Movements collapse when they become more interested in collecting heads than advancing their cause. Unfortunately, the very
worthy #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse might have just reached that point.
Last week, #MeToo took down Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor of the liberal Detroit Free Press (or Freep as it is called locally). Henderson was fired for "inappropriate behavior"—even though no women actively complained about it—that allegedly violated the newspaper's "zero tolerance policy." But if this standard—both too vague and too strict—is going to be religiously enforced on workplace interactions in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, few men—or, women, for that matter —will ever feel safe in their jobs.
Henderson is something of an icon in Michigan, where I live. He is a prolific writer and a popular media personality. I first became acquainted with him when I was a scribe at the Detroit News conservative editorial board in the mid-1990s and he on the liberal Freep board that he later headed. He also hosts Detroit Today for WDET, a local NPR affiliate, where he occasionally invites me to spar over ObamaCare and charter schools (on which we vehemently disagree) and discuss immigration reform and President Trump's draconian law-and-order agenda (on which we largely agree).
Henderson's travails began when he ran an editorial at the Freep calling on Democratic Rep. John Conyers to resign after credible allegations surfaced that not only had Conyers sexually harassed female staffers in his employ, but then used $27,000 in government funds to offer one a no-show job in exchange for dropping her complaint before the U.S. Congress Office of Compliance and signing a legal paper attesting that Conyers had done no wrong. Henderson's editorial incensed some of Conyers' local supporters, including Rev. W.J. Rideout III, a local firebrand, who accused Henderson of sexual harassment.
Rideout offered no names of victims or substantiation or details, which is why his own TV show has been indefinitely suspended for lacking "journalistic standards." Still, his allegations triggered an internal probe by the Freep. Henderson explained on his show subsequently that he "supported and encouraged" the investigation because he had nothing to hide. He says he racked his brain for every relevant interaction with his colleagues over the last 10 years and reported whatever he could think of "candidly and openly" to the investigators.
The Freep's fishing expedition eventually turned up two interactions that HR decided were inappropriate. Both occurred in social situations outside of the workplace. One involved a "sexually themed" conversation and another an interaction with someone who was his co-equal in another department. We don't know much more besides that. And while obviously some graphic or threatening "sexually themed" conversations with colleagues would indeed be grounds for termination, that really shouldn't be the case here. After all, neither woman, according to Henderson, ever filed a complaint against him or even wanted the company to take any action, a version of events that Freep and its parent company, Gannett, has not disputed. (Gannett declined to comment for this article, and a message left for the Freep publisher, Peter Bhatia, was not answered.) WDET has conducted its own investigation and come up empty, and is therefore not nixing Henderson's show.
There is still much we don't know about Henderson's situation. More may well come out. But as things stand, the flimsy accusations—and the process that led to their airing—make Henderson's firing seems like a massive overreaction.
Sexual harassment is a serious issue, especially in the workplace. All people deserve to have a comfortable work environment free from harassment. Many of the high-profile heads that have rolled since the #MeToo movement emerged clearly deserved their comeuppance, including, of course, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose multi-decade, sexual predation triggered it all. So did actor Kevin Spacey (who is accused by 24 men, including a 14-year-old boy, of unwanted advances), NBC's Matt Lauer (who apparently had a button under his desk to automatically lock the door when he was propositioning co-workers), and PBS's Charlie Rose (who allegedly groped women and exposed himself to them). There were multiple victims and a clear pattern of extreme behavior in all these cases.
But the basis for the defenestration of others is much less clear. Celebrated humorist Garrison Keillor's popular show The Prairie Home Companion was axed by Minnesota Public Radio because Keillor put his hand on the bare back of a distraught woman whose shirt was loose, as he tells it. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza was let go for "improper sexual conduct" that he claims consisted of a consensual relationship with a co-worker. But even in these cloudier cases, the women came forward and launched their complaints. That doesn't seem to be the case with Henderson. The Freep launched an investigation based on allegations by an unaffected outside party with a grudge—not any of the women involved. And the women who its investigation did finally fetch up, as best as one can tell, demanded no action against Henderson. It's no wonder that Henderson is now exploring a lawsuit.
All of this suggests that the climate of censoriousness that #MeToo has generated spooked the Freep so much that it wanted to take no chances. But there is something quasi-totalitarian when a company starts going after employees for victimless behavior that has been retroactively branded as inappropriate. It might also end up targeting women who engage in "sexually themed" conversations—replacing the fear of sexual harassment with that of HR inquisitions.
Henderson's plight is the clearest case yet of #MeTooism run amok. Jenna Wortham wrote in The New York Times that she is unperturbed by the excesses of the movement because she wants "every single man to be put on notice" and "feel vulnerable" just the way women do. But a movement that thoughtlessly and reflexively throws decent men under the bus will discredit itself and hurt its ability to take down the real abusers. That's a pity, because a responsible reckoning to hold genuine monsters accountable is something that women do indeed need.
This column was originally published in The Week.