Who gets the luxury of a media comeback?

Who gets the luxury of a media comeback? 

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Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Months ago, Eric Bolling left Fox News amid an investigation into reports he had sent unsolicited pictures of male genitalia to multiple colleagues. Today, without having publicly reckoned with his past conduct whatsoever, Bolling announced he’ll soon return to the media scene as the host of a new show on conservative media outlet CRTV. He has also reportedly been “in talks” with Newsmax, Sinclair, MSNBC, and The Hill.

Bolling is part of a club of wealthy media men who are laying the groundwork for comebacks they have not earned. He is one of several high-profile media figures -- along with Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Bill O’Reilly -- reported for workplace sexual misconduct who have now decided they deserve a second chance despite not having done any of the very tough public reflection such a comeback ought to require, at minimum. Rose is even reportedly involved in a new show idea being shopped in which he would interview other men, including Lauer, about their public outings as sexual predators.

As these media men attempt to pitch news executives and the public on a redemption tour, it’s up to us as media consumers to figure out what happens now. Does the world benefit from having these specific dudes back on air?

Will these comebacks involve thoughtful, honest examination of past conduct?

All evidence points to no. 

These men have all offered vague (at least partial) denials and largely declined to discuss the reports against them, sometimes citing legal reasons. Bolling, for example, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier this week to talk about his work combating the opioid crisis (his son tragically died last year from an opioid-related overdose). But when the conversation turned to his departure from Fox, Bolling had nothing of substance to say. When co-host Mika Brzezinski asked him point-blank if he had ever sexually harassed anyone, Bolling would not answer, saying he couldn’t discuss it because of a lawsuit.

In O’Reilly’s case, in addition to hiding behind legal language or vague statements, he has been unapologetic and unrepentant. Months after his firing from Fox News, he booked an interview with Lauer on NBC’s Today; Media Matters wrote that the sit-down would be harmful unless it was a “deeply researched and responsible interview focused solely on the reports that he sexually harassed at least five women.” Instead, 4.5 million Americans were treated to a petulant back-and-forth between two sexual predators (though Lauer’s misconduct was not publicly known at the time). O’Reilly largely obfuscated, implying a legal reason for the silence, but still managed to attack one of his accusers on air.

Rose, too, has shown little interest in an actual reckoning for past behavior. Right around the time the news broke of his potential new comeback show (which one can only hope will never see the light of day), Rose was publicly partying with Woody Allen and dining with Sean Penn, who has been reported for domestic abuse. (Penn previously wrote a poem defending Rose, because reported predators stick together.) In a profile in The Hollywood Reporter published weeks before, sources close to Rose couldn’t agree on whether he’d yet acknowledged or grappled with any wrongdoing.

How does a “comeback” factor into the institutional and cultural healing process?

Beyond the question of whether a comeback is appropriate, there’s also the question of whether one is appropriate now.

The former workplaces of the media figures in question -- Fox News for Bolling and O’Reilly, CBS and PBS for Rose, and NBC for Lauer -- still have a lot of work to do when it comes to workplace culture. NBC, CBS, and Fox all launched some type of internal investigation following reports of sexual misconduct by their employees, and in some cases the investigations are brand new or still ongoing.

New details are still emerging in public reporting too, illuminating what is now clearly a much larger, more pervasive cultural issue than can be fixed by any one outlet firing any one individual (though it’s still a good start). In the case of Rose, The Washington Post published a follow-up investigation just this week, based on interviews with more than 100 people, that revealed an atmosphere at CBS that allowed Rose to reportedly harass employees for several decades without reproach. More information about the number and severity of harassment suits brought against O’Reilly continued to trickle out for months after his firing -- and public knowledge still may be incomplete.

Throughout these revelations, leaders at Fox, NBC, and CBS have denied knowledge of reported misconduct before it was made public.

How can media companies know a problem is “fixed” -- and that these particular media men are ready to return to airwaves -- when company leaders continue to apparently learn details about their own workplace culture from reporters and the courageous people willing to talk to them? Are they listening to their own employees only after they speak to reporters at other outlets? More importantly, have they created a culture in such dire need of fixing that employees felt they’d be heard only if they made their trauma public?

This is an industry and a society at the very beginning of a long reckoning, one whose leaders are at various points on their own pathways to understanding. Doling out second chances without a thorough examination of what went wrong the first time won’t fix a damn thing.

What about all the people who are waiting on their first chance?

This is the big question -- the one that transcends any specific examples and will linger over any potential comeback, presently planned or in the future: Why do these men deserve second chances when society has deprived so many talented individuals of a first chance?

Newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white and male -- a remarkable homogeneity that itself is a risk factor for workplace harassment. Think of all the voices we’ve never heard because they were passed over to make room for Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer or Bill O’Reilly or Eric Bolling. Think of the kinds of people who are and aren’t valued, or listened to, or believed, in the media world, and the message that sends to viewers.

This big question also applies to people who’ve been pushed out of the media industry because of harassment. Ann Curry was reportedly forced out at Today after experiencing verbal harassment on set -- and after speaking to management about Lauer. Former Fox News figure Gretchen Carlson described the retaliation she faced after reporting harassment by Roger Ailes and current Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy; she left Fox days before filing her lawsuit against Ailes. One study found that 75 percent of employees who reported misconduct at work faced retaliation -- so Curry’s and Carlson’s stories probably represent countless others.

Nearly half of women media workers in a 2013 poll said they’d experienced sexual harassment on the job. And many of the #MeToo media stories have included heartbreaking asides from young journalists who experienced harassment and had their professional ambition destroyed. What about these people -- mostly young women -- who lost their dignity and their dreams, their first chance, at the hands of a powerful harasser like Lauer or Rose?

Perhaps we should focus on taking a chance on new voices that could make the world better instead of bestowing a “comeback” upon those who already used their first chance to make the world worse.

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