Over the years, many people have asked me what happened in my TV news career—in other words, why I stopped working in the field of television journalism. I never share details, but I recently decided it’s time to tell my story of sexual harassment and what and who drove me out of the business.
Maybe the time seems right because I recently faced cancer, which woke me up to the fact that I’m not going to live forever. I’m not sure what’s going on with me, but I decided I’m like the Godfather. “Today I settle all family business.”
What I mean by that is, not in one day, but moving forward, I need to come to peace with the people who have wronged me, as well as those who have “righted” me. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m putting it all on the table. Those who mean a lot to me will know it even more, and those who hurt me, well, I’m calling you a piece of shit and moving on.
In regards to my sexual harassment story and the way things turned out, I’m not going to blame anyone for not fulfilling the goals I set out to fill in the television news industry, that’s on me. But what happened to me played a huge role in self-esteem, and the life decisions sexual harassment caused me to make. I tell it not for vengeance, but to help others in my situation to learn from me, and hopefully be stronger; not let a person, because he is sexually harassing you, convince you that you aren’t good enough.
Here is my sexual harassment story. My bombshell.
When the #MeToo movement began a few years ago, it opened up the wounds of countless women who had at one time or another been sexually harassed in the workplace. Name me a woman who hasn’t been touched by sexual harassment. I don’t think there’s one. Honestly. But sometimes sexual harassment is so painful that the person represses it, rationalizes it, and does everything she can not to drudge up the heartbreaking and horrific memory. That’s what happened to me, and it took seeing a popular movie to bring it all back.
The minute I saw the preview for “Bombshell,” the 2019 movie about Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and other FOX news anchors claiming sexual harassment by then FOX News CEO, Roger Ailes, I ran out to see it. But while I expected to be entertained and enlightened by the film, I instead found myself in tears afterwards. Why? Because seeing Bombshell brought back some immensely painful personal recollections that I had suppressed for over 20 years.
The year was January, 1998, and at 32 years-old, I was starting a new career in a new town. After a brutal job search with hundreds of rejections, I had finally landed a position as an on-air news reporter at a small television station in the Midwest. It wasn’t exactly the kind of town you want to live in as a relatively young, single woman. There might have been 20 single people in the entire zip code where I lived. That said, I couldn’t have cared less about my love life. I was determined to fulfill what I set out to do; begin my career as a TV journalist, gain some experience, and then get hired in a larger market. The plan was to work my way up the ladder to my ultimate dream job: Today show anchor. I know that sounds lofty, but that’s how I was back then; a dreamer.
The station’s news director, Henry, hired me. Henry was a fifty-something, tall, thin, bearded man, who initially seemed like a pretty harmless guy. A year prior to hiring me, he had moved to the station from a station in a larger city and before that, had worked at a station in an even larger city. In other words, Henry was working his way down the ladder in the TV news business, which is why he had an air of bitterness and self-importance about him. I was OK with that, and it was actually tolerable until a few weeks into the job when I realized one had to walk on eggshells around him, put up with his jaded outlook on life, and hope that when he made his nightly calls to the station from his couch—his fifth scotch and soda in hand, that you weren’t the target of his mean-spirited criticisms of the station’s broadcast which had just aired.
About a month after I started the job, one afternoon, Henry poked his head out of his office and asked me to come in.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Want to go out for a drink after work tonight?” he asked.
I was stunned. ‘Is he asking me out on a date?’ I wondered. Henry was on his second marriage and had adult children from his first. In fact, I think he had a kid who was about my age.
“Uh…sure,” I said. I then instantly attempted to turn the night into an office get-together. “I’ll ask around and see if anyone else wants to join us.”
I walked out of his office and my heart sank. I had given up a lucrative sales career and a life in Chicago to live in a tiny, rural town and make a fifth of my old salary to realize a dream. Now all I was realizing was that maybe my boss hired me to have a love affair.
No one seemed too interested in joining Henry and I. One guy replied, “I don’t want to intrude on your little date.” Oh my God, I wanted to throw up.
At Henry’s request, we met at a bar in the lobby of a hotel. I stayed for one drink. It was awkward and I seriously could not wait to get out of there. I left Henry sitting on his barstool, looking disappointed just after he ordered another cocktail.
Looking back, that night signified the turning point of my television journalism career. Starting the next day, Henry’s attitude completely changed when it came to me. He was constantly criticizing my writing, my live-shots, my interviews, my editing. Name it, it wasn’t good enough.
One day, he came into the editing room where I was working and told me I sounded “Jappy” on air. I’m Jewish, by the way. Another time, in front of the entire newsroom, he began imitating me, making fun of my eyebrows, which he said moved when I talked.
Then there was the time he sent me to meet a photographer and do a live broadcast. Where? To a remote farm about 30 minutes out of town. I had to drive by myself in a bad snowstorm at 9:30 at night to report in freezing cold weather on get this: a manure spill! There were no street signs. I had to rely on directions that included, “Turn left at the crossroads right after the little yellow house.” Remember, at the time there were no cell phones, no GPS, no Waze. It was really scary. Once I found the farm, I almost threw up from the smell of cow poop. It was disgusting. The entire time I kept thinking, ‘Only someone who hated me would send me here alone.’
Turns out, the manure story must have been a hit because someone at the station told me there was a rumor going around that the advertising sales team was getting requests from their advertisers that I become the mid-day anchor. I was elated. I was making progress!
Henry called me into his office a couple days later and told me what I had already heard. Then he added, “I told them you aren’t ready for that yet.” At that moment, I felt like he just punched me in the stomach.
The next few months were depressing. Every time I was in the same room with Henry, he was either laughing at me or criticizing my work. I tried so hard to be his friend because I didn’t want to lose my job. I had given up a lot and I needed it to work out for at least a year before I could start job searching again. I would never get another reporting job without at least 12 months of experience on my resume.
Looking back, months and months of working in an emotionally abusive environment started taking a toll on my self-confidence and self-esteem. I started to doubt my ability to do my job. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe he had made a mistake hiring me. Having been raised in a happy, healthy family, and having been successful at all my past jobs, I barely knew myself anymore. I lost a significant amount of weight and worried about being fired every day I went to work.
The last weekend I worked at the station, I was sent out with a photographer to cover a worldwide tug-of-war competition. Men and women from over 50 countries were in our little town to play tug-of-war. It really was very exciting. Henry and his assistant, Mark, told me to ask the players where they were eating—what restaurants they were going to while they were in town. I gave the guys a funny look. “Seriously? Who cares where they’re eating. We’ve got people here from Israel and Turkey and China and Brazil and South Africa. Let’s ask them why they traveled thousands of miles to come here! Let’s find out about their lives!”
“No,” Henry replied coldly. “This is your assignment. You’ll do what I say.”
So, out I went, microphone in hand, asking the participants where they were eating while in town and feeling like a schmuck. I found out that there was a cafeteria on-site, and that it offered breakfast, lunch and dinner at inexpensive rates. Therefore, almost none of the participants were eating out at restaurants.
They didn’t care about food. They were here to compete. With this new information, I called the station. Henry insisted that I come up with a story that had to do with food. The camera guy didn’t have an answer, so I did what I thought was best. I started interviewing some of the participants, asking them why they traveled so far to be here, why they enjoyed tug-of-war, and what they hoped to gain from the competition and the trip. I brought back what I thought was a wonderful, uplifting, inspiring story; one of the best I’d done in the nine months I’d been working there. I was proud and happy to submit it, and when it aired, several people congratulated me on a job well done.
The next day was my birthday. My coworkers had surprised me with a large sheet cake and they sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Things were looking up. I was excited to hear what Henry was going to say about last night’s story.
“Jackie, can you come into my office?” he called out into the newsroom.
I walked in and Henry was sitting behind his desk. Across from him was Mark, looking scared and stressed, as usual.
“Mark is going to join us for this meeting.”
Mark then got up and closed the door, and that’s when it hit me. I knew what was coming next.
“Jackie…” Henry began. “We sent you out to do a story on what the tug-of-war participants were going to eat while they were in town, and you failed to give us the story. I’ve decided it’s not working out for you here and I’d like you to resign.”
I had thought about this moment every day for months, and now here it was. I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t angry. In fact, immense relief was flowing through my entire body. I was like someone who for hundreds of days had been falling off a cliff, waiting to hit the ground, and now I finally did. I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. I no longer had anything to lose. I had now officially lost. I didn’t argue, I didn’t try to defend myself, I didn’t even react, really. I just mumbled something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and then I went to call my boyfriend (who would eventually become my husband and the father of our two children), who lived in Chicago and told him I was moving back.
Looking back, I think I had been emotionally abused for so long, my self-esteem trampled on for months, that I had no strength, no fight, and no confidence left. I was blind to what was going on, which in retrospect was that I was fired because I didn’t want to be Henry’s girlfriend or sex partner or whatever he wanted from me.
Within a week after moving back to Chicago, I landed a high-paying pharmaceutical sales job making five times as much as I did at the station. I never even tried to get a job as a TV reporter in Chicago because in my mind, I wasn’t good enough. Henry had made sure to drill that into my head for almost a year, and foolishly and sadly I believed him. I truly think what happened to me in that job hindered a promising career in TV journalism.
I’m not going to blame Henry that I never ended up fulfilling my dream of being the Today show co-host. I realize what a lofty goal that is. But, the sexual harassment followed by months of emotional abuse and cruelty zapped my self-confidence and belief in my abilities as a journalist for a really long time. By the way, I heard Henry got fired from the station a few months after he fired me. I never found out the reason.
A year later, I got married, had kids shortly after, and became a stay-at-home mom. I never lost my love for writing—I wrote four novels as a stay-at-home mom. Several years later, I got a job as a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune suburban paper, eventually landing my “Love Essentially” column. I also started my divorce support website, “Divorced Girl Smiling,” which was so well received that it became a lucrative business for many years and still is.
It wasn’t until I saw “Bombshell” that I realized my story was similar to Gretchen Carlson’s, and that I had repressed the memory of the events that transpired at my old station. The bottom line was, I wouldn’t engage with my supervisor so I was picked on and then forced out. But for 20 years, I lived with this false belief that I wasn’t good enough and that’s why I was fired. Now I felt angry. Really angry. Despite my journalistic successes, I believed I wasn’t good enough two decades! One man, because of his disrespect for women, his bruised ego, and a personal vendetta, made me think I didn’t have what it took. I now know how very wrong he was, and how he used his power and authority to punish me for not giving me what he wanted.
The day after I saw “Bombshell,” I googled Gretchen Carlson, found her email address and wrote her my story. She responded within a couple hours, and urged me to reach out to my former boss and address the sexual harassment. So, I Facebook messaged him. If you can believe it, we were Facebook friends! That is how much I believed for years that he didn’t do anything wrong!
I messaged him that I saw “Bombshell,” and that it made me realize that his asking me to have a drink with him alone at a hotel was wrong, and that his behavior towards me changed right after that night when he felt rejected. He answered right away, stating that he was sorry if a film brought back false memories, that he often had drinks with other employees, and that he fired me because I wasn’t good enough. Can you believe he was still standing by his warped sense of the truth? It was infuriating, but not surprising at all. By the way, he did have drinks with other employees, but not alone at a hotel. He was with his wife or in a group with others. Not with me.
Again, I wasn’t surprised by Henry’s response. It is exactly what I expected, based on what I remember of his personality. That said, I burned with anger, simply because at the time of the firing, I had cheated myself out of feeling the appropriate emotion. Like a subservient little lap dog, I walked away quietly with my tail between my legs, as if the actions were justified. I should have been screaming, “You’re a pig, you disgust me, shame on you!” Over 20 years later, I decided to be pissed off. It felt great. But it’s enough now. I can put it to rest. Why? Because if I spend any more time being angry, I will only be hurting myself. I’m not going to let Henry hurt me anymore. Oh, I unfriended him on Facebook.
Bravo to you for sharing this story after 20 years, which not only applies to sexual harassment but also to marriage/divorce issues…putting up with any kind of abuse, losing your self-esteem, feeling shamed, confronting someone who has wronged you. It’s never too late to speak up and speak out. Here’s to continued healing!