This reeks of male privilege. When your job is to weigh facts and render conclusions that shape public opinion, one’s own judgment should matter
I’d been trying to avoid the train wreck that is Jeffrey Toobin, but like any good crash it keeps drawing me back in horrified fascination.
Let’s face it, any headline that combines the words “The New Yorker” and “masturbation” is hard to resist. And at the same time, the story promises such a cringe-fest that I didn’t really want to know the details.
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Like most of you, I don’t care about Jeffrey Toobin’s sex life or marital status. It’s pure titillation and WTF value: The Harvard-educated lawyer, pundit, author and prognosticator accidentally exposed himself on a Zoom call with a group of New Yorker colleague as he was pleasuring himself.
What many of us didn’t realize initially is that Toobin wasn’t alone, that he was with someone on a second phone call when this happened. This became clearer when the New Yorker fired him last week. “During breakout discussions, Mr. Toobin switched to a second call that was the video-call equivalent of phone sex,” the New York Times reported.
So, picture this: Toobin is on an election prep call with a large group of work colleagues — award-winning journalists like Masha Gessen and Dexter Filkins — that burns on for hours. And as his mind wanders, he calls a person (or perhaps a service) that will satisfy him.
This was not the first time that Toobin made headlines for showing poor judgment and poorer self discipline. A decade ago, he was the center of a scandal when he fathered a child out of wedlock with Casey Greenfield, daughter of the respected political commentator Jeff Greenfield. That was reckless enough for a married guy. But he doubled down, denying paternity. She sued for parental support, was forced to prove that Toobin was the father, which she did, and then said that she left him when she realized he was seeing other women on the side. (Seems Toobin is still married with a couple of kids, and my profound sympathies to them.)
Why I care, I suppose, is because this case reeks of the male privilege we’ve been talking about for the past few years. I’m not arguing that private behavior should be the measure of a journalist. But when your job is to weigh facts and render conclusions that shape public opinion, doesn’t one’s own judgment matter?
I spoke to several prominent women in media last week who all reacted the same way: Can you imagine any woman doing this? Our collective minds drew a blank.
And then there’s the lingering question of Toobin’s status as a legal analyst at CNN, which has persistently avoided all questions about his future at the network. (The network issued a statement when news of the incident surfaced last month and The New Yorker suspended him: “Jeff Toobin has asked for some time off while he deals with a personal issue, which we have granted.”)
But since then, there’s been silence. News network chief Jeff Zucker did not respond to my request for comment and a network spokesperson has stuck to the non-decision that Toobin is on personal leave. According to one insider who has spoken to Zucker, Toobin will not be coming back. But another knowledgeable individual insisted that a decision has not been made, and that since Toobin is not on the air right now the network feels “no pressure” to make a move.
In the age of #MeToo, that seems rather obtuse.
Until last week when the New Yorker finally fired him, Toobin was part of the protected media club — a rarefied “boys club.” He may as well be a charter member: prep school, Harvard undergrad, Harvard Law. He had been a writer at the New Yorker for 27 years, and an on-air pundit at CNN for close to 20. After his last PR nightmare, he trundled merrily along in his role, sharing his views on all manner of subjects that reached millions of people. One media insider voiced discomfort over Toobin’s Teflon-like staying power: “He kind of embodies that overinflated, arrogant New York media person.”
In fact, Toobin got roundly trolled when weighing in on Trump’s sexual accusations:
— Donald El Trumpista Ⓜ️ (@ElTrumpista) October 2, 2018
As we watch women struggling to claim their rightful place in our government and public sphere, as we usher out a presidency where female journalists were frequently verbal punching bags for Trump, this story of gross privilege (emphasis on “gross”) is worth considering, train wreck though it is.
The election of Kamala Harris as vice president, the new avalanche of women voted into office, should be a sign that men need to demand more of themselves and their peers. The changes that have come to media and that have surprised the heck out of once-powerful media figures like Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin and Matt Lauer are not going away.
So it’s fair, I think, to demand not just journalistic rigor and accuracy from the powerful people who are privileged to be on the air and in print, but good judgment and, yes, self-discipline.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said New Yorker editor David Remnick was on the Zoom call, he was not. TheWrap regrets the error.