Mark Halperin's latest apology raises a larger question

While still being somewhat overshadowed by Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo campaign has definitely scored another victory at NBC News with the ouster of Morning Joe regular Mark Halperin. Having been identified as a serial sexual harasser at a minimum and possibly a sexual assault suspect, the network cut ties with Halperin, but the accusations continue to roll in, now numbering over a dozen. I’m not bothering with the word “alleged” when it comes to the harassment part of it because Halperin has already admitted his “flaws” and confessed to improper behavior at a minimum.

In fact, he’s done it at least twice now. The latest mea culpa came on Friday night, and while it seemed to expand on his original admissions, he’s still being careful to dance around the edges of anything which might look too much like a reason to go spend some time in a jail cell. (CNN, emphasis added)

Many of the accounts conveyed by journalists working on stories about me or that I have read after publication have not been particularly detailed (and many were anonymous) making it difficult for me to address certain specifics. But make no mistake: I fully acknowledge and apologize for conduct that was often aggressive and crude.

Towards the end of my time at ABC News, I recognized I had a problem. No one had sued me, no one had filed a human resources complaint against me, no colleague had confronted me. But I didn’t need a call from HR to know that I was a selfish, immature person, who was behaving in a manner that had to stop

Some of the allegations that have been made against me are not true. But I realize that is a small point in the scheme of things. Again, I bear responsibility for my outrageous conduct at ABC News.

The apology is longer than that and you can read the entire thing at CNN. It also includes more details of the laundry list of charges which are piling up from women who worked with Halperin at ABC. I won’t go into the full list of lurid details here, but they include accusations of office onanism, slamming a woman into a window and various other physical affronts which would run well past the limits of what would qualify as “harassment” and well into assault territory.

But that’s where we need to run up the yellow caution flag and slow down just a tad. The other aggressive and crude behavior has been confessed to so that’s a given. But Halperin hasn’t yet been convicted of any assault charges. So before we go leaping boldly off a cliff, I’d ask you to take a brief look at an op-ed from Wendy Kaminer at the Boston Globe urging us to, “Beware vigilante feminism.”

That’s a title sure to draw a firestorm of backlash from those who (very likely correctly) feel that Halperin, like Weinstein, has a lot more coming to him than a simple apology and a job change. But caution is still warranted and society is dealing with some tricky questions when evaluating what they know thus far from these cases. Here’s a short excerpt of the key points.

There’s power in a collective shout of “me, too.” But, like virtually all power, it’s susceptible to abuse.

How do people defend themselves against accusations dating back years or even decades? How do the rest of us respond to the demand that we believe the women in harassment cases? We ought to question its relevance. Whether or not we automatically believe a woman’s account doesn’t matter, unless perhaps we’re her friends or therapists.

If our goal is justice, not therapy, then what matters is our open-mindedness and support for a relatively unbiased process or venue in which the claims of both accuser and accused can be heard and each case or controversy decided on its own merits. Should everyone accused of harassment in the past be fired as well as shamed? Should they be subject to civil lawsuits? Should alleged gropers be criminally prosecuted? It depends on the particular facts of each particular case.

Kaminer has this precisely correct, not only from the legal standpoint (which is critically important) but also in terms of the social media mentality which can turn a spark into a wildfire in no time flat. I find the phrase “vigilante feminism” a bit too incendiary here because it sounds dismissive of complaints regarding wildly unacceptable and admitted bad behavior. But at the same time we need to keep in mind that we’re talking about two classes of offenses which, while both detestable, fall on opposite sides of well-defined fence.

Crude, leering and suggestive interactions with junior level colleagues will earn you a trip to the H.R. office and/or the unemployment line. Groping, uninvited kissing or slamming women into the walls will land you in jail. The latter requires a higher bar of proof and the involvement of the courts, with the rights of both the accused and the accuser being safeguarded. Kaminer raises the uncomfortable question of whether or not there is an obligation to immediately believe anyone who brings forward a possibly decades old charge in a situation such as this. While tempting for many from an emotional standpoint, that has simply never been acceptable in terms of determining criminal culpability.

It’s important to recognize how horrible it was that so many women could be treated in such a fashion on a regular basis and be too frightened to come forward and make a complaint. The fact that these episodes may change that grim reality is a sign of hope, but we also can’t lose sight of the rule of law. Following his admissions, please feel free to label Halprin and any others being similarly exposed as terrible people. Hold the entire industries they work in accountable for allowing such an environment to thrive in the shadows. But when it comes to serious charges of assault, rape or anything else, we should follow Kaminer’s advice and treat each incident individually, seriously and with the proper legal attention it deserves. And that requires the attention of the courts, with the rights of both parties being respected. Anything less does indeed send us crashing into the ream of vigilantism.