Mark Halperin gave me my first job in television news. Since I was 14, and began writing for my high school newspaper, my dream was to report. I was fascinated by international news and domestic U.S. politics in particular So as a junior at Wellesley College, when I heard the ABC News political director would speak nearby at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I leaped at the chance to see him. After his talk, I introduced myself. He gave me his card, and a couple days later offered me a summer job as his assistant. I was ecstatic.
For the most part, it was an uneventful few months. Halperin assigned me research on George W. Bush, who was then a presidential candidate. Occasionally he offered other fun tasks, such as to shadow his friend, the New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney, while he was covering a speech by New York Governor George Pataki. I watched Nagourney work the room and read his reporting the next day, brimming with insight into dynamics and political power struggles of which I had been unaware.
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Back at ABC, I watched women go in and out of Halperin’s office. Like me, they were ABC employees, or young women outside of the company, whom Halperin seemed to mentor. I noticed that during these meetings, the door to Halperin’s office was sometimes closed. At the time, I wondered why, but of course, never questioned him about it. I was happy to have an entrée to a major television network, and Halperin rewarded me with a recommendation for a full-time position with ABC News after I graduated from college.
Years later, when I would tell people that I began my career at ABC as an assistant to Halperin, my female colleagues blanched. “Did he rape you?” one woman asked. “No,” I replied, “He did not.” Another told me that at a meeting with Halperin in his office, he had closed the door, stood behind her, and pressed her head into his clothed, erect penis.
I had not had these experiences with him, and while at ABC, went on to work for several other executives, with whom I faced my own challenges. One asked me to order condoms for him from an office supply catalog. A television director would repeatedly sidle up to me, and say, “You’re wearing your fuck-me shoes again, aren’t you?” Later, when I informed him that I wanted to report on-air, he offered a detailed analysis of the size of my forehead and the width of my eyes and cheekbones, and told me I should be filmed from my right side only. He also encouraged me to dye my hair blonde.
One of my colleagues then, also an assistant to an executive, asked me to meet her for coffee. She was emotionally distraught because her supervisor wavered between sexual overtures and outright hostility. I had little help to offer her other than my friendship. She soon quit her job and has not returned to the television industry since.
Like her, I was in my early 20s, just out of college, and struggled to find my footing in what was an intimidating, cutthroat environment. In 2004, I mulled applying to be a campaign embed, working for Halperin’s political unit. I hadn’t seen him much in my previous role, but about this time, I remember passing him in the newsroom; Halperin leered as I walked the 50-meter distance from my desk to the door near where he was standing. I didn’t know what to make of his long, intense stare. It felt predatory, but I included it with the routine discomforts I faced every day at the office. I didn’t apply for an embed position; instead I became determined to prove my talents and potential as a journalist, outside of ABC.
Why did I leave? It wasn’t just the sexism—the overall work environment at ABC News was toxic. In addition to the sexual overtures I experienced from some managers, there was one who would frequently subject me to demeaning acts, such as sending me to the cafeteria to retrieve his breakfast. If I returned with bread that was not toasted to precisely the level he desired, he would fly into a rage and send me back. This same executive said he would give me a bad recommendation if I applied to other positions in the company because, in his words, I “wasn’t qualified or ready to move on” from my role.
For me, a young woman from Georgia, the world of New York and ABC News was a big jump. I didn’t have the strength or self-confidence then to know where my boundaries were, or how to voice them with people who were luminaries in my field. My passion for journalism was so strong that I felt any misconduct I experienced was just paying my dues. I did learn a lot— and am inspired even now by many of the men I worked with—but for some, I was merely an object for them to use to amplify their feelings of power. Every morning, I had to summon emotional courage simply to go to the office and do my job.
So I moved to China to report and film documentaries, but the environment I thought I had left behind in the U.S. kept resurfacing. I experienced harassment from some of my Chinese bosses, Western cameramen and sources. When I would travel back to the U.S. to market my stories to news outlets, it was the same dispiriting story: Here I was, offering what I felt were powerful, important reports on the escape of North Korean refugees, the torture of dissidents in China’s mental hospitals and protests in Africa—and was getting comments from television executives on my appearance. It was frustrating, and depressing, but I knew it was a common experience for women trying to make their way in television journalism.
In the field, I had too much to focus on to worry about my physical appeal, and while, I could try to set boundaries around who I worked for and with, many factors remained beyond my control. Three years ago, I traveled to the Comoros, a tiny, restive nation off the coast of East Africa, to report what I hoped would be a nuanced, in-depth story on the impacts there of Chinese investment. I kept the budget for my reports low, traveled by myself and chose to stay in the more modest of the two hotels in the country.
Early one morning at 4 a.m., halfway through the trip, I received a knock on my hotel room door. I opened it and recognized an employee from the front desk. He seized my shoulders, grabbed my breast, and kissed me. “Je ne voudrais pas,” I repeated. Moments later, he looked at me with an indecipherable expression, released my shoulders from his grip, and left. I shut the door behind him. My heart pounding, I sat on the hotel bed and began to cry. This was not why I decided to become a journalist in high school.
For the next few days, I nervously took note of my surroundings everywhere I went. Each time I walked through the hotel lobby, I stared straight ahead, avoiding the gaze of the reception desk employee. I vowed to never allow myself to be in such a vulnerable situation again.
After my stories from Africa were published, I packed up my belongings and moved to Hong Kong. I didn’t want to live in mainland China anymore, and considered leaving journalism altogether. Reporting had been my great passion since I was kid, but I had hit an emotional wall.
To be honest, I still don’t know precisely why. By the time I moved to Hong Kong, the thought of reporting filled me with an overwhelming feeling of panic and fear, to the extent that I didn’t want to pitch or report in the field. I wasn’t able to pinpoint a specific experience that caused this anxiety. On a very rational level, though, I calculated that being evaluated primarily on the basis of my appearance, in addition to reporting in risky environments, was not healthy for me.
Now, when I read about the complaints against Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin, the word that comes to mind is reduction. A talented journalist or producer is reduced to a woman sitting on a man’s lap; an object to touch and assault without her consent.
Sexual objectification can carry even graver risks for women when working in foreign environments with strangers. Kim Wall, the freelance journalist who was recently sexually assaulted and dismembered by her interview subject in Denmark, was reduced to a much more grisly end. A vibrant, creative and intellectual human being disassembled into parts.
For women who choose adventurous paths, life is a series of calculations: Do I choose this opportunity, or that one? Do I wear makeup, or go plain faced? Do I wear a skirt, or pants? Do I travel, or stay at home? Do I quit, or do I persist? Do I speak, or stay silent?
For a long time, I calculated that putting up with sexism was the price I had to pay to realize my dream of being a journalist. I was willing to straighten my hair and change my lipstick, to play the role of the desirable female television reporter, while enduring degrading remarks and behavior as my intellectual strengths as a journalist went ignored.
Now, my passion for reporting and faith in the power of story-telling remain as strong as ever, though I believe our media companies must change. In recent weeks, I have also been inspired by the women who have chosen to come forward and talk openly about misconduct. I have found validation and strength in our shared experience.
Television executives help to determine our society’s values through the stories they choose to tell. In commercial TV news, the message to the audience is unfortunately clear: Women, even skilled and accomplished journalists, are sexual objects. We are ageless, interchangeable creatures, tossed aside when we no longer look young or trim enough on camera. With the allegations against Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin, we now know how this cruel and demeaning view of women has manifested itself inside our newsrooms.
How can we fix this? Media executives must begin telling more stories of women, through television and film, that reflect our fullness and complexity as human beings. News executives should hire women, off-air and on, to be great journalists, not objects of sexual appeal. Human resource departments should have zero tolerance for comments and behavior that foster a culture of degradation.
Most importantly, women must refuse to be participants in our own reduction. We must lean in, stand and speak up together, with the knowledge that we speak for millions of women both here in the U.S. and outside our borders who experience sexual misconduct, but have no voice. Only then will women be able to realize their full intellectual and creative potential. Our professional ambitions should not cost us our safety or dignity. Too many potentially valuable contributions have already been lost.