I left the television news business about 10 years ago, after 20 years on the air as an anchorwoman. I still miss the daily excitement of news gathering and the little butterfly in my stomach whenever the camera’s red light went on.
What I don’t miss is the sexual harassment that has pervaded broadcast journalism since, well, probably since the first woman was hired. I think they were called “copy girls” back then, because no one thought them credible enough to actually deliver the news on camera.
When I decided to pursue a career in TV news, almost everyone discouraged me. But Woodward and Bernstein were my heroes in those days, and I would not be held back. I earned a master’s degree in journalism from American University in Washington, D.C. and set out for the hinterlands, as advised, to begin my career. First stop was the NBC affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. It was a four-person newsroom, and I had to do everything, from shooting and editing my own videotape to cleaning the editing machines with Q-tips and rubbing alcohol.
What I don’t miss is the sexual harassment that has pervaded broadcast journalism since, well, probably since the first woman was hired.
At first, they only offered me part-time work as a “weather girl.” I was sort of insulted. After all, I had a master’s degree and, in my mind, I was a Journalist with a capital “J.” I didn’t know anything about weather forecasting either, but they said I’d learn. My parents told me to take the job to get a “foot in the door.” So I packed a suitcase, a folding cot, and a small black and white TV, and rented a room in a house. I earned $4.50 an hour. Thus began my inauspicious entry into professional broadcast journalism.
I think it would be a good guess that my boss, a young man of about 28, didn’t like me much. I was better educated, better dressed and significantly more confident. So when the female program director told him that my work as a “weather girl” was getting such good reviews that he ought to promote me to co-anchor, he had a solution. I could be his co-anchor, but I would not be allowed to read any of the “hard news.” No politics, no international affairs, no economics ― I could only read the fluff, like the “kickers” at the end of the newscast about girl scout cookie sales, pregnant pandas, or the opening of a new store.
Inside, I was burning mad at this insult, but I didn’t have any other options. Finally, good fortune found me, and I got other job offers in other cities.
Eventually, I got to a “top 50” market ― a true sign of having reached success in TV news at the time. I was hired as an anchor at a station, which, as luck would have it, also employed an anchorman with whom I had worked as a college intern at the age of 19.
I am convinced that this man, who is still on the air today, must have been the role model for the title character in the movie “Anchorman.” Slightly more intelligent than the movie character, he was in love with himself. “People say I look like Robert Redford, you know,” he kept telling me.
One day during the internship, I asked to interview him about his job because I had to write a paper for my class. “Let’s go into an editing booth,” he suggested. “It’s quieter there.”
Once inside the dimly lit booth, he slid his chair right up against mine and began stroking my thigh. My heart started racing with anxiety. What should I do? He was 15 years older than I and someone I wanted as a mentor. He asked me to go out for a drink after work.
“But you’re married,” I said.
“What does that matter?” he responded. “It’s just a drink.”
I said nothing. I was afraid. I did my best to continue the interview despite the ongoing thigh-stroking but felt dirty when it was over.
One day during the internship, I asked to interview him about his job because I had to write a paper for my class. 'Let’s go into an editing booth,' he suggested. 'It’s quieter there.'
After several days of his leering looks, “accidental” brushes against my body and repeated requests to go out with him, I confided in a female reporter. I wanted the behavior to stop.
“Oh, that’s just Dave (not his real name),” she laughed. “He does that to all the women.”
I was stunned. I was looking for protection. Validation, at the very least. I convinced myself that I was the problem, since all the other women seemed to just accept the disrespectful behavior.
Fast forward 15 years, and he was hired as an anchorman at the very same station where I was working. When I heard the news, I felt sick to my stomach. I dreaded seeing him. When I did, I saw the same leering look in his eyes as before. He was already stalking his prey.
One evening on the six o’clock news, I had to deliver a report on set and was directed to sit next to him. During the commercial break, I practiced reading my script and stumbled over some words.
“Wow, that’s a real mouthful,” I commented.
“I’ll give you a real mouthful,” he replied, looking me straight in the eyes.
I turned beet red.
At that moment, the red light went on, and I was on a close-up shot. While I began reading my script live on-air, he reached over and laid his hand on my thigh underneath the news desk, out of the camera shot.
That bastard. Fifteen years later, and he was still at it.
When my segment was over, I breathed, “Don’t you EVER touch me again,” and stormed off the set.
Same hand, same thigh, 15 years later. But this time was different. I was a bona fide professional now and wasn’t going to put up with this attempt to intimidate me.
I walked into the news director’s office to complain. This was sexual harassment, and surely would be taken seriously.
“Oh c’mon, Carol, lighten up,” he said. “Dave is a major personality in the business, and he does this to all the girls. It’s just his personality. Let it go. He didn’t hurt you.”
And there it is, ladies and gentlemen. A story so common, it puts the “broad” in broadcast news.
My informal polls over the years tell me this is standard practice in the business. It’s just something that happens. It’s the way things are. Women complain, management does nothing. Women are just supposed to live with it.
I walked into the news director’s office to complain. This was sexual harassment, and surely would be taken seriously. 'Oh c’mon, Carol, lighten up,' he said.
That’s why I laughed at Bill O’Reilly’s statement following his dismissal from Fox News. Now, I have never actually met Bill O’Reilly, but I’ve worked with his type many, many times over the years. TV news attracts them.
“It is tremendously disheartening that we (Fox News) part ways due to completely unfounded claims,” he wrote. “But that is the unfortunate reality that many of us in the public eye must live with today.”
The sheer arrogance of the denial takes my breath away. His super-sized ego requires the blame be shifted to the victim. There is no gentlemanly quality, no humility. This is what happens when some of us reach enormous professional success. Roger Ailes, Donald Trump and Bill Cosby are fellow members of this reprehensible club, where alleged sexual harassment and intimidation are simply overlooked due to their power, economic value and inflated egos.
I’m thankful that 21st Century Fox finally took action by terminating O’Reilly. I don’t know if it heralds a recognition of the disrespect female staffers have suffered over the decades but the cynic in me knows that, more likely, it was an economic decision. And that’s just fine. Now if we can just clean up the rest of the business.
This piece was first published on LinkedIn.