Cokie Roberts: Women reporters knew not to get on the elevator with Conyers alone

Is that right? A tidbit from “This Week” via Christine Rousselle:

“The fact that people are willing to be public can change things. I mean, we all talked about for years,” said Roberts.

Further, Roberts says that it “does make a difference” now that women are not being shy about this kind of misconduct. Roberts implied that Conyers’ predatory behavior was an open secret among the press corps.

“Don’t get in the elevator with him, you know, and the whole every female in the press corps knew that, right, don’t get in elevator with him,” said Roberts. She continued, “Now people are saying it out loud. And I think that does make a difference.”

People are treating this as proof of the press’s ideological agenda in covering up for Democratic malefactors. Why didn’t Cokie say anything about left-wing predators? To know if there was bias at work, though, we’d need to know how many Republicans were also known to the media to get handsy with women in the elevators but were never named and shamed. There were lots of barriers to a woman reporter exposing a male harasser that had nothing to do with ideology. The big one was, and is, defamation law. If you have a single accuser claiming she was groped, how do you substantiate that, especially if she won’t let you use her name in the story? Haley Byrd, a congressional reporter for the IJ Review, notes that she’s heard plenty of rumors about congressmen behaving inappropriately but if she started tweeting them out without amassing hard evidence she’d be buried under lawsuits.

You’re probably safe legally if you can find multiple women reporting similar experiences — of if you yourself were groped by the congressman — but there are other problems. Women who went public would risk public skepticism, retaliation from members of Congress in the form of lost access, and potential black-sheep status in their industry among male executives who wouldn’t want someone around who might object to their own handsy habits. You think Roger Ailes was eager to hire any reporters whom he knew had a track record of exposing powerful predatory men? Even if the accuser was believed, what percentage of the public in the 1980s upon learning that John Conyers had grabbed a woman reporter’s ass would have shrugged and said, “She’ll live”? Maybe his victims would have reported on Conyers if they had good reason to believe doing so would mean he’d suffer serious consequences, but right around the time that Cokie Roberts was making this point on Sunday morning, the first woman Speaker of the House was on “Meet the Press” spinning for Conyers. Democrats can’t or won’t get rid of him now, with the country in the middle of a minor cultural revolution about taking women who claim abuse seriously. How the hell would they have gotten rid of him in the 1980s?

Remember, the president of the United States currently stands accused by upwards of a dozen women of various forms of sexual misconduct. If that was no barrier to him getting elected, how seriously would a report on harassment by Conyers from a couple of women reporters have been taken until recently?

What’s interesting about this clip isn’t the fact that female reporters (or male reporters who’d also heard the stories) didn’t expose Conyers. What’s interesting is why his own congressional leadership didn’t expose him. The problem for the media, as noted, is the power imbalance: Even if they can clear the defamation bar, they’re going to make powerful enemies in the institution they cover by airing dirty laundry. Only someone more powerful than Conyers could semi-safely expose him and raise the odds that he’d be punished. Someone like … Nancy Pelosi, who’s been the leader of the House Democratic caucus for nearly 15 years. If Cokie Roberts was sufficiently tapped in to know that an elevator ride with Conyers wasn’t safe, Pelosi definitely knew. Exposing him could have wrecked her career, though. She aspired to be the first woman Speaker; taking down Conyers would have divided Democrats, risked alienating the Congressional Black Caucus, and frightened other harassers in her ranks who would worry that they were next. She would have been pushed out. So she looked the other way, just as the leaders of both parties have apparently been doing for ages. What did Dick Gephardt and Tom Foley and Tip O’Neill and John McCormack know about Conyers? They could have handed his head to the press corps on a silver platter if they had cared enough about his behavior to do so. They didn’t.

Pelosi’s trying to atone now by issuing a statement yesterday insisting that she believes Melanie Sloan, the former Conyers staffer who claims he harassed and verbally abused her. Stay tuned. In lieu of an exit question, read this piece proposing an interesting way to solve the prisoner’s dilemma that confounds women who have been harassed. No one wants to be the first to accuse someone of sexual misconduct because typically there’s no way to know if anyone else will be second. That’s a lonely fight. So how about a system of “information escrow” in HR departments in which women could submit complaints secretly to hedge against the risk of retaliation, on the condition that their complaint will be published if and when a predetermined number of complaints against the alleged offender is reached? Then no one has to be first. A group of accusers would all be revealed simultaneously.