Mark Halperin’s book deal tests the boundaries of life after #MeToo

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Journalist and pundit Mark Halperin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Has Mark Halperin earned a comeback after being forced out of journalism two years ago when more than a dozen women stepped forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault?

That was the question debated across social media today at the news that Halperin would release a book in November titled “How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take.”

This is not the first time a man who made headlines with his bad behavior has tried to return to the heights from which he fell (see, for example, Louis C.K., or Garrison Keillor). It is unlikely to be the last, considering that more than 200 men prominent in politics, journalism, entertainment and other fields lost their positions in the barely two years since accusations surfaced against movie magnate Harvey Weinstein. But while it has been made clear in those years that certain behavior is likely to get a man removed from a position of power, there is no similar consensus on what, if anything, he can and must do to get back in.

“I think it’s something that as a culture we’re still trying to understand,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and frequent TV commentator. Finney joined in the widespread denunciation on Twitter not just of Halperin, but of his publisher, Judith Regan, and the 75 political experts who spoke to him as he was reporting his book.

“Sure, second chances and all of that,” she said. “But you don’t earn a second chance without acknowledging the real damage you did to women with your behavior.”

When it comes to #MeToo, a simple apology is not enough, Finney and others say. You need to get specific. In Halperin’s case, that means addressing the women who left journalism out of frustration or fear after a run-in with him; women who were stalled in their careers after he made good on what his accusers describe as threats that by refusing his advances “you will never work in journalism again.” And women who suffered by coming forward about his behavior.

“And since he hasn’t acknowledged that,” Finney continues, “what message are all those people sending by being included in his book? That the women who had the courage to come forward don’t matter?”

Halperin was a political reporter at ABC News between 1994 and 2006, and nearly all the accusations which surfaced in 2017 were of behavior during those years — including propositioning subordinates, unwanted kissing, masturbating in front of one female colleague and rubbing his erect penis against the shoulders of another.

At the time those accusations were made, Halperin described his past actions as “often aggressive and crude” though he denied accounts of physical interactions. “For a long time at ABC News, I was part of the problem,” he said on Twitter. “I acknowledge that, and I deeply regret it.”

He was dropped as a commentator by MSNBC, NBC and Showtime, and the book and accompanying miniseries about the 2016 election that he was contracted to do by HBO and Penguin/Random House, were canceled.

Almost immediately, he appeared to start paving the way for a comeback — returning to Twitter after a break. And comebacks are something about which the #MeToo movement has not found clarity.

There is some agreement that there is a spectrum of malfeasance, from rude comments to full on rape, from sophomoric to criminal, from annoying to threatening, and that while all should not be punished equally, none should be dismissed.

There is less agreement on what should qualify an offender for redemption.

One woman with direct knowledge of Halperin’s inappropriate behavior, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, suggested in an interview that earning a second chance requires not only a public apology, but also a personal one.

“You don’t just tweet ‘I’m sorry,’” she said. “You need to reach out to the victims and say ‘How can I make it up to you?’ Then, if they want to scream at you for an hour, you take it. If they want you to call someone who you bad-mouthed them to when they wouldn’t play your game, then you make the call and say they were actually good at their job. Or maybe you become an ally or a champion of women, or take concrete steps that show how you have changed.’”

Alcoholics Anonymous draws a distinction between making an apology and making amends. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, in an essay published last fall for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, points out the Talmudic difference between “forgiveness,” “repentance” and “atonement.” There are, she writes, certain necessary steps:

First, she says, “the bad actor must own the harm perpetrated, ideally publicly. Then they must do the hard internal work to become the kind of person who does not harm in this way — which is a massive undertaking, demanding tremendous introspection and confrontation of unpleasant aspects of the self. Then they must make restitution for harm done, in whatever way that might be possible. Then — and only then — they must apologize sincerely to the victim. Lastly, the next time they are confronted with the opportunity to commit a similar misdeed, they must make a different, better choice.”

Washington Post press critic Margaret Sullivan made much the same point Monday in an article headlined “Redemption sounds nice, but disgraced pundit Mark Halperin doesn’t deserve it.”

The announcement that Regan Arts would publish Halperin’s book in November struck many as a shortcut around any semblance of amends.

Regan said in a statement that her work with Halperin reflects her belief “in the power of forgiveness, second chances, and offering a human being a path to redemption.”

But many observers saw that scenario as premature. Some pointed to the victims, who have yet to receive their apology or their amends.

“As a society we don’t ask about the thousands (maybe millions) of women who’ve been ousted from their careers simply for having the courage to come forward about harassment,” Gretchen Carlson, who paved the way for the #MeToo movement with her sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, told Yahoo News.

“After doing so, most are promptly blacklisted, demoted and fired,” she continued. “The fact that the great majority never work again in their chosen profession is outrageous. We spend a lot of time asking when the perpetrators can have their comeback, when the real story should be about the comeback of the women.”

It is the perceived “slap in the face to all women” as Carlson wrote on Twitter, that led to criticism of Halperin’s sources for the book. Those include such prominent names as David Axelrod, Donna Brazile, James Carville, former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Granholm said today in response to a question asked of her on Twitter: “Spoke with him by phone months ago about how to defeat Trump in the Midwest. Did not mean to hurt anyone, ever; should have done more research. My apologies.”

Axelrod similarly responded: “To those of you who have asked, I have known Mark Halperin as a reporter for 25 years. He emailed me three questions about the 2020 race for a book he was writing and I replied in a few sentences, without giving enough thought to how my participation would be used or interpreted.

(Eventually the explanations and disclaimers became so numerous that the Washingtonian created a running list.)

Rationalizing that all they did was answer their phone, says author Nell Scovell, illustrates exactly why anger has turned toward Halperin’s sources.

“Mark Halperin could’ve written a book based on research and his own knowledge,” she tweeted. “Instead he interviewed 75 strategists which means he relied on HIS CONNECTIONS. Connections are exactly what he took from his victims when he said they’d never work in media if they rejected him.”

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