I am already very tired of defending men I don’t even like from potentially suspect or overblown allegations of sexual abuse. However, the latest story of a major media causality, Ryan Lizza, who was just fired from The New Yorker for engaging in “improper sexual contact” has an aspect to it which just simply must be addressed.
As of this writing, we literally know nothing about the accusation that caused this respected reporter to lose his primary job (CNN will likely follow suit and cut him as a commentator) and maybe his career. This is because his lone accuser is remaining anonymous, and the magazine is not releasing any details.
Lizza, who for all I know may have done something very worthy of his firing, claimed that he did nothing wrong and that his ouster was unjustified, but the high-profile attorney for the accuser countered, again without a shred of detail, that this was not true. Of course, Lizza can’t “out” the accuser himself because then he would be seen as even MORE of a bad guy and, assuming he didn’t really do anything wrong, it is inherently extremely difficult to refute allegations you might not even know the details of, especially when you are fearful of divulging your accuser’s identity.
In short, Lizza can’t possibly win and he is now doomed to be presumed “guilty,” even though we don’t even know what the “charge” is, or even who it is that “indicted” him.
This situation is remarkably similar to that of Matt Lauer, who was also suddenly fired after one anonymous female co-worker filed a complaint against him. About the only thing we think we know for sure about that circumstance is that Lauer had an undisclosed affair with her, which began during their coverage of the 2014 Olympics.
The only major difference is that in Lauer’s case we think we know there might have been more to it than the one official complaint because news outlets immediately dumped a series of unsubstantiated allegations from unnamed sources. But it is both remarkable and scary to realize that Lauer, the face of the NBC network, was instantly brought down, with his career possibly ended, without, to this day, even one single name attached to an allegation, or even one identity connected to just knowledge of an accusation.
The issue of accuser anonymity is clearly the stickiest in this entire area of sexual misconduct. Obviously, in cases of criminal sexual abuse, the victim should have some reasonable right to privacy. On the other hand, a sex abuse accuser’s identity can often be extremely and uniquely critical in determining whether an allegation is truthful to being with. This is part of why it is that the right to face your accuser is a fundamental tenet of our legal system.
So while anonymity can be useful in protecting victims, it can also be used as a shield against false accusations being debunked. In this light, it seems wrong to me that suddenly we are now arbitrarily allowing people who are apparently not alleging some sort of criminal sexual abuse to receive the same privacy protections as those that do.
One of the things which makes these two situations feel potentially particularly unfair is that both Lauer and Lizza might, bizarrely, actually have been in a far better situation if what they had allegedly done was considered to be criminal, or at least worthy of a lawsuit. Then their accuser would be publicly known, as would be the details of the charges against them, and there would be at least a forum to fully adjudicate the grievances and, if the facts allowed, provide the possibility for exoneration.
Instead, in this currently hyper-charged environment, men who might only have committed very technical violations of formerly unenforced human resources employee guidelines, are now, after a firing, perceived as being in the Harvey Weinstein “sick monster” category. And now that we are rapidly (and perhaps very dangerously) changing the rules with regard to what is reportable in this realm, we are also creating a situation where it is now incredibly easy to destroy the career/life of someone who has done nothing wrong.
Think about it. If you ever dated a famous person for whom you worked, you now suddenly have the power to destroy their lives without ever even having to have your name or the details of your story be publicly known (and thus open to real scrutiny). To be clear, I have no knowledge that anything like that has already happened (though I am thoroughly convinced Al Franken got railroaded), but there is no doubt in my mind that it would be currently incredibly easy to pull this kind of a scam off, and that it is now inevitable someone will indeed do so.
I often hear people say that the standards for losing a job are not, and should not, be the same as a criminal trial, and I completely agree with that concept. There are some important aspects of this equation, however, which go totally unaccounted for under this common analysis.
The key problem here is that jobs in the media are fundamentally different than employment in the real world. If Lizza or Lauer were accountants who got fired for some sort of sexual harassment violation, and there were never any criminal charges or lawsuits, they could easily immediately seek other work and, if they were good/lucky enough, probably not suffer too many long-term consequences.
However, in a business were your public reputation is everything, Google preserves your history forever, and there are exceedingly few good job opportunities, being fired for anything with the word “sex” in the description might very well create a fate far WORSE than a criminal conviction for someone who is not in the public eye. And while there is truth in the adage that where there is great privilege there is also a great responsibility, this concept only works fairly if everyone knows what the rules are and they are not altered retroactively to fit the mood of the moment.
I hope that is not what is really happening right now, but it sure feels like it might be.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is a documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.