Of all my assignments for Charlie Rose, the one that came with the oddest sense of happiness was when he asked that I unclog the toilet in the master bedroom of his Bellport home. It was brimming with feces and had left the upstairs smelling like a factory farm. My yellow dish gloves were flimsy and it was impossible to move the plunger without excrement slopping from the bowl. But I confidently reassured myself, “No man would ask this of a woman with whom he wanted to have sex.”
It was the summer of 2007, and as an intern at Rose’s PBS show I was learning about the man’s narcissism, temper, and licentiousness. I was at his Bellport estate because he had hired me to organize and alphabetize his library—two floors of an entire guesthouse cluttered with books. The work left my arms sore and my neck stiff, but it paid well. Rose’s executive producer had also been encouraging after sensing that I found this opportunity, as initially presented to me by Rose, dubiously incongruous with the work I was or wanted to be doing at the show. One-on-one time with the boss was essential to becoming part of the team, she told me. She cannot have been innocent of what that involved.
From Catherine Deneuve to Andrew Sullivan, many have expressed concern that amid the #MeToo movement’s fervor we are not accurately accounting for how significantly the actions and circumstances of accused men have varied. Clearly, they don’t all deserve the same predatory label? Or complete career banishment? I certainly don’t believe so. Nor do I know of any woman who thinks so. But I do believe that Charlie Rose’s case falls toward the worse end of the spectrum. His misdeeds were systematic and they were enabled at the highest of levels.
The Washington Post’s further revelations about Rose’s behavior and the failure of CBS managers to heed the warnings they received from women like me are of little surprise. (I was among the women interviewed for The Post’s earlier reporting on Rose’s conduct, which resulted in the cancelation of his PBS show and his being fired by CBS last year. Rose apologized for his behavior in response to the original Post story; this week, he called the new report “unfair and inaccurate.”) I would expect CBS executives to have known. The man’s secret was as reliably open as a Waffle House. During my time working for Rose, there were many who indicated knowledge of his treatment of women. I heard Upper East Side salesclerks gossiping about it; professors in my graduate program discussed it more or less explicitly; one of the show’s regular guests gave two of my female colleagues a wink and a thinly-veiled hint about his behavior by way of warning.
When you’re young and ambitious, such open secrets can feel more like a helpful heads-up than an insidious normalization of abuse. I was a minister’s daughter from New Mexico whose résumé most prominently featured Amnesty International and high-school forensics coaching, so I came to the show naïve about the inner workings of broadcast journalism. When I first began witnessing questionable behavior from Rose (such as his call to the office summoning a new intern, the one who was a Southern beauty pageant queen, to his apartment to help him “pick out a tie”), my takeaway was as much about the industry as it was about him. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
Broadcast news was founded on the trust and veneration of male icons, and as the media landscape changed, many of us held on to such men wistfully. I certainly did—though, in my time at the show, I heard things about other notable men in the industry. These stories weren’t on the same level as what we now know of Rose, but they still disappointed someone like me who had once counted myself an admirer. It was Peter Jennings who, while covering the Anita Hill hearings, acknowledged to viewers that the men in his office were receiving an education. Not enough of a lesson, in hindsight.
Despite my darkening view of the tangled web of sex and power at work, I forged ahead with the unpaid internship, determined to secure a job by the time I finished the master’s program I was taking. I was an older-than-average intern and was given research and writing assignments similar to those of a producer. The work was enjoyable and I was good at it. I also learned a lot from Rose’s staff: intelligent, funny, and resourceful, they were at the show for its format, topics, and guests—not for its host. And they succeeded by separating the man from the work they did on his behalf. I was aspiring to do the same when I found myself in Bellport, quite literally, willing to put up with his shit.
I would soon endure a great deal more. Not long after he told me to unclog his brimming toilet, he asked me to join him in looking at the moonlight, clutching me from behind as I did. He would call me late at night to berate me over the phone for my benighted background report on Bill Clinton or Sergei Lavrov or whichever upcoming interview was causing him anxiety, and he would call me at sunrise to tell me that he, breathing heavily, was thinking about me. The man who had enthusiastically interviewed Gloria Steinem some ten times would introduce me to his airport driver, not as someone who had helped prepare him for the lucrative speaking engagement from which he was returning, but as a table dancer he’d picked up the night before. He would get on top of me in an airplane, grope me in cars, and emerge naked in my presence.
Why did I even once put up with it? Or as Daphne Merkin bluntly asked in The New York Times of the #MeToo movement: “What happened to women’s agency?” I’ve turned over this question in my mind so constantly in the last six months, I feel I could write a book on the subject. But perhaps most significant—even more significant than my career aspirations and my dependence on a paycheck—was that Rose’s advances occurred in a professional environment of madness, anxiety, and utter exhaustion. One can function in such an atmosphere for only so long before ceasing to operate at one’s best, most lucid self.
I was a highly educated woman with a strong support network, and I had been privy to the open secret. Rose’s lechery didn’t sideswipe me; it swallowed me, slowly, and despite my best efforts. The more I struggled to manage the situation, the deeper I sank. The only option was to leave my job, with an immense sense of shame. Were I a better woman, I told myself, I would have found a way to fight back. Instead, I had exhausted myself with pleasantries and smiled attentively while doing my best to avoid finding myself alone with him.
With a decade’s perspective and a better understanding of what it means to engage with a dangerously outsized ego, I can forgive myself. Even Charlie Rose’s CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell acknowledged that she would have felt uncomfortable talking to him about his treatment of women. “I think he would’ve screamed at me,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter. I know this fear well. In the weeks after I went on the record against Rose, I would return home cautiously from running errands, approaching slowly to make sure that he wasn’t wrathfully waiting for me outside my front door.
This was a preposterous fear. I live in Brussels. But if there’s one thing I knew about Charlie Rose, it was that he did as he pleased, regardless of the irrationalities involved. Who was I to rule out the possibility that he might take a transatlantic flight as his career imploded, even if it was just to scream at an old employee whose name he probably still can’t pronounce?
Rose used to drive between his Manhattan and Bellport residences with an awkwardly large TV hooked up on the passenger-side floor of his Mercedes, so that he could spend the commute watching his own program. He laughed when I asked him about the safety of such multitasking. But he scowled when I later questioned him on the appropriateness of our late-night work dinners. He said that if I couldn’t handle the hours, I wasn’t up for the job. Every producer at the show had frequent dinners with him, he lied.
He himself appeared to believe his lies, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Either that or the truth simply didn’t matter. Dinners, meanwhile, rarely incorporated work. He would talk mostly about himself, his accomplishments, and his admirers, occasionally pausing to cue my validation. Staff meetings were often no different.
In 2018, this should sound and feel familiar. I spoke out against Charlie Rose because the Trump presidency and Trump’s open secrets made me more uncomfortable than did the idea of going public about what had been my life’s most deeply buried moments of shame. For those who carry the scars of having worked for the Charlie Roses of the world, it has become only too apparent how such misconduct can be normalized, even among intelligent and well-intentioned people, and even in the highest offices and most esteemed institutions in the country.
As the new Washington Post report notes, the allegations against Charlie Rose date back to 1976. After an illustrious-seeming, decades-long career moving among the most influential figures of our time, Rose was brought down by the tenacious reporting of two young women, Amy Brittain and Irin Carmon. Armed with little more than cold calls, they cultivated among those to whom they spoke a level of comfort and confidence that would have made Charlie Rose in his heyday envious. They exposed his open secret and everything the open secrecy had enabled.