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(Not) a Vindication of the Rights of Women

Feelings of vindication are not high on the list for women whose career hit a detour because of a guy who turns out to be, well, rotten.

Revelations of sexually and professionally inappropriate behavior by men have become a quotidian part of our day.

This weekend’s contender, former public radio host John Hockenberry, charged with being not just a harasser, but all round bad guy and bully.

This story is a little different than the others; it’s reported by a writer/author who was a guest on his show, The Takeaway, who took it upon herself to investigate his behavior after being the recipient of weird and inappropriate attention.  Hockenberry “retired” from the show this summer, before stories of sexual harassment in the workplace breached the flood wall and engulfed us daily starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal.  

The story is noticeable for so many things, including the treatment of his co-hosts over the decade of the show, Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya and Celeste Headlee, none of whom lasted as long as Mr. Hockenberry.  Three women, women of color I might note, whose careers and talent were not worthy of the attention and nurturing afforded their co-host.  And the complaints against the “star” of the show were essentially dismissed.

As in the case of Matt Lauer and his poisonous role in removing Ann Curry from the host chair at Today, I’ve seen a lot of variations on the theme of vindication.  Memes of Ann Curry toasting Lauer’s demise.  Calls for her return to the host chair.  From listeners of The Takeaway, there’s a similar sentiment, maybe one of the hosts can come back.

But there is no going back.  There is no erasing that bad behavior.  There is no do-over to make right the wrongs inflicted upon so many women who are the collateral damage in an industry of men behaving badly.

Yes, this is a moment of reckoning, but it is more than that.  It is a time to be angry at every man who has behaved in a repugnant fashion and to be angry for all those women who were subject to Charlie Rose’s indecency or Matt Lauer’s sickening assaults, or Mark Halperin’s obnoxious come-ons and promises of quid pro quos.  The list goes on.  

I understand the notion being shared that maybe Ann Curry and many other women may be feeling some sense of vindication now that the world knows the truth about these men.

But I’m guessing that feelings of vindication are not high on their list nor any other woman’s whose career hit a detour because of a guy who turns out to be, well, rotten.

Now is the moment to focus on the colossal damage inflicted upon talented women whose paths have been derailed, whose careers took a turn because of the toxic masculinity prevalent in so many of our media entities. It’s a time to mourn for those women who were denied opportunities in one of the most influential industries in our culture. Those women with smart, creative and different ideas that would have enhanced and enriched our national conversations. The industry and the audience is poorer for it.

Sure, some women’s careers have stalled on the merits, but it sure as hell looks like it happens again and again to women and women of color more than white men. In an industry rife with mediocre men that seems like more than just a coincidence.  

What happens to you when you are passed over for a position, or compelled to exit because...you aren't sure why but you think it's because of that guy. The floodgates of self-doubt open. What is wrong with me? Maybe I wasn't as qualified as I thought I was.  Maybe I came across as...(fill in the blank).  Maybe I have been an imposter my whole career. Maybe he's more qualified than my own research suggested. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?

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And then you, and the rest of the world, find out he's a bully, a harasser, a bullshitter, a predator.  You always knew he wasn't as great as everyone assumed but that didn't seem to matter in his upward trajectory.

Vindication is not what you feel, but loss and sorrow for the opportunities not available to you; the change you might have been able to foster; the stories that aren't being covered; the other women you might have been able to support and encourage; And the pieces you have to pick up because your career got derailed and you have to build it up again.

Maybe Ann Curry would have handled that Commander in Chief Forum with the 2016 Presidential candidates with more professionalism and class than Matt Lauer did. Maybe The Takeaway would have been a broader, more inclusive show if any single one of those women had been given a chance to soar.  Maybe there is a female reporter or producer who worked at ABC News with Mark Halperin who would have climbed the heights of American political reporting (with a commensurate bank balance) if she’d been given an opportunity.

That’s the point. We will never know. There is a generation of men in Halperin’s cohort, or who worked for him, who have scaled the heights of the American news media. It’s much harder to point to any women with comparable success, not because they didn’t have the chops I might add.

Stop lamenting the “loss of talent” of the men who have been removed. If we examine the lost opportunities of so many women as a result of the structural obstacles to their growth, advancement, and power, that work could fill up all our time.

Cleaning house is a good start to dealing with this problem, but it didn’t happen overnight.  Getting rid of the bad apples is not the end of the matter.  It is just the beginning. These actions were allowed to fester and grow for years because of a fundamental institutional problem. If we don’t focus on restructuring the industry, there will be another generation of women left to ponder the same question: Is there something wrong with me?