The XX Factor

The Difference Between Dirty Jokes and Sexual Harassment

David Carr’s Times piece on the Tribune Company’s “bankrupt” and sexist culture , as helmed by Sam Zell and CEO Randy Michaels, is a cringe-inducing look at what happens when the traditionally free-wheeling atmosphere of a newsroom is interpreted as license to be a tyrant.

Among the greatest hits of Michaels’ leadership, according to Carr: A press release jocularly describing a new female veep as “a former waitress at Knockers - the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews.” A loud conversation on a work balcony between Michaels and another manager about, as the Times delicately puts it, “the sexual suitability of various employees.” And an anecdote from early 2008, shortly after Michaels, a former shock-jock, was installed as an executive by Zell, in which Michaels offered a waitress at a hotel bar $100 to show him her breasts. “Watch this,” he said to his new colleagues, who were stunned. (Michaels denies the account.)

Carr writes about how Michaels installed buddies who rewrote the employee handbook:

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

In context, this rewrite sounds like an attempt to invoke the small-L liberal environment conventionally associated with newsrooms to further an atmosphere of enforced licentiousness-and then to quiet critics by saying this was necessary to promote some intangible “creative process.” It also sounds like an attempt to short-circuit lawsuits with a you-were-warned disclaimer. (In a memo disputing Carr’s “distortions ,” Michaels repeats that he’s trying to make Tribune Company a “nonlinear” environment. What does that even mean ?)

It’s true that you do occasionally hear off-color jokes and bad words in newsrooms. In well-run places such remarks do not, as Carr says was the case with Tribune Company, contribute to a “frat house” atmosphere of “pervasive sex talk.” That’s because such remarks generally don’t come from those in positions of power, nor are they an attempt to make anyone feel crummy or threatened. In other words, newsrooms run by adults tend to treat their employees as adults, recognizing they’ll use different language than they would at home with their kids. For example, at this very moment, in newsrooms across the country, people are making double-entendre jokes about Randy Michaels living up to his name.