Hot Flash: A feel for a good story

Thank God for those notorious womanizers at "60 Minutes" who make it safe for women like Kathleen Willey to speak out about sexual harassment.

By Carol Lloyd

Published March 17, 1998 9:30AM (EST)

Women of the world, rest easy. We have venerable men like "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt looking out for our interests, making sure that women like Kathleen Willey can speak freely about their experiences with sexual harassment. Hewitt was quoted in Saturday's New York Times, promoting the TV news magazine's exclusive interview with Willey, the former White House employee who has come forward as Clinton's latest accuser. "It's her story and it's incredible," Hewitt said. "And it's very believable and very persuasive and leaves little doubt about what happened."

Since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, there has been a parade of notorious womanizers who have eagerly pointed the finger at the president. Reminiscent of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, in which a panel of congressmen -- many of them known for their sexual escapades -- sat in judgment of the Supreme Court nominee, this scandal has offered another occasion for old foxes to go after the younger ones.

Of all the ludicrous developments in the Oval Office bedroom farce, however, Hewitt's presumptuous and altogether premature commentary may get the award for most hypocritical. (And with Linda Tripp claiming she had Lewinsky's best interests at heart, he has serious competition.) The irony is that Hewitt -- the creator of the TV show famous for unveiling corruption and hypocrisy among the powerful -- has been accused of worse deeds than any of the sexual charges leveled at Clinton.

In 1991, reporter Mark Hertsgaard, author of "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine in which he documented Hewitt's own serious problems with impulse control. Women who worked in the "60 Minutes" offices described to Hertsgaard a sexually charged environment that had more in common with a drunken frat party than a professional newsroom. Correspondent Mike Wallace was singled out for bottom slapping, lewd comments and unsnapping co-workers' bras.

While today no one would hesitate to call such behavior sexual harassment, Wallace's cheerful willingness to do it in public -- even in front of a stranger -- made him seem like a good (albeit unpleasant) old boy. But the charges against Hewitt make Clinton's alleged behavior look like clumsy courtship. One woman described to Hertsgaard how Hewitt slammed her against a wall, pinned her there and forced his tongue down her throat. Hewitt vehemently denied the story and all other allegations to Hertsgaard, while Wallace admitted his own antics and promised they would never happen again.

Rolling Stone eventually published Hertsgaard's article in a drastically reduced form, although Hertsgaard says Hewitt pulled all the strings he could to get the story killed. In an interview from his home in Takoma Park, Md., Hertsgaard spoke to Salon about the allegations of sexual harassment at "60 Minutes" that never made it into print -- and about how the "men's club" within the media exposes other sexually reckless men, but still protects its own.

Your story has some pretty explosive accusations against Don Hewitt. How did you come to write the piece?

Sexual harassment was not the point of the investigation. I literally witnessed sexual harassment on my first day of interviews at "60 Minutes" and women began to tell me about it, so it gradually found its way into the story. But that wasn't the point, it just was so pervasive at the time that you couldn't miss it.

What did you witness when you were there?

The first day I was in the corridor talking with a female staffer and I saw out of the corner of my eye Mr. Wallace coming down the hall. He didn't know me yet because I hadn't interviewed him, so he had no idea that it was a reporter standing there. I'm sure it would have changed his mind. Anyway, just before he reached her she pushed both her hands behind her bottom, like a little kid trying to ward off a mama's spanking, and got up on her toes and leaned away. But that didn't stop him. As he went by, he swatted her on the butt with a rolled up magazine or newspaper or something like that. That's no big deal, one could say, but I must say it did raise my eyebrows. I said to her, "God, does that happen all the time?" and she said, "Are you kidding? That is nothing." And that led to people telling me how he'd also unsnap your bra strap or snap it for you. So he had a reputation for that.

Then I also heard about this far-more-worrisome incident with Hewitt and that one did get into the piece, although in a much censored form, where he lunges at a woman in a deserted place, pins her against the wall and sticks his tongue in her mouth. There were other incidents women told me about Hewitt, and, of course, (former) Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn was already on the record in her book "We're Going to Make You a Star" accusing Hewitt of making an aggressive pass at her and sabotaging her work when she refused him.

Was the sexual harassment at "60 Minutes" pervasive?

It sure seemed that way. There's a woman quoted in my story saying that Mike would constantly have his hands on your thigh, or whatnot. One producer said that basically Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt felt this was their right. And that's how a lot of men in television felt for many years. Women were basically hired for their looks. You had to be competent too, but you damn well better look good.

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I understand that you had a difficult time getting the story published in Rolling Stone.

The entire piece almost never ran because Don Hewitt tried to kill it and (Rolling Stone editor and publisher) Jann Wenner almost went along with him. They did emasculate the piece by taking out a lot of the damaging material. You'll see in there that there is one basic episode involving Don. There were four that I had reported.

How did Don Hewitt try to kill the piece?

Don tried to kill it by talking to Jann Wenner privately, asking, "What is this story that you've got on me?" It was a long investigation -- for four, five, maybe six months, on and off -- and I had interviewed Hewitt once or twice by then. One day, I got a call from him and he just poured five minutes of shit in my ear about how he had spoken to an editor at Rolling Stone and he had found out that I was chasing all this sexual stuff. Here he had thought of me as a serious reporter because of "On Bended Knee," and they were ready for somebody to look at "60 Minutes" on serious issues and this is just tabloid crap. And I said, "I don't know how you could know what's in this story, Don. Who did you talk to?" And he says, "To an editor." And I said, "Well, I assume you talked to Jann." Jann knew Don through Manhattan cocktail parties and all that crap. And I said, "I assume you talked to Jann." He denied it outright. He said, "No, I didn't talk to Jann." I said, "An editor, not the editor?"

Well, as soon as I got off the phone, I called Bob Wallace, who was my editor at Rolling Stone, and I told him what had happened. I said, "Did Jann talk to him?" And he said, "I'm sure he did, it happens all the time." I must say that I was grateful at the time that Jann had not read the story. But it didn't stop him from talking to Hewitt about it. A few days later, I got a call from Jann, apologizing for having done what he did, which of course was Journalism 101. Your publisher should not be talking about the content of an investigative story with the subject of the investigation. He said, "I'm sorry: Please accept my apologies."

I went ahead and turned in the story and it sat and it sat and it sat. The piece didn't run for another 12 months -- and then as a one-part piece, not the two parts it was contracted for. And I'm sure that they wouldn't have even done that if the Wall Street Journal hadn't been snooping around about it. It broke about six months before the Anita Hill thing. So at that point, there was still within the media a question as to whether this kind of behavior was really relevant.

So what did you think when you saw Hewitt taking a stand for Kathleen Willey?

It was odd to me, seeing Don quoted in the New York Times on Friday and Saturday as he was hyping Sunday's broadcast. He's talking about what happened and I just thought of that old Dylan song: "You've got a lot of nerve."

I hoped somebody would call him on it. In today's Times, Patricia Ireland, head of NOW, is quoted as saying if these charges by Ms. Willey are true, it has crossed a very important line from sexual harassment to sexual assault. And if that's the case, we have to be very serious about it. Well, the situation where Hewitt stuck his tongue down that women's throat -- that's assault. That is assault. She certainly felt like she was assaulted. She freed herself by kicking him in the balls -- which they also cut out. She runs away and then the next day, there was a fancy gala event where you have to come in evening dress and she's there and Hewitt, this son of a gun -- he's like a randy old goat -- he just could not take no for an answer. She was wearing a backless gown and suddenly she feels someone running his fingers up and down her bare back. She turns around, obviously jumpy from what had happened the day before, and sees the object of her horror -- Hewitt -- saying, "Don't be scared, I just think you're a very attractive girl." They cut that out of the article too.

There's a lot of huffing and puffing within the media about Clinton's alleged behavior, with a lot of journalists complaining about the public's so-called apathy on the subject. But in the case of men like Hewitt, it seems pretty hypocritical.

It's absolutely unmistakable -- and Hewitt is an extremely good example -- how most of the discourse about this issue involves people who have no more moral standing than this ball-point pen in my hand. And that goes not just for Hewitt, but for many of these clowns both in the media here in Washington and in the Congress. Anybody who has spent any time around Capitol Hill knows that a large number of congressmen, both in the House and in the Senate, fool around with either their young staffers or the young female staffers of their colleagues. To any reporter who had their eyes open, this is not news. So why are we all of a sudden in such high dudgeon about it?

One of the big ironies in all of this is that "60 Minutes" is one of the last TV operations that is resisting the tabloid trend, it's still the closest to doing real news. The show is one of the few places left on television that even resembles news. I appreciate the fact that Hewitt and his colleagues still do real journalism. And I'm sure that this contradiction between his commitment to exposing the president's private life and his own less-than-spotless record in this area never occurred to him. Because I would bet he's convinced himself that the incidents never occurred, which is what I suspect Clinton has done as well. When you fib so long, you essentially can't remember what's true and what's not anymore.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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