “Here we are, back again. Is it ever going to change?” Which is valid if you are only looking at the men, each of whom appear to have believed that the rules — of the workplace and the culture — did not apply to them.
But if you look past the men and at the companies that employed them, at least a small degree of change is visible. For whatever reason — financial, optics, brand-management — the media giants in question parted ways with some of their most powerful players. If not exactly preemptively, then at least relatively swiftly.
There is a chance, of course, that more will be revealed in coming weeks, but the fact that the firing of these men took everyone by surprise offers some hope. (For Shell and Carlson, it does appear that lawsuits were necessary but at least they were not settled quietly with no or few consequences for the alleged offenders.)
And that’s as it should be. It shouldn’t take multiple news investigations for companies to listen to employees’ allegations and complaints. It shouldn’t take a chorus of women offering up the details of some of the worst hours of their lives for other women to feel safe enough to speak up and to believe they will be heard when they do.
Sexism and sexual harassment should not be ignored or treated as a perk of stardom, nor should it be papered over with consciousness-raising and workplace training.
There should be consequences for inappropriate conduct, and on Monday at least, there were.