The XX Factor

How Should We Process Sexual Harassment Allegations When No Specific Allegations Have Been Made Public?

The New Yorker logo lines the entryway to the magazine's offices in New York, NY on March 26th, 2014.

This week, The New Yorker announced that it had fired Ryan Lizza.


Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday, the New Yorker announced that it had cut ties with its Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, for engaging in “improper sexual conduct.” In a brief statement, a spokeswoman for the magazine said that it had “reviewed the matter” and “due to a request for privacy, we are not commenting further.”

These days, as soon as another man’s name is announced in the public square, it has come to feel like there’s a set formula for our cultural response. The tweets roll in, hitting several standard themes. There are the disdainful farewellls:

Indignation at the man’s flawed response:

Writers bragging that they totally could have published something on the accused long before:

By this point, the list of disgraced men is so long that it’s hard to keep up with each individual story after the first dramatic revelation. It’s natural to simply shift the man from one category to another in one’s mental Rolodex, from public professional to known scoundrel.

In this case, the accused man has so far declined to slink away in shame. “I am dismayed that the New Yorker has decided to characterize a respectful relationship with a woman I dated as somehow inappropriate,” Lizza said in his own statement. “The New Yorker was unable to cite any company policy that was violated.” In response, a lawyer who represents Lizza’s accuser (or one of them? We don’t know) said: “In no way did Mr. Lizza’s misconduct constitute a ‘respectful relationship’ as he has now tried to characterize it.”

Here I should emphasize again that roughly 48 hours have passed since Lizza was let go. But here’s what we have so far: an abruptly announced firing, pushback from the accused, an anonymous accuser’s pushback to the pushback. The specifics of the actual incident—incidents?—are a complete mystery so far other than the fact that they are sexual in nature. Lizza had been quiet on social media recently, prompting speculation that the investigation had been developing behind closed doors for at least a few weeks. There’s no reason to think he didn’t do something very, very bad.

But what happens when the rightful mantra believe women collides with a situation in which there are not yet women to believe? It can feel prurient, even violating, to want to know more details after the ritual disgrace by press release. Women who have been victimized by sexual harassers and abusers still face a panoply of negative consequences for coming forward publicly, and they obviously should not need to do so in order for their stories to be taken seriously. In the absence of even anonymous on-the-record accusations, though, the public has only two voices to listen to: the accused and his employer.

The vast majority of this year’s male downfalls have come with sickeningly precise accusations, thanks to brave women, meticulous journalists, and dogged lawyers. But not all of them. It has been two weeks, for example, since Prairie Home Companion founder and longtime host Garrison Keillor was set loose by Minnesota Public Radio for what the station called “inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.” The station canceled his current show, Writer’s Almanac, and said it would rename Prairie Home Companion, which has been hosted by someone else in the year since Keillor’s voluntary retirement. The Washington Post killed his column there, and his upcoming live performances were canceled. It’s not quite right to say Keillor “lost everything,” but he has lost his daily work, and his reputation has been shredded.

Two weeks later, however—an eternity in the current news cycle—there are so far no public accusers at all, named or unnamed. Keillor himself has been the only one to offer any further interpretation of what happened. “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” he told his local paper as the news broke. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.” He later told a different reporter that he found the situation “bewildering.”

My own assumption is that there is very likely more to Lizza’s and Keillor’s stories—that they involve more than an errant hand on a bare back or a “respectful relationship” gone awry. It’s not like we don’t know anything—we know that women are saying these men behaved poorly. We know that the men claim the interactions weren’t a big deal but that the women felt they were big enough deals to hire lawyers. We know company leadership felt they were big enough deals to fire some of their biggest, baddest, money-makingest talent. And one of the most important lessons of the past few months has been the fact that institutions have historically been sickeningly slow to eject bad actors seen as valuable talents.

This also means institutions have an extremely poor track record on these matters. They have expressed bad judgment over and over, preserving their own reputations at the cost of fairness and justice. It seems foolhardy to trust them categorically now, simply because the national mood has started to shift in favor of harsh, swift punishment. That doesn’t mean a man is “innocent” just because he hasn’t yet been proven guilty, even if more specific allegations are never aired. But there’s a difference between full-throatedly cheering on a movement and jumping to cheer at every new lopped-off head.