Small victories in fight against sexual harassment, but no tipping point

SEN. BROCK ADAMS
Sen. Brock Adams, with his wife Betty in Seattle in March 1992 after he abandoned his re-election campaign.

His supporters knew him as a hard-driving high achiever, committed to the liberal values they all shared: Civil rights. Abortion rights. Women’s rights. He stood tall on decades of accomplishment, and had made more friends than enemies in a town where people slid easily from one column into the other.

So when the first accuser came forward, many were stunned, and disbelieving. They refused to accept that their friend and colleague could have committed any sexual crime, let alone raping a young woman whom he had invited to a conversation about her career.

His inner circle closed ranks around him, raising spears toward anyone who dared suggest their man was a sexual predator. First among their targets was the young accuser. Fabricated fodder on her mental health and sexual history was shoveled to reporters more than eager to receive it.

The young woman’s reputation was left in tatters and the titan’s reputation quickly recovered. The storm, it appeared, had passed.

Or so it seemed. For there were other women, other victims, who knew the truth. It would take a few years for journalists to free that truth from its muzzled captivity. But freed it would be, and the crusader for the rights of women would be exposed for the hypocritical predator he was.

This predator was not Harvey Weinstein, nor Bill Cosby. He was Sen. Brock Adams, a Democrat from Washington state and the former secretary of transportation under President Jimmy Carter. The year of his unmasking was not 2017, but 1992.

A quarter-century later, the revelations in the Weinstein case are being hailed as a tipping point in the pathological dynamic of women being sexually abused by men in positions of power.

So we thought in 1992.

At the time, I was the city editor of the Seattle Times. Our journalistic journey to exposing Adams had been challenging and perilous. That first accuser, a 24-year-old family friend of Adams named Kari Tupper, had come forward in September 1988. In an account much like those of Cosby’s accusers years later, she said Adams had invited her to his Georgetown home for career coaching, had drugged her cocktail, and then had raped her. Adams denied it, and no one publicly came to Tupper’s defense.

Privately, though, one woman — a staffer for another Democratic member of Congress — reached out to us. In the far back corner of a bar in Seattle’s University District, she tearfully told me and a Times reporter that the exact sequence Tupper had described — an invitation for career counseling, a drink, awakening in Adams’ bed, nude, with him on top of her — had happened to her, two weeks after Tupper’s experience.

This woman was not willing to come forward publicly. Having witnessed what had happened to Tupper, and fearful for her own political career, she had reached out only to urge us to report further. “I know Kari’s telling the truth,” this woman said. “Please keep digging.”

Dig we did. For one year, then two, then three. Ultimately, three Times reporters and I interviewed a dozen women who claimed to have been the victims of sexual assault or aggressive harassment by Adams. One had been the senator’s personal secretary for a decade, and had witnessed his preying on young women. “We referred to it as ‘Brock’s problem,’ ” she said.

All told compelling stories whose verifiable details — dates, schedules, locations — checked out. All provided contemporaneous corroboration, friends or relatives they had told of the incidents shortly after they occurred.

But none were willing to go on the record. Not only had they seen Tupper re-victimized, they had watched the televised pillorying of Anita Hill in the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

As 1992 dawned, we in the newsroom faced this reality: We could publicly accuse a U.S. senator of being a sexual predator, without telling him the names of his alleged victims — a course that on its face seemed preposterous. Or we could allow him to be reelected, even as our reporting had convinced us of his offenses.

Ultimately, we crafted this strategy: We would ask the women to sign an affidavit that attested to the truth of their accounts and committed us to protecting their identities. Most important, it committed the women to this: If Adams sued the Seattle Times for libel, they would testify in open court on our behalf.

That final element was the key, not so much for our legal protection but for the credibility of what we were about to report.

Eight of the 12 women signed the agreement. On March 1, 1992, the Seattle Times published five full newspaper pages of their detailed accusations, along with a note to readers explaining our methodology and rationale.

Later that day, Adams dropped out of the race for reelection and soon disappeared from politics. He died in 2004.

Our journalism was hailed as a courageous step that might serve as warning and deterrent to the next powerful politician or office supervisor (or movie mogul) contemplating the manipulation of female underlings. That Adams was replaced in the Senate by a woman — Democrat Patty Murray, now in her 24th year of service — seemed to underscore that this could be a tipping point, the end to such abuse of power and people.

Well, we know how that turned out.

A quarter-century later — after Ailes, and Clinton, and Cosby, and O’Reilly, and the bro-bosses at Uber, et al — we must face this reality: There may be no “tipping point.”

More likely, given the ugly propensity of some human beings to exploit others, this will continue to be a long slog fought in the trenches of America’s offices, and corridors, and classrooms, and studios, and newsrooms. It will be small victory building upon small victory, with periodic defeats (see Access Hollywood) occasionally pushing the forces backward.

But those small victories are crucial. Unlike most of Adams’ victims 25 years ago, Weinstein’s accusers are stepping forward by name. Thousands of other women are declaring, “Me, too,” as they turn to social media to share their own tales of abuse and harassment. Good men all over America are reflecting on their workplace behavior. And more journalists are freeing truth from muzzled captivity.

Tipping point? Probably not. Progress? Most definitely.

David Boardman is the dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University and the former executive editor of the Seattle Times. dboardman@temple.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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