CHICAGO — In mid-November, just west of the Windy City, one of America's most distinguished journalists recalled how hard it is, even in a profession as individualistic as ours, to take a different position on almost any important piece of news.
Hedrick Smith, the famous New York Times Russia correspondent, reminisced with an audience at Dominican University about America going to war against Iraq in 2003, largely based on claims by the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — claims that, for the most part, went unchallenged in the media.
Smith recalled that one reporting team, connected with Knight Ridder, later McClatchy Newspapers, stood out for its courageous work at the time. Using top-level research and common sense, the team wrote simply that there were no such weapons in Iraq. And they were right!
I was proud to hear Smith's comments, first because he was speaking as part of the Georgie Anne Geyer Initiative at the university, a program to train foreign correspondents for the future. Second, because I had also warned that Saddam Hussein, whom I had interviewed in Baghdad, cunningly used empty threats of such weapons to protect his landlocked state from its surrounding enemies.
Yet, the perspicacious Knight Ridder/McClatchy team never got its due credit, was passed over for the Pulitzer and was even looked at askance by other journalists. Smith's words made me remember that it is not good to be right too soon.
It also seems to me that we are still overly afraid to think outside the box or outside whatever fashionable "in" group we belong to. Not only the Amish dislike being shunned.
One story blazing across the headlines today in an intellectual goosestep is sexual harassment. It's a subject we should think more deeply about than we currently do and, as with Iraq in 2003, there seems to be almost no room for fine points. Some thoughts:
• The idea that sexual harassment is somehow evenly spread across various professions and regions of the country does not, in my experience, hold water.
I have been a journalist in newspapers and publishing for 50 years, and not only have I never been harassed, in the true sense of the word, but I have never heard stories from other women colleagues about men we knew walking around naked or drugging women to rape them.
Surely, men made passes (and, yes, even at girls who wore glasses), but if the answer was "No," that was it. No pawing for promises.
• It strikes me that, with some exceptions, most of the examples of nasty, vulgar and, yes, illegal harassment made public in recent months occurred in various areas of the entertainment world and politics.
It seems the cliche of the distinguished-looking old Hollywood mogul "giving a pretty starlet a break" has now morphed into pitiful, disgusting vulgarians more intent upon acting out their sick desires than in satisfying themselves sexually.
• As someone who has worked all over the world for half a century, I can be driven into a lather when another American says that sexual harassment is a problem "in America" or "in our country." In truth, American men are, outside of these harassers, the most fair-minded, most considerate and most just in the world.
• I have to recall that our mothers taught us to stay out of the hotel rooms of men and insisted upon our mannered behavior. And so I am horrified by the stories of girls who get so drunk they fall unconscious.
In contrast, the girls I grew up with on the South Side of Chicago were wholly capable of socking a man who gave them trouble or yelling like a banshee. Once, waiting in an airport line in Damascus, a Syrian man was giving me some trouble, so I faked a half-swoon and stomped smartly on his foot. Poor guy cried. Police applauded me. Situation closed.
Yet, young women today too often seem surprised by men's approaches; they act as if men are just another version of us. They aren't.
• Finally, it surprises me how little the question of what's legal or illegal comes up. Yes, Bill Cosby is in court and others may well be, and should be, but we seem to be screaming a whole lot without thinking much about whether we are dealing with the law. As New Yorker editor David Remnick put it so aptly in his recent issue:
"What constitutes harassment? What relation is there between the worst offenses and more ambiguous ones, between physical assault and verbal slights? What are fair guidelines and sanctions? Do men really understand the ways that harassment can diminish and undermine a woman?"
I couldn't possibly say it better.