Leave it to SVU to air an episode about harassment at a fictional network news operation the very week a high-profile anchor at a REAL national news outfit is fired for that exact reason.
The episode with its perfectly simple title, “The Newsroom,” opens with Lieutenant Benson about to be on a morning news segment to talk about, what else, an assault.
During the segment an attractive young actress talks about how she was raped by her co-star, who was also her director, on a film set for a scene that appeared in the feature. (This touching on another real-life story including the filming of a young actress during the making of the feature Last Tango in Paris.)
As the young actress discussed what happened to her, the female anchor of the morning show, Heidi, reacts both visibly and verbally. Of course, the experienced Benson picks up on this and when the segment ends, asks Heidi what’s going on. Heidi blurts out that she was raped by the head of the network, but then quickly tells Benson to forget she said anything. (Like Benson would EVER do that!)
Just after the on-air segment, a man shows up at the precinct. He tells Benson and Rollins that the network chief, Harold Coyle, harassed his wife and that she committed suicide as a result of what had happened.
Benson makes her way to Heidi’s place to try to talk to her about what she said earlier, but Heidi is reluctant as she’s worried about her career. She admits that Coyle has a tape of some of their encounters and he’ll make it look like it everything was consensual.
But fairly quickly, a new anchor replaces Heidi and the network announces her official status as “on vacation.”
Not long after that, Heidi shows up at Olivia’s apartment and explains that she went to Harold to apologize about what’s happening and he told her that if she wanted her job back she’d have to get on her knees. Now she’s ready to go after Coyle.
At the precinct, Heidi details what Coyle has done to her. She tells the detectives that she only confided in one person, Margery, the woman who’s been hired to take her place. She says that she told Margery to warn her about Coyle.
When Benson and Rollins have a sit-down with Margery, with her lawyer present, she claims to know nothing about any of this and defends Coyle.
At the same time, Carisi and Fin hit up Heidi’s co-anchor George and he says that he hates Coyle and wants to help Heidi but that his contract is up in six months and he fears for his job.
Chief Dodds shows up at the precinct and after counseling Benson and Barba that if they’re going to go after Coyle they’d better have an air-tight case, surprises Benson when he says he’ll join her in having a face-to-face with Coyle.
At the meeting with Coyle and his lawyer, Coyle smugly denies any wrongdoing and then insinuates that his network is about to dig up some stuff on the NYPD, mentioning that he’s curious about the real details of Dodds Jr.’s death. But, when his own network tries to build sympathy for Coyle by having Margery say on-air that Coyle is a decent guy, the tactic backfires as a slew of other victims come forward.
In some legal maneuvering, Coyle’s lawyer gets most of the victim’s statements thrown out, but Fin and Carisi convince George to testify, they think. At the last minute George says he won’t say anything against Coyle as the network boss has threatened to ruin George’s daughter life but releasing information about a juvenile crime she committed.
Then, Barba faces another blow in court as Margery emphatically denies that Heidi told her anything about Coyle harassing and raping her. Right after her testimony, Margery makes a surprise visit to Coyle at his place. She’s there on the pretext that they celebrate as it looks like all of this will go away.
But things take a turn when Margery confronts Coyle about the fact that he harassed her. She also realizes that he did in fact rape Heidi. She says that as a show of good faith she won’t reveal anything about their relationship that she wants the tape he made of her back. He says that’s not going to happen and tells her to get on her knees. There’s a scuffle….but she fights him off.
Immediately she runs to the precinct to show the detectives what happened, having turned the tables on Coyle and taped him assaulting her. Barba meets with Coyle and his lawyer and hammers out a deal in which Coyle gets 18 months in prison.
Segue into Heidi showing Olivia the construction on her new foundation to empower teenage girls, built with payout money from the network.
The episode ends with Benson and Dodds Sr. having a heartfelt chat about they’re how still coping with the death of Dodds Jr. While still both clearly mourning, they each seem to have a bit of closure and Benson watches Dodds, on his way out, take a sentimental look around the squad room where his son used to work.
It’s not hard to see the similarities in this episode to both the Fox News/Roger Ailes case and the Fox News/Bill O’Reilly cases. Ailes resigned in July of 2016 and the network dismissed O’Reilly just this week for comparable actions.
In this telling of the story, it was a bit disheartening that Coyle only received an 18-month sentence, but at least he got jail time. There also was a mention of huge payouts to his victims, just like what’s been reported in the O’Reilly case. But, did he also receive a huge severance package, like Ailes who reported got $40 million dollars? That’s only part of this stomach-turning story.
In telling this story there was the big, obvious complication – that the women feared for their jobs – but what was really interesting to watch here were all little elements that were explored. Like, Heidi telling Benson not to judge her for going along with Coyle’s demands at first, Margery believing that she was special to Coyle, and George saying that he couldn’t, ‘prance around in Coyle’s office and make everything ok.’ All of these things make very powerful statements about how people think about sexual harassment and assault.
Heidi went along because she felt she had no other choice. Margery wanted to believe that she was special because then she would have been making her own choices and George saying what he said shows that he, and many men, think this is just how things are. He wasn’t a bad person really, he wanted to help, but he too was in a precarious position.
Overall, all of these people feared their boss. This is still all too common in many, many workplaces. In the business world, employees are constantly belittled and told that they won’t find another job if they leave of their own free will, or with a bad reference. With health insurance tied to employment, most workers understand, especially if they have a family, that they can’t be without a job and adequate medical coverage, so they’re willing to do whatever they have to do to keep their job. For the vast majority, it’s not about ego or prestigious in their career field, it’s about survival.
Another interesting layer to this episode was the portrayal of the sisterhood, or lack thereof, of women. All of these women felt ashamed and alone until they found that they weren’t the only ones to have suffered at the hands of this man. This showed the empowerment women feel when they realize that they’re not alone and that there is no shame to be had.
But, the Heidi/Margery dynamic also showed that sometimes competition and how denial can often get in the way of that bond. Sadly, this actually happens and while it shouldn’t, it does.
Amid the main storyline, it was a nice touch to see the subtle swipe the writers took at network news (and possibly the government!) as Coyle utters the line, “The truth isn’t important, what’s important is what you can get people to believe.” Wow. That could be a whole episode – wait, looks like it is as the next episode is entitled “Fake News.” Good build there SVU folks!
Also, ways to bring back Dodds Sr. and have him continue to flip-flop on the way he treats Benson. Just like in the past, first he sternly warned her that she’s taking a risk pursuing this case, then he turns around and jumps in to help her. That guy….he always keeps ‘ya guessing, doesn’t he?
(But… he isn’t the first guy to act this way, there was someone else — cough, cough – Tucker – cough, cough — always investigating her, then helping her after Lewis, then dating her….hhhhhmmmm….)
It was just nice to have Dodds Sr. and Benson have not one, but two moments of reflection about Dodds Jr.
Another pleasant surprise was “seeing” another familiar participant in this episode. That Story By credit for former showrunner Warren Leight was a very welcome sight to see at the top of the hour. The combination of Leight, along with vets Julie Martin and Breanna Yellen crafting the script, and the eye of new SVU director Jono Oliver created the most compelling, the timeliest, and really the best episode of this season.
Having said all of this, I could end this piece right here, but…..
I’m a bit reluctant to add a personal story to this recap, but one of the things I’ve written about in this episode was the portrayal of strength in numbers and how not feeling alone can empower others. So in light of that, I think if I say what I have to say, maybe other women will feel empowered to tell their stories. And, it’s important to show the continued prevalence of some egregious practices.
Now, I’m not shy about this, I have told this story before and I want to say right off that I was not sexually assaulted or harassed — well, that depends on your definition of harassment really – but I was clearly discriminated against because I was a woman.
I’ll tell you what happened and you decide.
A wonderful male boss who told me that he was excited to have a woman in the office recruited me to work at a sports network. I’ve been a sports fan all my life and this was pretty much my dream job, at the time. I was young and very excited to work hard.
Right out, I was given only small market teams to cover while my colleagues at the same level were given the bigger teams. I was fine with that; I was working in the sports industry, just like I wanted. Then the boss who hired me, who had always championed me, left. The new boss never used my name and I was told when I wasn’t around, I was called “that girl” or “the girl producer.”
Shortly after he started, we were told we would have to work night shifts and one of those included Monday nights from 6pm to 2am – right during Monday night football. I wasn’t told specifically that I had to work that shift but when the schedule came out, my name was listed and it was marked that this was my shift indefinitely. When I mentioned to my boss that I one of the shows I was working on was about the NFL and that I should be watching those games, I was told simply, “that’s not how this works.” Later I heard that he said, “Guys watch football on Monday nights, not women.”
So, I gathered the other five male producers on my team and suggested that we alternate that shift so each of us would only work two Monday nights during the football season. Now let me say, the male producers on my team were awesome and NEVER treated me like I was anything but one of them. They all agreed to the rotation. When I presented the idea to our boss, he became furious and said that I had no right to do that and that I was to work every Monday night. So, in fear for my job, I worked every Monday night for the next two years.
There then was a convention for writer/producers and the boss took the five male producers and not me. When I mentioned this to him he said that someone had to stay behind and do all the work. Now, I had been there longer than two of those male producers, and they were also Associate Producers, which was a level below me. When they returned from the ‘seminar’ there was no talk about any meetings, just about the parties.
And, every time one of the male producers had a birthday or we hired a male producer or a male producer left the team, we went to the same place to celebrate – Hooters. This seemed really inappropriate to me and I did try to say that a few times, but after a while, I realized I had the choice to go or not go, the venue was not going to change. Sometimes I went, sometimes I didn’t, but every time that I didn’t go some decision that directly affected me was made and I was told about it later with no say in the matter.
One day, I decided to do a little test. Every morning in a meeting with the boss and all of the producers, we had to show a reel of the packages that we were working on. Whenever my spots come up, the boss constantly told me to make changes to them. With the male producers, he rarely asked for changes. So one day I put four spots on my reel with my name clearly on them. All of them were criticized heavily. I waited a month and two of the male producers took the exact same spots and they each put two of spots on their reels with their names clearly displayed. When the spots ran the second time, without my name on them, the boss praised them and said they were superior work.
That was pretty much the final straw for me. I want to HR. I told them everything.
Then simply scolded him, told him to treat me better, and said they were putting my complaint in his file. He was furious.
Things got worse. I was pulled off assignments, watched like a hawk and constantly questioned about everything I did. A producer on one of the sports teams that I worked with (a man) called me. He said he was very concerned about me. He told me that he sent an email to my boss talking about what a good job I was doing and the boss called him and insisted that I put the producer up to it.
I called HR again. They basically told me that I could quit or he’d pretty much make my life hell until he found a way to fire me. In so many words, they said that he was a much more important employee than I was.
I was devastated, but not for the reasons you might think. More on that in a minute.
Then, I heard that the boss tried to call other divisions of the company and tell them not to hire me. It didn’t work. I got another job elsewhere in the company almost right away because my reputation as a hard worker was never disputed. It was a decent job but not one I liked as much, and I had to take a large pay cut.
After that, working at a division where people listened to me, I slowly started stealing his employees. Like I said, the male producers I worked with were great guys. They saw what he did to me and one by one they left. Later, when I went to lunch with some of the female administrative assistants from the sports net, they said that he treated them terribly as well, but they were too afraid to say anything after seeing what happened to me.
After I quit and took the pay cut, it took me a long time to get to back to my original salary level and I never worked in sports again.
I still love sports and people who know me often ask why I don’t work in that area now. It’s very hard to explain to them that I just don’t want to be in that position again – constantly having to prove my knowledge of the subject and being under scrutiny simply because of my gender.
And you might think the devastating part is that I gave up what was my dream job (then, anyway), but that’s not it. It’s that when things were going well in that job, I felt like I was really on the verge of breaking one of the glass ceilings that women face. I was a woman working in sports at the time there were very few of us. Then, someone came along and no matter how hard I tried to reach higher toward that ceiling, he kept pulling at my feet, dragging me back down and not for any other reason except that I was a woman. For a long time, I felt like I had let all women down by not being able to succeed in that world.
I haven’t thought about that job, and everything that happened there, for quite some time and while it’s still painful, I’m glad that this episode gave me a reason to revisit it. What’s really sad though is it seems like very little has improved in this area. Here’s hoping that because more and more stories like this are being told, in real life and on shows like SVU, that things will indeed change – for everyone.