NAMING AND SHAMING

‘Sh*tty Media Men’ List Is a Sh*tty Way to Change the Media

When a ‘whisper network’ goes viral, does it help or hurt the women it’s supposed to benefit?

Yesterday, a spreadsheet colorfully titled “Shitty Media Men” made the rounds with several media women. The exact number of initial recipients isn’t clear. I wasn’t among its original recipients, but 24 hours later, after it was already the subject of a BuzzFeed write-up, it took me just three emails to get screenshotted copies of the list from two different people, despite the fact that its creators had locked the document since the BuzzFeed piece brought it unwanted attention.

By Thursday afternoon, 4chan’s infamous /pol message board was looking for it, and conservative website Twitchy was demanding that since BuzzFeed published the Trump dossier, it should also release the names of the media men on the list—even though the Trump dossier was written by a named author with a history of gathering intelligence, instead of a spreadsheet that could have innumerable anonymous authors. Other women in media registered their disgust at the publication of the BuzzFeed piece in the first place, as the spreadsheet was, to them, a valuable and safe place to exchange information that could protect them from personal and professional harm.

If “Shitty Media Men” is not widely disseminated by the time this piece runs, it probably will be shortly, if only because it seems unlikely that this many people in the business of sharing information can keep a secret for this long. Lots of people saw it yesterday; many of those people probably screenshotted and passed on. Somewhere along the way, maybe one of those recipients would ignore the stated rule at the top of the spreadsheet: “Please never name an accuser. Please never share this spreadsheet with a man.”

The accusations leveled in the spreadsheet (the versions this writer saw contained dozens of men) veer into criminal behavior, including physical and sexual assault. Some men’s names are highlighted in red, to indicated that they’ve been accused of “physical sexual violence by multiple women.” Next to the men’s names are the outlets for which they currently work and have worked. Next to that is the alleged misconduct. The final column is for “notes.” A few of the “notes” include URLs to stories about their past behavior. More of them contain vague hand-waves, like “multiple women allege misconduct” or “rumored sealed settlement.” In the versions of the list I’ve seen, that column is most often left blank.

The sheet documents a wide range of violations, lumping in sexual and physical abuse with such crimes as “creepy AF in the DM’s.” It ropes “being a monster” in with “being a jerk.” Those things are different, both legally and in terms of the way that they affect those on the receiving end. One man’s crimes are, according to the spreadsheet “not sexual to the best of my knowledge” but include “violent language.” One man “ostracized a woman he met on a dating app.” Others, several others, are alleged to have committed rape.

Writing for BuzzFeed earlier this week, Anne Helen Peterson named “whisper networks” as lifelines for women who work in industries with ghouls at the helm. But social media has made “whisper networks” much more powerful, with a low barrier to entry and a high payoff. Now, a woman could conceivably warn thousands of women at once rather than just a few, or a vengeful ex-girlfriend could lob a serious accusation at a lover who spurned her. Exposing the origin of the accusations is against the rules, so it’s impossible to tell the difference between those in column A and column B.

The “Shitty Media Men” list isn’t the first time a “whisper network” has been converted into a hard copy viewable by scores of people, but it is now poised to go viral. Last summer, a similar list of male comedians who exhibited troubling behavior—again ranging from obnoxious to criminally violent—circulated among some female comics and comedy writers in New York. It was yanked from its digital home before it garnered this level of attention.

Another comedy “whisper network” was behind the ostracization of a New York comedian named Aaron Glaser. One weekend afternoon during the summer of 2016, a woman posted a message to a closed Facebook group, warning that Glaser had been banned from the Upright Citizens’ Brigade due to serious sexual misconduct. A screenshot with the woman’s identity blacked out was shared and instantly resulted in a firestorm on social media. I was hanging out in Brooklyn with three comedians at the exact moment the post started going viral. They all received text messages from other comedians containing the screenshot, within minutes of each other. By the end of the day, anybody who challenged the foregone conclusion that Glaser was a rapist was pilloried on social media. By the end of the month, Glaser was effectively out of comedy. Glaser has since lawyered up.

I’m not litigating the guilt or innocence of Aaron Glaser, nor am I calling what is on the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet truth or falsehood. I am pointing out that putting something on the internet might be an effective way to convey what was once conveyed via “whisper network,” but it also subjects the network to the possibility that the whispers could go viral, could ruin an innocent person’s life, and could subject the whisperer’s issuer to unforeseen legal liability, even if the person they’re accusing is guilty. It could introduce doubt where it doesn’t belong.

It also doesn’t clear much up. Women who work in media know that men in this industry can be real pieces of shit. They value having a heads-up when a person they might work with is a jerk. But women in media who have seen the spreadsheet have told me privately that they don’t trust it, even though they’re pretty sure some of what’s on there must be true. It’s impossible to tell which accusations have merit and which don’t. Therefore, none of it can be trusted.

So what is the “Shitty Media Men” list for? Is it for justice or for catharsis? As it stands, it provides neither. If women who have been sexually harassed or abused want justice, they should pursue judicial channels. If the incident is criminal, they should report it to the police; if it’s something that occurs at work, they should involve HR. If that doesn’t work, they should talk to a media reporter, who will apply journalistic scrutiny to their accusations, thus strengthening their case and making it more difficult for their abuser to get work.

Of course, women who don’t involve authorities or HR often choose to keep their abuse or harassment private for rational reasons. They don’t want to make trouble at work, they don’t want to drag it out, they don’t want their abuser to retaliate against them. And it’s nobody’s place to judge their decision to not come forward. But reticence to report does make actual consequences for the alleged abusers harder to come by.

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If justice is impossible, or if a woman prefers catharsis, a place to share what happened to them safely and heal among other women with similar experiences, this list doesn’t help, either. It devalues the experiences that women on the list have shared by exposing them to the possibility of wide scrutiny by people who want to dismiss the concerns of women anyway.

Maybe “Shitty Media Men” is supposed to help warn women off working with toxic men. I fail to see how this accomplishes that. Anonymously sourced spreadsheets aren’t reliable bases for a tipsy conversation at Tom & Jerry’s, much less charting one’s professional path. If a friend told me that her friend had a terrible experience with a man who works in media, I’d trust her and avoid working with that man. But if that same friend told me that I should be wary of working with a male journalist because they heard from the internet that they use “violent language,” that tells me absolutely nothing. I have no reason to believe it. Somebody on the internet once accused me of having an affair with a married male journalist that I’ve never once met or spoken to in real life. The internet is trash. The value of “whisper networks” is that they’re discreet ways for women to help each other without exposing themselves to retaliation. A public spreadsheet undermines that.

Everybody—men and women—should work to ensure that sexual assault and harassment are quashed in their respective industries. Men in power acting sexually abusive to the disempowered—often women—is not exclusive to Hollywood. It happens in tech, in service work, in government, in media. Harvey Weinstein was able to operate unfettered for decades thanks to a culture of cowardice and craven self-serving subservience that exists in many industries.

Some people actively hid Weinstein’s misdeeds; others stood by and looked the other way. In the wake of the still-unfolding Weinstein scandal, I’m glad everybody’s doing a little soul-searching. Everybody should be glad we’re talking about it.

Men should be thinking about whether or not they’ve ever been complicit in enabling abuse. Men were more empowered than women to stop Weinstein; men built the structures that enable Weinstein, men benefit from those structures to this day. Anecdotally, several male acquaintances who work in Hollywood-adjacent industries have approached me over the last few days and talked about how the Weinstein scandal has forced them to think about whether they’ve ever enabled a monster.

Men should be wracking their brains about ways they’ve treated women in the past, and do everything they can to avoid abusive or harassing behavior in the future. The possibility of public shaming is a strong deterrent. It’s good that the Weinstein scandal has proven, once again, that possibility exists. I hope they keep thinking. I hope they keep talking. It’s the only way men will get better.

Women should feel empowered to share their experiences with each other. But they should consider whether the way they’re going about doing it is useful or ultimately counterproductive. Making a public list that runs the risk of putting men on blast in this way, I fear, undermines the list’s goals. It doesn’t clear anything up, it doesn’t provide any specificity, nor does it empower its audience to find out more about the incident in question and what’s been done about alleged behavior of the journalist in question. Instead, it provides talking points to the rape-skeptical press. “Shitty Media Men’s” existence is reckless and ultimately harmful not only to any innocent men potentially caught up in this, but also to the women making the accusations.

There are Weinsteins in every industry, and we’ll all be better off when they’re taken down. But this isn’t the way to do it.