Franklin Foer was the editor of The New Republic for a total of seven years. Over the past month, allegations emerged that Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s well-respected literary editor, had been a creep to female staffers for pretty much his entire career.
In the wake of the accusations, men who worked at TNR said they were shocked, shocked to find about the behavior of their colleague who they’d worked with for years. Here’s current New York writer Jonathan Chait, for instance:
Wieseltier’s male colleagues have done their best to argue that they were either a) totally oblivious to Wieseltier’s reputations, or b) they knew, but were too comfortable to do anything about it.
On the latest issue of Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast, hosts Hanna Rosin, Noreen Malone and June Thomas asked Foer to explain his own complicity in Wieseltier’s behavior while he was editor of the magazine. Rosin and Malone both worked at TNR (Rosin in the 1990s, and Malone from 2013 to 2014, when Foer was editor).
While Foer should be commended for going on the record to talk about his time at TNR, his answers left something to be desired.
Rosin asked Foer if the men at TNR knew and talked about Wieseltier’s harassment over the years in the same way that female staffers did. He said he didn’t think so. Malone disagreed. (Emphasis mine throughout.)
Foer: Over the years, I don’t really think that they did. I think that there was a high degree of obliviousness to it. It’s really, and I, like it’s so hard to know kind of what’s—
Malone: —I just—
Foer: —willed denial, what’s—yeah, go ahead?
Malone: I just don’t think that’s true, at least not when I was there. I think that a lot of the men on staff knew. I remember jokes about it. I actually searched my Gchat and found jokes about Leon’s behavior. And you know, I wasn’t in the DC office. I wasn’t observing it on a daily basis. But it’s a crowd of highly observational people. It seems insane to me that all of these men would not notice something that was happening under their eyes.
Some former TNR staffers have implied that Foer was more aware of Wieseltier’s behavior than he’s let on. In the interview, Foer admitted that he had heard Wieseltier make the occasional comment about female staffers, but did nothing about it (keep in mind, Foer was Wieseltier’s manager at this time) because, as he put it, “confrontation is hard.”
Foer: There was part of it that was kind of out in the open that was culturally accepted, and that was kind of accepted when I arrived, and I just never questioned, which was that there was an element of kind of off-color joking—which was kind of what he did about everything—that was accepted. And then I think that over the years, there was kind of comments objectifying women or talking about appearance.
I felt like there were—to my shame, there were a handful of times where I heard him talking about women in the office, where I didn’t object or I didn’t complain, and I just kind of buried that in my head, and didn’t really think through the implications or challenge it. So that part is real. I think that there’s part of the story that, in Michelle [Cottle’s] piece, that I was either oblivious to or just didn’t grasp, or maybe buried my head in the sand, but I think was largely oblivious to, which was the predatory nature of it all, as it relates to younger women, and the Sarah Wildman incident, and so on, you know, all these examples that added up in that piece. That’s the part that I feel like I totally missed. And I understand that there’s a connection between these two things.
June Thomas: Frank, when you were in the room and Leon made one of these comments, what did you do? You just didn’t say anything? Did you join in? Did other men join in? I mean, you were the big boss. Did you ever think, ‘wow, this is’—what were you thinking? OK, you said you didn’t intervene. Why didn’t you, and what was your role in all of this?
Foer: So, I mean, just to, I mean, ah, so, um, when I heard that, when I heard a comment like that, I think my response was probably shame or extreme discomfort and kind of wanting to hide or changing the subject pretty quickly, it would have been, was my response. And to be clear, it wasn’t like I heard these types of comments every day, every month. It was things that would be kind of scattered over the course of many hours, [laughs uncomfortably] many hours, many months of conversation. Confrontation is hard, I think is part of the grand moral of this entire story. And I wish I shrouded myself in doing the right thing and being confrontational in those instances, but really I was just profoundly uncomfortable.
Confrontation is hard! But, as Ann Friedman pointed out, it’s a lot easier for men in positions of power to confront their colleagues than young female interns with very little institutional power.
The question from this interview that will stick with me was asked by June Thomas. Her question should be asked not just of Foer, but of every man (and woman!) working in journalism who has witnessed predatory and sexist behavior and said nothing about it. Thomas pointed out that not only was Foer’s reaction bad, it also showed incredibly poor journalistic instincts:
How can you be a good reporter if you didn’t even notice that this massive pattern of sexual harassment was going on in the office that you worked in? This is a profession that’s supposed to be about observation, and yet apparently, a good number of the people working in it were completely unable to observe this massive pattern that was absolutely surrounding them.
Foer responded with perhaps the loudest intake of breath I’ve ever heard in the windup to answering a question. He answered with a lot of words that boiled down to this: “All I can do is be more curious and open and engaged and try to do better for myself.”
But, apologies to Foer, this line of introspection is also bullshit.
Being “more curious and open and engaged” is far from “all” that someone can do to prevent a culture of sexism from prevailing. In fact, you could argue this is the same narrow, individualistic thinking that led us here in the first place.
Sexism is not perpetuated by a lack of curiosity—although that idea is vintage New Republic. Sexism is perpetuated by the complacency and cowardice of those who know it is wrong. It’s troubling to hear that the main lesson some men in media are taking away from the Wieseltier incident is about turning inward, rather than holding each other accountable. This is a cerebral conception of justice that does little to actually help the victims of injustice. Thinking deeply about sexism is not an adequate replacement for calling it out when you see it happening in real time. The real work comes in holding others accountable for their actions, and being receptive when they do the same for you.
I understand the voice that tells you not to question what someone says because you might be wrong, or someone might get mad at you, or your coworkers might think you’re a wet blanket. But making yourself vulnerable and uncomfortable is how the real work gets done. A bunch of men internally thinking “this is bad” but saying nothing to their harassing coworker because it makes them uncomfortable doesn’t help the women being harassed.
People like Foer, Chait and other media men who stood by and said nothing as their male colleague preyed on young women leave us with three options to consider about them: they are evil, and enjoy actively benefiting from patriarchal systems of power; they are stupid enough that they literally do not see the power structures asserting themselves; or they are so cowardly that they notice vile behavior, recognize it is bad, and still decide to say nothing because doing so would make them too “uncomfortable.” That final option might be the most pathetic of all.
Foer does deserve kudos for talking openly about this, knowing full well that people like me would write blog posts like this about his responses. Still, it’s not that hard to take your head out of the sand and start calling out bad behavior. We could all use a little more self-awareness and a lot more courage to call out sexism and other forms of bigotry when we see it, no matter the social ramifications.