The morning after the New York Times broke Jessica Leeds’s story of being groped on an airplane by Donald Trump in 1979, I was standing outside the Manhattan building where she lives, on assignment as a reporter for the Daily News.
Leeds’s tale of being pawed and grabbed by Trump mid-flight is hugely significant, matching deeds to his words on the 2005 Access Hollywood tape released the week before. Trump’s boasts of imposing himself physically on women, what he later dismissed as “locker room talk” and “just words,” were revealing themselves as not only words, but deeply unsettling actions, as Leeds and many other women were now describing.
This was a huge story, and a gaggle of reporters, photographers, and camera operators from a variety of news outlets had amassed outside of Leeds’s apartment. A convivial atmosphere had developed, with old colleagues greeting one another and new acquaintances being made — stakeouts are a common experience when working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in New York City. As it began to drizzle, a handful of us took shelter under the building’s awning, and as we did so, a cameraman for a local network affiliate arrived and joined us.
“Why are you guys bothering this nice lady?” he said jokingly, echoing what many passersby ask the press whenever we are gathered outside someone’s home. Then he added, “She was only a whore thirty years ago.”
Not again, I thought.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but it’s not — in fact, this isn’t even the first time I’ve witnessed a male journalist speak disparagingly about women in the last several weeks. And the most recent comments were about me.
In early September, I spent a few days staking out Anthony Weiner as yet another scandal came to light. That week a group of us was constantly gathered outside his address, waiting for him to show up.
The first evening of that assignment, an amateur photographer passing our small group was showing two photojournalists what his camera could do. Noticing the flash, I walked back across the street to see what they were up to. The amateur asked me if I wanted to be in the photo he was taking, and I said no.
“We should get out the Mardi Gras beads,” he replied, staring at the screen of his camera. The implication was immediately clear: that I could be baited into taking off my shirt and showing my breasts for some strings of colorful plastic beads, like in a Girls Gone Wild video.
“That’s not funny,” I said.
“Oh, it’s an old press term,” the amateur lied, not knowing I was a journalist.
“You know what they use Mardi Gras beads for, right?” asked one of the other photographers. I felt a flare of anger and a pang of disappointment. I had met this photographer several times before, and we’d gotten along. Now I felt betrayed.
“Yeah, I know what it means,” I replied. “That’s why it’s not funny.”
I immediately walked back across the street to tell another reporter what had just occurred. He suggested I punch the guy in the face, advice I didn’t follow. But I did return a minute later and let him know, calmly, but with obvious anger, that it was inappropriate to suggest that I remove my clothing and pose in front of his lens. He apologized. He wanted to shake my hand. I declined. I didn’t want him to walk away feeling anything was resolved. I also didn’t want to touch him.
Leeds has recalled that dealing with sexist statements and unwanted overtures was just part of the landscape back in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly for working women.
“I have hopes or aspirations that things are better for women working now,” she told Anderson Cooper. “I’m not so sure.”
Neither am I. The insult from the cameraman in front of Leeds’ house earlier this month wasn’t directed toward me, but it still stung. To be confronted with such a crude and stupid statement from a man who had just lumbered into our peaceful little group felt unbearable. He hadn’t simply soured a congenial mood among colleagues. He had made it clear that I, the lone woman in the group, was so unimportant that it didn’t matter that he’d made me feel uncomfortable, and simultaneously reminded everyone that a woman who objects to offensive behavior, as Leeds had, can expect to be denigrated.
I’m sure the sense of frustration I felt wasn’t too far from that experienced by Rachel Crooks, who in 2005 was a 22-year-old receptionist at a company in Trump Towers. After she introduced herself to Trump in the lobby one day, he assaulted her, refusing to let go of her hand and kissing her on the mouth. Speaking to the Times, Crooks told the paper’s reporters. “I was so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that.”
Outside Leeds’s building, the word whore seemed to hang in the air. One of the men in the group groaned.
“Excuse me?” I snapped.
The cameraman laughed and pointed at me, amused at my anger, as if pleased at accurately guessing his statement would get a rise out of a woman.
This time, I didn’t walk away. Part of me wanted to, but I made a calculated decision to not retreat, to not cede the space. I glared at him for several seconds. Then I froze him out, speaking to everyone except him. It wasn’t long before he left to sit in his news van, alone.
As soon as the cameraman disappeared, I asked the other journalists what the hell was wrong with him. Everyone agreed that making sexist jokes about someone who has claimed to have been sexually assaulted was abhorrent.
“Then you guys need to speak up, too,” I said. “It shouldn’t be just women who say these things.”
“You’re right,” one of the male reporters said, and he apologized.
I know there are men — I am close with some of them — who don’t stay quiet when others behave inappropriately. I know male journalists who intervene when their female colleagues are singled out for physical or verbal harassment, or are treated as if they are unimportant or invisible. But it doesn’t feel like there are enough of them yet. In both of these instances, the issue really was “just words.” No one grabbed me; no one groped me. But words can still have a powerful effect.
Michelle Obama recently spoke in New Hampshire about Trump’s treatment of women, and although her speech was directed at women, it could also apply to men who enable this kind of behavior: “Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet.…Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there are people still out there that think so little of us as women.”
Of course I don’t want to think so. But I know so. I know that even among the journalists assigned to cover a woman who has publicly stated that she was groped and kissed against her will by a presidential candidate, those people exist.