By Heidi Stevens
The Chicago Tribune
Former Chicago Tribune executive editor Ann Marie Lipinski wrote a powerful, important essay last week about newsroom sexual harassment, and it’s all the more essential in the wake of Matt Lauer’s firing from NBC.
Lipinski, the head of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, started working here, in the newsroom whence I type, as a summer intern in 1978. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, served as the paper’s top editor from 2001 to 2008 and, along the way, elegantly navigated the shifting tides of journalism and the culture it both shapes and reflects.
Which is to say she’s seen it all — or at least a whole lot of it.
“The handsy city editor; a source’s solicitations mid-interview; a feature editor’s unbidden shoulder massages,” she writes in her Nieman Reports piece. “Looking back, I see that anticipating and deflecting predator colleagues was simply a skill woman journalists of my generation acquired in stride, like how to write a lede or decode property records.”
Her piece opens with a story about a man “from one of the city’s leading cultural institutions” leaning into her with a disgusting proposition on Michigan Avenue one evening when she was in her early 20s. “Five hundred dollars for a half hour,” he said. “I’m a very wealthy man.”
You can imagine why some of us aren’t exactly gobsmacked by the avalanche of men toppling from their perches of power this autumn.
Nevertheless, some names come as more of a surprise than others.
The abrupt dismissal of Lauer caught many by surprise Wednesday morning (although CNN reports The New York Times and Vanity Fair were both pursuing stories about Lauer). And the fact that millions welcomed him into their homes each morning as co-host of the “Today” show lends him a familiarity that makes his firing — and, more importantly, the allegations that led to it — difficult for some viewers to process.
So it was with Bob Greene, the beloved Chicago Tribune columnist whose resignation Lipinski oversaw.
In 2002, a colleague handed Lipinski an anonymous email from a woman accusing Greene of sexual misconduct more than 10 years prior.
“As a teenager,” Lipinski recounts, “she had come to the paper to interview Greene for a high school journalism project, a meeting about which he wrote a column. He would later invite her to dinner, and then to a hotel. When she contacted him some years after to talk about those encounters, the Tribune’s most prominent columnist reported her to the FBI.
“We never publicly identified the woman and I feel bound still to the confidentiality of my conversation with her,” she continues. “But as was widely reported, I accepted Greene’s resignation following an investigation, then wrote a note to readers that ran on the Tribune’s front page. His behavior ‘was a serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists,’ it said in part. ‘We deeply regret the conduct, its effects on the young woman and the impact this disclosure has on the trust our readers placed in Greene and this newspaper.’”
Reaction was deeply mixed.
“One corporate executive suggested I find a way to discipline Greene but allow him to continue his lucrative column,” Lipinski writes. “A longtime reader said he supported my action but missed Greene’s columns and wondered if I could secretly employ him to write under a pseudonym.
“The strong cultural currents in place to buoy abusers may be weakening, along with the fraternity that has existed to protect harassers and discredit the women who would complain,” she continues. “But long experience tells us that progress is rarely a straight line, and already the distant drums of backlash are sounding.”
Lauer’s firing may amplify those drums. Lipinski’s piece should help drown them out.
“While it’s true that confronting colleagues with potentially career-altering accusations is bitter duty, it’s the conversations with aggrieved accusers I keep thinking of,” she writes. “How are we to regard the women whose charges we would bury or belittle? How profound the discomfort then?”
She argues for the elevation of more people who hear and believe accusers. “The fix is not sexual harassment training,” she writes, “but more people in leadership who already know better.”
If that means more women at the top of newspaper mastheads and network hierarchies, fantastic. We should be there anyway, representing our half of the populations we cover.
Lauer’s (and Charlie Rose’s and NPR’s Michael Oreskes’) oustings, however, remind us that listening to accusers then confronting the accused is not a gender-specific responsibility. We can all do it.
It’s difficult to reconcile abhorrent behavior with a personality we think we know and like. But the abhorrent behavior — not our own discomfort — is the thing we need to focus on and eliminate. Papering over it won’t speed that along.
Only the “bitter duty” of confronting harassment and assault in the workplace can lead to its long-overdue demise. I’m grateful Lipinski pioneered a path that others are now able and willing to follow.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email her at email@example.com.