The Nice Guy Fallacy

Why did it take so long for allegations to emerge against progressive PR hero Trevor FitzGibbon?

Trevor FitzGibbon, president of FitzGibbon Media.

FitzGibbon Media

Earlier this month, Nona Willis Aronowitz wrote a piece for Matter titled “(Not) All Men: Why women want to believe Our Dudes are the exception.” It was about how women—even very feminist women—can rationalize or deny sexism perpetrated by the men in their lives. One of the “major obstacles in the Fight Against Patriarchy,” she wrote, “is that a sexist guy will always seem like an outsider—a bad-news ex-boyfriend, perhaps, but not your male feminist friend, your super chill brother, your gentle dad.”

I thought of Willis Aronowitz’s piece when I learned about the sudden dissolution of the progressive public relations firm FitzGibbon Media amid accusations of sexual predation by its founder, Trevor FitzGibbon. According to the Huffington Post, which broke the story, FitzGibbon’s former employees say their boss committed at least a half-dozen incidents of sexual harassment, as well as two sexual assaults. He reportedly propositioned a woman who sought a job at the firm, and later asked her for sexy photos. HuffPo’s Amanda Terkel tweeted that several of FitzGibbon’s clients also say they were assaulted. For many in the progressive media world, where FitzGibbon was well-known, the idea that he was a serial sexual abuser is deeply shocking.

Outwardly, the Washington, D.C.–based FitzGibbon Media appeared committed to feminist ideals: In addition to clients like Amnesty International and WikiLeaks, it represented NARAL Pro-Choice America and the women’s rights organization UltraViolet. But despite the ostensibly progressive environment, the alleged victims evidently didn’t feel as though they could speak out, and until recently, by all accounts, they didn’t speak to each other. Assuming the multiple and still-proliferating charges are true, it begs the question: How did FitzGibbon get away with it for so long?

According to HuffPo, FitzGibbon’s alleged misdeeds came to light at an Austin staff retreat a few weeks ago. A friend of a FitzGibbon employee, Sierra Pedraja, had met with FitzGibbon during the day in a hotel lobby about possible employment opportunities; he invited her to spend some time with him and his staff that evening. That night, he reportedly told her she was beautiful and, according to HuffPo, “asked her if she was open to having any fun while he was in town.” The next day, he asked her to meet alone at the hotel. She declined. “I was very eager to get a job, and he used that to his advantage,” she was quoted saying.

Soon, the news of FitzGibbons’ alleged behavior with Pedraja spread through FitzGibbon Media. Female employees began telling each other their own stories: some similar to Pedraja’s, some much worse. It was as if Pedraja had kicked over a rock, revealing all the vermin beneath. “When I heard them say this was sexual harassment—no, it’s so much bigger than that!” one former FitzGibbon employee told me. She says that FitzGibbon sexually assaulted her, though she asked me not to print the details lest he recognize her and try to make contact. Until Pedraja spoke out, she thought she was alone—that what happened to her was a “happenstance freak incident.” (I reached out to FitzGibbon for this piece, but he declined to comment.)

As the internal crisis mounted, FitzGibbon decided to close his company. Now his nearly 30 employees are out of a job just before Christmas.

Like a lot of people in progressive media circles, I was friendly with FitzGibbon, and I understand why it took time for some his alleged victims to see him as an abuser. He and my husband had been colleagues at another progressive PR firm, Fenton Communications, during the last years of the Bush administration. Once FitzGibbon founded his own firm, I frequently worked with his team to set up interviews, and would see him at lefty political events and in MSNBC greenrooms. Occasionally he’d call me out of the blue just to talk, and we communicated regularly on social media.

Hyperearnest, enthusiastic, and confiding, FitzGibbon comes across like an eager puppy. He’s a hugger, but that never set off red flags for me. (His former employee says the same thing: “I didn’t think he would be capable of crossing a line like that.”) A few years ago, we met for drinks when he was in New York. I suggested SoHo’s Temple Bar, which is great for conversation but, being dark and intimate, not a place I’d go with someone who seemed potentially creepy. We talked about wanting kids, and about how much he adored his wife. A little while later, we both became parents. His social media feeds filled up with pictures of his daughter, and then, earlier this year, his twin sons. He posted uxorious odes to their mother and gave every indication of feeling overwhelmingly lucky to be with her. In August, a Richmond, Virginia, alternative weekly ran an admiring cover profile of FitzGibbon. He described meeting his wife on the set of The Today Show in 2008: “It was literally love at first sight.”

Certainly, some of FitzGibbon’s alleged victims kept quiet because they feared for their jobs or their professional reputations, but others found themselves making excuses for him. A lawyer whom he reportedly groped at the Bowery Hotel told the Guardian, “I brushed it off as I thought he was having a needy moment.” It never occurred to her, she said, “that this was dangerous serial behaviour that he was probably doing to other women, or that he was keeping us silent by giving us a guilt trip.” The former employee I spoke to was worried about how FitzGibbon’s wife would feel if she ever found out what had happened. “I had this irrational fear that she would show up on my doorstep one day crying with her twins in her arms,” she says. FitzGibbon had apologized to her profusely, she said, as he did to many of his alleged victims. Even as she worried about her career, she remembers also feeling a sort of pity for him.

In theory, most of us know that men who commit sexist aggressions appear to be perfectly ordinary; they are not some special breed of leering monster. Still, when someone we know as a nice guy turns out to be sleazy, we’re thrown. These situations force us to choose between a number of unpleasant possibilities. We can regard the man as a sort of double agent from the land of misogyny, and treat everything we know about him as a lie. We can accept that some men, including men with admirable qualities who we know and like, don’t see women as fully human, which can leave us wondering about all the men in our lives. Or we can think that since the guy was nice, maybe what happened didn’t actually happen, or wasn’t so bad, or won’t happen again.

My first thought when I read about FitzGibbon was that maybe he was having some sort of breakdown. Andy Stepanian, FitzGibbon Media’s former senior director of media relations, tells me that FitzGibbon solicited photos from Pedraja even after his company had started an internal human resources investigation into his behavior. He was, says Stepanian, “like someone who is trying to get caught. He was almost in this crash-and-burn mode.” Still, this wasn’t some midlife crackup: HuffPo discovered that FitzGibbon was disciplined for sexual harassment back when he worked with my husband at Fenton.

Yet word didn’t get out. The media critic Jennifer Pozner tweeted that two women had warned her about FitzGibbon and that his behavior was an “open secret”—but if it was, it was only open within a small circle. I reached out to several of my husband’s former colleagues, three of them women. None knew about his sexual harassment history. The employee who told me about her assault says she never heard a single rumor about FitzGibbon. And yet more women are now coming forward: “Women keep reaching out to us with more creepy allegations about Trevor FitzGibbon. People who didn’t work at the firm,” tweeted HuffPo’s Terkel on Friday. Many women, it seems, kept quiet about what happened to them, some because they were scared, some because the dissonance between his persona and his behavior knocked them off balance.

FitzGibbon appears to have taken advantage of that silence. “It’s either a total mental disconnect or arrogance, to think that sometime we wouldn’t all get together and talk,” the former FitzGibbon Media employee told me. “And to think that once we figured out sexual harassment, we wouldn’t figure out sexual assault.” Once women did start talking, Stepanian tells me that FitzGibbon initially dismissed the uproar as “some kind of mutiny going on over a couple of inappropriate hugs.” Inappropriate hugs. It’s often so much easier—for all of us—to see it that way.