Sexual Harassment, Networks of Complicity, and Newsrooms

We at Ethics Unwrapped are pleased to be associated with the Press Forward movement (www.thepressforward.org), which aims to change the culture in newsrooms in order to create safe, civil, and diverse workplaces for women.  We are pleased to have made a minor contribution by creating our own Me Too video. After scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Les Moonves, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, and so many others you might think we’d be running out of media and newsroom-related sexual harassment scandals, but such is not to be.

A fascinating lens through which to view these manifold scandals comes from a recent article published by Ethics Unwrapped contributor Dr. Minette Drumwright of the Stan Richards School of Advertising here at UT along with Dr. Peggy Cunningham and Dr. Kenneth Foster, both of Dalhousie University: “Networks of Complicity: Social Networks and Sexual Harassment,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal (2019).

Applying social network theory, Drumwright and colleagues posit that people’s desire to develop and maintain social relations often dominates institutional and moral considerations. These personal relationships become deeply embedded in organizations. Through numerous lengthy interviews, the authors found that harassers tended to be network builders and power brokers, which allowed them to leverage both personal relationships and others’ economic self-interest in pursuit of their goals. The subjects of the interviews had worked in organizations where sexual harassment had persisted over time. They often saw “networks of complicity” made up of both active participants and passive enablers. The active participants were drawn into the network, influenced by the harasser’s power, charisma, and ability to control and shape information. They often protected the harasser by making excuses, shielding them from criticism, and sabotaging victims who complained. Passive enablers tended to turn a blind eye to the harassing behavior, making light of it or rationalizing it. There were also bystanders who may have only suspected what was going on, but simply ignored it.

The story of Michael Fuoco, which broke locally in Pittsburgh in September 2020, but didn’t get much national attention until the New York Times published an article about it in December, embodies the conclusions of Drumwright and co-authors.

Fuoco was a prominent, long-time reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who had for years been harassing both female employees of the newspaper and female students in journalism classes he taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Point Park University. Fuoco frequently socialized with his students and plied them with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, inducing more than one into long-term sexual relationships, despite the fact that he was married. He impregnated one. These women were often 30 to 40 years younger than Fuoco, but he was apparently skilled at detecting which ones had difficult upbringings, dependency issues, or depression.

There were complaints about Fuoco’s harassment at least as early as 2000, but he wasn’t forced to resign until September 2020. Why so long?

Well, as predicted by Drumwright et al., Fuoco was a network builder. His relationships enabled him to be voted president of the local union—the Pittsburgh NewsGuild.

Fuoco was also a power broker. As a prominent and successful journalist, he both promised to help and threatened to hurt the careers of young journalists and journalism students in order to get his way. He would tell journalism students, interns, and young reporters that they were talented and that he could help advance their careers. He would tell those who threatened to complain about his actions that they “would never work in this town” if they did. As the Times reported, “[s]ome inside the newsroom were not eager to cross Mr. Fuoco. They feared his power, and for their reputations, in a town that effectively has just one major newspaper left.”

There were official complaints about Fuoco’s behavior, both at the colleges and at the Gazette and the Union, but relatively few. One student said that she “was counting on the adults somewhere along the line, to do something, to say something.” But the adults were part of the network of complicity.

Many were “active participants” who shielded Fuoco. Although there were few formal complaints filed about Fuoco, it is clear that many officials at the Gazette, at the union, and at the universities knew or should have known of Fuoco’s wrongdoing, but were not eager to investigate informal complaints about Fuoco in any serious way. Indeed, one union official physically threatened and physically assaulted a journalist who was publicizing the story. When one student pitched a story about Fuoco‘s misconduct to an instructor, he encouraged her to call Fuoco to “make it right” rather than injure Fuoco by publishing.

Many more people fell into the passive enabler or bystander categories. Female students knew of Fuoco’s predilections and often warned other students about him, but few did more to try to stop it. Journalists at the Gazette both saw Fuoco’s actions at the newspaper and saw him come on to his female students at a bar frequented by journalists where Fuoco often brought his prey. Fuoco’s actions were an “open secret,” but few did more than warn young female journalists to give Fuoco a wide berth. The web of complicity enabled Fuoco to victimize young women for at least two decades.

We hope that PressForward’s good works, aided by the momentum supplied by the Me Too movement, can help disrupt the networks of complicity so that future Fuocos are stopped in their tracks early on.

 

Resources

Andrew Conte, “On Media: Newsrooms Need to Stop Sexual Harassment,” NextPittsburgh.com, Dec, 16, 2020, at https://nextpittsburgh.com/features/on-media-newsrooms-need-to-stop-sexual-harassment-spotlight-and-trib-promote-diversity/2/.

Peggy Cunningham, Minette Drumwright & Kenneth Foster, “Networks of Complicity: Social Networks and Sexual Harassment,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal (2019), at https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/EDI-04-2019-0117/full/html.

Ryan Deto, “Allegations of Sexual Misconduct Against a Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Journalist Were an Open Secret. Did the Universities He Worked for Help Keep It That Way?” Pittsburgh City Paper, Dec. 16, 2020, at https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/allegations-of-sexual-misconduct-against-a-former-pittsburgh-post-gazette-journalist-were-an-open-secret-did-the-universities-he-worked-for-h/Content?oid=18561096.

Mike Elk, “Violent Threatening Emails; IP Address Traced to NewsGuild Officer Zack Tanner,” Payday Report, Dec. 2, 2020, at https://www.newsbreak.com/news/2117322801686/violent-threatening-emails-ip-address-traced-to-newsguild-officer-zack-tanner.

Mike Elk, “As New Sexual Misconduct Allegations Emerge Against Fuoco, NewsGuild Stays Silent,” Pay Day Report, Sept. 24, 2020, at https://paydayreport.com/as-new-sexual-misconduct-allegations-emerge-against-fuoco-newsguild-stays-silent/.

Joyce Gannon, “Post-Gazette Union President Steps Down as Investigation Launched,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 27, 2020, at https://www.post-gazette.com/business/pittsburgh-company-news/2020/09/27/Post-Gazette-Newspaper-Guild-president-steps-down-investigation-Pittsburgh/stories/202009270191.

Ben Smith, “A Powerful Reporter Got Away with Sexual Misconduct for Decades. His Paper, and His Union, Looked the Other Way,” New York Times, Dec. 6, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/06/business/media/pittsburgh-post-gazette-news-guild.html

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