The Media Today

Mark Halperin got a second chance. He isn’t the only one.

August 20, 2019

In late October 2017, as the sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein reverberated across the landscape of American power, five women told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that Mark Halperin, a high-profile political journalist, had harassed them at work. The allegations dated to Halperin’s time at ABC News, where he worked as political director from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s: three of the women said Halperin pressed his genitals against them, and others said he propositioned them for sex on the campaign trail. Two days after his initial story, Darcy relayed the accounts of four more women, one of whom claimed Halperin masturbated in front of her in his office, another of whom said Halperin threw her against the window of a restaurant, tried forcibly to kiss her, and then, after she rebuffed him, called her and said she would never work in media or politics. At least three other women made allegations against Halperin, bringing the total to a dozen.

In the wake of these claims, NBC, MSNBC, and Showtime all axed Halperin as a commentator. HBO scrapped plans to base a miniseries on his books; Penguin dropped a new book project. At the time, Halperin’s career seemed like it was over.

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Not so. Halperin resurfaced on Twitter and via a blog called Mark Halperin’s Wide World of News. He wasn’t just shouting into the void: last fall, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, hosts of Morning Joe, where Halperin was a frequent guest, planned to collaborate with Halperin on a web show about the midterms, a scheme that reportedly caught many at MSNBC off guard. (MSNBC eventually nixed the project.) Then, in April, Brzezinski ran a segment about Halperin’s supposed rehabilitation without the knowledge of her bosses. Around the same time, Halperin started appearing on the Sirius XM show of Michael Smerconish. “He seems genuinely sorry for what he did,” Smerconish told The Washington Post. “My view is that to not let him opine after two years would be akin to a professional death sentence.”

Halperin is going to be doing a lot more opining. He now has a book deal. How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take is scheduled to hit shelves in November. According to Politico, more than 75 Democratic heavyweights participated in the project.

News of the book surfaced over the weekend; unsurprisingly, it was met with widespread outrage. Halperin’s accusers responded individually—one of them, Eleanor McManus, called it a “slap in the face”—and collectively via Press Forward, a group several of Halperin’s victims founded to combat sexual misconduct in the media industry. The book’s publisher, Regan Arts—whose founder, Judith Regan, once tried to publish If I Did It by OJ Simpson, a “hypothetical” account of the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson—came under pressure. So, too, did Simon & Schuster, which will distribute Halperin’s book on Regan’s behalf. (Regan stood by the project; Simon & Schuster said, “The publishing decisions of our distribution clients are theirs and theirs alone to make.”) The Democrats who spoke with Halperin for the book also took some heat. Their reactions ranged from regret (CNN contributor David Axelrod) to ignorance of Halperin’s conduct (former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm) to ignorance and regret (former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius). Some, including Mike McCurry, formerly Bill Clinton’s press secretary, stressed their belief in redemption; others, including Anita Dunn, a former Obama adviser, focused on beating Donald Trump.

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Those arguments do not stack up. The impulse to beat Trump is not an excuse for horrible behavior. Arguably, such a victory requires the opposite; it certainly does not require Mark Halperin. Forgiveness sounds better, but what has Halperin done to merit it? He has publicly expressed regret for his past conduct. (He denies some of the specifics of his accusers’ claims). But several of his victims say he has yet to apologize to them personally. And Halperin’s sincerity is questionable. He said, on Smerconish’s show, that he’s “happy to be judged by perfect people.” (On the same show, he described the allegations of inappropriate touching by Joe Biden as a potential “distraction” for Biden’s campaign.)

Halperin’s second chance fits a pattern. Of those powerful media men whose past conduct has been exposed post-Weinstein, some seem to have sunk, more or less. (Rumored comebacks for Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, for instance, haven’t materialized.) Others have continued to benefit professionally and/or financially despite their indiscretions. CBS fired Les Moonves and yanked his severance after a dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct, but, according to the Times, the network remained on the hook for Moonves’s office space as he registered new ventures in Hollywood. Michael Ferro, who resigned as Tribune chairman following allegations of unwanted advances, has since pocketed millions from the company in dividends and “consulting fees”; in June, Ross Levinsohn, another former Tribune executive who was twice sued for sexual harassment, was named CEO of Sports Illustrated. Michael Oreskes, who was ousted from NPR following multiple sexual harassment allegations, was hired to help lead a new venture conceived by former Fox News executive Ken LaCorte. Yesterday, the Post’s Paul Farhi reported that NPR gave Oreskes a 25-percent salary hike, including an $80,000 bonus, the year he was fired; that was before his ouster, but long after managers first raised concerns about his conduct. Leonard Lopate, axed from WNYC, resurfaced on-air at WBAI. The list goes on.

It’s not that these men haven’t faced consequences; rather, the consequences they have faced often seem grossly disproportionate to the severity of the accusations against them. Sometimes, accusers and other innocent bystanders, usually women, seem to suffer more than the alleged perpetrators. Last year, Yardena Schwartz reported for CJR that women who accused Bill O’Reilly and others at Fox News of sexual harassment subsequently lost their jobs at the network, and struggled to find employment elsewhere. “The excommunication of women in the media who stand up and speak out against sexual harassment isn’t just a problem at Fox,” Schwartz wrote. “[They are] blacklisted by the entire news industry.”

Below, more on Halperin, and #MeToo:

  • No advance: Glenn Thrush, who was demoted by The New York Times after multiple women accused him of making unwanted sexual advances, recently returned to campaign coverage. When the Thrush scandal broke, Random House scrapped a book project he had been working on, but he got to keep his share of the advance. Last week, BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reported that Thrush’s partner on the project, Maggie Haberman, had to pay hers back.
  • The name of redemption: The Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that forgiving powerful perpetrators of abuse does not entitle them to return to their old jobs. “We shouldn’t want predatory Catholic priests back in the pulpit—or in the sacristy with altar boys—in the name of redemption,” she writes. “And we shouldn’t want Mark Halperin back in print or on the air in the name of forgiveness.”
  • Art imitates life: Yesterday, Apple released the first full trailer for The Morning Show, a media-based drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell that will debut on Apple’s streaming service in the fall. “In the new look at the series, it is pretty clear that it is a Matt Lauer-esque of art imitating life as we see Aniston’s character, a morning show host, address the firing of her co-host due to what seems to be sexual misconduct allegations,” Deadline’s Dino-Ray Ramos writes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.