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Former ABC journalist says Mark Halperin allegations reflect harmful female objectification in TV news

Numerous women have come forward to allege that political journalist and author Mark Halperin harassed them while he was at ABC. One of those journalists, Lara Setrakian, now the executive editor of News Deeply, joins Judy Woodruff for an exclusive interview.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we continue our series of conversations about sexual harassment, and what could be done to change the workplace environment.

    Last week, the spotlight turned to political journalist and author Mark Halperin, who had become a well-known name for his work at ABC, NBC and Bloomberg. Five women came forward to CNN alleging that he harassed them while he was at ABC. That number has now grown to at least a dozen, and several have said he assaulted them as well.

    Halperin has denied any assault, but he released a statement last week saying, in part, “For a long time at ABC News, I was part of the problem. I acknowledge that and deeply regret it. My behavior was wrong. It caused fear and anxiety for women who were only seeking to do their jobs. In subsequent jobs, I didn’t engage in improper behavior with colleagues or subordinates. I conducted myself in a very different manner.”

    One of those women, Lara Setrakian, wrote about her experiences at ABC for The Washington Post. She’s now the CEO and executive editor of the digital site News Deeply.

    And she joins me now.

    Lara Setrakian, welcome to the program.

    So, you — it was 2006. You were working at ABC News in New York. What was your job, and what was your working relationship with Mark Halperin?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    So, I was one year into my job at ABC News as an off-air reporter, a sort of entry-level, get-started position.

    We were assigned to cover the midterm elections. I was based in New York. And Mark was overseeing coverage of that election, so sort of a boss for a season of election coverage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what happened to you?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    We were working very hard on that midterm election.

    And I started getting e-mails from Mark complimenting my work, which meant a lot to me. I was really earnest and cared a lot about journalism.

    He suggested coming up to his office to talk politics over a Diet Coke. And while I was there, he sort of lunged at me, kissed me, touched me inappropriately. It’s still very uncomfortable to describe.

    And I sort of felt his body on me. And it was very uncomfortable, to say the least. I sort of froze, left, went and told a few colleagues that I trusted, and tried to put it out of my mind for the next 11 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were in your early 20s.

  • Lara Setrakian:

    I was 24.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    And did you find out then whether this was happening to other young women, and did you go to anyone at ABC News?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    My colleagues told me that there were multiple cases of this happening, and that it was sort of understood that it’s best not to be alone with Mark.

    I was so embarrassed. I thought it was my fault. I thought I did something wrong. And I was so young. I — he was a giant in our field already, and I just didn’t feel comfortable making noise, honestly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when you talked to someone at ABC, did you get the sense that management was paying attention?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    I liked to think so.

    I sensed that it was going to go wide enough to make an impact, to be one of the cases among the many that I felt had already occurred. That’s part of what gave me the courage to share it, even with those few people, but I don’t know where it went from there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you were hearing that it was going on with other women.

    And there was a — what, kind of an agreement among women not to be alone with him?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    It was just talked about that way, like, oh, he’s kind of creepy. Don’t — you know, don’t spend too much time.

    But I only heard that after it happened, so it wasn’t — it was — it almost relied on this telepathic understanding among women, which is hardly a way to know what to do and not do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the years — so this was 2006. This was over 10 years ago.

    How often have you had a chance to think about it, talk about it with other women, with others?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    I tried to forget. It was embarrassing.

    But, also, I hated what it said about our industry, that we could be preyed upon, that we could be judged. It — I internalized a lot of that, this idea that you’re only going to get the opportunities that come to you when certain people in our industry find you sexually attractive, and once you’re no longer sexually attractive to them, you face a certain decline.

    That was really hard to swallow. A few times over the years, when his name would come up, I would shudder. I confided in a few more friends, political reporters who would mention his name. I said, don’t — don’t say his name around me. And they would ask why.

    So, actually, in the wake of this all, they all reached me to express their support and say, remember that time? Remember that time? I knew something was wrong, and you weren’t talking about it. I’m so proud of you for coming forward.

    I have to say, Judy, I never thought I would be telling this story, much less in the pages of The Washington Post. But when CNN called and asked if it was true, I wasn’t going to lie and I wasn’t going to stifle my response.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you think other women have not been able to go public, as you have?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    I think there’s a generational shift. I think there’s a mind-set shift.

    But there’s a lot of fear coming out with these cases. Personally, I don’t feel as much of that fear. I don’t know — I’m 35 years old. I wasn’t around at the time the Anita Hill hearings set a new standard for transparency, honestly.

    I know that a lot of women who have experienced this with Mark, they do worry about repercussions, counterattacks, being smeared. But I haven’t found any of those things to be true. I — my grandpa was big on common sense, so I tried to look it through papa Setrakian’s lens.

    If anyone would want to not work with me or not hire me because I came clean, they’re not people I would want to work for. So, for me, the choice was really clear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were saying earlier you think there’s a real problem in the TV news business.

    We know there’s a problem in Hollywood. There’s been so much attention to Harvey Weinstein. What is your sense of that? You still work in the news field.

  • Lara Setrakian:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see that?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    First, there are more male allies than we could have ever imagined. There are incredible male men mentors who stood up for us all along, supported us all along.

    And I think that they are also having their day in the sun and stepping out as a greater force. But you are right. There are more women in more industries having more of these stories buried than exposed. And most of them will never have the chance to come on your show and share what happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think that we have reached some kind of a turning point?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    Absolutely.

    I think the culture is shifting. The norms are shifting, this understanding that this isn’t OK. At the very least, we deserve to expect a meritocracy. What bothers me so much about sexual assault and also the sexual objectification of women in journalism is that it pushes women out of the field.

    There are incredible women journalists who were the subject of an assault, say they were, by Mark Halperin who decided not to continue in journalism. They left the field completely.

    And then you have other women, I said in the piece, who feel terrorized by this pressure to be perfect-looking. Otherwise, they have no place in the newsroom. And so that means women who have so much to give to the national conversation just aren’t there to give it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But — and what Mark Halperin and, theoretically, others have been doing, you’re saying, is an outgrowth of this expectation that women be perfect.

  • Lara Setrakian:

    Absolutely. These are linked.

    What we experience at ABC and in many newsrooms goes beyond just a physical attack. It’s the comments that some people feel, some men feel they can make.

    There was a producer at ABC who controlled a lot of careers who turned in front of everyone and called one of the up-and-coming journalists a sexy kitten. And we just shivered. Did he just call her a sexy kitten?

    First, that felt so wrong. Second, for all us young women journalists in the newsroom, what did that mean for us? That he has to think that about us for us to even get in the field, to even get an opportunity, to get a chance?

    We’re there to report. We’re there to learn. We’re there to explain what’s happening in the world. And to feel like we had to meet someone else’s standard of physical beauty forevermore, or else we would be banished from TV land, was really hard for us to get around.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is your advice?

    I asked this question of Sheila Nevins when I interviewed her last Friday, the head of HBO Documentaries. What is your advice to young women who are experiencing something like this? How do you give them the courage now to speak up, when they’re not sure they’re going to be supported by management in whatever field they work in?

  • Lara Setrakian:

    One major reason I have been able to speak up is because I was surrounded by great mentors and I did have a great cadre of colleagues around me.

    Not all the women felt that they had that. And so I won’t pretend that everyone has someone they can turn to. But my advice would be to find someone you can trust in or out of the workplace who can help you figure out the right next step.

    It’s very hard. I know women in every field are facing this, women who don’t feel they have the socioeconomic power to say something, who don’t feel they can risk their jobs by saying something. I won’t pretend it’s going to be easy for them.

    But find someone you can trust, and confide in them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lara Setrakian, thank you very much for coming to talk to us.

  • Lara Setrakian:

    It’s a pleasure and an obligation.

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