When MSNBC host Keith Olbermann offered Fox News producer Andrea Mackris $99,000 to pay off her reported debts if she, in return, would come up with an audio tape of Fox News star Bill O’Reilly speaking rancid nothings to her on the phone, his viewers took him seriously. By Tuesday, Oct. 26, Mr. Olbermann said he’d received $25,000 in online donations.
“There’s a lot of people there who have a strong reaction,” he said. “When you see someone who has big ratings, you wonder about the number of people who wouldn’t watch his show as soon as spit on him in the street.”
If a TV host—say, Mr. O’Reilly—had two million viewers on average, he said, “I think the number of people who wouldn’t watch him is still a 2.5.”
On one hand, Mr. Olbermann’s body-slam was another shameless grab for Mr. O’Reilly’s ratings, a thumb in the eye by a former Fox Sports staffer who never had good things to say about Rupert Murdoch’s cable channel. But on the other, Mr. Olbermann said he was driven by a unique understanding of sexual harassment against women.
He was, he said, a witness in “three or four major cases at ESPN,” where he used to work. “I was either a close friend, colleague of one of the victims, or witnessed the behavior of one of the men involved in these situations. And until you see it, until you understand how pervasive it is …. It is a psychological problem and a serious one, and it is to some degree still in the carpets and hasn’t been shampooed out in the news industry.”
It’s one of the great ironies of Ms. Mackris’ sexual-harassment lawsuit against Mr. O’Reilly that her one on-air defender, the avenging Mr. Olbermann, is a man. With lawyers for Mr. O’Reilly and Ms. Mackris in negotiations to settle the suits each has brought against the other—one for extortion, the other for sexual harassment—there is a divide among women in television on Ms. Mackris’ own responsibility.
Most women in television contacted by The Observer said that sexist, hostile work environments exist in TV news. But they weren’t by default supportive of Ms. Mackris.
Deborah Norville, the host of MSNBC’s prime-time Deborah Norville Tonight, said that inequity and harassment by powerful men wasn’t a factor in the TV business—at least not in her career. “It’s never happened to me,” she said. And it certainly wasn’t because she wasn’t the type to attract unwanted attention. “Was I not cute enough? I think I was pretty cute,” she said.
Ms. Norville also hosts Inside Edition, where Mr. O’Reilly worked before hitting pay dirt at Fox, and said she drew the line on reporting murky incidents of harassment unless the facts met the standards of a court of law. “When one talks about this, ‘It happens all the time,’ when you look a little more closely—we hear about it all the time, but very few of us have any actual personal knowledge,” she said.
But some do.
“Oh, absolutely, it exists,” said Judy Woodruff, the host of CNN’s Inside Politics. “We’d be naïve to think it doesn’t exist in our industry.”
Ms. Woodruff described an early and seminal harassment experience of her own, when a producer hit on her when she was a young reporter at NBC News. “We were out covering a story, and he made it clear he was propositioning me,” she said. “I made it equally clear that that wasn’t going anywhere. And it made our relationship after that very awkward.”
Ms. Woodruff said she wasn’t familiar with all the facts in the O’Reilly-Mackris case, but added, “I have sympathy for anybody in a situation where they have been taken advantage of by their colleague.”
The extent to which women in TV news called harassment a problem seemed to depend on their ability to navigate newsrooms suffused with male sexual banter as well as more serious transgressions. Even as some took pride in their ability to nimbly circumvent the issue without bringing their own careers to a premature halt, they tended to interpret the alleged events in Ms. Mackris’ complaint as a series of bad judgments.
In particular, none understood why Ms. Mackris agreed to have dinner with Mr. O’Reilly not once, but multiple times. Going out to dinner repeatedly with an anchor was just not something you did, they said, especially if he was acting like a pervert.
“If you start going down that route, I think there’s some responsibility,” said Sharyl Attkisson, a Washington correspondent for CBS News. “I don’t want to blame the victim, because I think that’s the wrong thing to do. But I think most women could or would be able to find a way to stop it. But it’s hard to do it when you’re young without committing career suicide. I have a female producer who works with me, and we both said that we knew—anyway, in our case—if something like that happened, we could put a stop to it easily.”
“She had dinner with him one-on-one numerous times,” said Cheryl Wills, weekend evening anchor for NY1. “When it’s dinner after dinner, your eyebrows are raised.”
A Fox News producer in New York said she was also suspicious of a woman who would accept a dinner invitation from her boss—but said that didn’t necessarily excuse Mr. O’Reilly.
“As a woman, I wouldn’t do it,” she said. “I’d say, ‘I’d love to meet you in your office—please have your assistant set something up for me.’ You know? And if there had been a history of that, there’s no way I’d go back to that. There are other jobs.
“That said, I understand the fear of intimidation. He’s very, very powerful, and he’s definitely a bully, so that would be very, very scary. So in that respect, I understand.”
Mr. Olbermann’s analysis of the reaction by other women was that it had less to do with Ms. Mackris’ case and more to do with undue attention to their relative power. “In the last 20 to 30 years, women have ascended in the industry both on- and off-camera,” he said. “But one of the phenomena of human nature is that people who get up onto the lifeboat tend to immediately grab an oar and start hitting the people who are still in the water …. I don’t think it has anything to do with the case, and I don’t think it has anything to do with sexual harassment.”
The skepticism toward Ms. Mackris among other women in TV news seemed to hinge on how each had navigated an incident of harassment—if a woman had avoided it, then she knew it was avoidable and was less sympathetic to another woman who decided to take her situation public rather than forge through it.
“In the beginning, you remember because you’re shocked, and then you quit being shocked and you just start dealing with them,” said Ms. Attkisson, who said she was never harassed at CBS News. “You have to measure: ‘O.K., I’m at my first job; I have no record. Do I somehow get through this situation without creating a huge stink, in a way that’s acceptable to me? Or do I stand on some drum and file a lawsuit and never work in the business again?’
“So you just sort of intuitively work your way around it, and then you get so good at it that it doesn’t really bother you anymore— or people quit doing it.”
Like Ms. Woodruff, Ms. Attkisson was harassed early on, when the general manager of the first station she worked at gave her $40 and asked her to buy a bikini, take a photo of herself in it and give it to him.
“I left and I remember asking people at the office, and my husband, ‘Do you think he’s serious?’ Because I really needed the $40—I wanted it,” said Ms. Attkisson. “And, of course, I didn’t buy a bikini or take a picture of myself. But I kind of wondered: ‘Was he going to ask for it later?’”
When she was interviewing once at a station in Orlando, Fla., Ms. Attkisson said that a male manager pointed toward another young woman in the newsroom and declared, “She’s a producer, and she would lay down here on this desk and let me fuck her if I wanted to, just to get an on-air job.”
Ms. Attkisson said she didn’t accept the position.
By putting up with Mr. O’Reilly’s alleged come-ons for a while and, according to her complaint, accepting invitations to dinner and not hanging up during lurid phone calls, Ms. Mackris was playing close to a line—one sometimes approached by women seeking to exploit the imbalance in power through flirtation or sex.
But tolerating sexual harassment can be an implicit acceptance of the power imbalance between powerful men and less powerful women—the very imbalance that can transform a consensual sexual affair into a career-advancement tool. Threading that needle becomes simple survival in television.
So reacting as Ms. Mackris has—with a lawsuit—appeared to play into Mr. O’Reilly’s male view of harassment.
“Look,” he said in an interview last March, “I think that the sexual-harassment thing is used as a club, as I said, by many women, all right? It’s something they have against men, a threat to keep men at bay in a very competitive marketplace …. You know, there are women who manipulate themselves and use their sexuality to get ahead, all right? And then these women will turn around and file a sexual harassment …. But how do you prove it? It’s very difficult to prove it.”
Ms. Woodruff said there were some women who could take advantage of the power dynamic.
“As long as I’ve been in the business, as long as I’ve been working,” she said, “I’ve heard of women who decided—and they’re very much in the minority—but there are a few who decide they will use their gender to their advantage. But they’re not the majority.”
Ms. Norville said that a woman like Ms. Mackris entered the moral morass of Mr. O’Reilly’s domain by her own volition, knowing what he was like, courting his power despite his alleged inappropriate behavior.
Her advice to a woman like Ms. Mackris: quit and find your footing in a local religious institution.
“And if you can’t sleep with yourself because of what you have had to do to reach the level of success you think is important, then the business is not worth it, and you need to go find a house of worship and get straight with yourself,” she said.
“Frankly, I’ve had it with the lack of morality that this speaks to.”
Ms. Norville said she’d been through the wringer and made it through, and never had to sleep with men or accept sexual abuse. “Not once did I ever feel the need to kiss anyone, to be fondled or fondle anyone, to grope or be groped or allow myself to be seen in that role,” she said.
“I suppose anybody could say or do something that could be misinterpreted by another in a negative way,” she continued, alluding to the alleged sex talk by Mr. O’Reilly in the lawsuit. She said a clerk that morning at the pharmacy had used “the F-word.”
“If I wanted to make a federal case,” she said, “I suppose I probably could have. Just get on with life. Again, it’s not directed toward the O’Reilly thing, because I wouldn’t want to cast judgment on what may or may not have occurred.”
Meanwhile, inside Fox News Channel, people have remained suspicious of Ms. Mackris. “A lot of people thought the timing was suspect and thought she was coming back to potentially entrap him,” said one woman who works as a producer at Fox News in New York.
But there was dissent.
“I had hung out with her at a party once, and she seemed really nice,” said the Fox producer. “She didn’t seem like a really inappropriate, flirtatious, overly sexual person. You know, there are a lot of people who are here who wear little skirts and heels. She was wasn’t that kind of person; she was down-to-earth and wore jeans and didn’t have the best body. She wasn’t one of those people where it’s like, ‘Ohmigod, she’s hot!’ And there are so many of them here. That wasn’t her vibe.”
Finally, the Fox producer said, it had less to do with looks and more to do with self-knowledge.
“I am beautiful,” she said, “and have gotten inappropriate attention from men, but I have learned how to stop it with the way I handle it. It is my opinion that women in general—young, old, whatever—have a hard time with boundaries, have a hard time saying no, have a hard time being disliked. It all comes down to self-esteem and confidence.”
Ms. Woodruff said she was distressed by the sexual balance of power in TV. “We’re, what, 40 years out from the beginning of the women’s-rights movement,” she said. “But the fact is that very often in work situations, women don’t have as much power as the people who are taking advantage of them in one way or another.”
And so far, aside from Mr. Olbermann, the TV media remains hesitant to cover a story in its own backyard. So, here is NYTV’s call to professionals with experience or knowledge of sexual harassment in the TVindustry: if you have incidents that you would like us to report on, please contact us, at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. It’s an issue that we will continue to pursue.