Mary Shannon Little is a lawyer who specializes in internal investigations and ethics and compliance consulting for businesses and other large organizations.
Almost as shocking as how long it took Fox News to fire Bill O’Reilly was the almost-as-sexist coverage of his ouster by competing cable news networks. Mostly male panels discussed what this meant for President Trump and speculated whether action would have been taken had it not been for the media coverage of $13 million paid to buy silence from O’Reilly’s accusers and the consequent flight of dozens of advertisers. Only the occasional female panelist attempted to explain that Fox News was not unique in failing to implement its zero-tolerance policy and that two high-profile terminations could not change a corporate culture.
Kirsten Powers, formerly with Fox News and now at CNN, described a chilling conversation with the also-ousted Roger Ailes , the former chairman of Fox News, in which he said that O’Reilly would not apologize for remarks he’d made on air about “her blondness.” This week on “Anderson Cooper 360,” she recalled him saying, in effect, “You know Bill. He likes to put up dirty pictures and ask pretty girls to talk about them. . . . But what am I going to do? I don’t like him, but he makes so much money there’s nothing I can do.” Cooper seemed shocked by Ailes’s acknowledgment and Powers’s candor in repeating it. Wide-eyed he said, “I cannot imagine working in an environment where that was tolerated.”
Maybe Cooper cannot, but most women can.
I was sexually harassed for the first time in 1980 as a second-year law student at New York University. My professor was in his 50s and was known for litigating against injustice. In class, he called on me excessively. In the hallway, he made small talk and complimented my “blondness.” Eventually he offered me a part-time job as a research assistant. When I hesitated, he promised that the position would burnish my résumé. His attention troubled me, but my GPA was weak and I was having a hard time finding a job.
After he assigned the research, he summoned me to his office for late-afternoon meetings. Within a short period, he would suggest we adjourn to a nearby bar. Each time I excused myself, explaining that I had a night class or needed to catch up on homework. Finally, one evening he called my apartment from a phone booth around the corner. All he wanted was a nightcap. I refused again.
At our next meeting, he threw my work across his desk and said that it was disgraceful. Someone else would need to redo it. Relieved, I apologized and stood to leave.
“What’s wrong with you?” he bellowed. “All I wanted was a few drinks. A couple of laughs with a pretty girl. With your grades, you’ll never get a job without my help.”
I turned and left.
I went to see my adviser the next day.
“Do I go to the dean?” I asked him.
“No. He’s a big guy, and this is a small town. If you complain, nothing will happen to him. But if word gets out, you’ll never get a job.”
I took his advice reluctantly. And I did get a job. First, as a criminal defense lawyer. Then, as a federal prosecutor under Rudy Giuliani. I worked on public corruption cases and spearheaded the investigation of Wedtech Corp., a corrupt Bronx-based defense contractor. In that capacity, I investigated then-Attorney General Ed Meese and prosecuted former congressman Mario Biaggi for bribery.
The last time I was harassed was just a few years ago. This time I was a witness. My young secretary was getting those same late-night phone calls from a manager senior to me. I reported his conduct to the appropriate parties and waited for them to investigate. Instead, the senior manager tried to fire me for insubordination. When that failed, he disinvited me from executive meetings, weakening my effectiveness and reducing my stature within the company. I complained again, thinking that such obvious retaliation required an immediate response. Instead, I was given an office on another floor and told to report to someone else.
I consulted an employment lawyer.
“You have a case,” she said. “But you know what litigation is like. Is it worth it?”
Again, I moved on, angrier than ever and disappointed by my own inaction. More than 30 years had passed, with Supreme Court rulings and newer laws that clearly outlawed workplace harassment and protected whistleblowers. But still I had no quick or effective recourse. And neither did the many women with accounts of predations committed by Ailes and O’Reilly. That’s the discussion the talking heads should have been having: not Trump’s prospective tweets or O’Reilly’s contract, but why consumer backlash was the only force strong enough to finally make Fox News put its employees before profit.