Independent writer Deborah Copaken shocked the media world with accusations against a New York Observer editor. Now, she tells us about the risks facing self-employed journalists.
Independent writer Deborah Copaken, a former war photographer, is hardly a stranger to conflict. Her journalism is often bold, opinionated, and controversial, and she’s accustomed to confidently fending off criticism.
Then came the influential editor whose sexual harassment, she says, left her feeling powerless.
Now she is speaking out. In March 2018, she wrote an Atlantic article titled “How to Lose Your Job From Sexual Harassment in 33 Easy Steps.”
Copaken writes that she was sexually harassed by Ken Kurson, the now-former editor of the New York Observer, while she was seeking to write a column and potentially get a full-time job. Among other inappropriate remarks, she says, he made a comment about her breasts during an in-person meeting as they discussed a story about her battle against breast cancer. And, she says, he sent her an email that said simply: “1 p.m. How come you never asked me out?”
Sexual harassment, you would like to tell everyone, is not about sex,” Copaken writes. “It’s about a person in power systematically leveraging that power to lure you into his orbit and either proffer or take away your money, work, healthcare, and financial stability, depending on your positive or negative response to his sexual overtures. Respond in the affirmative, and you’ve prostituted yourself. Respond negatively, do not respond at all, or get a lawyer involved, and there goes your career.”
(The Atlantic asked Kurson for comment, and he said: “Deborah is a terrific writer. I published her often and wish her nothing but the best.” The president of Observer Media, meanwhile, said there was no system at the company for freelancers to file complaints.)
In an interview with ASJA Magazine, Copaken talks about her “Hail Mary pass” of a story for The Atlantic, the special vulnerability of freelance journalists to sexual harassment (“the betrayal flattened me for months”), and her skepticism that things will improve.
Q: What inspired you to write your Atlantic piece?
Deborah Copaken: A lack of a better recourse. The essay, in the parody form of a listicle, was a Hail Mary pass to say, “Hey! This
Q: What did you hope to accomplish?
DC: I wanted to point out the subtle, evil, step-by-step destruction of a career that comes via sexual harassment for any woman out there. An editor had dangled a job he’d never actually planned to give me, for over a year. I acted in accordance with that dangled carrot, producing story after story, thinking it would lead to a full-time gig, which I needed (and still need!), being the single parent of three kids, two of whom were in college at the time.
His checkmate move—“How come you never asked me out?”—was devastating. It made me reevaluate everything leading up to it. He’d never wanted me to write for him. He wanted me to date him.
The betrayal flattened me for months.
Q: Do you think you were especially at risk due to being a freelancer?
DC: Absolutely. When you count on a good relationship with editors to buy groceries and pay rent and send your kids to college, you are far more likely to put up with abuse you’d never tolerate in your day-to-day relationships. They know this. And the troubled ones use that powerlessness against you.
Q: Would you have felt more secure if there was a procedure that you could rely on like you’’d typically have at a workplace?
DC: I was naive enough to believe there
was a procedure in place. But I also counted on that money every month and knew if I reported my boss, bye-bye money.
Q: What has the response been like?
DC: It’s been predominantly positive, with some women and men contacting me privately to say, “Me, too.”
“I’d like to think #MeToo will lead to change. But I also know human nature, being what it is, has a propensity to abuse power.” Deborah copaken
Q: What advice would you give independent journalists who might find themselves in a similar situation to yours regarding harassment?
DC: The sad answer is I have no idea. It’s a problem without obvious recourse right now.
I guess it’s up to the magazines and newspapers themselves to provide each freelancer, along with a freelance contract, directions for reporting sexual abuse, should that happen, so that freelancers know they can say something without fearing loss of future income.
Then again, freelance work often comes from relationships with editors. Once you call out an editor, will you be reassigned to another? In an ideal world, sure. But the world is not ideal.
Q: Do you have any advice for editors who
begin to feel romantic interest for independent journalists working for them?
DC: It’s silly to think we can police our feelings. Feelings are feelings, and if an editor falls in love with his or her freelancer or vice versa, there’s a simple solution. Say something along the lines of this: “I want you to understand that what I’m about to say will in no way jeopardize our working relationship. No matter your
answer to this question, I still want to keep working with you. But I have found myself drawn to you in ways that go beyond platonic, and I just wanted to put that out there to clear the air. If you’d like to go out for a drink, cool.
If you’d rather we keep our relationship professional, equally cool.” Or something like that.
Q: I have a feeling that the next #MeToo movement will involve workplace bullying. Has that been an issue for you?
DC: Yes, not as a journalist but in my role as a vice president at the public relations firm where I worked. I had a female boss who was a major bully. When I got a call from my son’s school, where he’d knocked a permanent tooth out and was bleeding after having run into a pole on the playground, I told her I had to leave. She asked me, “Can’t you send the babysitter?”
Q: Do you have hope about the future?
DC: I’m not sure I can be hopeful yet about my own 21-year-old daughter’s future as a woman in the workplace. I’d like to think #MeToo will lead to change. But I also know human nature, being what it is, has a propensity to abuse power. It’s always been thus. And will forever more be.
The question is whether we can override that propensity, as a society, and call out sexual harassment when it happens.