A Kind of Courtship
News Men’s ‘Flirty Business’ Is Awful for Women Reporters
When I first started out in journalism, I blamed myself when male sources would seem more interested in me than my story.
Just about every woman reporter I know has dealt with male sources who insist on being physical (hugs, kisses, grabbing a hand), or calling us things like “sweetheart” or “babe.” And with sources who keep promising something “next time” to get us out for another drink.
With editors who are bullies (and that sometimes has a misogynist bend to it and sometimes it’s just one more thing that makes you wonder: is it because I’m a woman?). Veteran reporters who offer to mentor young women then bring them someplace remote and make passes and get mad if they get declined.
One time at a Manhattan police precinct, some officers who I covered started casually complaining about how “messed up” it was that another female reporter had gone out for a drink with one of them and then had her boyfriend join them. I blew up, even though I knew it wouldn’t make them want to share stories with me later.
“If a reporter goes out for a drink with you, whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s not a date,” I snapped. “The reporter is doing her job. She’s looking for a story, not a boyfriend.”
I thought about all that after Geraldo Rivera — who wrote in his memoir that "a stiff dick has no conscience" — offered a take on Matt Lauer’s sexual wrongdoings in the workplace so piping hot that Fox News(!) said “we are troubled by his comments.”
Lauer is a great “guy,” Rivera said on Twitter after NBC fired the longtime “Today” host, and “News is is a flirty business,” warning that this moment of publicly calling out harassers and worse “may be criminalizing courtship and conflating it with predation.”
Set aside that Bette Midler says Rivera once put poppers under her nose and then forcibly groped her, and let’s look at Lauer’s alleged courtship techniques at his workplace.
He gave a colleague a sex toy as a present, with a note saying that he wanted to use it on her, “which left her mortified,” according to Variety.
Summoned another female employee to his office, dropped his pants and showed her his penis—and then reprimanded her for not doing anything with it. (Pro tip: Unless you are in a medical setting or the pornographic film industry, exposed genitals have no place in your workplace. They also are not part of any courtship ritual; do not show someone your penis if you have not yet successfully accomplished courtship.)
Quizzed female producers about who they’d slept with, offering to trade names. And played “f—, marry, kill,” in which he would identify the female co-hosts that he’d most like to sleep with.
And summoned a woman into his office during the day to discuss a story, then used a button at his desk to lock the door. Told her to unbutton her blouse, the New York Times reports, then ”pulled down her pants, bent her over a chair and had intercourse with her. At some point, she said, she passed out with her pants pulled halfway down. She woke up on the floor of his office, and Mr. Lauer had his assistant take her to a nurse.
“The woman told The Times that Mr. Lauer never made an advance toward her again and never mentioned what occurred in his office.”
Forget courtship, that is terrifying. And it means there are definitely people besides Lauer who need to be held accountable here, in their workplaces and perhaps also in court.
And there’s the crux of the problem with Rivera’s take Wednesday, which he (sort of) withdrew a few hours later: News is not “a flirty business.”
That assertion is especially galling to women reporters like myself because there is an element of journalism — source-making — that has some things in common with courtship. Those commonalities often present a huge, terrible obstacle that we have no choice but to reckon with to do our jobs.
Sources are typically people who a reporter persuades, charms or otherwise cajoles into sharing information that might not be in their immediate best interest to share (but hopefully serves a broader good).
So yes, source-making is a kind of courtship. I think of it more as making a new friend — you want to impress the person, you want them to like you and trust you — than as flirting.
But just because I think of it that way, doesn’t mean male sources do. And when I first started out in journalism, I blamed myself when male sources would seem more interested in me than my story. I should have worn a different shirt, I would think. I should stop wearing lipstick. I should smile less.
Eventually I worked up the courage to ask a woman reporter who I admired if she ever deals with “weirdness” from male sources, and if she had any advice for how to avoid it. I braced myself for her to tell me she didn’t, and that I needed to work on being more professional.
Instead, she told me that of course she did. She said it’s hard to avoid, but recommended a helpful policy I’ve passed on to other young women reporters: meet for coffee during the day instead of drinks at night, especially if it’s your first meeting.
While that’s helped make me feel less vulnerable, it hasn’t meant an end to uncomfortable situations. There was the government source who turned out to be closer to my age than I expected. We met for coffee and he suggested we drink it in a park. The next thing I knew, we were sitting on a bench under a tree and he was complaining to me about his marriage. My stomach worked itself into knots as my coffee grew cold and I realized this person wasn’t interested in helping me expose important truths.
There was the source I met for lunch, who is a grandfather, and the only person who does a particular job that was crucial for a story I was hunting. He’d always seemed so paternal and nice, except when he kept commenting on the lipstick I was wearing the first time we met one on one. I walked him to the train after that lunch and he insisted I kiss him goodbye on the mouth. I kissed the air near his head and kept myself out of arm’s reach.
I was crushed after that. I wanted to keep talking with this man, in part because there was no one else I could replace him with. But I remember standing on the sidewalk, staring down at my snow boots and bulky winter coat and thinking, “I can’t do this.” I quietly killed the story I needed him for, a story I had previously been so excited about.
I felt tired. Tired of trying to be uglier in my professional life even though I didn’t even think I was that pretty in my personal life. I was tired of feeling underestimated and trivialized; I couldn’t even summon that vengeful strength I usually get, that motivation to prove the underestimaters wrong.
I just wanted to be able to do my job in peace. I wanted to be able to meet with a source any place, any time and not have to think about anything other than getting a good story. I felt like I was expending so much energy on something that wasn’t part of my job. I wondered how much more productive I could be if my brain wasn’t swirling with anxiety and self-consciousness and self-doubt and self-blame and self-loathing.
I couldn’t do much about the anxiety. I could do a little bit about the rest. I thought about how I would respond if someone else told me these stories. Would I tell her it was her fault? No way. So why was I telling myself it was mine?
I also was fortunate to work for and with men and women I could talk to about these interactions. None of them believed they were my fault.
And that’s perhaps the cruelest part of Rivera’s tweet. Even if news is “a flirty business” because of source-making, there is absolutely nothing about the job of journalism that requires flirting with colleagues or subordinates. Men who think and act like that’s the part of the job make an already challenging one that much harder.
And those men are doing it while having no idea what we’re up against, no clue how much harder it is to do our jobs — and apparently no interest in learning about it.
On top of having no consideration, let alone empathy, for our experiences, they’re taking spaces that should be safe — our offices and newsrooms — and making them awful.