A few weeks ago, allegations of sexual harassment against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain became public. As two women stepped forward to publicly recount what they allege happened in the 1990s, Fox News rallied to Cain's side. The network launched a vicious smear campaign against his accusers in an attempt to discredit their testimonies and tarnish their characters. In one example typical of the venom at Fox, Dick Morris stated of one Cain accuser: "I look forward to her spread in Playboy."
In a candid interview today on CNN's Reliable Sources, journalist Lauren Ashburn pointed to Fox's vitriol as an example of why few harassed women break their silence. "That's what women fear the most -- is the character assassination," she told host Howard Kurtz, after CNN aired Morris' statement. Ashburn continued:
ASHBURN: Is that all of a sudden you say something and the camera and the lens turns onto you: you as a person, you -- how you've lived your life, and what kind of money you want, and why are you doing this, and is it political gain, and is it notoriety? And is it worth it? In many women's instances, in cases, it's just not worth it. You don't want to be defined. You don't want to live your life based on the fact that you confronted a harasser.
Ashburn, a 20-year veteran of the newsroom who is now president of a media company and contributes to The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, recently recounted her own experience with harassment. It was the first time she had done so publicly. She wrote on November 3:
Sexual harassment, suddenly back in the news, is not just something that happens to other people. Thousands of women, old, young, thin, fat, short, and tall, grapple with unwelcome sexual advances perpetrated in the shadows of cubicles and swanky executive offices.
I'm one of them. And I didn't do a thing about it.
My fellow silent contingent of "victims" does not want to go through life known primarily for speaking up about a horny man's indiscretions. We want to be acknowledged for our brains, our business acumen, and our integrity, not as a "problem" that has to be "dealt with" by a most likely male-dominated corporate hierarchy.
The decision to shut up and handle harassment ourselves often trumps invasion of privacy, loss of valuable time and energy needed to raise a family, and potential humiliation. Getting to that decision was, for me, a very painful process. My anger demanded justice, demanded that that these men be held accountable. But my fervent desire for a tranquil personal life won in the end.
A week later, Ashburn wrote that, following her testimonial, "an onslaught of emails about unwanted workplace advances began pouring into my inbox." She continued:
I knew I wasn't alone when I divulged that a client had put his hand on my knee in a Manhattan taxi, or my boss had told me that his male boss had mentioned I had "quite a rack" as his eyes wandered to my breasts. But I was taken aback, in the wake of the mounting sexual-harassment allegations against Cain, by how many lives have been touched by this sort of gross misconduct, and how much of an exposed nerve it remains.
The consequences of speaking out are clear, as Sharon Bialek learned this week when she accused Cain of reaching for her genitals and trying to force her head toward his crotch in a parked car when she was seeking a job with the trade group he ran in 1997.
The Republican candidate, in flatly denying her allegations, called Bialek a "troubled woman," and referred to the fact that the single mother has twice filed for bankruptcy. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser called her a gold-digger who "flirted like a tart" with Cain.
Bialek is facing what many precisely women fear: an attack on her character.
Indeed, those who tuned into Fox News the past two weeks were treated to just that: insults about the accusers, mockery, and dismissal of the alleged victims' claims. Sexual harassment "can have a devastating impact" on victims, but Fox News chose to make a joke of it. The network even devolved into blaming the victim, with Sean Hannity blasting one Cain accuser for "staying in the car" with him after the alleged harassment.
The American Association of University Women reports that "[f]or many victims of sexual harassment, the aftermath may be more damaging than the original harassment." AAUW adds: "Effects can vary from external effects, such as retaliation, backlash, or victim blaming to internal effects, such as depression, anxiety, or feelings of shame and/or betrayal. Depending on the victim's experience, these effects can vary from mild to severe."
During her interview with Kurtz, Ashburn stressed that "we need to drive the national conversation on" sexual harassment, adding that "things need to be changed."
Following the interview, Ashburn posted on her Twitter feed: