When I started writing this paragraph, Mark Halperin had a new book deal; by the time I finish, it’s entirely possible he might not. So as I’m composing a column about the attempted comeback of a disgraced political journalist, I’m trying not to think specifically about Halperin. I’m trying to think about how America’s stories get told and who gets to tell them. And how we decide. And why that matters.
Nearly two years ago, Halperin, whose insider look at the 2008 presidential campaign became a bestseller, was accused by at least a dozen women of sexual harassment. The “Game Change” author was fired from his jobs at NBC and Showtime. He disappeared, mostly. After more than a year away from the spotlight, he started to tiptoe back. He let it be known that he was doing volunteer work; he talked about wanting to earn the respect of his son — a boilerplate rehabilitation, really.
But over the weekend, news broke that his reentry has been accelerated, in the form of a high-profile contract for a book about the 2020 campaign. This was infuriating for the world of people who know who Mark Halperin is: Had he truly atoned for his sins? Had he been punished enough? Politicos he had already interviewed for the book immediately began distancing themselves from the project. Like I said, this title may never actually see the light of day.
Figuring out whether someone has been suitably castigated is a complicated, murky business and not something I feel qualified to take on.
But I do feel qualified to think about what we might gain — or lose — with another book filtered through Halperin’s particular narrative lens. The most salient question about Halperin shouldn’t be, “Has he been punished enough?” but rather, “Can we trust him to tell true stories about this election?”
This election, with a record number of female candidates, is historic. Last election was also historic, though, and many members of the media bungled it by raising specious theories on Hillary Clinton’s “likability,” by allowing sexism within political coverage to go unchecked and unnoticed.
Can we trust Halperin, a man who allegedly rubbed his private parts on women, to be a clear-eyed scribe for this moment in history? Halperin, a man who allegedly agreed to provide one woman with career advice and instead began masturbating in front of her? Who allegedly grabbed another co-worker’s breasts, rested his penis on the shoulder of a third, pulled a fourth onto his lap? (Halperin apologized for “mistreating” some women while maintaining that other accusations were not true; he has denied unwanted physical contact.)
Is this someone you trust to fairly assess their campaigns? To avoid the pitfalls of sexism that have trapped even journalists who don’t use their colleagues’ shoulders as groin support?
Back in April, the radio host Michael Smerconish invited Halperin — only then beginning to test the public waters — onto his show. By way of public apology, Halperin mentioned speaking with “women who have been sexually harassed and explained to me why it’s such a deeply troubling thing.”
He then went on to discuss his predictions for the 2020 campaign, which would be the topic of his new book should it come to pass. He talked about being impressed by Pete Buttigieg, and very impressed by Bernie Sanders, but less impressed by Beto O’Rourke (after Smerconish specifically asked him about O’Rourke). He characterized Joe Biden’s problems with women — several had claimed his physical attention made them uncomfortable — as “a bit overblown.”
He uttered a female candidate’s name only once, and that was in passing, to unfavorably compare Elizabeth Warren’s establishment appeal to Buttigieg’s.
Is this man a necessary author for this moment in history? A man who barely seems to remember there are any women in the race at all?
A man who, at the age of 50 and after being the political director for a major news network, needed multiple women to explain to him why harassment is deeply troubling?
I don’t mean to pile on, to get overly nitpicky with rhetoric. But this is a savvy media figure who must have known he was launching a delicate apology tour for harassing women. And it still didn’t occur to him, in that moment, to bring up the campaigns of any of the six women who are running for president?
This is not a sign of someone who needs to be punished more. It’s not a sign of someone who needs to apologize more. It’s an insight into someone whose blind spots might be so baked into his worldview that he doesn’t even realize they’re there at all.
Is this a voice we need right now?
When we talk about the abuses committed by powerful men, the negative impact occurs on two levels. First and foremost, their victims are hurt. But second, and more far-reaching, we are all hurt.
When Harvey Weinstein gets to decide how women are depicted in movies, it hurts us. When Les Moonves gets to decide what behavior is normalized via our television programs, it hurts us. When Roger Ailes steers the news of the day, it hurts us.
And when Mark Halperin, alleged harasser of more than a dozen women ...
I think he might be very, very sorry. I think he might be trying. I think he might be perfectly well-suited to other kinds of jobs. I think all of that might be true.
But someone is going to decide, at this moment in time, how to tell the story of American politics in 2020. Does it really need to be him?
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society.