Sunday, October 15, 2017

The "Harvey Weinsteins" in the News Industry

While everyone is focused on Hollywood turning its blind eye to the Harvey Weinstein saga, many wonder why it took so long for the story to come out. Although there are legal reasons (fear of libel lawsuits), no one is really discussing the obvious:

There are Harvey Weinsteins in the news industry.

I know.

I worked among them and side-stepped them during my time at four newspapers and The Associated Press earlier in my career.

This weekend, I've been reading testimonials and calling up Youtube recordings of interviews with women actors who had the unfortunate (and similar) experiences with this powerful man. Many have been criticized for not speaking out sooner. Many have explained that they thought they were "the only one" or that they would not be taken seriously. They were trying to preserve their careers. It took the voices of many for them to come forward today. I understand this. And I'm going to break my own silence about a former news editor, who will remain anonymous, if it helps other women to understand they're not alone -- no matter what industry you're in. Maybe if we talk about our own "Harvey Weinsteins," it will help to not only change Hollywood, but every single business and corporation. Voices count.

I'm not going to identify the news outlet where this took place, because frankly, it's the Internet, and anyone can find this blog entry and accuse me of false accusations. But let's just say that this experience led to some major career-altering decisions. Before I launch in, let me also say that I have nothing to gain by telling this story. I've long-since been out of mainstream newsrooms, and after a lengthy time of solo freelancing, I'm now segueing into a teaching career. The only purpose in my telling this story is to help others see that this is a rampant problem, across the board for women.

So.

I was single. I was moving up. I was in a very competitive environment as a news reporter. My stories were constantly on front pages across the country. I had my sights on a next career step and knew where I wanted to go. It was within striking distance, and I felt that it was just a matter of time before I made that move.

Then my editor quit, and we had a replacement -- a guy who was about 15 years older than I was and who was going through a divorce. He seemed affable enough and easy going. Immediately that first week, he started inviting me to take my lunch break with him. Like many of the actresses who encountered Harvey, I felt that these lunches were important to building a working relationship that would help me achieve my career goal. I was able to discuss developing stories and ask for advice about managing my sources during these lunches. I was able to discuss my long-term career goals.

At the time, my widowed mother lived several states away from me, and she started raising alarms. How did I know that this new editor didn't have "expectations" of "something else?" I told her that she was over-reacting. This was a harmless person, I said, and besides, no one "did that type of thing anymore."

"It's not the 1960s or 70s anymore, Mom," I remember telling her. She strongly advised that I stop accepting his lunch break requests.

My boyfriend worked in the same newsroom, but with a different news outlet. He also was concerned. He wasn't the jealous type, but he also felt that this wasn't a good idea.

I didn't take either of them seriously until the new boss started asking me questions about my relationship with my boyfriend. At that point, I decided it would be prudent to stop accepting the lunch break invitations. I explained that I had too much to do on deadline, and although I appreciated the invites, it was better for me to take lunch alone.

Suddenly the atmosphere in my little work environment changed.

Before, I could do no wrong with my writing and reporting. Overnight, there were multiple inane questions about my sentence structures, my paragraph order, my choice of a lead. My stories were being rewritten to mangled garble before my eyes, and there was nothing I could do about it. The editor became critical of the types of questions I was asking sources. I would have to call and re-call people, asking questions that I had already posed, but doing so because the editor wanted to "be sure" that they "said what I thought they said."

Nothing was right. Nothing was good. Everything I tried to do was "substandard."

All of this time, the editor persisted in inviting me to lunch or dinner. I decided to try an experiment and see if the editing criticism was linked to the days that I declined an invite. On the days that I accepted the lunch invites, miraculously, my stories were "perfect." On the days I didn't, the stories were terrible.

I shared my frustrations with my boyfriend. He suggested that we take a photo of him, blow it up, put it in a giant frame and put it right on my desk. Maybe that would send a message that I was unavailable. I did it, and the behavior worsened. It was as if the photograph of the boyfriend sent this editor over the edge. It was so prevalent on my desk. And from that point on, my stories were obliterated every time I turned them in.

It wasn't just the editor, either. A married male reporter who was in charge when the editor was absent had a habit of calling up pornography while he sent the rest of us out on assignments. One day after work, I and a woman colleague decided to collect evidence of what this man was doing. So we downloaded a record of his computer cookies on a memory stick and held onto it in case we needed it. When my editor tried to corner me one day for not following this reporter's directions, I pulled the memory stick and said I would send it to higher-ups unless both of them backed off.

I was miserable. I should state clearly that there was not an overt attempt to "paw" at me or corner me sexually. I never allowed myself to be alone with this man. But there was a persistent wearing-down on my decisions as a reporter -- a persistent questioning of whether I was accurate -- a persistent maligning of my writing and rewriting of my work until it was unrecognizable. In a few instances, I demanded that my byline be removed from stories that had been ruined.

Finally, I'd had enough. One day after everyone had cleared the newsroom and the place was silent except the buzzing of the florescent lights over my desk, I called a lawyer. I had seen this lawyer testify before legislative committees that I had been covering about women's rights. I identified myself to his administrative assistant and explained why I was calling. He got on the phone immediately, and I gave a short summary of my hostile work environment.

"Well, let me ask you a few questions before we proceed," he said.

"Do you have trouble eating or problems with your appetite?" No.

"Do you have problems sleeping?" No.

"Do you have any problems like ongoing vomiting?" No.

"Do you have migraines?" No.

"Do you feel that your physical health has been affected adversely in any way by what this man is doing?" No.

"Have you told him to stop asking you to lunch?" Yes.

"Have you made a report to his supervisors?" Yes, but I was told by his supervisor to "act like a professional and maybe you won't have problems in the future." (His boss was a woman, by the way.)

"Have you kept a journal?" No.

"Do you see a psychologist or psychiatrist for emotional issues?" No.

Basically, he told me that there was not enough to prove that my life had been hurt in a negative way by what this editor was doing. I still had a job. I had not received a negative report on my work quality. I was considered by many within the industry and those who knew me in that community to be a strong reporter. My reputation was intact and had not been maligned. I had not been held back from promotions -- yet. And all he had done was ask me to lunch. Repeatedly. But that wasn't enough for a lawsuit.

You may say that I had a chip on my shoulder. You may wonder if my work was substandard and whether this guy just was being a good editor. You may think I'm crazy. There are many reasons that people may question whether this person was willfully making my life difficult and whether I am making all of this up.

But the people who know me, people like my mother and my former boyfriend, would remember that I was under such stress that I could barely function. After a time, my stories probably were not up to par, because I was always fearing that this man would take his idiot pen and rip them to shreds.

So how does this story end?

Well, the lawyer told me that if I really wanted to "nail him," I should keep a journal for the next six months, and then we would look at filing a lawsuit.

I thought about that, and in the end, I decided against it. Like many women in my generation, I had to weigh whether it was worth the fight and whether my reputation could take a hit when he defended himself against my accusations. Plus, I also felt that part of my soul was becoming embittered. I wanted to live a good life, not one where I was constantly looking over my shoulder and trying to "get back" at someone else.

I decided to take the high road and keep my mouth shut. I put out my resume and landed a job within three weeks of my search. I took a $15,000 PAY CUT to move four states away and start over. I abandoned my earlier dream and felt that I was escaping with my soul and reputation intact.

But the saddest thing about this, for me anyway, was when I called one of my sources to inform him that I had taken a new job.

"Where are you going?" my source asked me.

"To North Carolina," I answered. "I'm taking a pay cut. I can't tell you why I'm leaving, but I wanted to say goodbye, because you've been great to work with."

He paused, and there was about a 10-second silence on the other end. I waited. And then he said the words that have haunted me to this day:

"How the mighty have fallen. I'm so sorry. I wish you well."

I've always wondered if he knew.

So yes. There are Harvey Weinsteins in every industry, as well as in the media. They may not all look and sound like Harvey Weinstein. They may not perpetrate the same level of vicious attacks as he did. But the effect is the same: Women are silenced. Women put their careers second to their need to survive. Women feel they are alone. Women don't talk about it out of fear of not being taken seriously.

The bright side of this story is that if I had never had this change in my life, I would not have my son today. I eventually married a U.S. serviceman who went to war, and although we are now divorced, our kid is pretty great. I look for a silver lining in every cloud, and my son is my "platinum lining."

But the issue still remains.

What can a woman do when a man who has power over her controls her career? I'm not sure there is an answer. But I'm grateful to actors like Rose McGowan for standing firm and discussing their painful histories with Harvey Weinstein. Maybe by doing so, they will see a world of good done for women not only in Hollywood, but also throughout industries far and wide.

The next time you hear someone on TV say, "Why did it take so long for the Harvey Weinstein story to come out?" just remember ... There are Harvey Weinsteins in the media, just like there are Harvey Weinsteins in your workplace. You may not know their names or their actions, but they're there.

And now I've added my voice to the others about how my own "Harvey" affected me.





Saturday, May 20, 2017

The "Anonymous Source" Game

I've seen a lot of people on Twitter fussing and fuming about the "anonymous sources" cited in Washington Post and New York Times articles regarding the Trump-Russia investigation. They seem to think that because a source is unnamed, it makes that source less credible.

As someone who has been in the journalistic profession for 27 years, I'm stepping outside the intended audience for this blog -- fellow journalists -- to those of you who are NOT journalists and who do not understand how this works. Hopefully, this insight will clear up a few misconceptions. And if not, at least I've put pen to paper to explain how "The Anonymous Source Game" works.

Now in case you don't believe that I know what I'm talking about ... I spent 12 years in mainstream newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina as a reporter and editor. I also spent four years covering Pennsylvania state politics in the Capitol for The Associated Press as a Newswoman. For the past 15 years, I have been a solo freelancer, writing for a variety of military, business and health publications. When I was with the AP, I covered the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as well as the state Department of Education and the state Public Utility Commission during the deregulation of the electric industry.

So I know a thing or two when it comes to "anonymous sources."

Let me explain how this worked, using my experience with the AP in a highly-charged political environment. Let's pretend you are an AP reporter in the Pennsylvania statehouse.

So the day starts this way:

You come into the newsroom with your coffee, and the phone rings. It's a staff member for a state representative with a tip about a plan to secretly railroad an unpopular bill through the Legislature. The staff member says explicitly: "This is not for you to quote me. I am giving this to you anonymously. I just want you to know what is going on."

Now it's up to you as the reporter to ferret out whether this is true.

So you go downstairs to the press spokesman for the House Majority Leader and ask if it's true. He flatly asks where you heard the rumor, and you demure. He says he cannot confirm or deny it, but you could ask the committee chairman where the bill is currently sitting.

Now how are you going to get the story? You don't want to go to the committee chairman, because the second he knows you're onto it, he could impede your reporting. Before you hit him for an answer, you have to go to some more anonymous sources.

Using the information that the caller gave you while your coffee was getting cold, you start calling other press officers for other representatives. You find that no one wants to go on the record, because this bill is so controversial. But you give each person details that the caller gave you, asking if they can confirm or deny those details.

The reaction is always the same: "Where did you hear that?" You don't reveal where you heard it, but you ask for confirmation of whether it's true. Each person says, "Yes it's true, but I don't want you to use my name." You follow up with more questions, and each person adds more "meat" to the skeleton. With that "meat," you have more detail to ask MORE people about the bill. As you add more meat to that skeleton, each person who is subsequently interviewed confirms it. Or they may say, "Well, that is partially correct, but there is a little more you should know so that you have the full context." And then they may "correct" some of the story, all the while adding more details that you didn't know.

This process usually takes one to two hours, depending on how much the original source wants to bury the story and hide it from the public.

Now you have your ammunition. When you get a minimum of three independent confirmations, even though they are anonymous, you can feel confident that it's a story. I usually did not stop with three. I often went above and beyond and took the interviews to the next level, pushing for more detail.

All of these people are ANONYMOUS. But all of them have each independently VERIFIED information that started with a phone call. And all of them have also given you information that MATCHES the phone caller's tip, even though they are not talking to each other, and even though all of them do not know where you got the tip.

At this point, you go to the committee chairman. You ask about the bill, and he denies that anything is happening. "Where did you hear that?" (They always ask that question before they answer.) Again, you decline to respond and press on with the information that you know.

In that moment, the committee chairman always does the same thing. He turns white. He goes silent. He thinks for a few seconds. If he threatens you that you will be running with false information if you print it, then you say, "Well, these anonymous sources all confirmed it. Would you like to provide your version of the story so that it is fair and balanced?"

Boom. He will spill in that moment, because he doesn't want the story to go out without his words represented.

This is how anonymous sourcing works. It is a tool of the journalistic trade to unearth information that public officials want to hide from their constituents. It is very effective, and it is done with great care and thought. I never ran with a story that had one "anonymous" person. I always confirmed, reconfirmed and reconfirmed again. I always went through the process that I have outlined above.

And my editors never would have printed a story unless they were certain that I was damn sure it was 100 percent correct. At a minimum, we had to have three sources to cross-confirm each other's versions -- all of whom were not talking to each other, and all of whom did not know who the others were.

The Anonymous Source Game. Next time someone (*cough* *cough* *cough* Donald Trump or Sean Spicer) says a story can't be confirmed because of "anonymous sources," just remember the process I went through as a reporter. And I wasn't even on the national stage. I was in one state, just one cog in the media machine wheel.

If I went through those machinations, you can be certain that reporters at the Times and Post have also.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

CYA in Trump's "Dishonest Media" Climate

So when I was a sprightly, ruddy-faced child out of college, my late father imparted some wisdom that has governed my career. And to paint this scene fully, my dad looked, acted and sounded like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise (no, that's not a joke).

When he wanted to have a "serious" discussion with me, he'd call me over to the dining room table, and I would sit expectantly and silently and wait for him to clear his throat.

"Cover your ass."

Now this made me sit up in my chair a little, because my dad was a pastor, and wow, that one was a shocker.

"What did you say, Dad???"

"Cover. Your. Ass. It's the only way you're going to make it in today's world. And you know how you do that? You keep handwritten notes on everything, and you keep them in this nice file ..."

(at this point, he pulled out a prepared manila file folder, on which he had very neatly written, "Heidi's CYA File") ...

"You keep them in this nice file, and then when anybody tries to say they didn't tell you what they really told you or tries to say you misunderstood or tries to say that you ... sorry, kid, but I have to use this language ... that you 'fucked up,' then you pull out your file here. And you put your notes, that are dated, and you say, 'Oh no. I think you're mistaken.' And after anyone tells you something, if it's your boss, you send them a note explaining what you think you heard, and you date it, and you put it in an office CYA folder, too."

You know what, my dad died 26 years ago, about four years after that little speech, and I have implemented his CYA advice every day.

Which brings me to today's sermon for you, my fellow journalists:

In today's manic environment ,where we have a sitting U.S. President that is churning public opinion against the free press, COVER. YOUR. ASS.

Since Trump took office, I have started to see a disconcerting trend among people I interview for stories, especially if they are affiliated with the U.S. government in some manner. They are starting to accuse me of misquoting them or misrepresenting what they actually said.

Now understand this. I've been doing this job for 27 years, and I type as I interview people at a conversational rate. I average about 80 words per minute.

But even with my lickety-split typing skills, when I saw how Trump was attacking "the dishonest media," I decided to go one step further. I started asking for people to answer questions via email. This is a common practice nowadays among slap-dash, green journalists, and for the most part, I disagree with it. I think it's lazy. I much prefer phone conversations.

However.

Trump has shifted the sands in our profession by accusing us of making things up.

The best way to "cover my ass" in this environment is to request emailed interview responses, when I am interviewing someone who is connected to his administration.

I'll give you one example, something that happened recently. (I will not name the government agency for my own reasons.)

About a month ago, I did a story for a university publication and had to interview top researchers across the country on a particular issue. I included a top official at this government entity. And following my newly self-imposed "CYA Rule," I asked for the interview answers to be submitted via email. This person did, and I lifted the quotes directly from the email and plugged them into the appropriate and pertinent areas of the story.

This week, I approached the person's press representative for a second interview, this time for another magazine. It was on the same topic but for a wholly different audience.

The press person responded that when she fact checked the first story, she had to change several things before sending the story back to the editor. (We can discuss fact checking policies in another blog entry.) In a terse and condescending email, she demanded to see the final story before she agreed to the source's participation. The inference was that I had taken comments out of context or misrepresented the individual.

Not to be cowed, I fired back a response. Would she like to clarify what was miscommunicated, precisely? I explained that I had requested emailed responses and had not changed a word of the responses that were emailed. I further explained that I had the original email to cross compare to any "issues" that she saw in the story.

And I copied my editor.

The press person responded several hours later, that she would agree to the source's participation. She did not follow up to my questions about where I had misquoted or misinterpreted or miscommunicated the source in the first story.

Cover. Your. Ass.

I don't know if this person's attitude was in any way, shape or form affected by the current Presidential administration's stance on the free press in the United States of America. But I do know that years ago, my late father gave me advice in his Jean-Luc-Picard-no-nonsense-voice, and I listened.

And now I'm telling you.

Cover your ass in this climate. Keep copious notes. And if anyone challenges your reporting, refer back to those emailed answers and say, "Oh. I quoted this word for word, the email that YOU sent me. Where exactly is the issue?"

Chances are, they'll back down without another word on it.

As for my inclusion of this source in this next story? I'm skipping her. I have plenty of other sources to fill it out, and I don't need her. Her press representative is too much trouble, and frankly, I have more important things to do than worry about covering my ass again when the story comes out in two months.

I just can't be bothered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Response to Trump's "Dishonest Media" Charge

For months, I have largely kept silent while Donald J. Trump has maligned my profession and my colleagues as, quote, "the dishonest media."

But this morning, I need to say a few things about that, and it's largely drawn from a personal realization about my own career. Since 1989, I have been either a news reporter, news editor, AP staffer or freelance magazine journalist. Over 27 years, in one way or another, I have been part of what is now being unfairly labeled, "the dishonest media."

Today started like most days. I had two magazine interviews right out of the gate, and they were with researchers at a large university. The topic was about ground-breaking discoveries this university is making in the field of opiate addiction.

As I hung up from the second interview a few moments ago, the researcher said to me, "Thank you for doing this story. We are so grateful."

And that's when it hit me: The one thing that has driven me for nearly three decades in my career is that I have attacked every single story with the goal of making the world a better place.

Do I sound like a Pollyanna to you? No matter. Let me give you a few examples so that you know I know what I'm talking about:


  • When I covered child abuse stories as a news reporter, I was criticized for capitalizing on the suffering of innocent children. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on the evil being perpetrated. I saw it as an opportunity for teachers to know how to spot warning signs of abuse. I saw it as a chance for moms and dads to also be aware of potential abuse among people they trusted -- Scout leaders, youth pastors, the list goes on. I saw it as a way to make people aware to safeguard future potential victims.
  • When I covered political corruption, I was criticized (often) for being biased, for causing trouble where none was present, for stirring waters of dissent and hurting elected officials. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on those in power who were abusing their roles. I saw it as a chance to show regular citizens how they could get involved with their government and be informed about ways their government was not serving them. I saw my role as a checkmate on the chess board.
  • When I covered tragedies like fires where children were burned alive, I was criticized for yellow journalism, for being a heartless money-grubber seeking headlines. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on fire prevention. I saw it as a way for poor people to know why they shouldn't use space heaters and why it was important to have a working smoke alarm in your house. I saw it as a way to save lives.
  • When I cover any topic relating to the military, I am sometimes criticized for giving credence to the nation's violent past. However, I see it as a way to shine a spotlight on the role that veterans have played in preserving our freedom. I see it as an opportunity to help military families make connections between PTSD and issues that are plaguing their families and children. I see it as a chance to make their lives a little bit better with information shared by pediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers. I see it as a way to help military members find jobs after they have served our country. The list goes on.
Dishonest media?

Really?

Tell me how we are being dishonest. My colleagues may be unveiling information that makes you uncomfortable or that makes you wince or that makes you want to get on with the rest of your day in comfort. My colleagues may be questioning someone that you idolize and who you don't want to be questioned, because perhaps that might indicate you made a wrong choice in the voting booth. My colleagues may be reporting both sides of an issue so that everyone gets a fair shot at expressing their views.

But do not, for one second, call us "the dishonest media."

We got into this business for one reason: To make the world a better place.

If that's dishonest to you, then maybe it's time to visit the dictionary and get acquainted with what dishonesty really is.