When the news broke Thursday that the National Gallery of Art had postponed two exhibitions because the artists have been accused of sexual misconduct, reaction from some quarters was predictable.
People slammed the Gallery’s management for a rush to judgment and bashed women accusers for being oversensitive snowflakes.
One commenter on The Washington Post website put it harshly: “The National Gallery is now making decisions about exhibitions based on mere accusations of boorish behavior. It has become a witch hunt by a bunch of third-wave feminists who want to rid the world of men.”
That thinking is upside down. It fuels a wrongheaded backlash to the long-overdue reckoning on sexual harassment.
And it misunderstands how sexual harassment allegations often first become known to the public.
“I always read these stories with a lot of awareness that I’m getting an incomplete picture,” said Emily Martin, general counsel at the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy organization administering a legal-defense fund for victims of harassment.
“There can be a misperception that if details are not in the newspaper that those details do not exist.”
For all kinds of reasons, the specifics may be left out. Nondisclosure agreements may prohibit them. Human-resources or union rules may argue against them.
We’re left with squishy phrases such as “sexual misconduct” and “inappropriate workplace behavior.”
Meanwhile, journalistic practice quite reasonably calls for getting a response from the accused, who often deny wrongdoing altogether or admit to something innocent-sounding.
“The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous,” Las Vegas mogul and now former Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal after the paper’s investigation turned up credible allegations of decades-long abuses, including soliciting sex acts from manicurists and massage therapists at his casinos.
Wynn resigned from his position on Saturday.
The Journal’s painstaking investigation was hard to ignore, as was the overwhelming detail in the New York Times investigation of Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein. But that isn’t always the case.
“Harassers often are able to create the narrative right off the bat,” said Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer who represented Gretchen Carlson in her 2016 suit against Roger Ailes, which ultimately brought down the Fox News co-founder.
After all, she pointed out, “How many victims have their own PR teams at the ready?”
When radio icon Garrison Keillor fell from grace late last year, he claimed he was being unfairly punished because he once put a hand on a woman’s bare back.
That’s what most people heard, and what many undoubtedly still believe.
“If I created a scale, I would put Harvey Weinstein on one end and Garrison Keillor on the other end,” wrote a Florida reader Michael Stone, in a letter to the New York Times in late November.
But recently, Minnesota Public Radio reporters dug in to the Keillor story, interviewing 60 people for an investigation published last week.
Not only did their own interviews turn up disturbingly detailed accounts from named women, they also got Jon McTaggart, the chief executive of MPR and American Public Media Group, to break his silence on why he took Keillor off the air.
“The company’s separation of business interests from Keillor came after it received allegations of dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents involving Keillor and a woman who worked for him on A Prairie Home Companion,” the report said. McTaggart said the allegations included requests for sexual contact and descriptions of unwanted sexual touching.
A far cry from that hand on a back. Keillor’s response? To criticize the MPR journalists, saying they couldn’t be fair in investigating someone who had a close relationship with their company. In a letter to USA Today, he said, “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement.”
But the truth is that employers - who are putting their reputations and finances on the line in going public at all - are very unlikely to rush to judgment against those accused of harassment. Far more often, they are cautious to a fault, even in this new atmosphere.
There may be cases in which the punishment hasn’t fit the crime. Media companies, particularly, want to appear squeaky clean themselves as they continue to scrutinize others.
But I’ve never heard anyone suggest that all offenses are equal - that a bawdy limerick is the same as a forced kiss, or that groping is equal to rape. And no one is proposing that all repercussions be the same.
Those who shout about fairness to the accused should stop to consider what they don’t know - including how difficult it is for victims to complain about a prominent person. As Martin told me: “Given all we’ve learned, it’s willfully blind to assert that the conclusion should be ‘we’re taking sexual harassment too seriously.’ “
What journalism has revealed over the past few months - clearly and undeniably - is that workplace sexual harassment was hidden for years, that harassers largely have been protected, and that those who complain have been the ones to be punished.
Witch hunt? I’d call it the rough beginnings of justice.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.