Al Franken, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Charlie Rose, John Conyers, Bill Clinton.
For feminists, our male allies are so few and far between, when we discover they’ve exploited others, we don’t want that reality to be true. We know from personal experience all the good things those men did for us, for women in general, we witnessed it, experienced it, and those feminist acts are incongruous with the harassment, abuse, and assault stories. The cognitive dissonance is painful and traumatic on every level. A part of us keeps repeating: “He never did that to me.” But deep down (why does it have to be so deep down?) we know: just because it didn’t happen to me doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Here’s a post I wrote in 2010, not long after a professional mentor of mine, a talk radio host, went to prison for possession and distribution of child pornography. At some point, I’ll blog my ideas about a coherent, strategic way for feminists to move forward as the list of progressive men who abuse grows as we all know it will. For now, I want to share this record of my experience when my hero fell. Please feel free to share your stories in the comment section.
Mostly, I miss Bernie Ward on Sunday mornings, when I hear “Godtalk” on KGO Radio. The first time I ever met Bernie was when he was hosting that show. I’d come to San Francisco from New York, just for the weekend. My sister was having an engagement party that I traveled to California for, and I ended up never going back home. I went to Austin for a while, as a PA on a film, and after that wrapped, I got a job working for Willie Nelson on an hour length music video. (As far as I know, that particular piece of art never made it to TV or even video.) Then I came back to San Francisco. I went to KGO to see if I could get a producer job. I’d worked in New York for Alan Colmes who had, at the time, a radio talk show out of a network called Daynet that used ABC’s studios. KGO was also out of ABC then so it all felt familiar to me.
KGO told me I could be a fill in, an on-call producer, which would probably entail late nights– Ray Taliaferro’s shift. And the weekends, odd hours. That was fine with me. I was twenty-six years old. I had no problem staying up all night.
So there I was at 6AM, light just coming up, and Bernie walked into his studio. He sat down and played a recording of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. It was beautiful. I remember thinking: this is so weird. How did I get here at 6AM, listening to “Amazing Grace,” listening to this guy talk about Jesus?
My mother is Jewish, my father is Episcopalian. I didn’t grow up with any religion. I was fascinated listening to Bernie go on about God, argue with the church, speak about the real messages of Jesus’ teachings, this Jewish carpenter, Bernie called him.
Not long after I met Bernie, a producer spot opened for his night time show. It was the most fun job I’ve ever had, and Bernie, in spite of his reputation as angry, cranky, or mean, was great to work with. He was kind, attentive, brilliant and hilarious. We had many disagreements, right from the start on the issues he discussed on air. I began working for him around the time of the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bernie basically believed Hillary Clinton’s whole right wing conspiracy theory. Not that I didn’t believe that, I did. But for me, there was more to the story. I’d voted for Clinton as a young woman in my twenties, and I hated that this new kind of president, who I believed would do great things for women, had messed around with an intern. Instead of advancing powerful women, Clinton’s presidency was perpetuating antiquated sexual stereotypes that go back to biblical times i.e. a young woman’s sexuality destroys a powerful man. I was so tired of that same old imagery and pissed off Clinton was reincarnating it again. “Imagine if Madeline Albright was considered sexy because of her brilliance, position of power and stature. Imagine that her young male interns had crushes on her. Do you see the sexism now?”
“I never thought about it that way,” Bernie said, and he put me on air for the first time. It felt great to have my ideas amplified through that microphone, wafting out over the Bay Area. Bernie essentially disagreed with me, but he was able to see my point of view and then elaborate on it. That’s a talent few people have. He encouraged me to write down my thoughts. I started publishing pieces in newspapers and magazines. Then I started getting invited on TV programs– CNN, FOX News, Good Morning America. Bernie taught me how to debate, that it was OK to interrupt, that I only needed to have three points I wanted to make and to just keep re-making those points.
Producing Bernie’s show– a liberal, no-less– I realized how many more men called up than women, eager to go on air. Also, when I invited women experts to come on the show as guests, they often refused, claiming they weren’t qualified, recommending a “better” colleague, often a male. My experience at KGO inspired me to start a non-profit that provided professional training for women including media skills.
After seven years of producing the show, I left. That’s a pretty long time to be a producer in talk radio world. I had a baby, and initially my idea was that I would take care of the baby during the day and my husband would watch her at night. But I had no clue what being a mom was really like. I was exhausted all the time. I never saw my husband. Plus, I had my writing and the non-proft to work on by that time, and I didn’t really need KGO anymore. So I quit.
A couple years later, I got a call from Bernie. He told me that federal agents had come into his home and seized his computers; he would be charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. He was sentenced to almost seven years in prison.
Since Bernie has been in prison, I think of him often, but I haven’t written him or visited him. I can’t reconcile in my head the Bernie I knew and the Bernie that was accused of so many things. I think seven years is a harsh sentence for someone who did not create any pornography. That said, I can’t see how Bernie could look at those kinds of images and not feel anything for those little kids.
I’ve never had something like that happen in my life, watch a good friend, a mentor, someone I idolized, have his whole life fall apart. I hope I can write him. I’d like to be able to visit him. But for now, I just miss the Bernie I knew.