“My Rejected Letters to The New Yorker” have a pattern. Most point out sexism in the magazine authors’ assumptions and writing, sexism so glaring that I question why, if the writers were as clueless as they apparently were, that the editors didn’t step in. It wasn’t surprising, then, upon reflection, that those same editors didn’t find my letters or any other complaints of sexism within the magazine’s pages newsworthy enough to warrant publishing. (In my friends’ and my recollection, The New Yorker hasn’t published any letters calling out sexism in its coverage. If you know of any, please let me know.)
Somehow, though, the powers that be at The New Yorker‘s parent, Condé Nast, apparently sprung quickly into action this month when they fired star legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin after he flashed his stuff during a Zoom staff meeting. (Toobin remains chief legal analyst for CNN Worldwide.) As Myriam Gurba of Luz Collective reports, Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic, excused the supposed one-off non-consensual exposure with the “oops” defense. We may not ever know Toobin’s intent but we know the impact: it’s tough to unsee such things.
But this wasn’t Toobin’s first “lapse in judgment.” Toobin, married with children, had a decade-long affair with a younger staffer at The New Yorker. When she got pregnant in 2008, he dealt with the situation less than honorably. The New York Times, despite having reported on the staffer’s battles to get Toobin to step up as a responsible father, apparently did not find this previous issue relevant and so did not mention it when reporting his firing. Other major news outlets had similar amnesia. Feminist attorney Kate Kelly, however, remembered and pointed out Toobin’s pattern of questionable sexual judgment and harassment on Twitter. A decade ago, the Daily News had reported that he had also harassed another female professional.
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple pointed out: “His value as a commentator, after all, flows from his judgment, a commodity now in tatters.” Exactly. In the same opinion piece, Wemple overviews Toobin’s stellar career in a farewell review, pausing to give accolades for Toobin’s ability to recognize that he messed up in his coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid by succumbing to that nasty false equivalence paradigm. Wemple, though, doesn’t see Toobin’s reporting on Clinton as an example of his poor judgment. Toobin’s unfair editorial treatment of the nation’s first female major party presidential candidate, however, is not unrelated to his questionable workplace behavior.
To connect the dots, Clinton lost to Trump, a man whom dozens of women have reported sexually harassed and assaulted them. Toobin has a penchant for sexual harassment in common with Trump. Toobin’s assessment of a woman’s political capabilities on the national stage was colored by the same sexism that pervades his treatment of women in his professional relationships. He is a prime example of the futility of separating a man from his work.
In light of Toobin’s long-standing behavior pattern, Condé Nast’s response wasn’t so quick. They’d been dragging their feet for more than a decade. Toobin was able to continue his inappropriate workplace behavior because of who he knew and the rape culture in which he was operating. Toobin came to The New Yorker, on the advice of his friend, David Remnick, who is now its editor. The previous editor Tina Brown, who hired Toobin, talks openly about the sexism she faced at Condé Nast.
The good old boys can overlook each other’s transgressions, but I can’t, especially when they are shaping the public opinion that is shaping our nation. Just as Toobin’s zoom indiscretion isn’t an isolated incident, neither is his disparaging assessment of Clinton. Irene Katz Connelly reports that, again and again, Toobin has sympathized with the men caught in sex scandals—New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, and Hillary’s husband, President Bill Clinton—rather than the women whose personal boundaries the men violated. That makes sense: he has poor sexual judgment in common with them. Mandy Berman notes Toobin’s portrayal of Monica Lewinsky was “particularly spiteful.” Toobin’s personal activities reflected his attitude, and his attitude showed up in his reporting. The writers and editors of The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and The Atlantic may not be connecting the dots, but we can. Let’s.
Scroll down for my comment on this post which has more of my commentary on commentary about Jeffrey Toobin.
© 2020-2022 Michele Beaulieux. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I may revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration. 1.13.2022
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2 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: Jeffrey Toobin, Sexism, The New Yorker”
Today, December 15, 2020, the New York Times posted an in-depth article about Jeffrey Toobin’s firing from The New Yorker. I won’t dignify the article with a quote or a link. Let’s just say that the choice of the singular rather than plural possessive pronoun to refer to the child of an affair between Toobin and a younger co-worker — “her son” rather than “their son” —illustrates the slant of the entire article. It was as if the woman was still fighting to establish paternity, which she indeed had to do, even though the article had previously acknowledged the child as Toobin’s.
Instead I’ll share some insightful responses that, rather than parsing out his intentions, focused on the impact Toobin’s actions had on others.
In the Defector, Albert Burneko had a delightfully snarky take:
“Perhaps you are now thinking, It does not seem to me that there would be much “question” about what a guy did wrong who exposed his dick and masturbated while participating via webcam in a Zoom meeting with his coworkers. Perhaps you are thinking, It is self-evidently fireable in virtually any non-sex-industry working context for a person to expose their sex parts and masturbate while participating via webcam in a Zoom meeting with their coworkers. I quite agree! But apparently there has been some confusion about this, most recently in a New York Times article from earlier today quoting several people who appear quite mixed up on the issue. I am here to clear things up!”
In Jezebel, Emily Alford adds the layer of white male privilege:
“Openly masturbating at work should be punished by termination of employment, and was. It’s not complicated. Facing appropriate consequences for one’s actions is not being “canceled,” it is being held to the same standards as everyone else. Though for rich men who were born rich, will always be rich, and see losing a cameo in HBO’s The Undoing as the worst predicament in which one could conceivably find oneself, facing a consequence for the first time ever likely becomes falsely conflated with actual persecution.”
On Bitch Media, Gwen Snyder provides an intersectional perspective:
You can’t understand why the norms Toobin’s defenders worked to uphold are so vile unless you understand how much more violence they impose on women trapped by other oppressions in workplaces that subscribe to those norms. Without that depth of analysis and without that naming of where the pain is deepest, it’s impossible to effectively demand outrage. And in a movement that has systematically deprioritized those closest to the pain, there is simply not enough solidarity to effectively counter the solidarity of white male woundedness over attacked privilege. Until we learn to organize movements that center rather than push aside those closest to the pain we name, we will never succeed in ending rape culture.
What the New York Times authors didn’t do and would have been more beneficial than quoting other random New Yorker contributors like Malcolm Gladwell is to talk to workplace sexual harassment lawyers and sex offender therapists. I would like to get their professional take on such situations.
The New York Times and the responses do not address how Toobin’s behavior is indicative of his attitudes and how his attitudes also affect his writing, reporting, and analysis. That’s what’s really troubling. Toobin has defended other sexual violators and harshly covered Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Not unsurprising for a man with questionable sexual judgment. Do we want to be giving someone with sexual boundary issues a platform? Maybe it’s time for some fresh voices?