MEDIA
05/01/2018 07:13 pm ET Updated May 01, 2018

Alleged Sexual Predators Don't Need Letters Of Support

The public defense of NBC's Tom Brokaw derails a much-needed conversation about sexual harassment and sends a dangerous message to employees.
NBC via Getty Images

Veteran NBC journalist Tom Brokaw has not followed what’s become a typical pattern for high-profile men facing allegations of predatory behavior: issue an apology (however problematic) and keep a low profile. Instead, after a woman who asked to remain anonymous and a former NBC anchor, Linda Vester, accused him of inappropriate behavior last week, Brokaw fired off a late-night, hyperbole-laced email to colleagues calling the allegations “a drive by shooting” and “a torrent of unsubstantiated criticism and attacks.”

But more surprising than the longtime anchor’s fervent denial of harassment is that at least 115 current and former colleagues have signed a letter of support, attesting to how Brokaw has treated them with “fairness and respect” and is “a man of tremendous decency and integrity” who helped many of them advance their careers.

This type of missive, which network heavyweights such as Rachel Maddow and Mika Brzezinski signed, derails a much-needed conversation about sexual harassment and assault that’s finally happening because of the Me Too movement. And it sets a harmful example for the many workplaces figuring out how to deal with predatory behavior.

Me Too has been an important corrective to the many false assumptions society holds about sexual assault. The cascade of famous men accused of sexual harassment or violence has exposed the fact that predators are multifaceted human beings. They can tout progressive politics on a national platform, act supportively toward colleagues and dote on their children, friends and partners and still be capable of masturbating in front of or groping women.

When a group of women who had worked with Al Franken during his run on “Saturday Night Live” and eight of his former female staffers came out with statements about how Franken, who resigned from the Senate in January after being accused of sexual misconduct, had always treated them with the “utmost respect,” media outlets quickly pointed out the faulty logic: “The number of women a man didn’t assault does not matter if there are others he did,” wrote Molly Roberts in The Washington Post. “There are plenty of people the Zodiac Killer did not murder.”

 

When influential players in a workplace openly side with the accused, it becomes difficult for other employees with relevant information or other harassment allegations to come forward.

 

Franken had at least admitted to and apologized for his predatory actions by the time his former colleagues rose to his defense. But Brokaw’s vehement denial of the allegations, which include groping and forcible kissing, means the letter supporting him sends a dangerous message: that his accusers are liars. The clear subtext of those three short paragraphs is that a man who has treated more than 100 people with fairness and respect in the workplace could not have sexually harassed a few women and that the accused’s reputation is more important than these women’s word. (Variety corroborated Vester’s account of sexual harassment with her journal entries from the 1990s and in conversations with two of her friends.) The majority of sexual harassment and assault victims don’t report their crimes for this very reason — fear that friends, family members, colleagues, HR departments or the legal system won’t believe them.

Paula Brantner, who runs a consulting company that offers sexual harassment workshops to nonprofits and businesses, said these kinds of written defenses replicate the exact power dynamic that prevents employees from coming forward with complaints. “The pressure to go along and not say anything about harassment is similar to the pressure to go along and sign a letter of support of someone powerful in a particular workplace,” she said. “People are going to think they have to pick sides.”

An unnamed NBC News staffer told Page Six that employees felt they had to add their names to a document defending a man who has worked at the network for more than 50 years and who co-anchored its flagship news program for 22 years. “We felt forced to sign the letter supporting Brokaw. We had no choice, particularly the lower level staffers,” the employee said, according to the Page Six. Variety reported that in a memo, the company instructed its on-air reporters to refer to the letter in any segments about Brokaw.

When influential players in a workplace openly side with the accused, it becomes difficult for other employees with relevant information or other harassment allegations to come forward.

“’You think, ‘Wow, 65 of my peers are going to hold that against me or think I’m lying,’” said Brantner. “It really sends a strong message about the futility of speaking out.”

At this point NBC has said it does not plan to internally investigate Brokaw’s behavior anyway, according to network sources who spoke to Page Six.

“Letters of support for employees accused of sexual harassment contribute to the legitimate fear individuals have of coming forward,” Rory Gerberg, a workplace consultant who specializes in sexual harassment training, told HuffPost via email. “If we want to be able to change #metoo, it’s essential employees avoid questioning or shaming the individual coming forward.”

A letter of support can also come back to haunt its signers, especially if it is issued before the allegations are properly investigated. Since Brokaw’s colleagues penned their written defense, a third woman has come forward, accusing him of forcibly kissing her in 1968. After the letter in support of Franken, six more women came forward to describe instances of groping and forcible kissing.

NBC morning show host Megyn Kelly, not usually known for her feminist views, recently warned Brokaw’s champions, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” After she and nine other women accused then–Fox News CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment in 2016, a few people who initially defended him later expressed their regret in interviews and on social media.

It’s understandably difficult for people to grapple with the fact that someone they trust ― whether it’s a celebrity they watch on TV or a friend ― is facing allegations of predatory behavior. But mounting a premature defense of the accused is not the solution. As the Me Too movement is encouraging more women to come forward and forcing workplaces to take their complaints seriously, a letter supporting an alleged sexual predator enforces their silence.  

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