Hi, I’m on the Shitty Media Men list, but maybe you already knew that

Last spring, during my first week on the janitorial staff at a Dave & Buster’s, I struck up a conversation with a coworker who had served 17 years in prison. Swapping life stories, I sheepishly divulged that I used to work for The Washington Post, that I had a book published by HarperCollins, and that I spent years as the top editor of a popular website.

He fixed a look at me. “So what are you doing here?” he asked. For the life of me, I couldn’t begin to explain.

How could I describe how I was fortunate enough in 2006 to be able to afford a one-bedroom condo at age 24, yet that today I feel trapped in that space, with the mortgage still underwater? Could I adequately explain how I went from having a life and career I felt proud of, to being publicly shamed by my peers and punished for things I didn’t do?

In October 2017, I was one of roughly 70 men included in the Shitty Media Men list, a crowdsourced spreadsheet of anonymous, unvetted allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. No words can describe my astonishment and horror at finding myself accused of “harassment,” “stalking” and “physical intimidation.” Even more agonizing was seeing this supposedly private listing, allegedly intended as a whisper-network warning among trusted insiders, swiftly leaked to the public, initially on the website of conservative activist Mike Cernovich and later on other outlets and social media.

The damage to my career seemed equally swift. In the decade leading up to the list, my work was regularly published by more than a dozen outlets and I was frequently offered work. After the leak, that work screeched to a stop. Today, I write for only one outlet I previously contributed to; income that covers only a few smaller bills. I’ve applied for hundreds of conventional office jobs, ranging from PR to administrative assistant to technical writing in an effort to avoid a bankruptcy that could hurt family members whose finances are linked to mine. Yet employers don’t seem to view the four years I spent creating, organizing and running a popular blog as applicable experience. Most days, it’s difficult to envision a path back to a decent life.

More than two years later, the media continue to embrace MeToo’s powerful personal narratives as a reliable source of content and controversy. Now a cornerstone of liberal orthodoxy that few dare to challenge, there has been surprisingly little effort to dig into its complexities, unless the accused is someone powerful and prominent like Al Franken. Hardline supporters of the movement shrug off its more extreme tactics by noting that some MeToo’d celebrities have inched back to prominence or avoided life-shattering consequences. Non-famous casualties remain under the rug they were summarily swept under. Accordingly, I decided to self-publish this piece only after a handful of prominent news outlets declined, offering mealy-mouthed dismissals and concerns for the sensitivity of the issue.

At the dawn of 2020, there’s nothing unique about having been devastated by the housing crash or being a writer down on his luck. My story is noteworthy only because I’m one of the least powerful men to have been publicly accused in the MeToo era. What makes this event intolerable isn’t just that the allegations against me are false. It’s that I have no idea who made them.

A few of the men on the list were investigated and fired. Others continued in their careers just fine, most as staffers of established news organizations with bosses willing to listen to their sides. Still others disappeared from public life, which some have taken as a tacit admission of guilt. When the list was created, I’d been freelancing exclusively for two years. Of all media jobs, freelancing may be the least powerful. It’s extremely easy, and far from uncommon, for the editors on whom freelancers depend for their livelihoods to brush them off without explanation. Not one editor asked me about the list’s allegations. I just stopped getting work.

Other factors may well have contributed to my undoing, including the shuttering of numerous publications and shrinking of freelance budgets. Admittedly, specifically quantifying the damage this public shaming has done to my career is impossible. But few would disagree that success in media is often about connections — and most of my connections evaporated. Colleagues, readers, and even friends who once supported my work no longer do. Editors and writers I reach out to are either distant or uncommunicative.

What can’t be questioned is the psychological toll the list has taken. Almost immediately after its release, a close friend of 10 years cut me off and hasn’t spoken to me since, even after I reached out to him. Day after day, I’m tortured by the thought that even more people will learn of the allegations or that I’ll be unexpectedly attacked for them online. Too often, I’ve found myself hanging out with friends as the discussion turned to celebrities being MeToo’d, and been incapable of revealing what happened to me. Sooner or later, I’ve feared, they’ll know, too. It’s been more than a year since I’ve dated. Working three low-paying jobs means I’m always busy — and broke. Plus, any woman who does the usual, pre-date research online could stumble upon the list. How could I explain it away in the early stages of a relationship?

Moira Donegan, the woman who started the list, wrote in a New York Magazine essay months after its dissemination that she was “naïve because [she] did not understand the forces that would make the document go viral.” Donegan is currently being sued by another listed man, Stephen Elliott, for libel and emotional distress. Perhaps surprisingly, I disagree with the lawsuit. I see the list as a net positive for having removed some extreme offenders. Attacking Donegan for creating the possibility of false claims ignores the failures of established power structures that shielded abusers and made the list necessary. Additionally, Donegan had no power to force anyone to take it seriously. Yet she can’t be immune from criticism. The lack of operational security surrounding such a sensitive and unvetted document was irresponsible at best. In a more recent Vice profile, Donegan recalled wondering with friends in the days before the list’s creation, “How many Harvey Weinsteins are there in our industry?” To my admittedly biased ears, the question suggests that those who ended up on the list merited comparison to a man accused of threatening, raping and assaulting scores of women.

A side note to the accusations leveled at me was the claim that an “HR file at The Washington Post,” where I was an editorial aide from 2005 to 2008, existed that presumably backed up the accusations. The Post keeps scanned personnel files on all employees, so an HR file on me does exist. But when I called the newspaper’s human resources department for verification, I was told my file contains no mention of accusations, investigations or disciplinary actions.

It made no sense. Baffled, I reached out to the former coworker I had assumed was my accuser, a female reporter in my office whom I felt sure had at times found me rude or inconsiderate. She said she didn’t write my entry and didn’t know who did. No one else makes any sense to me whatsoever. What’s more, The Post was my last office job. All the media work I’ve had in the decade since was done remotely.

Anyone who reads the vaguely worded claims against me could imagine the worst: That I followed a woman home or staked out her place, cornered her and made threats. With no chance to explain myself, I’m terrified this is what people assume. How can I counter such assumptions in a situation in which the burden of proof is entirely on me? How do I explain away actions an unknown person claims I took more than a decade ago?

Few would argue that the culture hasn’t changed enormously during those years. In 2006, it was much easier for men to insulate themselves from feminist perspectives. That’s when I co-founded the sports blog Kissing Suzy Kolber, where five male staffers and I produced admittedly crass and offensive humor. By the time I shuttered it in 2015, KSK had become considerably more thoughtful and tasteful, and featured a regular female staffer. But there’s no denying I created some undeniably problematic content. I have to live with the fact that the site’s transgressions may have helped some people believe the claims against me.

Since its publication, the list and the associated lawsuit have been covered by everyone from The New York Times to BuzzFeed to Vox; it has even inspired episodes of popular TV shows. Yet the list is obscure enough that the only people I feel sure have seen it are media types and those deep into online discourse. Still, the fact that it’s a quick online search away is nerve-wracking. Anytime a friend or acquaintance seems distant, I immediately think, “Oh god, they saw the list.”

Obviously, I’m drawing attention to it now. I’m tired of trying to hide in plain sight, of feeling psychologically broken for actions I never took. The top of the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet admonished readers to take the allegations with a grain of salt because its charges are uninvestigated. But in my experience, more than a few people have equated inclusion on the list, regardless of the alleged offense, as proof that a man is undeserving of ever being hired or heard from. Media professionals purportedly in the business of checking facts, it appears, are allowing themselves to be guided by rumor.

My terror of the claims being taken as truth has made me extremely selective about revealing them to anyone. I can count on one hand the friends I’ve told, and I didn’t confide in most of them until months after the list appeared. Weeks after it surfaced, I felt desperate enough to tweet — without mentioning the cause — that I was having suicidal thoughts and couldn’t afford counseling. A number of friends and associates offered commiseration and emotional support. Yet it wasn’t long before loneliness, hopelessness and fear of forever losing the career I’d poured a decade into again overwhelmed me. It was easy to think everyone who has seen the list assumes I’m contemptible and deserve what happened to me. The only remedy I could think of — writing a piece like this one, explaining my side — struck me as certain to invite more outrage and judgment. A year later, I felt hopeless enough to call a suicide hotline. However briefly, it felt cathartic, explaining to the stranger on the other end the accusations I faced and the distress they were causing.

I still haven’t mustered the courage to tell my immediate family. Though I assume they’ll be supportive, I’ve imagined how excruciating this news will be to my parents, who’ve never worked in media and aren’t well-versed online. I remember how proud my mother was when I dedicated to her the silly sports humor book I wrote. Hearing that I’ve been accused of such misdeeds and have suffered in my career could devastate her. But I can no longer avoid it.

We live in an age in which millions are daily inundated with misinformation, argument and provocation. As a result, many of us are stressed beyond belief. Yet in the decade since I worked in an office environment, that same culture has made some incalculable strides — including a marked increase in the seriousness with which women’s views are considered.

Since MeToo became a sweeping social movement, countless men have been forced to be more careful and respectful in their dealings with women. Many have privately questioned their past behavior, wondering whether borderline interactions they recall as benign might be labeled abusive. As a man named and shamed by the list, I’ve had ample motivation to scrutinize my behavior and grapple with lessons. For five years I was a crew leader for a moving company whose customer base was largely composed of single women. More than once, I reprimanded coworkers who yelled “compliments” to women on the street. After admonishing an older male coworker for hitting on a 20-something female customer, it struck me how much being accused had made me cognizant of her vulnerability, and the fragile trust she’d placed in us to move her personal belongings.

Societal change is seldom achieved neatly. Though I welcome the culture coming down hard on those who’ve acted reprehensibly, I’ve noted an unfortunate tendency by some to see all abuses as equal. The routine dismissal of all who’ve been MeToo’d, regardless of their alleged behavior, means rapists sometimes get lumped into the same category as men whose actions were more clumsy than criminal. It was months after the appearance of the list before I could even bring myself to check with The Post about my alleged HR file. Blindsided by the awfulness of the claim against me, I let the slogan Believe Women take precedence over my own memories.

Truth is too large and complex to always fit neatly into a slogan, however well-intentioned. Everybody wins when the women who once were summarily dismissed when they called out sexually violent or harassing men are taken seriously. But “believe women” shouldn’t necessarily mean “disbelieve men.” Everyone deserves better than to be assumed guilty of unsubstantiated charges from anonymous sources. Justice, and journalism, demand more.

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