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Mary Murphy: Change Happens When Women are in Power

The journalism professor and media expert discusses the sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood with "Scheer Intelligence" host Robert Scheer.
The journalism professor and media expert discusses the sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood.

USC Annenberg professor Mary Murphy has covered the entertainment industry for many publications including TV Guide, New York Magazine, and The LA Times. In their conversation, Murphy tells host Robert Scheer about her reporting over 30 years ago on sexual harassment in Hollywood.  Murphy says as a young reporter, she was harassed by a famous actor, but her editor told her to leave it out of the story to protect the actor. And Murphy tells Scheer that in spite of recent harassment allegations, she sees a sea change happening particularly in television where the morning news shows now all have prominent women hosts.


Robert Scheer

Joshua ScheerRebecca Mooney

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, the podcast we do weekly. I know it sounds like a pretentious name, but the intelligence comes from my guests, not from me. I’m kind of like the CIA here, interrogating people. And in this case it’s Mary Murphy, a journalist that I have great respect for, I’ve known for years. She worked at the Los Angeles Times for about eight years, we overlapped; she was at Esquire magazine, she worked for New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, all that sort of thing. And I was going to begin, I will begin, with the question–because she covered the entertainment industry, she’s now a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication [and Journalism], where I also teach. And the question I was going to put is about the sexual harassment scandal, particularly as affects the entertainment industry. I was going to ask, what did you know, and when–what do you know and when did you know it. But you, now I think I know the answer, because in 1986 you did a cover story for TV Guide–1986, a long time ago–on harassment in Hollywood. And then you went on The Today Show to talk about it. So why don’t we begin with that: How did you come to cover the issue then, and what was the fallout?

MM: The cover was called “Sexual Harassment in Hollywood,” and we couldn’t use anyone’s photo, because people were terrified to talk on the record. A few did, but we used a drawing. And what I remember, it came about from talking to some young actresses. I don’t know why I thought that the casting couch in Hollywood had gone by the wayside, but it turned out that it had not. And some of the young actresses started talking to me about their experiences with directors, with producers, with stuntmen, with the people who were hiring them for stunts. And they talked about the same things that the women are talking about now, but this was 1986. And I remember going on The Today Show to talk about it, and the only woman who would go with me was a stuntwoman. Because she was tough and was unafraid. But it was the kind of thing–“Come back to my office, let’s do another audition, can you take your clothes off, we need to see you nude, let’s go out to dinner or you won’t be in this scene and you will not be on my show unless you do A, B, and C.” And that’s how long ago, that’s–

RS: Thirty years ago.

MM: Thirty years ago.

RS: Yeah. Let me just ask you, because when I read about, first the Harvey Weinstein case, which is the big one. I only met, I think I only met this guy once in my life. And generally, people referred to him, people I used to know, as kind of a good example of Hollywood; he was liberal, he made movies that had some social content, he supported the Clintons, et cetera. And I remember I was introduced, I did an interview with Bill Gates for Talk magazine, and I went to, there was a reception for Talk magazine–and this was a long time ago, in the nineties–and I remember being introduced to Harvey Weinstein by Tina Brown, who certainly was a very knowledgeable person, and actually inclined to even be gossipy. And neither then nor any time since, until this scandal broke, did anyone ever in Hollywood tell me about Harvey Weinstein and his behavior. Not once. And then I asked my wife, who was the–you know, she hired you at the LA Times, she was the associate editor–I just asked her this morning, I said, did you know about this? She was the head of the calendar section, the whole, you know, entertainment part of the LA Times. And she left in 2002. And she said no, she didn’t hear about it. So that’s a question, I mean, it’s not just–did Tina Brown know, did other people know and not talk about it? What’s your sense of how this story was kept from us, really?

MM: It’s such an interesting question. I didn’t know about Harvey Weinstein, because I didn’t cover his movies; I’ve never even met him. But this is a story that I heard about Harvey Weinstein that always stuck with me. A friend of mine, a reporter, went to interview him, and asking him very tough questions–

RS: What year was that?

MM: Mmm, maybe five years ago. They were in a hotel room. But he was a man. And what he said to me was, three times during the interview Harvey Weinstein threatened to throw him out the window of the hotel. That’s how tough he was. And that always stuck with me when these stories came out, because I thought, if he was that tough with a male reporter, imagine what he was like with young women who desperately wanted to work. And then we heard his voice on the recording. And although the words were not as sexual, the tone of the voice was so menacing. And that’s when I got, that’s when I knew about Harvey Weinstein. But in my world, it was the Bill Cosby story that people had always said, “Stay away from Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby is a threat to women.” But what’s interesting about both of these men is, in Cosby’s case it’s his image: the best father in American television, contemporary American television. The man who changed the way we looked at black families. I mean, this image was, you know, in our DNA. And the same thing with Harvey Weinstein: look at the man who brought us movies that elevated moviemaking. And so what’s interesting is that both of them were so revered, but behind the scenes, whatever their demons were drove them in ways that were so repulsive to women. But I did not know. I did not know about Harvey Weinstein, at all.

RS: Well, that’s interesting. Because when you talk now to people, they say everyone knew. Now, maybe that’s a more recent phenomena. But the both of us worked for the LA Times, which after all was very important to the entertainment industry; we were in the building, you know, you did a story in ‘86 on sexual harassment. Did anybody say to you, well, why don’t you look at, you know, any of the people whose names have come up. You mentioned Cosby; when did you first hear about Cosby?

MM: I heard about Cosby during The Cosby Show. I didn’t know he was harassing women; I didn’t know he was giving them drugs. But I knew that he had a lot of young women around him, and that women were afraid to be alone with him. I knew that. But what’s interesting is that this has been going on for years, and although I didn’t cover movies, reporters had to know. That this is something that we have to remember. 

RS: Do you think it’s possible that we got into a sort of, one of the contradictions of the politically correct liberal side of things? After all, Bill Clinton was known to be a pretty aggressive womanizer at best, and maybe an exploiter, as claimed. And yet you know, people did look the other way, some of the very same people who have really, now, come out with very strong voices. And again, Harvey Weinstein was on the liberal side of things; he was not making the schlock movies, he was supporting strong, independent movies including some like Frida, which had a woman character as the lead. And I just wonder whether there wasn’t a double standard here. If he had been a conservative, would he have been challenged?

MM: Right. If he’d been a conservative republican, would he have been challenged? And that, I think that’s a really good observation. But the thing is that, the thing to me about this whole story that is the most inspiring is the women. And I mean starting with Megyn Kelly, who supported Gretchen Carlson in her suit against Fox and Roger Ailes. I mean, first of all, that Gretchen Carlson stood up. But for me, the huge turning point in this is when the No. 1 woman on Fox News backed up another woman. And once that started, I believe that other women said, “We can do this. We can actually speak up.” You know, there’s a lot of negative about Megyn Kelly, but boy, I don’t feel that way at all, because she has done some fantastic reporting about this. The other thing is, is that I don’t necessarily think the victims should be the story, but the victims, once they were celebrities–like, you know, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan–once celebrity women lent credence to this, then everyone started paying attention. Before this, people would say, “Oh–you know, oh, her”–or look at the criticism today, I mean, Catherine Deneuve came out and criticized the #MeToo movement. But once the celebrity women–you know, because I teach about celebrities at USC. And celebrities have tremendous power that has nothing to do with just their movies. It has to do with affecting the culture. And these women stood up, and I think it made a huge difference in the coverage and in the way people started to pay attention. 

RS: I just a few years ago, here at USC, I brought in the directors of a movie called [The] Hunting Ground, about rape on college campuses, a very powerful movie. And that movie, I think, was slated to win an Oscar for documentary; they had also previously made a very important movie on rape in the military, and I think they’re working on a movie now on harassment in Hollywood. And this was not, you know, did Al Franken put his hand on the wrong part of your back; this was rape. And ‘SC here, where we teach, was on the list of schools that had not acted effectively on this issue. And I showed it in school. And I remember even in our own department, people criticized me and said, “You know, that film is being criticized. That film is flawed, it’s weak.” I said, what do you mean? They said, “Well, at Harvard”–one of their examples was at Harvard Law School. And I remember people that I really respect in our department said, “Well, you know, you’re showing that movie, but that movie is really questionable.” And I said, what’s questionable about it? Well, Alan Dershowitz and others at Harvard, and a large number of law professors, had condemned the movie and said, you know, “You unfairly accused this person,” and attacked the witness. And this was not anonymous; these were people who actually were giving their name. Because I think there really is a question about using anonymous witnesses, and I think, you know, you shouldn’t be guilty until proven innocent; it’s supposed to be the opposite in our culture. And so I’m all for accurate and careful treatment of these stories, but when I watched that movie I thought, you know, wait a minute! Why is such a large number of people at the Harvard Law School and elsewhere attacking this movie? Well, it was very close to home. It was their territory. And now, you know, if that movie came out now, my goodness, it would be celebrated everywhere. To pick up on what you were suggesting, we’ve had–as we did with gay rights quite recently–we’ve had a revolution in this area. I don’t think it’s going to go away. And now the question is also, though, about reporting it and its consequence, you know. And we’re here at a college where we take sexual harassment classes and so forth. So last night after class, an old friend of mine who does work at the LA Times was a speaker in class. At the end I shook hands with her to say goodbye, and my wife was there, she was on the panel as well, and there were hugs all around. And she said “Well, no, no, give me a hug, I’ve known you since I, you know, for 20 years.” And I just–today I thought about it, no; hugs might be out, and maybe have to be out. Maybe a whole permissive environment of the sixties turned out to be not so wonderful. Maybe the sexual revolution was no so great. Maybe there were a lot of victims in this. I don’t want to take this too far, but I wonder if you’ve thought about this. There’s roots here of a notion of sexual freedom that ended up actually being quite exploitive and misogynist, in the case of some people we’re talking about.

MM: Yeah, you know, I have so many thoughts, when you were talking about that. I remember The Hunting Ground, discussing it in my class. And for me, The Hunting Ground was about the institutional ignorance, and also the institutional pushback of these women who were desperate to report–

RS: In the universities.

MM: In the universities. And then I asked my students in class, I said, how many women in this class are afraid of rape? How many women here? And I would say at least three-fourths of the women in the class raised their hand. And then one of the men in the class raised his hand, and he said to me, “I’m afraid that someone’s going to say I raped them, and then I will be expelled from school.” And I thought to myself, you know, this movie–and that’s why I think Hollywood is so powerful. This movie, movies like these, these documentaries–they encourage these conversations. The conversations that now are on the front page, and now are at the Golden Globes, and now are in every newspaper and about everyone. But these conversations have been building for a long time. People are afraid to talk about these things. You know, when I was at the LA Times, I was sexually harassed, no question about it. You know, you’re a young girl, you’re 24 years old, you’ve come from the Midwest, you’re trying to, you know, be a great reporter. And it happens, and you’re just terrified. So women my age have been keeping these secrets for years. Which is why I think this movement is so powerful; because it’s not just this generation, it’s the generations before them who are saying, yeah–you were talking about roots–the roots go deep. Whether, I don’t see it as like the sixties sexual freedom, ‘cause it never was about that; it was always about a powerful man saying, OK, you can get ahead, but this is the path; you have to take this with your journey. And it was really scary. I remember when, I guess it was Sally Quinn, or I can’t exactly remember who said, you know, women sleep their way to the top. No, no woman wanted to sleep their way to the top; women were forced into these things. That’s why, like the Lupita Nyong’o story that she wrote in The New York Times about what happened to her with Harvey Weinstein, the very graphic descriptions of what he did–any woman who’s been harassed can say, yes. The specifics are what women are identifying with. Not the general, it’s the specifics; oh yeah, wow, I–oh, I remember those feelings–oh, yeah, I know, I know she’s telling the truth, ‘cause I’ve been there.

RS: I wanted to ask you about that, and about Hollywood. Because tonight in class, I have an ethics class, and I very often show this movie by Robert Altman called The Player. I don’t know if you remember that movie.

MM: Kind of remember it, yeah.

RS: Well, an interesting thing about The Player is that a lot of stars in Hollywood volunteered their, they worked for equity rates in this movie, ‘cause they respected Altman as a great filmmaker, and they thought it was a terrific movie about Hollywood. And it dealt with some of the corruptions of Hollywood, particularly about sincerity, and the whole plot revolves around pitching story ideas, and these guys come in and they have this wonderful idealistic movie, and by the end of the movie they’re making a crappy movie and sell out. And so the movie basically is about how there really isn’t any integrity in Hollywood in terms of what, the movies you make and so forth. However, the theme that runs through the movie is one of constant sexual exploitation. Tim Robbins, who plays the big producer, he ends up sleeping with the wife of a writer that he’s accused of murdering. And there’s just, sex runs right through it. They have their meetings in hot tubs, and everything. That part is not challenged in the movie; that doesn’t go to the integrity thing. That’s just assumed to be the normal rhythm and style of doing business in Hollywood. Oh yeah, this weekend we’re going to hot springs or something and we’re going to be in the hot tub talking about scripts. You know, and the idea that that was inherently exploitative and misogynist in extreme cases, or many cases. And so I’m just wondering about that–you’ve covered Hollywood–and I should say, by the way, let me just take a quick break, which I always forget to do for people who are broadcasting this and need a break. I’m talking to Mary Murphy, this is an edition of Scheer Intelligence, and Mary Murphy has long experienced working for TV Guide, for the LA Times and television and so forth, covering Hollywood. So we are talking quite a bit about the sexual harassment scandal, which goes way beyond Hollywood but sort of is centered there in many ways. [omission] Drawing on your rich experience of covering this as a journalist for the LA Times, for TV Guide and others. And the questions I was posing to you, ah, do you want to respond to it?

MM: About the sexual content throughout the film, and throughout Hollywood?

RS: Yeah, my point was, you have a movie, as I say–I’m sorry, I should have restated the question–The Player. And everybody admired, a lot of people in Hollywood admired that movie for telling the truth about cynicism in Hollywood, and yeah you come in with wonderful script ideas, and the thing is almost a constant pitch. And then Tim Robbins–who plays it brilliantly; it’s a wonderful movie, and Roger Altman’s a brilliant director–and as I said, people contributed their talent to this movie; a lot of famous actors of the time worked for scale ‘cause they liked the movie and wanted to support it. So they endorsed the basic idea of the movie. But one of the things that’s not questioned in the movie is the sexual exploitation, or certainly sexual familiarity. And that is why I brought up the sixties. There’s kind of an acceptance that that’s the norm. However, the women are all wearing tight, short skirts; they’re wearing high heels; and they are going off to the hot, you know, I don’t know where in Palm Springs, Two Bunch Palm or some other place where they’re going to have a wonderful discussion about scripts. And so I’ve shown that movie before, but now when I show it tonight, I’m going to think, wait a minute. The thing that’s not examined is the sexual, what, exploitation, harassment.

MM: I think, first of all, movies are different than television; at least, I thought so. Because in films, it’s six weeks, six months, two months, three months and you’re done and you’re on to the next thing. If you’re in a series, it’s seven years; it’s five years, if you’re on a network. So they’re two different worlds, in a way. And people were very used to the fact that, you know, when people met on sets, they often had affairs. It’s the intimidation part that we didn’t see. It looked like, oh, let’s all go to Two Bunch Palms and talk about the scripts. But what wasn’t there was the real stuff that was going on behind the scenes, which was the intimidation, if you don’t go with me to Two Bunch Palms and talk about the script, you’re not going to have a career. And that’s the part that now–

RS: We should be careful to say we don’t know of anybody doing this at Two Bunch Palms–

MM: No, but we might investigate it! [Laughs]

RS: I just picked a–yeah, no, no, no, I mean, I want to–

MM: I know, I know.

RS: I think that’s the old home of Al Capone. I may be wrong on that. But–

MM: But in–wherever it was, it was about, you know, the women went along; that was just what it was like, the women went along, they wore tight skirts, they were sex symbols, there was all that. And that was fine for the audience, but it was what was happening behind the scenes that is now, finally, coming out. It’s a real–it’s a real underbelly of Hollywood, which has been going on for decades. And I remember when I was young, I was on a movie set–and, I mean, I was very young, and again, very new to Hollywood. From St. Louis. And I was interviewing this very famous actor, at night, in his trailer. And in the middle of the interview, he unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. So I’m there, I’m 24 years old–

RS: You’re there for a professional news organization?

MM: I’m there, yeah, I mean, like, you know, writing. And all I remember doing is putting my head down and saying, ah, “Thank you very much, I think I have everything,” and running out of the trailer. And then telling my editors and not putting it in the story. But I did go back to the guy when I had to interview him again eight years later, and called him an SOB right in front of me, and said, “You did this and you’ve done this to other women, and you shouldn’t be doing this.” But when it happened, when I was young–’cause most of these women are young! You have to understand that, 18, 19, 20 years old. You do not have the ability when you’re that age to confront this. 

RS: But why didn’t you put it in your story?

MM: Because they told me not to. They told me not to put it in the story.

RS: Why? What was the justification?

MM: The justification was, we’re not ruining his career. Maybe he didn’t really mean it. Maybe he wasn’t doing that. That–you see, it was the sort of male-of-male protection of it. And what did I know? I didn’t–this man was a huge movie star, and so I didn’t know what. But–and I’ve never even talked about it, but that–I’ve talked about it to him–

RS: And even now you don’t want to reveal his name.

MM: Mm-mmm, I don’t, no. Because he, he, ah–because I dealt with it directly with him. The thing that I think’s happening, as much as the underbody or underbelly of Hollywood coming out, is I could see today in the news, it was very interesting, how this is finally also spilling into the area of equal pay. It’s not just about sexual harassment anymore; it’s moving into really where the more powerful area is: Are we going to be paid equally? And also, if you look at morning television–just look at it–morning television is the most important part of television now today. It’s not the evening news, it’s morning television. So suddenly The Today Show is anchored by two women. And the CBS Morning News, although they have men come in and out, are two women. And the most powerful person on Good Morning America is Robin Roberts, another woman. So there’s a slow sea change that’s happening. It doesn’t mean we don’t need male voices, but it means that if you are a male voice who’s been harassing women, you are no longer necessary. 

RS: I just wonder whether this will spread to all these other industries, particularly the political one. And I think one reason people, it became a certain release of anger, was because of Donald Trump’s behavior. And you’ve been both a Hollywood reporter and a Washington political reporter, and you’ve covered women covering politics and all that sort of thing. So you know, just sort of to wrap this up, how does it compare Hollywood, which you’ve covered, and say, Washington?

MM: We are at the moment of the real–the real intersection of Hollywood and politics is happening right now because Donald Trump is the president of the United States. I remember the Bill Clinton allegations, and then the charges against him, and then the senators who were actually, wanted this impeachment–then those senators were going down too for having affairs. So, see, you see it as Washington and Hollywood, and I see it as men in power. And what I see emerging–and what I saw on the campaign trail with women, starting with Gwen Ifill and Rita Braver and Cokie Roberts–I saw women on the campaign trail who were just as tough and just as smart as men, and who in no way were in those positions, as the generation before them. So I believe that, you know, it’s the same. I think it’s the same everywhere, it’s the same in a Ford plant, when the men are in power and the women–what needs to happen, and what is happening, I think, is that women are moving into these positions of power. And when that happens, then the balance will change. It’s not just about the projects; it’s about the balance of power.

RS: You know, there’s also an assumption here which unfortunately may be valid. Which is that men are screwed up in a way that women aren’t. Because you’re suggesting, and I think there’s a lot of evidence, that women in power do not exploit in the same way sexually, certainly. You keep thinking they will, and you know, but they don’t. And–in general; I mean, there are very rare examples that you can find. And so it really, there’s a story here that hasn’t really been very much examined. Because the question is, you’re talking about a guy like Bill Cosby, I assume he was a basically, is a basically decent guy–

MM: I don’t assume that anymore at all.

RS: The “anymore” is important. But I mean, the fact is, he lived his life, and on one level–so did Bill Clinton. I mean, all of these people–you know, Dustin Hoffman has been criticized, a whole bunch of these people–

MM: Kevin Spacey.

RS: Yeah. And then it raises questions about the male species. You know, what is it about men and the culture that men have been raised in, that this sort of behavior–you know, you could raise it about violence, certainly sexual violence–

MM: I think this is a really important story. The one we’re just talking about now. You know, I was raised–my mother’s one of fifteen, and my father was one of eleven. 

RS: You were a good Catholic girl who went to Fordham, I believe?

MM: I was a good Catholic girl. Went to Fordham. But more importantly–

RS: For people who don’t know Fordham, it’s a school in the Bronx–

MM: It’s in the Bronx.

RS: –I used to walk across it to get on my way to get to City College. But it was a center of, what, Jesuit education–

MM: Yeah, Father McShane runs it now, he’s amazing. But the thing is that I was raised by not just my mother but all of her sisters. So I understood the power of women. And that is what the change really is. The change is not just women reporting; it’s women banding together. When women first were in power in Hollywood, I remember there were stories of, you know, nightmare stories of the women who were running the studios. And then somebody like Sherry Lansing came along, and she brought a skill and a kind of empathy into this world that now many other women possess. Somehow, women realized you can be in power and not be a monster; you can be in power and not abuse people. But many men, for whatever reason, have taken the role of powerful man and used it in a way that is very harmful to women. 

RS: Well you know, I did want to ask you one last question, but it seems to have nothing to do with any of this. But also, maybe it has everything in the world to do with it. And I’m very impressed with the fact that at this point in your career, in addition to being a professor here at USC, you actually care about the homeless problem in Los Angeles. You work with the Midnight Mission downtown. And for my money, this is the biggest moral crisis in our society right now. We just have, particularly in a city like Los Angeles, San Francisco, you have this wealth, and then you have people just living in these encampments everywhere. We’ve run out of time, but I know you’re very active in dealing with that problem. And so you’ve gone from the world of celebrity–and you know, yes, these are victims, but then we think well, at least some of them have resources, and so forth. But if we want to really talk about these, what are they, throwaway people–

MM: Fifty-eight thousand and counting in Los Angeles alone. 

RS: OK, think about that statistic, folks. Fifty-eight thousand human beings living under cardboard in the rain that we’ve been having. You know, and you drive by and you look the other way, or if they want to wipe your window you get worried and so forth. And so is there a one-minute response to what you’ve learned from–

MM: Yeah. There are things we can do. There are things journalists can do. Journalists can call attention to all–there is sexual assault on Skid Row all the time, and there’s no HR; they’re not, you know, they’re not going to the Golden Globes to talk about it. The people living in the encampments, many of these people are mentally ill, many are drug addicted, but many of them have to do with the fact that housing costs are so great in Los Angeles, people lose their jobs, they lose their houses, they lose their cars, they end up on the street–and we have money to house them, but many neighborhoods say: No, not here. So we have a responsibility in our city to help the people, the very people you look away from, we have to help.

RS: That’s an important point on which to end. Not to minimize any other grievances and exploitation and violence. But, and you make a very important point. OK, a depressing, but on the other hand important point on which to end this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. And I want to say, we get to do this here at USC, and because the Annenberg for Communication and Journalism makes the facility available to us. And Sebastian Grubaugh, this brilliant engineer, comes in even on his days off and engineers the show. So, thank you, Sebastian.

MM: Thank you, Sebastian. Thank you, Bob.