MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for the beauty shop - that's where our panel of women commentators and journalists get a fresh cut on the week's news. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Danielle Belton, editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine. She's in Washington, D.C. along with Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media, that's a conservative libertarian news and commentary website. Joining us from Cleveland is Connie Schultz, she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Welcome back to everybody. Thank you all for joining us.
DANIELLE BELTON: Thanks for having us.
BRIDGET JOHNSON: Great to be here.
CONNIE SCHULTZ: Thanks.
MARTIN: So today's subject is politicians behaving badly. And we're going to discuss some details that involve allegations of sexual harassment. So I just want to mention that this conversation might not be comfortable for everybody. So with that being said, we'll start with the situation involving the San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. He's been accused of groping, making inappropriate comments, trying to kiss a number of women, both as Mayor and then previously when he served as a member of Congress.
He's now admitted that he's behaved badly but he denies that he harassed anybody. He is, so far, ignoring calls for his resignation. One of the things that stood out for us in this story is that a number of people coming forward are successful professionals - the dean of a local university, a retired rear admiral, a local businesswoman. Now this is what political strategist Laura Fink had to say about why she didn't go public, at least not right away.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
LAURA FINK: In politics, your reputation is critical. And references are the gold standard by which you're judged. And so I knew this was going to be important to me continuing to work. I also knew that Bob Filner has a reputation, with regard to people he sees as political enemies, for swift retribution and really long grudges. And I didn't want to be on the wrong end of that.
MARTIN: Danielle, I'm going to start with you, because a couple of years ago you helped expose, if you don't mind my using that term, a politician who was also behaving in a sexually inappropriate way. He was a member of Congress from New York, married with children, but he was what?
BELTON: He was on Craigslist purporting to be a divorced lobbyist looking for dates.
MARTIN: Looking for dates, and a woman who was corresponding with him figured out that he was not who he said he was...
MARTIN: ...And she blew up his spot. OK, so - and he resigned.
BELTON: Yes, he did.
MARTIN: Why did she come forward? And was she afraid of exactly the kind of thing that Laura Fink is talking about?
BELTON: She was very afraid, 'cause initially - I knew it about a month before it actually broke, and I begged her for the story, because naturally - but I'm a friend before I'm a journalist, I didn't do anything with it. She was very much afraid of retribution, and what ended up happening was after the story did break she was accused of being an Democratic operative.
People put her tax records online, people harassed her, she had, you know, media camped out in front of her job and on her front lawn. She was worried about losing her job. It was nightmarish. So I can understand why women often would just keep these sort of things to themselves rather than put it out there, 'cause there is negative feedback.
MARTIN: Why did she eventually decide to do so?
BELTON: Well, she was convinced to by a reporter at Gawker.
MARTIN: Oh, OK, OK. Well, what about that? Connie Schultz, I'm interested in this. You were also involved in political life, I think many people know your husband is Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and what's your take on this? I mean, do you wish that more women would come forward?
SCHULTZ: I come from this from a very personal perspective, because I went through this in the news room in the '90s with a senior editor. I was newly hired, in my mid-30s, I was going through a divorce, so I was a newly single mother. It was my first newsroom job, I had been a freelancer. And so I - he was really inappropriate, often publicly in front of other reporters and he would say things like - what I want to know is when you're going to follow the story so we can just go away to a motel.
He had a horrible reputation, but I was so scared to lose my job, and later I did something, but here's when I did it, and it makes me wonder if women are often better - we're better at advocating for someone other than ourselves. Because I saw him start touching - putting his hands on interns. And a young intern turned to me one day and she said, I wish he would stop touching me, it really makes me uncomfortable.
And that's when I thought if I don't step up, if I don't say anything, I'm going to be partially responsible if he ends up getting away with this with one of these young women. And I had a male colleague who approached me and said we need to do something about this. It was not a comfortable process, I have to tell you. I'm not proud of myself that I didn't speak out for myself but I think it's pretty consistent with my personality, and a lot of women I know, that once I was advocating for someone other than myself, there was a fury that rose up in me that replaced the fear that had been there before.
MARTIN: And what happened finally?
SCHULTZ: He was fired.
MARTIN: Bridget, what do you think about this?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, obviously, you know, this guy was in Congress for nearly 20 years, you know, he didn't become a perv overnight. You know, people, you know, saw this pattern, they saw it escalating. You know, I'm guessing most of us have brushed off lewd comments in the workplace. Just, you know, why don't we say anything - part of it's we just want to ignore it and move on. But, you know, women are also painted as shrill, you know, if we report inappropriate behavior.
But what concerns me in this case is that when he moved into this physical realm of groping, forcibly kissing people, headlocks, I mean, at that point you see an escalation. And so if that happens to you, you got to be concerned about the next woman down the line, about what he's going to do.
MARTIN: I'm always interest - this is a - I'm glad we're having this conversation but it's a tricky conversation, because then there's this long tradition of blaming victims for what happens to them. I mean, this goes back however many centuries, right - of blaming victims for what happens to them and the people who are most vulnerable for what happens to them.
On the other hand, these are women of stature in a number of these interactions here. And just like Connie said, it's one thing if you're, you know, you're the intern - you're the lowest rung on the ladder - and you do wonder at some point, is there a point at which as a senior person, as a person of stature, you do have a responsibility to step up?
SCHULTZ: You do, but I...
MARTIN: ...Danielle - oh, Connie, go ahead...
SCHULTZ: ...Oh, I'm sorry...
MARTIN: ...Go ahead.
SCHULTZ: Well, I'm just thinking about the world of politics now. And being married to U.S. senator, you know, I'm privy to a lot that goes on - not just in his life, but in many of the senators. And I must say politics is still - it's tough terrain for a lot of women. You hear that all the time. There are fewer women campaign managers, fewer women senior staff, and it is a brutal environment anyway, often.
Particularly, during campaigns. I can see the challenges in this, and a lot of them, even though they're women of stature, in politics they're often still younger, I would say often they're in their 30s, and I wonder if we get braver as we age and we're also not so much the target then. I'm not excusing it, but I am sensitive to what you just said too. I don't want to blame these women. I know what it's like to be scared of the consequences.
I remember being scared that I could lose - I was fighting for custody of my daughter at the time, the last thing I needed was that stuff coming up, you know. We don't know - we never know the whole story, I guess, is part of the problem here. We don't know why these women didn't speak up sooner, and I'm pretty hesitant to make a lot of assumptions about their reasons.
JOHNSON: I have to agree. And also, a lot of times when women don't come forward in these sort of situations, one of two things is going on - where you don't want to make waves and cause trouble 'cause you're afraid of retribution or the fact that women have been socialized differently, where they feel like they're responsible for men's sexuality.
So you sit there and think maybe it was something I did, maybe it was something I said that caused this man to come on to me and they end up taking responsibility for something that's not their responsibility. That whole ideology is garbage.
MARTIN: But what is their responsibility in this when somebody has - do they have any?
JOHNSON: Well, in a perfect world...
MARTIN: Just say look...
JOHNSON: ...I think you say something...
MARTIN: ...You're a pig, you're a pig, and you know...
JOHNSON: ...Yeah, you push back and you say something in a perfect world, the problem is our world isn't perfect. So you have people who feel that they can't speak up. You just end up trying to find a job someplace else and moving on, as opposed to facing what the consequences are if you speak up.
MARTIN: Here's another question - what about the men who observe this? It's interesting that...
JOHNSON: ...Right, right.
MARTIN: ...We often talk about the women who are the direct targets of this, but I think a lot of times this behavior is observed by others. And I often wonder why we don't ever ask, where are the other men who are observing this to say to politician behaving badly, you're a pig...
SCHULTZ: ...That's exactly right.
MARTIN: ...And this needs to stop. I mean, Connie, can I ask you, does that ever happen? Have you ever observed this happen?
SCHULTZ: Well, and that's what happened in my case. It was a male colleague who said we got to do something about this. And I told him what I had seen with the intern. And I do think an increasing number of men are stepping up, including in campaigns and in offices, and I will say this also, as words of encouragement to women out there who are really afraid to step up, once you speak out, it becomes a really good habit. And you get less and less afraid of calling men on their bad behavior and that can really have an impact in any work environment you're in.
If you're known as somebody who's got your eye out - and I had no problem a few years later pulling aside a colleague and saying, you do one more - one more time you do that, with what I just saw you do with that intern and I'm going to report you. And there is something emboldening once you realize that you can survive that.
But we need the men to support us too. I mean, we've always needed, you know, we've always needed men. We wouldn't have the right to vote if men hadn't voted to give us the right to vote, you know. We need their support. And that takes sensitizing, I'm a little more optimistic about this new generation of young men, a lot of them, because they're being raised better in that regard.
MARTIN: Well, it could be or is there a sense that you're on your own, you should be able to take care of yourself, you make as much as I do, you went to the same colleges I do, why do I need to step up for you? I mean, couldn't it be the other way? I don't know, I mean. Anyway, we're having our weekly barbershop roundtable. We're joined by Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor at PJ Media. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz. And Danielle Belton, author of the Black Snob website and also at Clutch Magazine online.
We're talking about the whole question of supporting. I think this is an interesting question as well - the former congressman, Anthony Weiner, is ignoring requests that he leave politics. He's running for the mayor of New York after having resigned from Congress because he was texting inappropriate pictures of himself to random women - underdressed pictures of himself - then he lied about it and then he came clean about it. One of the interesting things that's emerged here - well, first, there were a lot of newspaper editors and other people saying, you know, he should quit. He's saying he's not going to quit. And other - some columnists have said well, let's let the voters decide.
One of the interesting questions here is the role of his wife, Huma Abedin, who is a high-powered aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department, kind of a high-powered figure in her own right. She has publicly appeared with him and said that she supports his decision to stay in the race. And a lot of people are looking at that and thinking, is that - how do we feel about that? I mean, Connie, how do you feel about that? I mean, obviously, it's a personal decision but then people think, well, what's the point of having a position of influence if you can't use that influence to create a more dignified environment for everybody? I don't know. What do you think?
SCHULTZ: I think it's important not to cast every political - so-called political wife as a victim in these situations. I don't see her as a victim. She is a - I met her number of times, I don't know her well, she is a bright, sophisticated, person who has made the decision that she's going to continue to support her husband. We can question her judgment on that. I think some are wondering why she would do that - I know they are, they're wondering why she would do that, but I don't think we should infantilize her or victimize her.
She came off to me - when I watched the press conference live, and she looked steadfast and strong. I mean, she looked uncomfortable but who wouldn't have been. But I certainly didn't see her as somebody who was dragged on stage, you know. She made this decision on her own.
MARTIN: What do you all think about his decision to stay in the race? I mean, one of the things that columnists in New York are saying is we just don't want to be in your business. We just don't want to be in your business. And one of the reasons that they're saying that is that one of the women he admitted to having a sexting relationship with is a young woman named - 23-year-old Sydney Leathers, she was on Howard Stern's show yesterday. This is a bit of their conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOWARD STERN SHOW")
SYDNEY LEATHERS: I think I am a little bit angry with him just because, you know, I feel like he lured me into this situation, and then he didn't want to own up to it. What pissed me off was him on the campaign trail saying, oh, I've changed, and trying to act like he has this perfect marriage now and everything's just peachy.
HOWARD STERN: The hypocrisy got to you.
LEATHERS: Yeah, I was like, [bleep] I am proof that you have not changed.
MARTIN: So a lot going on there, Danielle, but, you know, nevertheless people are saying, I don't particularly, you know, the columnists are saying I don't particularly want to be - I don't want my mayor to be somebody that I'm going to have to watch his friends on "The Howard Stern Show" talking about him. On the other hand, people are saying, let the voters decide. What do you say?
BELTON: Well, I mean Sanford stayed in it and it worked out for him. I think that some of the mindset is maybe this will pass over. Maybe this is a storm that's happening right now, he'll be able to weather it, him and his wife will be able to weather it, and he'll be able to continue his pursuit to be mayor of New York.
Now there is something to be said for - I don't really want to be in his business, and this particular business with Sydney Leathers is just kind of embarrassing. And I don't know how you necessarily come back from that. But they seem...
MARTIN: ...Well, talk about embarrassing - the former governor, Eliot Spitzer, is now running for comptroller...
MARTIN: ...Who was ensnared in a prostitution scandal. Which - and, hello, prostitution is still illegal. And he was the governor and also a former law-enforcement officer, not to mention an officer of the court. So I think he's well aware that the conduct was illegal, although he was never prosecuted for it, you know, who knows why? Bridget, what do you say?
JOHNSON: This is going to be City Hall of ill repute.
MARTIN: How long were you waiting for that? How long have you been stirring that up?
JOHNSON: Look, you know, I kind of look at the situation and I thought with Senator David Vitter, who had his own, you know, D.C. madam scandal and some really freaky details on that...
MARTIN: ...Senator from Louisiana...
JOHNSON: ...Yes. And he won reelection and...
MARTIN: ...In the Bible Belt...
JOHNSON: And he is continuing to, you know...
MARTIN: ...To serve...
JOHNSON: ...Do his thing in Congress. And I've kind of thought how he got past that, aside from the GOP obviously didn't want to lost the seat, you know. No options, etc. But he came out as very contrite, you know, and then kept his head down after that. You know, he came out and he apologized, said I got to work on this, you know, and he's kind of kept his head down ever since.
You know, he's got his key issues that he comes out on, but he has to put up with, you know, every time he's in the news for something, you know, he has to put up with the comments of the little stuff that he did with his prostitutes and etc. And has to, you know, kind of try and let that roll off. Weiner's not really doing that. You know, he's...
MARTIN: ...Well, you can't. I mean, the mayor of New York cannot keep his head down, can he? Or she?
JOHNSON: Well, he's not keeping his head down on the scandal, you know, he's not saying, you know, I'm sorry - it'll never happen again.
MARTIN: I'm choosing to ignore the giggling over here.
MARTIN: I'm choosing to ignore the innuendo.
SCHULTZ: We're duly noting that you're ignoring our innuendo...
MARTIN: ...Yes, exactly. In the tradition of R&B, innuendo will have to suffice.
JOHNSON: Yeah, and Sanford, I mean, I'll just say that's a freak of nature.
BELTON: I think he gave everyone hope though. Sanford gave people hope that you could come back from the worst-of-the-worst political sex scandals, where he basically abandoned his wife and ran off with his mistress by hiking the Appalachian Trail in Argentina.
MARTIN: And lying about it. Although, again, that conduct is not illegal. There was questions about his - the funds that may have been used to support his travel but that was kind of, sort of, a minor part. So where are we? I mean, what does this say that it seems like this seems very old-fashioned in some ways. Perhaps the technology is new but the behavior is old.
SCHULTZ: May I offer a question?
MARTIN: Sure, go ahead, Connie.
SCHULTZ: I would love for all of us to brainstorm that long list of women who've been able to get away with this - oh, wait, nobody.
SCHULTZ: That'd be zero. I do think this is just fascinating. I mean, could you imagine a woman having - OK, let's say, tweeting pictures of her private parts and then even, I mean, could you imagine this? First of all, could you imagine a woman doing that as a candidate?
MARTIN: I can't imagine a woman getting reelected after tweeting a picture of a bad hair day.
SCHULTZ: Exactly, it's such a gender thing here, yet. I mean, Michel, you know me well enough, you know I'm going to bring that up but frankly, isn't that a conversation we should be having too? Why do the guys keep getting away with it? When a woman would never survive this.
MARTIN: That's another conversation. All right, well, let's have it. Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She's also the author of "...and His Lovely Wife: A Campaign Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man." She was with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland.
Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media, that's a conservative opinion and commentary website. Danielle Belton is the Black Snob, she blogs on her website about pop culture and politics. She's also editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine. Bridget and Danielle were in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.
SCHULTZ: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.
BELTON: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.