NYT columnist Bret Stephens inadvertently explains why women don’t report sexual harassment

In an exchange about the price of rude emails, Stephens confirms retaliation is real.

An accusatory question almost inevitably crops up when we hear about a serial predator boss: Why didn’t any of these women say something?

Setting aside that many times women have said something and were ignored, the answer is simple: it’s the fear of retaliation.

A few days ago, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, Bret Stephens, explained the role retaliation plays in media, confirming what women fear: slighting a powerful man can carry serious consequences. Stephens wasn’t writing in the context of harassment, but in the far less serious realm of rude emails.

In a response to Samer Kalaf, a sports writer at Deadspin, who called Stephens “remarkably dumb” in a subject line, Stephens wrote a five-point memo on how to succeed in media. Step one: Don’t send rude emails. “Suppose you apply for a dream job at a major publication, and your CV gets passed around,” he wrote, implying that it could end up in the hands of someone you’d once sent such an email to. “It’s fine to make unnecessary friends, but extremely unwise to make unnecessary enemies.”

Kalaf published their exchange — without Stephens’s consent — on Splinter, a politics site owned by Gizmodo Media Group, which also owns Deadspin. Stephens has since said he stands by what he wrote over email.

There are amusing bits in the emails, but the important takeaway is that a prominent, influential member of the elite media is confirming that retaliation is real. A big price can be paid for something very small — a fact we rarely hear so bluntly.

“And you are?”

The genesis of all this is a column Stephens wrote in May 2018 about violence in Gaza, a piece of journalism Kalaf believed was … poorly executed (“drive-by dogshit” as he put it at the time). Kalaf suggested that Stephens hand over his salary to Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi.

Stephens didn’t respond to this a year ago, but did recently to a similar note. “And you are?” Stephens asked, eventually answering it himself by Googling. He notes Kalaf’s education (University of New Hampshire) and his journalism career (Deadspin and Hustler) and concludes: “They are not so worthy, however, as to entitle you to call anyone dumb.”

Stephens follows up with a lengthy note laying out why Kalaf shouldn’t send sarcastic notes instead of attempting a thoughtful exchange. “You performed the digital equivalent of sticking your penis out of your trousers,” Stephens writes. “This is very sad, and embarrassing, because (for now) you have so little to show intellectually or professionally speaking.”

Stephens’s advice does start out sound enough (even if he doesn’t quite seem to take it himself): “Don’t write rude emails to anyone.” The test he gives Kalaf is to imagine what his parents might think, odd since Stephens doesn’t seem to know anything about Kalaf’s upbringing or family. “If your mother or father saw them, I’m sure they would be embarrassed on your account.”

Stephens explains why this is such an important rule for someone like Kalaf. If he offends a person who is important or ends up important in the industry, he risks being blackballed from jobs and prizes — even years later.

…life is long and full of unexpected turns. Imagine, for instance, that one day you are up for a big journalism award. Imagine, next, that someone you’ve insulted sits on the prize committee. Or suppose you apply for a dream job at a major publication, and your CV gets passed around. It’s fine to make unnecessary friends, but extremely unwise to make unnecessary enemies.

Stephens writes in a postscript to Kalaf that he’s judged the Livingston Award and the Pulitzers, but he’s ethical and wouldn’t behave this way.

What happens when you really offend someone

Let’s imagine the system Stephens describes in another context. A writer on the make (or a producer or a TV reporter) faces an unwanted sexual advance from an influential player in the industry. If calling a man dumb in an email can tank her job prospects, what happens if she insults him in a much more sensitive, personal way?

We’ve seen this scenario play out in media repeatedly. Young women didn’t want to say anything about Charlie Rose walking around naked in front of them. Many of these women were interns who needed a positive reference from Rose to launch their careers. Women feared Roger Ailes of Fox for a similar reason. The list goes on.

One option that’s raised often is: go to HR — or it’s phrased as an accusatory question: “Why didn’t she go to HR?” In the short term, there’s a good chance that that move will make the situation worse. Human resource departments (best case) will launch an investigation. Unless the accuser has evidence beyond her word, she won’t come out ahead. If anything, she’ll have a far angrier enemy on her hands.

If he’s an industry colleague, not a coworker, the situation is even worse. There’s been no movement in media to attempt to crack down on cross-organizational retaliation.

And freelancers describe uniquely bad situations.

The game is rigged

Stephens’s description of how the system works isn’t wrong. It’s all true. If a writer like Kalaf wants to leap from a relatively small, hip place like Splinter to an old-school, mainstream place like the New York Times, he can’t afford enemies. He can’t risk slighting the wrong person.

In a tweet, Stephens writes: “Kalaf and his friends would be wise to take my advice on adult professional behavior.”

The trouble is that this a standard of professionalism inherently values deference to the powerful over confrontation. It tacitly allows jobs and awards to be denied to troublemakers. If a cheeky email can earn you an enemy, what happens when you blow the whistle?

Stephens’s words identify the problem. But learning to play a rigged game isn’t the solution. It’s time for new rules.