The curious case of Tom Brokaw

Former NBC news anchor and current commentator is the latest big name to be charged with sexual harassment. An article in the Washington Post last week reported the claims made by two women.

Linda Vester, a former NBC correspondent, told The Post that legendary anchor Tom Brokaw made unwanted advances toward her on two occasions in the 1990s, including a forcible attempt to kiss her. Vester was in her 20s and did not file a complaint.

Brokaw denied anything untoward happened with Vester. “I met with Linda Vester on two occasions, both at her request, 23 years ago, because she wanted advice with respect to her career at NBC,” he said in a statement issued by NBC. “The meetings were brief, cordial and appropriate, and despite Linda’s allegations, I made no romantic overtures towards her, at that time or any other.”

Another woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also told The Post that Brokaw acted inappropriately toward her in the ’90s, when she was a young production assistant and he was an anchor. He said no such incident happened.

The article goes on to provide details of what happened.

So far, this is a familiar pattern of a powerful person being accused of taking advantage of powerless underlings. Brokaw has gone on the offensive, sending an email to friends and colleagues denying everything and attacking Vester, again the usual pattern.

But two things are different. One is the tone of aggrieved grandeur that Brokaw adopts, of how could anyone would even consider it possible that he would do such a thing. Another difference is that over 115 women, some of them big names in the media world, signed a letter saying that Brokaw had never behaved badly with them, though there have been charges that some felt pressured to sign, that not doing so might adversely affect their careers.

Eve Fairbanks says that she was stunned by this support letter.

These women should know that it’s not easy to publicly accuse a power-broker of abuse. It’s not easy. It’s not the easiest way to fame and fortune, as Clinton’s and Cosby’s lawyers always liked to assert. Shouldn’t we have learned this by now? Isn’t this the primary thing, in the last six months, we should have learned?

When I was 21, I woke up, disoriented and naked, in the apartment of a writer at a top newspaper whose advice on breaking into journalism I had taken a train to New York to seek. The last thing I remembered was my second martini in a midtown bar ten miles from that apartment. Mentioning this experience to a few people recently, the overwhelming response I got is that if I mention this complex event publicly I would ruin the man’s career—and my own virginal reputation. The heavy weight of the implication that I have the power to singlehandedly destroy a person I actually have no wish to totally destroy has silenced me.

As I said, it’s not easy to accuse a power-broker of abuse. Not only out of fear—like the fear of executives keeping an eye on who’s a good employee and who isn’t. Also because of the fear of destroying our idols—the fear of ruining somebody we admired and longed to emulate. Asserting oneself against an idol, actually, may bring down not only a person, but greater ideas and hopes, too. And it’s not easy not least because we women know now, and hesitate before, the deadly power we are purported to hold.

Is it true that one woman’s allegation of sexual harassment could vitiate an entire career, as Brokaw laments? The claim is hysterical—and self-serving.

We don’t know the truth in Brokaw’s case yet, if we ever will. But the picture of a man who expects his extraordinary power to always be with him, and who reacts with fury if that power is questioned—not by a “guillotine,” but by another human being’s voice—makes it more comprehensible, not less, that Brokaw acted as thoughtlessly as his accuser contends.

Lisa Senecal writes that we are seeing the inevitable collision between two currents that can be identified by their Twitter hashtags: #BelieveWomen and #NotAllMen, where the person accused is not a stranger or someone easily despised but someone we may know personally or do not want to believe could behave badly. She says that the women who signed the support letter were misguided because their letter does not prove anything but will be used to cast doubt on women.

Small-scale versions of the Brokaw letter will play out again and again in communities across the country. Women will come forward and portions of their communities will push back against their accounts because their experiences with an accused harasser were positive. For women who have experienced harassment and spoken out, that reaction isn’t surprising when it comes from men. The context of men’s relationships and interactions with other men is unlikely to include being sexually harassed by the same man who harasses women. It happens, but it is uncommon.

To reflexively not be believed by men is what women have learned to expect. When that reaction comes from women, it packs a much greater punch, which is why this Brokaw letter is so troubling. More than 65 powerful women signaled to women around the country that, if you accuse someone of good standing in the community, you will not be believed. The wagons will be circled around the accused harasser before an investigation is even conducted.

If there were other women whom Brokaw had harassed, what might their reaction be in the light of this letter? Decide it is better to stay silent? Or become so angry that they decide to tell their story too?


  1. chigau (違う) says

    Does Brokaw actually think that an accusation of sexual assault is the same as an accusation of a “romantic overture”?

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