Silence breakers speak out against news industry’s hypocrisy

Women who speak out about sexual harassment are often blacklisted by other news organizations

Juliet Huddy thought the worst was behind her when she left Fox News in September 2016, after watching her career fall apart because of the sexual harassment she had refused to endure in silence. Following 18 years at the network, first as a correspondent and then as an anchor, Huddy accused Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment and was essentially forced out of her job. Her legal settlement swore her to secrecy, but according to reports by multiple outlets, O’Reilly allegedly called Huddy repeatedly while masturbating, and derailed her career after she rejected his sexual propositions.

Like every woman who stood up to O’Reilly’s harassment, Huddy lost her job at Fox. Yet if she suspected the network might retaliate against her, she tells CJR, she imagined other news organizations would welcome her with open arms. After all, these were the same outlets reporting on O’Reilly’s abuse of women with revulsion, questioning why Fox continued to pay a sexual predator millions of dollars despite multiple allegations against him.

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Since she was not some partisan commentator but a seasoned journalist, Huddy thought, she would find a new job in TV news, a career she had dreamed of since she was a child. Yet after being abandoned by Fox, Huddy was hit with a sad and sudden realization: The excommunication of women in the media who stand up and speak out against sexual harassment isn’t just a problem at Fox. Women like Huddy are blacklisted by the entire news industry.

For the past year and a half, Huddy has tried to find a job in TV news, applying for on-air positions at cable news outlets, local news stations, and national networks. This week, she finally landed a full-time job at WABC Radio in New York after freelancing there part time since she left Fox in 2016. When it comes to news jobs on TV, she has been passed over at every turn. Executives often tell her that she’s excellent at what she does, but not quite what they’re looking for.

After more than a year of looking for full-time work, she’s suffering the financial consequences, with her home in New York facing foreclosure. The collateral damage extended to her family. In October 2017, Fox fired her brother, Jerusalem-based correspondent John Huddy, minutes after Juliet discussed her abuse publicly for the first time in an interview on NBC’s Today show. According to a statement from Fox, John was terminated due to a “physical altercation” earlier that month. John has repeatedly dismissed that claim, telling The Hollywood Reporter that he only learned of that reasoning after reading news reports of his dismissal. The timing, he said, was “more than just a coincidence.”

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Huddy is not the only silence breaker in the news industry who was punished for speaking out, blacklisted by the same news organizations that have applauded the culture’s current referendum on sexual harassment, catalyzed by women like Huddy. Then again, the attitudes of producers, reporters, and on-air personalities do not necessarily reflect the opinions of those who manage or own these news organizations.

Over the past 18 months, at least 15 women have come out publicly with allegations of  sexual harassment at Fox spanning decades. Of them, just one has landed a job in TV news, and at least five have failed to find any full-time employment. None of the women who filed sexual harassment claims against Fox have found jobs in news. Most haven’t been seen in the media in years.

According to my conversations with nearly a dozen women, some of whom declined to speak on the record, fear of being blacklisted is yet another reason many women who work in news have stayed silent. Fifty years ago, women struggled to attain jobs as serious broadcast journalists; today, women in broadcast news face a residual dilemma from that era. Now, the door is open to them, but if they’re harassed or assaulted behind that door, they are expected—and often paid—to keep their mouths shut.

 

Since going public with her claims against Fox, Holder says, “I’ve spent half my time in bed, sad, afraid, feeling like my life is over.”

 

It’s no coincidence that all of the women who settled with Fox News over reports of sexual assault and harassment by Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and others have been sworn to secrecy by confidentiality agreements, which would force them to pay overwhelming damages if broken. And it’s no coincidence that none of these women are working in TV news today.

“There is definitely blackballing in the news industry,” says labor attorney Nancy Erika Smith, who has handled dozens of cases of sexual harassment and abuse of women in the media. Among her most well-known clients is former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose $20 million settlement against Roger Ailes sparked a New York Times investigation into sexual harassment throughout the network. Carlson is also out of a news job. “Just as [Harvey] Weinstein was able to blackball any woman who complained about him,” Smith says, “I can’t even remember how many producers and women complained about O’Reilly.”

Andrea Mackris was one of those producers, who Smith has also represented. Mackris hasn’t worked in the media since leaving Fox in 2004. Another producer, Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, has not worked in news since her settlement with Fox and O’Reilly in 2002 (though her accusations were of harassment through verbal abuse, not sexual harassment). In December 2017, Mackris and Bernstein sued O’Reilly for defamation after he denied allegations against him, claiming they were politically and financially motivated. Emily Steel was the first to report on the defamation suit, writing in the Times, “Ms. Bernstein said she had suffered reputational harm, emotional distress, physical sickness and loss of income as a result of the statements made by Mr. O’Reilly and Fox News.”

Broadcast news is, of course, far from the only workplace where women who blow the whistle on sexual harassment experience negative consequences in their careers. It happens in every industry. As Smith notes, it’s alarming that the women in the news business who spearheaded the global reckoning that is #MeToo are now being punished for doing so. It was Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Roger Ailes and Fox in 2016 that led other women to lay bare their own experiences of sexual harassment at Fox. Only then did the Times and others begin investigating or publishing stories about other prominent men accused of sexual harassment, such as O’Reilly and Weinstein. Many of the women whose stories led to O’Reilly’s firing had settled with Fox years earlier, and had already spent those years excluded from the industry they had worked so hard to enter.

Tamara Holder is another former Fox News employee who has been out of work since she filed allegations against an executive, who allegedly forced her to perform oral sex on him in his office. Before joining Fox as a legal and political analyst in 2010, often serving as the lone liberal voice in a sea of conservatives, Holder was a trial attorney. In the fall of 2016, feeling empowered by Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes, Holder reported her assault, which occurred in 2015, to Fox executives. Her contract ended in January 2017, and after Fox failed to renew it, she sued.

After reaching a settlement with the company, Holder expected to continue her television career elsewhere. She was determined, she tells me, not to allow the assault she experienced to derail her career. Like Huddy, Holder thought other news organizations, which seemed to champion the cause of speaking out against abuse, at least in their content, would hire her. For more than a year she has sought dozens of opportunities as either an analyst or regular contributor at all of the major networks and cable news operations. So far, no one is interested.

In December 2017, Holder appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources, speaking in detail about her allegations publicly for the first time. She hadn’t previously spoken to the press about her experience at Fox due to the nondisclosure agreement that accompanied her settlement. Yet after Rupert Murdoch dismissed and disparaged her and other women who had accused Fox executives of sexual abuse, she decided to break her silence. As she told Brian Stelter, the host of the show, while she feared that Fox might sue her for speaking, she felt compelled to clear the air: “I had a man pull out his penis in his office and shove my head on it,” she said during the interview. “That was not flirting, that was criminal.”

She’s still looking for work. Since going public with her claims against Fox, Holder says, “I’ve spent half my time in bed, sad, afraid, feeling like my life is over. At times it’s been very dark.”

 

Once she’s made it clear that she won’t tolerate abuse from men, workplaces don’t want her there. And why is that? Because men run the workplace.

 

While she finds comfort in the fact that her voice has motivated other women to end their silence, that comfort only goes so far. “It’s great that people are hearing my story, but for what?” she asks. “I don’t have a job. Yes, I had a legal career and I was very accomplished, but I gave that up to pursue my dream job.”

The women I spoke with say that no one who has interviewed them for jobs has explicitly told them that their history of speaking out is the reason they aren’t being hired. But the accumulation of their stories, says Smith, speaks for itself. She knows this problem well, having heard the experiences of her many news industry clients. “They never tell [a client] that’s why she wasn’t hired,” says Smith. “But once she’s made it clear that she won’t tolerate abuse from men, workplaces don’t want her there. And why is that? Because men run the workplace.”

Outside of job interviews, Huddy has asked news executives she knows why they think she’s failed to land a job. Their responses echo her fears. “They’d rather hire someone who’s not going to be in the news with this chaos swirling around her,” Huddy says of those conversations. One of them told her, she adds, “You’re sort of in the public spotlight, and not for positive reasons.”

Huddy believes these executives are missing a huge opportunity. “Any news executive would be a hero if they hired us and said, We’re not going to continue this terrible situation where these women who spoke up were railroaded.”

In reporting this story, I reached out to talents agents at several organizations who represent women in broadcast news. None were willing to talk on the record.  One spokesman for a major agency rejected the idea that these women were being blacklisted due to their sexual harassment litigation. The true reason no one wants to hire them, he says, is because they were coming from Fox News, which he calls “a very distinct brand.” There aren’t many places these women can go, he adds, since “anyone who comes from Fox is seen as the enemy.”

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While there may be truth to this theory, it doesn’t completely stand up against the facts. Most of the women who’ve spoken out against toxic misogyny and sexual harassment at Fox have been liberal contributors and analysts, along with more neutral personalities like Huddy, or producers like Mackris. In fact, the only prominent female former Fox employee who has managed to transition to “the other side” was one of the network’s more partisan voices. Just months after leaving Fox, Megyn Kelly signed a multimillion-dollar deal at NBC News, where she has hosted a string of shows. Yet Kelly, notably, did not leave Fox over sexual harassment charges.

“Megyn Kelly is the only one who landed a job, but she didn’t sue anybody. That’s not a coincidence,” says Smith.

But there are other women who didn’t sue the company, and only spoke publicly of the sexual harassment they endured there, who have been shut out by other news organizations. In the spring of 2017, former Fox contributor Caroline Heldman received a call from a producer at a major cable news organization, telling her they were interested in bringing her on as a paid contributor. This was around the time the O’Reilly scandal exploded. In April 2017, Heldman spoke out about her own experiences of harassment at Fox, where she’d been appearing as a liberal political commentator since 2008. After that, Heldman never heard from that other cable news organization again. She preferred not to name the company, since she still hopes to work there. Prior to speaking out about sexual harassment at Fox, Heldman had served as a political analyst for a local ABC News station in California for a year and a half. According to Heldman, since her public comments against Fox, that station has never invited her on again.

“Being a female whistleblower, we’re inherently seen as troublemakers,” says Heldman. “People don’t like women who make waves.”

Addie Collins Zinone is another woman whose promising career in broadcast journalism was derailed by a powerful man who exploited her. (Her story was first reported by Ramin Setoodeh in Variety in December 2017.) At 24, Zinone was working as a production assistant at NBC’s Today show, circa 2000. She’d been mentored and encouraged by all the talent at Today, from Ann Curry to Al Roker, she says—everyone but Matt Lauer. She was just about to leave New York for an on-air job in a small market where she hoped to follow the path of people like Lauer, who rose up the ranks of TV news by starting local. On one of her last days at work, Lauer asked her to get lunch with him. Zinone was excited to finally have his attention, and planned to ask his advice for how she could make the most of her new job, and someday, perhaps, do what he does.

Zinone calls what happened after that lunch consensual, though she says, “Under that dynamic, there was no way I could say no.” After her experience with Lauer, she found it impossible to do her job at the local news station she had left Today for. She was distracted, unfocused, and depressed. Something about their encounter made her lose all confidence in her skills as a journalist, and in her desire to work in the news industry. “He manipulated my desire to succeed and looked at me as an object instead of a journalist. That took a toll on my psyche,” Zinone tells CJR. “I ended up leaving that job as a direct result of my experience with Matt.”

Zinone is certain that other NBC executives knew about Lauer’s predatory behavior: “If this happened to me in 2000 and he only came down in 2017, there must be a long line of women who have suffered.” (This is in line with other reporting on Lauer’s behavior.)

After leaving TV news, Zinone felt so lost and without direction that she joined the military. During a deployment in Iraq in 2008, Zinone got a call from her friend Maria Menounos, who was co-anchoring Today. Menounos pitched the idea of doing a story about a gutsy former Today staffer who was now serving her country. Zinone loved the idea. Yet after running it by the show’s then-executive producer, Jim Bell, Menounos asked Zinone if something bad had happened during her time at the show. Years had passed, yet Zinone had barely told anyone about what happened with Lauer. She felt embarrassed. “No, why?” Zinone asked. According to Zinone, Minounos was told that Today wouldn’t work with her because she had said bad things about the show. Spokespeople for NBC and Today did not respond to requests for comment. (Disclosure: This reporter also once worked as a production assistant at The Today Show, after Zinone left, and before Lauer was forced out.)

Their ousting from the news industry isn’t the only punishment these women have faced for speaking out. Many, if not all, experience vehement verbal abuse through Facebook, Twitter, and email. Death threats have become a daily norm for some. After her story was published in Variety, Zinone, for example, received messages calling her a whore, and telling her to go “play in traffic.” Heldman, a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, now requires additional security on campus. Her classes are no longer listed on the college’s public website.

Having spent 18 years of her life at Fox, Huddy has also lost many of her friends, who stopped speaking to her after she left. One of those friends, who she thought had decided to stand by her, recently disinvited her from a party he was hosting, because the same executives she stood up against would be there. At the time, he told her he didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable. “It may seem trivial,” she says, “but when you’ve lost your career, your financial security, and in some people’s eyes, your reputation—losing a large chunk of what you assumed would be your support system is a tough blow.”

Many women who suffered sexual harassment and no longer work in news were pursuing their dream jobs. That dream was first cracked by the male colleagues who sexually assaulted or harassed them. That crack grew larger when the company failed to protect them, instead defending their abusers, and in exchange gave them hush money. Yet the third and most painful blow has come from the rest of the news industry, which has appeared to cheer on these women, while at the same time refusing to hire them.

While Fox, CBS, and NBC have all fired the men who were named in these scandals, the women who were abused don’t think that response is enough.

Wendy Walsh, the woman at the center of the groundbreaking Times investigation that led to O’Reilly’s downfall, has repeatedly asked for Fox to give her the lucrative contributor position O’Reilly offered her and then rescinded after she refused to enter his hotel room. When contacted by CJR for comment, Fox did not respond to these allegations.

“The public perception was, You can’t leave these guys in their jobs, so [the networks] let them go, not only to show advertisers and viewers it’s okay to put their eyeballs and dollars there, but also to shield them from future claims,” says Walsh, who is an Emmy-nominated TV host as well as a psychology professor at California State University. “What they didn’t do is the true, moral thing, which is to look at the victims and ask, How can we fix this for you?

There are likely thousands of cases of sexual harassment and assault in the wider world of journalism—including newspapers, magazines, and TV news outlets—cases that don’t have the visibility of Fox. “The news industry was early to the system of confidentiality and secret arbitration,” says Smith. While the American judicial system is public, arbitration courts are anything but. For that reason, Smith says, “We have no way of knowing how many women stood up to sexual harassment but were then forced into secret courts due to arbitration clauses in their employment contracts.”

According to these clauses, which many of us unknowingly sign when we agree to join a workplace, any dispute must be settled in arbitration—meaning anything that happens in the workplace remains confidential. Arbitration clauses are known by critics as “cover-up clauses” because in practice they are used to keep sexual assault and harassment claims out of the courts and thus off public record.  

As Huddy tells it, these clauses are “one of the things you never think about when you’re excitedly signing a contract for your dream career…but [you] definitely need to.”

Due to confidentiality, Smith can’t name specific cases or publications that have settled sexual harassment cases through secret arbitration. Yet she implies that there isn’t a news organization that hasn’t. Smith says, “It’s beyond hypocritical to be tweeting #MeToo and then forcing women into confidentiality agreements and secret corporate arbitration.”

There are various efforts to end this practice of forcing employees into secret arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and other wrongdoing, but so far, the legislation is stagnant. Among those spearheading legislative efforts on Capitol Hill is Gretchen Carlson. Since leaving Fox, she has not only made it her rallying cry to end this culture of silence, but to tackle the legal framework that makes it possible: the contractual clauses that keep sexual harassment cases hidden from the public, thus forcing victims into court-mandated secrecy while allowing abusers to keep their jobs. Smith is hopeful that her client’s efforts will succeed, but Donald Trump’s presidency has cast a shadow on progress made under President Obama. Indeed, Trump has already repealed an Obama-era regulation that forbid companies with government contracts from forcing women to settle allegations of sexual assault and harassment in secret arbitration.

After seeing her own career collapse, then watching her brother’s fall like a domino, Huddy has struggled to stay positive. Now that she faces foreclosure on her home, optimism has grown ever more challenging. “I’m trying to be very strong and level headed and hopeful for my situation and my future,” she tells me. “It’s unnerving at times. But I do believe there’s somebody out there who’s going to do right. If you truly believe these women were wronged, then hire us. I know that I was good, and I want my career back.”

Correction: Megyn Kelly first publicly discussed sexual harassment at Fox in her November 2016 book, not after joining NBC, as previously stated.

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Yardena Schwartz is a freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC. Previously, Yardena was a producer at NBC News in New York.