Anita Hill gives John Oliver a few #MeToo lessons on “Last Week Tonight”

Frequently muddled, if not outright lost, in the coverage of sexual harassment and misconduct cases is the role bystanders play in allowing perpetrators to retain their power.

As John Oliver illustrates in Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight” via his interview with Anita Hill, what they do or don’t do matters.

Hill, currently a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, made history with her 1991 testimony stating that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when she served as his attorney-adviser while he was the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Hill was excoriated by lawmakers who questioned her credibility, her reputation and her intent in coming forward with her accusations. But although Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, Hill’s bravery nevertheless inspired Congress to pass a law that empowered harassment victims with the right to seek federal damage awards, back pay and reinstatement. It was a watershed moment.

Yet, as Oliver showed in the preface to his conversation with the professor, here we are, still having the same discussions about whether a woman’s sexual harassment allegations have merit if they weren’t reported via official channels, and whether reporting such harassment actually achieves justice for victims.

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“It does seem like we’re on the verge of a national reckoning about sexual harassment,” Oliver observes, citing evidence of this in the fact that major companies like Ford have had to pay multi-million dollar settlements and promise to change their corporate culture, that a large number of women are running for office, that Time’s Up was celebrated in the 2018 Oscar telecast.

“Now, unfortunately, everything I just said also describes the 1990s when powerful companies like Ford paid out multi-million dollar settlements and promised to change their culture and a wave of women run for office in 1992,” he said, which was also dubbed ‘The Year of the Woman” and celebrated in the 1993 Oscars.

He then played footage of a ridiculous song and dance number led by Liza Minnelli, including the depressing lyric assuring us that “Hillary will lead the way!”

Oliver could only sum that up by saying, “Ouch. The only way that could be any more on the nose is if after they sang ‘Hillary will lead the way’ Donald Trump came onstage, groped the backup dancers, and somehow won Best Picture despite losing the popular vote.”

Last week’s reporting surrounding the sexual misconduct accusations against CBS Corporation president and CEO Les Moonves provides even more definitive evidence of how little progress has been made with regard to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Within Ronan Farrow’s extensive report in The New Yorker was this important observation from a producer that did not wish to be identified:

“People say, ‘You could call H.R.’ Honestly, I’ve never met a single person from H.R.,” one producer said. “There’s no oversight.” Some said that they had witnessed retaliation against those who did attempt to speak out. At CBS News, “there was no one to turn to,” one former producer told me, saying that she had reported Charlie Rose’s behavior, and that the complaint resulted in no repercussions for Rose. “If it’s just behavior from the top, tolerated at the top, and there’s no one to talk to, what do you do?” she said.

Adding insult to this is knowing that Moonves helped found the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, of which Hill serves as the chair.

Episodes of “Last Week Tonight” are recorded on Sundays, on the day it airs. It is unclear whether Oliver’s conversation with Hill took place before or after the New Yorker story went public. (Salon reached out to HBO, but a representative did not have that information at publication time.)

Granted, within Oliver’s interview, Hill concedes that we have made forward strides. “There has been a tremendous amount of change in public attitude and there has been a change in the information we have about sexual harassment,” she says to Oliver. “Even a few years ago, people were ambivalent about what the consequences should be concerning behaving incredibly badly in the workplace.”

One interesting evolution in the current conversation, however, has to do with the fear men purportedly have with regard to women, whether that manifests in the form of sharing space or having conversations. Oliver played a number of clips featuring anxious men, including inspirational guru Tony Robbins sharing an unsubstantiated story about an executive passing over a well-qualified woman who was up for a job in favor of a male candidate. His excuse? Apparently he feared she would face harassment in his workplace because she is attractive, and the man didn’t want to assume such a risk.

Hill defty addressed this fallacy, pointing out that preventing harassment should not be a woman’s problem.

And when Oliver asked her if men should be afraid, she replied, “Not if they are not harassers. If you are a harasser, then you should be terrified.” This is common sense.

These observations weren’t as extraordinary as one point in the interview when Oliver, with the help of Hill, engaged in a moment of self-reflection.

In asking what the role of men should be in this movement, Hill simply replies, “You are needed. We need you to step up, and to realize at this point in time there are no innocent bystanders.”

As for men who turn a blind eye, she says, “If you are aware of something, you acknowledge it, you know it’s wrong, but you don’t do anything about it, then it’s the same as participating in it.”

Oliver then admits, “I think back now to myself in the workplace over the years and I can’t honestly say that I consistently spoke up if I saw creepy behavior, especially when I was much younger and I felt that I was on the lower end of the power dynamic and didn’t necessarily feel empowered to speak out and say that’s wrong,” he says, admitting that’s a fairly poor excuse. “. . . How should I feel about myself looking back? Other than slightly ashamed?”

Hill calmly replies, “Slightly ashamed is a good start.” She points out that what bystanders would do well to embrace now is empathy, not merely shame at not knowing how to react.

She then asks Oliver what he would do now if he saw misconduct taking place. “I think, probably, just say, ‘That was a pretty creepy thing to do.’ Right?” he gingerly offers.

“That’s a really nice sort of manly thing to do,” Hill responds, “but might you also say to the person who is getting the brunt of this, you know, ‘How are you? How does this feel to you? Would you like for me to say something?’”

Oliver then looks even more ashamed. “Yeah. It’s kind of sad that that’s not an instinctive reaction, isn’t it?”

“There are sadder reactions,” Hill says.

Oliver’s confusion is an important example for men to see. His willingness to concede that he doesn’t naturally know what to say and how to help demonstrates how confused and even helpless many well-meaning men seem to be feeling at the moment.

And what the powers that be count on is the average guy’s inability to dive into that discomfort and do more than simply stand by, fearing what might happen if they step up.

This very fact is one of many reasons why what happens with Moonves’ case may prove to be the most crucial test of the limitations of #MeToo.

Moonves may not be a household name but the network he represents, CBS, happens to be the most-watched television network in the United States. It is a publicly traded company whose Independent Directors are examining the matter and assured the public, via a statement released last week to the press, that “the Board will promptly review the findings and take appropriate action.”

On Monday CBS Corporation announced that its Board of Directors is in the process of selecting outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations linked to Moonves. The Board also has opted to postpone the corporation’s 2018 annual meeting of stockholders, previously scheduled to be held on August 10.

“The Board will determine a new record date for the 2018 annual meeting of stockholders and will publicly disclose the new date, time and location,” the statement reads.

The company’s stock took a dive not long after Farrow’s exposé broke, suffering its worst one-day loss in nearly seven years. Obviously how CBS handles these allegations matters to more people than just its employees.

However, Moonves also is a very wealthy and powerful man, not just in the media realm but in the country. According to the executive data firm Equilar, he was the fourth highest paid CEO of a major public company in 2017, clearing $68.4 million.

He’s molded the success of CBS’ primetime lineup in various capacities since 1998, when he first became the president and CEO of CBS Television. (He was promoted to chairman and CEO in 2003.)

He’s also shaped numerous careers, elevating a number of executives, actors and personalities to positions of prominence, including network host and producer Julie Chen. Chen and Moonves has been married since 2004, and they began dating while he was still married to the former Mrs. Moonves.

This also means that within the CBS structure are a number of bystanders who may have been in Oliver’s position of observing creepy behavior and not knowing what to do.

When this story shakes out, Moonves may very well keep his job, perhaps following a leave and reports of rehabilitation and soul searching. The company’s ultimate decision as to what to do with Moonves will likely depend on whether CBS’s independent directors believe stability is more important to the bottom line than publicly demonstrating the company’s commitment to the safety and moral integrity of its workplace.

But this case stands to resonate throughout the nation’s workplaces. There are no innocent bystanders anymore. And if an awkward talk show host can commit to stepping up, there aren’t any more excuses for anybody else to stay silent.

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