Sexism in the media, then and now | Joan Esposito

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Summary

Joan has been a fixture in the Chicago media landscape for more than 35 years. She first came to Chicago in 1981 as a 27-year-old reporter and weekend anchor at WGN-Channel 9, then became a Monday-Friday anchor star at both the local ABC and NBC affiliates.

Since leaving NBC 5 in 1999, Esposito formed J2 Strategic Communications, a media training firm. She is now back to her roots in radio. In Feb 2020 she took over as host of WCPT AM 820′s afternoon talk show, after the legendary Ben Joravsky stepped down from that slot. 

Joan was the victim of false accusations back in the 90s – not about sexual harassment, but terrible character assassination. We talked about how she sued the local shock jock who fanned the flames of the allegations on air, and how she found – and he earned – forgiveness.  

We also talked a lot about beauty, and what a double edged sword it is. As she said, “You wanted the boss to think you were pretty … but not too pretty.” And how neither of us ever felt that our beauty was a tool in our arsenal, something we could wield as we saw fit. 

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Episode Transcript

Introduction

Julia: For this week’s episode, I talked with Joan Esposito, who is a well-known figure in Chicago media. She has been on air, on TV and on the radio, for 35 years in the city of Chicago as an anchorwoman and as a reporter at most of the major local TV news stations here in Chicago. She is currently host of AM 820, which is WCPT’s afternoon show where she talks about local progressive issues. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Joan a little bit over the last couple of years, and she’s got just a fascinating personal story.

She herself was the victim of false accusations – not about sexual harassment, but just terrible character assassination, back in the 90s. And we talked about that during the interview. And how she was able to get to a place of forgiveness with the local shock jock who made these on-air allegations against her.

And being somebody who has had a long career in the media and in the public eye, she certainly had a perspective about how things used to be. And the female employee getting chased around the desk by the male boss really happened. And she told us a couple of stories.

We kind of dove in a little bit to, you know, the psychology behind it. And, you know, Joan is a real person. A real woman who went through these things and she’s able to describe just how difficult it was. And the kinds of choices that she felt she had to make. And how beauty was the primary consideration for how women were evaluated – certainly back then, but to a large extent today.

And speaking of beauty, towards the end of the conversation, we talked about a woman’s beauty. Joan certainly is still a beautiful woman, but when she was in her thirties and on TV, man, oh man, was she a knockout. And I, myself, wasn’t too bad. Look I mean, now I’m a little bit older, a little bit heavier, but you know, certainly back in the day, I was a pretty good-looking woman myself. And we talked about how beauty affects a woman and we talked about – I personally have never felt power from my looks, you know? And I think that a lot of people who perceive me as being attractive don’t understand that. I think a lot of people just assume that there’s a lot of inherent power in being beautiful and I’ve never felt that way. And so I asked Joan, how does she feel about it? And her answers were interesting.

And listeners, I would love it if you would give us your thoughts on the matter. What do you think about a woman’s beauty? Are you yourself a beautiful woman? Does it provide you with power? Does it open doors for you? Or does it present as many challenges as opportunities?

And for those of you who don’t think you possess beauty, what do you think about women’s beauty? Do you think that it gives a woman power? I really like to have this conversation so you can email us feedback@solvingmeto.com or join into the conversation on either the Facebook group or Twitter. And you can use #SolvingMeToo, or #TheSMTPodcast.

And with that, let’s jump into the conversation I had with Joan Esposito.  

Interview

Joan, I’m really looking forward to this conversation and I thank you so much for taking some time to be on the show today.

Joan: [00:04:28] Well. Thank you, Julia. It’s a pleasure to talk to you again.

Julia: [00:04:32] Yes. So much, so much. So just diving right into the meat of things. One of the backlash arguments against the Me Too movement is that false accusations can ruin a person’s life. And we have to point out as soon as anybody makes that claim that the majority of accusations in sexual harassment and assault situations are true. Something like 3% of allegations have ever been proven false. So it’s just not true when people are concerned that sexual harassment and assault allegations are false. It happens very, very rarely.

However. You have a particularly painful personal history with false accusations yourself. And I’m referring of course, to the nasty and unfounded rumors about the paternity of your son Benjamin, whose father – your husband at the time – tragically committed suicide while you were pregnant with your young son. And in your case, you now have the benefit of 25 years of hindsight to reflect on the experience of being dragged through the mud publicly and viciously and without cause.

And I’m wondering how much of that experience colors your thoughts and wisdom now, about how we do and how we should report on stories about people’s most intimate lives.

Joan: [00:05:59] Well, I do believe that people who are public figures have much less right to privacy and much less protection. And I think that’s as it should be. If part of the way you make your life – whether you’re a TV anchor or whether you’re a Hollywood celebrity – if part of the way you make your life is basically promoting your fame or celebritydom, then I think that you have to put up with more than the average person.

And, you know, the situation with me was – it was a little bit different. I mean, sure. What happened was horrible. There were a couple of radio shock jocks who went on the air and one of them said that I did something that caused my husband to commit suicide. And the implication was that I’d had an affair with one of the Chicago bulls and that the baby that I was carrying was one of the Bulls’ babies and not my husband’s and that’s why he killed himself.

And then after they had that discussion on the air, apparently a few days later, they asked people to call in and they did an abortion poll.

Julia: [00:07:09] Oh my god.

Joan: [00:07:10] Whether or not they had people, people who were listening to them thought I should have an abortion. And they took – I didn’t even know about that actually until we were in the throes of the lawsuit and the lawyers defending CBS let that slip. Because when my lawyer was talking to them, they were like, well, is it the infidelity accusations or is it the abortion pill? What is it that’s, you know, you’re talking to us about?

And, and my lawyer was like, abortion poll? And he looked into it and that’s what they had done.

Julia: [00:07:39] Oh my God.

Joan: [00:07:41] But you know, it’s easier for me, I think, to forgive them – particularly Jobo, because Jobo was really the mastermind, the wild guy. He was also at the time a raging alcoholic and he actually, before I ever filed the lawsuit, he wrote me a letter apologizing. Which luckily – when it came time for the lawsuit, I had saved the letter.

But he wrote me a letter and he said, I, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I did these things. I’m so sorry I said these things. And you know, if I felt that he was just simply somebody who had used my pain to increase his listenership, it would have been much more difficult to forgive him.

But I know that kind of pressure, and I know that being an alcoholic really contributed to his lack of a filter, his lack of a governor saying, you know, go this far, but no further.

So it’s, it’s, while they certainly for a time weren’t my favorite people in the world, I don’t really know that I ever really hated them, you know? I think that Ed Volkman, he kind of went along, he was kind of the sidekick. And I know how bad his drinking was because there was in the media just a few years ago, a year or two ago, there was a radio station that wanted to hire them again and pair them up together. And Ed Volkman who didn’t have much going on was like hey, let’s do this. And Jobo said no, I, I cannot be in that world. It is not good for my mental health. It’s not good for my sobriety. And they, there was a big offer on the table and he walked away. He was like, I can’t do that again.

So I know how serious he was about forgiveness, and I know how badly he messed up and he knows how badly he messed up.

Julia: [00:09:44] I love this part of your story, because forgiveness is such a difficult thing and such a complex issue. And any way you slice it, in order for forgiveness to be on the table, the person who did harm has to start by accepting responsibility for what he or she did. And then to really live into that request for forgiveness, there has to be real action towards change. And, I – what I seek to do, in part, with this podcast is offer a template. A personal action blueprint for people who know they have done wrong and who seek to be forgiven. And, and to include in this personal action template, what you need to do. Like it’s one thing to say, Oh, I want to be forgiven. When will I be forgiven? Well, okay, great. And you’ve got some work to do, buddy.

And so I love what you’re describing that in Jobo’s case, he not only committed to sobriety and succeeded at sobriety, but then when the, when he, when he was offered a whole bunch of money to go back to what he had been before, he said, no thanks. I choose this new path and I – there’s nothing that you can offer to me to get me to go back to being the man who I used to be who did, among other things, started these – well, not started, but certainly promoted these horrible rumors about John Esposito.

Joan: [00:11:33] Yeah. And people are a little unclear as to why I waited so long to sue and why I finally sued CBS. As a public figure, which I definitely was, there are rumors that fly around you all the time. All the time. I mean, it’s just, you just have to learn to live with it. It’s just part of, of what happens. But usually they come and then they die out.

This one didn’t die out. It started to spread further and further and further, and people who wouldn’t otherwise doubt me began to wonder – why, if it wasn’t true, why I wasn’t taking any action. You know, if it’s not true, then you sue. I mean, that’s what a lot of people felt. And I wasn’t doing anything which started to actually give credence to the rumors.

And I remember once I was at work and the woman who was working with me, my production assistant, she got a call from a little old lady. I don’t know what suburb she called from, but she got put through to my assistant. And this little old lady asked my assistant, is it true these things that they’re saying about Joan Esposito? Is it true? And I thought to myself right then and there, if I’ve lost the little old ladies, then I’m losing this war and I’ve got to do something about it.

And what’s interesting too is when I – actually, when I hired Dan Webb to represent me against CBS, a lot of people don’t know this. This was actually the second time that he had worked with me on this issue.

Eddie and JoBo were saying their stuff around January and February [they actually aired the rumors for the first time on March 24, 1993. The transcript was printed by The Chicago Reader], and I discovered that come spring, when the NBA finals were about to take place, that the National Enquirer had sent a reporter to Chicago because they were going to do a big cover story on me once the NBA finals started. And the whole cover story was going to be how this prominent anchor woman’s husband killed himself cause she’s carrying the baby of Horace Grant.

The way I found out about it was the National Enquirer reporter who came to town reached out to my in-laws. Because they figured it was their son and brother who had died. And they must really hate me.

Julia: [00:13:56] Oh my god.

Joan: [00:13:57] So the guy from the National Enquirer called them, and it was, and he was like, I bet you’re really mad at her. This is your opportunity to tell me everything. And they were horrified. Brian’s brother called me up and he said, I’ve got to tell you the National Enquirer’s in town, and they’re working on a story about you.

So I hired Dan Webb and Winston and Strawn – and I can tell you in case anybody wants to choose this path, the way you stop publication of something that is really untrue, if you get wind about it ahead of time, you have to gather information to do depositions. He did a deposition with Scotty Pippen. He did a deposition with Horace Grant, and both of them were all the materials you would need if and or when you proceed to court.

Dan Webb called up Jerry Reinsdorf and got like, you know, we wouldn’t know her if we fell over her. We don’t know who she is. We don’t, we’ve never met her. We’ve certainly, she’s never hung out with us. And so Dan Webb had to put together this whole dossier, I don’t know, this whole packet of depositions and statements from everybody involved.

And then he contacted the Inquirer’s lawyers. And as he told me, the Inquirer may be a schlocky publication, but they hire white glove, top tier lawyers. And he went to the law firm and he said, I’m telling you right now, you’re about to publish something that isn’t true. Here are all the sworn depositions that prove it’s not true, and if you go ahead and publish it, this is all the material that I’m going to bring to court when I sue you and they spiked it.

Julia: [00:15:46] Wow.

Joan: [00:15:48] You know, I already had this history with Dan Webb for that. And then when I decided to sue CBS, he tried to talk me out of it. He said the same thing that most people think, you know, Oh, they’re just rumors. Nobody of any education or sense believes this. It’s, you know, just let it die down.

And I was adamant. I was like, no, no, no, no. It’s time. We’ve got to do this. So he reluctantly moved forward. And I remember again, about three weeks later, he called me up and he said, you were right. And I said, what do you mean? He said, I was visiting some friends of mine, like in, I don’t know, Willow Springs or some tony suburb, and the wife of my friend who is a smart college educated professional woman came up to me and said, Oh my god, the stuff about Joan Esposito! Can you believe it?

[Eric Zorn wrote a piece in September 1993 for the Chicago Tribune that told a remarkably similar story – of being at a party with friends when someone unexpected actually believed the rumors… and how the lawsuit finally silenced them.]

And he was like, it’s not true. And she was like, I don’t know. And he was like, Oh my god, you’re exactly right. He said, you’ve lost them. You’ve basically lost the audience. And so that’s why we moved forward on the, on the lawsuit, was just basically to get my good name back.

Here’s part of the reason, and this ties into the whole idea of women and the standards we’re held to. I very publicly dated Tommy Shaw, who was a member of Styx. We met, I don’t know, at a party or something. And, and we started dating and we became a couple. And people made the assumption that because I was dating somebody in a prominent, successful rock and roll band that it came with this whole list of qualities that I must have. I must do drugs. I must be wild. I’m like a party girl or a groupie or something.

And it really sort of – the things that were said after my husband died, I think were more believable because people already thought that I was, I was the slut, the data, the rock star. I mean, of course, something like this. Of course, she would be this one to have an affair with a basketball player. I think it tied together.

Because of course, even though when Tommy and I first started dating, I said to him, you know what I do for a living. I’ve gotta be squeaky clean. I don’t do drugs. I don’t hang out with people who do drugs. And I don’t go places where people do drugs. And if we’re going to be a couple, that’s the way it’s gotta be. And he was like, I’m fine with that. And that was always our – we were so squeaky clean. At least when he was with me, it, I know, I can’t say what he was like when he was on the road, but when he and I were together, he was as squeaky clean as they come.

But there was this idea that a woman who falls in love with that kind of man has to be a certain kind of woman. And it’s this whole, you know, men are allowed to be promiscuous, and they’re a Playboy. They’re John Hamm, they’re Mad Men. You know, they’re, they’re sexy. But any sort of implication that a woman has any sort of sexuality about her and it’s, and it’s viewed with a completely different lens. At least it used to be. I think things are getting better, though I think the, not as anywhere near what they should be. But I think that that sort of made it easier in people’s minds.

I remember one time – and I hadn’t even thought twice about this because Tommy had a place. He had a horse farm in Michigan and we would spend weekends there and when he was in town during the week, he would stay at my place. And the Chicago Tribune came over to do a big article on him and they took a picture and, and we were both in the picture. And just as a matter of passing it mentioned in the article that we live together. I mean, not even anything outrageous. And I got some, I got some mail from people who told me that I was a whore for living with a man without being married to him.

Julia: [00:19:57] And this was in the 80’s right? The late eighties. So it was, I think we, as much as things have not changed nearly as much as they need to, I think we do sometimes forget just how much things have changed in a generation. Certainly in a generation and a half, you know, when we think about those times and those standards.

So the big financial harm that you listed in that lawsuit is that you said the false accusations weakened your bargaining power just when you were renegotiating your four year contract with WMAQ, channel five. And I think that a lot of people listening have never – I have never gone through a contract negotiation or renegotiation like that before. So can you explain to us a little bit about how they work and the power dynamics?

I think this is one of the important things for people to understand when we’re, they’re trying to –  one of the reasons that it’s hard to, for some people to gin up sympathy for women who stay silent or who stay in job after job with a boss who they claim has harassed them or you know, any of these other things.

Or, or in some cases where women actually accede to the demands, they, they end up participating in the sexual activities that their boss is pressuring them to do. And a lot of people don’t understand why women make those choices. So I’m wondering if you can describe what that contract negotiation process is like and what that power dynamic is like, and certainly, certainly was like then, which was 1994, 93- 94 and to the extent that you can speak to how that has changed in the 25 years hence.

And, what was your bargaining power – how weak was your bargaining power to begin with as a mere woman in a man’s world? And how much, and specifically in what ways, was your bargaining power weakened by these allegations?

Joan: [00:22:04] Well, when you sit down to negotiate a contract, the number one thing that you can bring to the table that’s going to give you leverage is an offer from another station. That’s, that’s the ultimate hammer. You know, channel five you don’t want me? Well channel seven is waiting in the wings. Channel two, you don’t want me? Channel nine wants to promote me to be their main anchor. And that’s something that makes people sit up and take notice.

They also, throughout your entire career, they do a lot of studies. They do all kinds of focus studies. They want to find out how the audience feels about various personalities. Who do they like, who do they not like? And even if they like you, are there things about you they don’t like or they wish were different?

So they do all this research, which by the way, they never ever share with you. Never. So they already have an idea of what you bring to the table. In addition to, of course, however popular your show is.

But that’s not always the only benchmark. We just saw Steve Cochran over at WGN. The last ratings book, he was number three in the market, and he was summarily fired. So it isn’t even always a question of ratings. A lot of times it has to do with all these factors, your research, your ratings…

And. It’s not 100% of the case anymore, but it used to be that it was all white men running these stations. And how your boss felt about you personally could make all the difference in the world.

I remember when I first started at channel five – channel five is the perennial #2. It just doesn’t seem like anything, any trick they try – any graphic, any whatever, that they just can never break into the #1 slot. And I was hired by a general manager who really liked me. And when my agent first did a sort of a touch base with him, the general manager said, well, you know, her show isn’t #1 in the market, but it’s not her fault. He said that, that was his attitude. I mean, it was true. It was right. But, but it would have been real easy for him to say, well, you know, we brought her over here and she hasn’t fixed anything. And it had to do with what he thought about me.

I mean, I’ve known bosses – this is especially true when it comes to hiring. I had one boss tell me that when he hires women for his newsroom, he uses his penis meter.

Julia: [00:24:37] Oh my God. Oh my God! I can’t believe I’m going to ask you this, but say more about that.

Joan: [00:24:45] What he put into words rather crudely is what we’ve all known was true. Bosses are human beings and they have certain likes. You know, some men have a type. It was always very terrifying whenever, whenever I worked at a station where we got a new General Manager – that’s the big boss, the General Manager. We would always just look at each other because depending upon that person’s taste, that person’s attractions, we knew some of our careers would rise and some of our careers would fall. It was largely women, but it’s not, it wasn’t entirely women.

When I worked at channel seven, Jay Levine was a reporter there, and by the way, everybody in the newsroom and everybody in management acknowledged that he was the best reporter we had. The, the boss loved him. He got the plum assignments, he got all the high profile stuff. We got a new general manager. Within 24 hours, Jay Levine went from being considered the best reporter at the station to being considered the absolute worst reporter on the staff because the new GM didn’t like him, didn’t like his style.

We would always joke about when we got a new GM, you know, did he have a thing for blondes or did he have a thing for brunettes? Because whatever he had a thing for, those would be the women who would be hired and who would be elevated.

Julia: [00:26:11] And so what that speaks to is the absolute power of the GM and the idea that whatever he says – and it was always he – whatever he says, goes. And what you’re saying is that while a lot of it was based upon flat-out discriminatory, or even assaultive, harassing, characteristics or considerations, some of it was just personal taste.

Which is, is no less fair, really. You know, because he’s a great reporter, he should be able to keep his job. But it’s – I can hear a backlash argument that, well, you know, so, so it’s based upon the whims of the GM. So what, he’s the boss. You don’t like it, work to become the boss yourself.

But I can, I can imagine that while you know, as you’re saying, sometimes it was just a whim, I can imagine that the majority of it, the majority of the fallout from these kinds of things happened to women, and largely based on their looks.

Joan: [00:27:11] I would say absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the bosses tended to be white males, and depending upon – you know, it didn’t take long for those of us in the newsroom to figure out what the new boss’s type was and who he really liked and who he didn’t, and whether those were you know, qualities of personality or looks. But you know, I mean, it was always – whenever there was a new boss that came into town, it was always a terrifying time. Because you knew there would be changes and depending upon their predilections, it could be – the best you sometimes you could hope for was just to be left alone.

Julia: [00:27:47] Wow. Wow.

Joan: [00:27:49] To speak to your earlier point though, that’s sort of an underpinning for why you really couldn’t – you really had to walk a fine line with – you kind of wanted the boss to think you were pretty and smart and maybe even a little bit be attracted to you, but not so much that they would hit on you.

You know, I had a boss once that was – there were rumors that I was up for a big promotion. And my boss took me out to dinner. And we had a perfectly nice dinner, but you know, nothing was discussed really about the job. Kind of just a personable, you know, like you, you do sometimes.

And he – I hadn’t driven and he dropped me off at home. At least I thought he was going to drop me off. And then as I was getting out of the car, he asked if I wouldn’t mind if he just came in to check the score of the basketball game. And right as soon as he said that, I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was in trouble.

Julia: [00:28:47] Wow.

Joan: [00:28:47] And so we came in, I turned on the basketball game, I kind of tried to stand a little bit away from him and he walked over and he grabbed me and he kissed me and he stuck his tongue down my throat. And I’m standing there thinking, how do I get out of this? How do I get out of this and not lose my job?

Because – thank god for Me Too. Really, thank god for it. Because now, you know, women have more power and more backing. But then, at that moment in time, if I had made a fuss, maybe I would’ve gotten him in trouble. But I would have been at the very least demoted, if not fired. And after that, nobody would have hired me. “She’s a troublemaker.” Nobody would have hired me.

So I finally – luckily I had met the man’s wife. He was of course married. And I pushed him away and I said, you know, no, I can’t do this to your wife. Like, like, otherwise, I would have really liked to. But you know, and he stepped away and we set our good nights and he left. I didn’t get the promotion, but I also didn’t get fired. And he never made a pass at me again. But I’ve, I’ve since learned that I was not the only one at the station that he did something like that too. There were at least two others.

Julia: [00:30:07] Yeah of course.

Joan: [00:30:08] Cause that’s the thing. That’s, I guess in a way that’s kind of the difference between this sort of thing and what happened with JoBo. It’s one thing if somebody behaves badly. But it’s another thing if it’s a pattern of behavior and the ones that, that really need to be called out are the ones who aren’t just doing it to you. They’re doing it their whole career.

And I guess I should’ve known better – you know, this the typical female thing, I should have been smarter. Because at dinner he kept telling me about this, this woman at his previous station whose career he really elevated basically because they were having an affair. I mean, so he was planting the seed.

But that’s the thing, that’s a pattern of behavior. With JoeBo, you know, I mean, he may have done other things that he regretted when he was drunk. But it wasn’t like he wasn’t just born a predator. He was a drunk. And he fixed it.

Julia: [00:31:07] So talking about the pattern of predatory behavior, it comes to mind there’s so many of the headline stories that we’ve heard in the last two and a half years since the Harvey Weinstein story broke – starting with Harvey Weinstein – where a big part of the story is, sure, there is a man who has been preying on female colleagues for decades in some cases. But a part of the story is that there’s no way that he got away with that stuff all on his own —

Joan: [00:31:41] Exactly.

Julia: [00:31:41] — That in every case there are people who are complicit.  I ask myself, what do we do with those people? What do we do with the people who have participated? And where on the spectrum are they?

We have story after story of people who talk about how well, yeah, I brought him his penis medicine and I booked him hotel rooms and I, you know, lined stuff up. But I was just a lowly assistant. If I had said no, he would have fired me and hired somebody else who would. And they’re probably not wrong. So what do we do about that situation?

Joan: [00:32:20] In a strange way, they were almost in the, in a similar situation to the women because they were people without power. And Harvey Weinstein was known for his rages. And I think, I think the people who could have reined him in, the people who were more at his own peer level, some of them were doing the same stuff.

I mean, I don’t know if you’ve read Catch and Kill, the Ronan Farrow book, but it comes to me. Yeah, it’s, there’s a book within a book and the book, that’s the secret book inside is about NBC and it’s about Andy Lack and Oppenheim and Burke and how, you know, basically, I mean, he doesn’t come out and say this directly, but it’s pretty clear, Harvey Weinstein was able to shut them up because it was like, Hey, Andy, you know what? You go big on me, I will return the favor. Because I know where all the bones are buried. 

There was a woman on West 57th [Jane Wallace] who said that even though Andy Lack was married, he pressured her and pressured her and flirted with her. I mean, he was like multiple times a day, day in and day out. And she said, I’m not saying that he raped me. I’m, I’m saying that our relationship was consensual, but he wore me down. And when it ended,  her career died. she was one of the people that I thought that was really interesting. So,

Julia: [00:33:40] Well, and they also, they also had Matt Lauer in their ranks, as we learned later. Have you seen the movie Bombshell yet?

Joan: [00:33:46] Not yet.

Julia: [00:33:47] So that is a movie about Roger Ailes. And it’s, it’s about Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly and their sexual harassment lawsuits against him. I saw it the other night with a girlfriend, and there is, there’s two scenes that are so powerful and so clearly depict this struggle that a woman goes through. Because there’s a third woman whose name I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t know if she’s fictionalized —

Joan: [00:34:14] Is it the Margot Robbie character? I’ve read that she, the Margot Robbie character, is a composite of like four or five women from the actual Fox News. That she’s not, she, she in of herself was not real, but they took different stories and different traits and they combined them and they made the Margot Robbie character.

[Yes, the Margot Robbie character is a composite figure based on numerous real-life people. Here, Megan Garber writes for The Atlantic about the power of the scene that Julia is about to describe]

Julia: [00:34:34] That’s probably, it could be, but she is a young, gorgeous blonde, smart, ambitious woman who wants to be on the news! She wants to be a newscaster. She wants to be – and she loves Fox News. And they do a big bit at the beginning about how she’s this diehard evangelical and her, her whole family worships at the altar of Fox News. And it’s just like she just lives and breathes this company, right? And it’s the end all be all for her.

And then she finally gets a chance to meet Roger. And she talks to him about wanting to be on the news and he says, okay, but let me see your legs. And so she stands up and does a twirl in front of him. And then he says, no, come on, I want to see your legs. And so she – clearly uncomfortable, she reaches down to the hem of her skirt and you know, pulls up a corner of her skirt, a little bit, very uncomfortably. And he says, okay, more. And then she pulls it up a little bit more. And he says, all right, more, and this continues until we see the woman’s underwear.

And meanwhile, he is sitting in his chair, panting and like moistening his lips. And the audience watching this is like starting to squirm in our chairs, because this is getting very uncomfortable. And it does a terrific job in that way of helping us to understand just how revolting —

Joan: [00:36:00] Yeah.

Julia: [00:36:00] — and uncomfortable of a situation Roger Ailes, and so many other men like him, put women in. 

Joan: [00:36:07] Yeah.

Julia: [00:36:08] And then there’s another scene maybe 25 minutes later in the movie where she’s talking on the telephone to her girlfriend, and she breaks down in just retching sobs.  And all she says is, I did it. And she sort of describes his belt buckle, but it doesn’t get any more specific than that. And so we’re left to conjecture, just what exactly it is that she ultimately agreed to do.

Joan: [00:36:39] Exactly.

Julia: [00:36:41] And it makes it – again, it does such a terrific job of demonstrating, explaining, portraying the emotional turmoil that a woman is in. Because you know, one of the big backlash arguments against all of the actresses that Harvey Weinstein assaulted and harassed is that come on, they agreed to it. They wanted an Oscar. So they said yes. And it’s like, are you kidding me?

Joan: [00:37:07] Exactly.

Julia: [00:37:08] Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted a promotion and in order to get it, you had to blow your boss? And this movie does a terrific job of explaining how, even though, yeah, technically she said yes, it was so against her will and I, it’s just wonderful the way that the movie gives us all that understanding.

Oh wait, Joan, I think I lost you.

Yeah. And listeners, that is the moment that the technology broke down and Joan and I were no longer speaking to one another. We picked up the conversation the following day and we jumped in talking about the, her, her contract negotiations back at WMAQ after the allegations came out against her from Eddie and JoBo. And how her negotiating position was so damaged and weakened. because we didn’t really kind of hit the sweet spot in just exactly what happened to her when we were talking about it in the first conversation. So, uh, we pick up and dive in a little bit more deeply into that next.

Julia: [00:38:22] This is uh, the round two of my conversation with Joan Esposito because our conversation yesterday got inexplicably cut off. The technology gremlins interrupted us.

As we were telling the story – or as you were talking about how the allegations against you diminished your bargaining power, we wandered off topic before you came back and delivered the key sentence, which is, so therefore, when I sat down at the bargaining table, I was weakened because …

Joan: [00:38:48] Well, what I discovered when Dan was explaining to me, Dan Webb, how it would proceed once I filed suit, I discovered that the legal system doesn’t really care or have any provisions to deal with somebody who damages your reputation or who, you know, besmirches your reputation. All the legal system cares about is dollar and cents.

So if I decide to drag your name through the mud, but you can’t prove in court that somehow that has cost you financially, you essentially have no case against me. Which I was horrified by because I really wanted to sue because they had said terrible things about me and people now believed I was a terrible person. And the law, I discovered, at least back then, doesn’t care about that at all. It’s just if this person said things that were not true and it has cost you money, then you can go to court.

Now, once you go to court and if you win, in addition to whatever amount of money you can prove they’ve cost you, then you can get a separate check for emotional pain and suffering. But that is not apparently good enough to file suit in the first place.

Julia: [00:40:07] That’s interesting.

Joan: [00:40:09] It’s, it’s a very, it’s a very weird system.

Julia: [00:40:12] But the, the financial damages that you suffered were because in the marketplace you were sitting down for your contract negotiations and because as you had been explaining yesterday, what gives you power at the bargaining table is when you can say you’ve got another offer.

Joan: [00:40:31] And when you’re marketable. In the Midwest, especially, I think people tend to be more strait laced than on the West coast or the East coast. So there is a relatively narrow lane of behavior you’re expected to follow. In fact, I’m sure they still do it today. Everybody I knew we had a quote unquote morality clause in our contract. If we did something that brought shame upon ourselves and therefore on the station, that was firing. You know, no severance, no goodbye, no nothing. You’re out of here. You’re done.

Julia: [00:41:10] And so far from defending you WMAQ now recognized that you were essentially damaged goods and they saw that your value was plummeting in the marketplace and they chose to take advantage of that.

Joan: [00:41:22] And frankly, even when it came to filing the lawsuit. They said, we’re not gonna like stand in your way if this is what you decide to do, but don’t bring us into this in any way, shape, or form. We want nothing to do with this process.

Julia: [00:41:38] God, that’s awful.

Joan: [00:41:39] Very supportive.

Julia: [00:41:41] And, and were you at the time shocked by that? Or was that something that was par for the course at that point in time for a company to just abandon an employee who was facing something like that?

Joan: [00:41:57] I really was surprised by the stance that they took. Because, it almost felt – even though they didn’t fire me, they didn’t walk me out of the station, it felt a little bit like they were cutting me loose. Like, Hey, you want to do this? You know, you do this, but we are not a part of this. You’re doing this on your own. Good luck. And yeah it did not feel particularly supportive of them at all.

Julia: [00:42:20] That’s really unfortunate. And do you think it was because you – because of the nature of the allegations, because of personalities, because of sexism or, or they were just shitty bosses?

Joan: [00:42:33] Remember we talked about yesterday that in the media, the boss who hires you is the one who has the very most invested in you and your success. They’ve staked their reputation on hiring this person because they think she’s good. So that’s the person who’s most going to be in your corner.

That boss had been replaced by a different boss. And he had no particular – he wasn’t out to get me, but he had no particular affection for me or my work. He was just besotted with Alison Rosati. So we all knew her star was going through the roof. And so he had nothing invested in me. He hadn’t hired me. He showed up, I already worked there. There was no reason for him to stick his neck out in the least to support me or back me.

And also he was, he was a pretty crappy person. I mean, he was. NBC, they promoted him and then they eventually fired him because he, he was a crappy person. And they didn’t care when he was a crappy person to us because he squeezed more profit out of the station. But then when he pulled some of those same behaviors at the network level, they fired him.

Julia: [00:43:45] So speaking of WMAQ not being particularly supportive, as your resume shows, you didn’t actually stick around in broadcast television very much longer. It’s not like you left right after the allegations, but you’d been on TV here in Chicago for almost 15 years at that point, and you were done within another six if I’m doing the math right.

And was this allegation – but now you also, by that point, by the time you retired, or by the time you left broadcast television in Chicago anyway, you had a second child, so you had two little kids at home and you are now in your mid 40’s. And you know, stranger things have happened to anybody then to decide to take a different tack in their career. But did these allegations and the, all the fallout and all the nastiness around it has something to do with chasing you off television? Or is that even not an accurate description of it at all? Am I mischaracterizing?

Joan: [00:44:36] Well, it’s, you know, it’s hard to say. I mean, your whole life, your whole professional life, leads you to whatever moment you’re at. And I was, I was at a point where I was really ready to be done with it. I really needed a break. And one thing that I will say was common in my generation is when we had little kids, we tended to just walk away entirely and then raise our families.

Julia: [00:45:04] Sure.

Joan: [00:45:04] I think one of the things that women are doing now that’s smarter is, even if they decide they want to be home more with their kids, they find a way to keep their hand in. Whether it’s a freelance job, whether it’s one day a week, they find a way to not leave, especially television or radio. They find a way to not leave entirely.

And after your kids are grown and you think to yourself, well, I’d really like to do something – if you’ve been completely away from the business for 10 or 12 years, it’s, it’s really, really hard to get back in. But if you’ve continued to work, then it’s, it’s much easier to expand your schedule back out again. And that’s something that’s, that’s really smart.

But for me, after I left [channel] five, there was some interest from another station. But I just told my agent, I said, you know, I’m just, I’m done. I’m done. Leave me alone.

Julia: [00:45:57] And if I’m not mistaken, there was a little bit of a gap where you spent all of your time with your kids, but then not too long after that you started your company.

Joan: [00:46:06] Yeah. After, after a few years when they were in school full time, there were some, what we called, we were a group of refugees from television. And we decided that this would be a way to take what we knew and do the work that we wanted to do, but be able to create our own schedule. You know, when you meet with a client is negotiated. It’s not like, you know, you’ve got to be on set at 4:59:40 because that’s when the five o’clock news starts.

So it was a way for all of us, and frankly, we all used that and enjoyed that. And, and it became a sort of a jumping off place. Because when we first started the media training business, it was like 2007. And the first year we had a great year. And then of course the recession hit and a lot of the budgets were cut, so we continued to do it.

We did it for like 10 years and one by one all the people who were working with us found more full time gigs. And it became harder and harder to schedule this kind of thing. And then finally it became a burden rather than an enjoyment. So we just actually, it was only in 2018 that we finally wrapped it up and put it to bed. And all of us are now busy doing other things full time.

Julia: [00:47:28] Yeah. When you and I met in 2017, it was sort of how we met, because I was working a lot of hours with a grassroots political organization called Indivisible. And we had gotten connected with you, and you and your colleagues had offered to give a little bit of pro bono help to me and a couple of others who were getting a little bit of press around the things that we were doing in 2017. Our grassroots political activism work.

Joan: [00:47:53] And it’s funny because the last few years of the company, I found myself doing more and more of that because working with clients, it got boring for me. And if I was going to do the work, I started doing a lot of pro bono stuff for Planned Parenthood and, and all the organizations that I really cared about.

Julia: [00:48:10] Hmm. And now that you find yourself on the radio, what are some of the ways that you talk to individuals about how you and we, and they, and us can affect media and can actually create outcomes in the world around us that we seek to create through media?

Joan: [00:48:32] Well, one of the things that I’m very fortunate is that we are a talk radio station. So no matter who my guest is or what we’re talking about, we have people call in to talk. We have people text us. Sometimes people send me messages on social media to share with the topic. It’s, it’s really a community. It’s really, really a community.

And I think that people are always surprised at how much influence they truly can have. For instance, when the Chicago Tribune printed an editorial that said, Oh Donald Trump, let’s not impeach him. Yeah, he’s done a bunch of really bad things, but let’s just censure him.

I thought that was kind of bizarre, and a lot of people thought that was kind of bizarre. So for the next several days, I regularly was giving out the phone number to call the Chicago Tribune to talk to in person, one or more members of the editorial board.

And even when I was working in television so long ago, if, if there was something that I said or did that people didn’t like, sometimes people would write me a note or send me an email. But if there was something that people really felt was out of bounds, a few of them discovered the really, the most effective way was to go right to the top, write a letter. And letters are still really the gold standard in a lot of ways.

Julia: [00:49:55] Sure.

Joan: [00:49:55] Because if somebody takes the time to do that, you know that they really mean it. And media organizations also figure if somebody cared enough to take the time to do that, there’s probably a bunch of other people out there who feel the same way, who didn’t bother to do this. So it really carries a lot of weight.

But any organization, whether you’re inside or outside of it, if they do something or say something or give an impression that is inappropriate, reaching up to the highest level offices that you can find and explaining the situation. I mean, I don’t know that the General Manager’s office ever got a letter or complaining about something we did or didn’t do that he didn’t come down to the newsroom and want to find out, what is this about?

Julia: [00:50:38] That’s interesting.

Joan: [00:50:39] If it’s the person who did the faux pax or a middle manager, that kind of stuff tends to kind of be buried a little bit more.

Julia: [00:50:48] Do you think that there is any less of that today, given that this era that we are in is so divisive and so loud and everybody seems to just constantly want to scream about whoever they disagree with all the time? And I wonder if that creates a muffled or a muted effect in newsrooms.

Joan: [00:51:12] Well, I think what they look at now is, because of course with social media, it’s so easy to share your opinion. I think what most places who have their social media people do is they monitor the number of, of comments they get. What exactly people are saying. Did we get a hundred people, you know, tagging us on social media saying that we really blew X?

So yeah, I think that they do really appreciate social media and I think they pay attention to it, particularly when there are more than one person espousing the same point of view.

Remember back in 2017 it took one woman, Susan Fowler, remember? She wrote a piece on Medium because she had just left Uber and she’d had such a horrible experience and she said, you know what? A lot of my friends know I’ve got this new job. A lot of them want to know why I’m leaving Uber. I’ve decided to write about it and tell you all exactly what happened while it’s fresh in my mind.

One blog post on Medium, and she essentially almost brought the company down. I mean, once that blog post was publicized within I think a couple of weeks, they had lost 100,000 or more users. People who were just deleting their Uber accounts. And the fallout from that was just amazing. One woman writing.

And it was a very dispassionate, here’s what’s happened, I don’t hate these people. This happened. I tried to do this. This is what I was told. This is what happened next. It was dispassionate and it was breathtaking in its take down of Uber. And there’s a new CEO now, and you can trace it back to February 19th, 2017 when Susan Fowler published her post on Medium saying, this is what happened to me.

Julia: [00:53:10] And I think a lot of people tend to default to, Oh, I’m just a whatever. I, I don’t have any power. I can’t affect change. I can’t make anything happen in the world. There are at least a half a dozen different goals of this podcast, but at least one of the goals is to overturn that and is to awaken in listeners the sense of how much power each of us as individuals has, and certainly how much power we have if we can get 10 of us together. Or if we can get 100 of us together. And it’s, it’s, the society is vastly different than it was back in 1994 when these horrible, false allegations were leveled against you.

And also in addition to that, there was all kinds of rampant sexual harassment going on. And as we talked about earlier, there was nothing really that you could do. As you pointed out that you know, your boss essentially sexually assaulted you in your living room, and you felt as though you – you expressed relief that when it was over and you got out without having to do anything more than get kissed by him, that you didn’t lose your job. And you were grateful that you got off that scot-free, you know. And you didn’t even say anything – you did not do a single thing and, and that had you done anything to try to get justice for yourself or to try to make sure that he didn’t harm other women in the future, you almost for sure would have been fired —

Joan: [00:54:49] And, and my career would’ve been over. Because like Harvey Weinstein did with the actresses who snubbed him, I would’ve been blacklisted. Watch out for her. She’s, she’s trouble.

Julia: [00:55:00] Yes. I tell you, I am grateful that so much has changed.

When, when you spoke yesterday about how you said, you know, you want to be pretty for the boss, but not too pretty. And as I listened to that, I, it, it set me off on a couple of hours of writing and thinking and fuming about beauty.

You know, here I sit now 20 years later and 50 pounds heavier, but I was gorgeous when I was in my 30’s and I certainly had the experience also of having doors opened for me. But they were never, it seemed like it never was in my control. My relationship to my beauty was almost more disempowering than it was anything else.

Oprah recently was interviewing Cybill Shepherd and she asked her about her beauty, and Cybill Shepherd remarked that it is a benefit that has opened doors for her. And Oprah basically like said, Whoa, stop the presses. In 25 years of me talking to beautiful women, this is the first woman who’s ever told the truth and admitted that beauty opens doors. All these other women lie about it and they pretend that their beauty is like, Oh, this old thing? My nose is too big and my thighs are too wide and whatever, and they don’t recognize the power of their beauty.

And I feel like saying back to Oprah, Oprah, you don’t get it. For so many of us – and I’m wondering where you stand on this, Joan. But certainly for me, I knew that so many people thought that I was very beautiful cause I was told regularly. But I personally felt so disempowered all the time. I almost felt at affect of my looks because I never knew who or when they were going to have some effect. And, and so some door might swing open, but then there would be like this lecherous man on the other side of the door that now I had to deal with unexpectedly.

And it’s not like I could – never once in my entire life did I feel like I could saunter into a room and bat my eyes and flash my legs the way that they depict on TV and in the movies. I never once in my life —

Joan: [00:57:17] No.

Julia: [00:57:17] — felt like I had that much control over how I was going to wield this powerful tool called beauty. That feels to me like a fairly universal experience of beautiful women. But I’m wondering, Joan, as you, again, you’re a beautiful woman now, but when you were in your 30’s just like holy shit, were you a knock out. And you were TV gorgeous. Me, I was always kind of girl next door pretty cause I’m a little on the fluffy side, you know, so I was never like television gorgeous. But you – not only are you beautiful, but also you had the figure to boot. You know, flashing those legs on television that even Roger Ailes would’ve hired, you know.

So I’m curious, did you feel like your beauty was something that you could actively control and that you had precise control over it and it gave you power in a way that you were conscious of and could use to your benefit? Or were you more like me? Kind of clumsy and awkward and more at effect of it than anything?

Joan: [00:58:14] Well, first of all, I was in a profession where a certain degree of beauty was a job requirement. So it wasn’t like I was some kind of standout in a newsroom full of plain Janes. I mean, frankly, in television news, even most of the women who worked behind the scenes were gorgeous. I mean, maybe, I don’t know, it’s because men were doing the hiring, I don’t know. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t the sort of thing where I felt like I was some sort of standout. I felt like I was keeping up with the Joneses because that was what was expected.

But, but no, I, I didn’t feel like – well, especially because I think I’ve always sensed that people respond a little more positively to blondes. And I always sort of felt like as a, as an ethnic sort of brunette, that I had to work a little harder. And, you know, make sure my hair was a little bit more fixed and make sure my clothes matched maybe a little bit better. I really felt like I was in a medium where I had to really do my best to just be at the same level as everybody else I was working at.

So, I mean, I think the only person I think that might’ve had a different experience was Deborah Norville. Because Deborah Norville was, she was like head and shoulders pretty above the rest of us. But I also think her extreme beauty is also part of the reason – one part of the reason it went so bad for her at NBC. She was initially hired to do the news before the Today Show. And the way I heard – once everything had blown up, the way I heard one person analyze it well, was that early morning 6:30 AM newscast was viewed by a lot of the, like a lot of the men in the financial world, you know, getting up early to start their day early.

And so her beauty was a big attraction. Oh, the guys are going to want to tune in to see this. But when she was shifted to the Today Show where we had girl next door Jane Pauley, and then we had this bombshell. You know, I think even before – because when Deb was hired, they made a change that instead of reading the news on the Today Show from a desk away from the set, the person was gonna sit on the couch with the other hosts.

I mean, that was the big change. And as soon as Deb was there, sitting on the couch with Jane Pauley, that’s where what was his name? Tom Shale? Tom Shale, I think of the Washington Post who was their television critic started writing, look to your right Jane, because your replacement is sitting right there. And because Deb was so beautiful, I think it was really easy for most of America to see her as The Other Woman.

Julia: [01:01:11] Oh wow.

Joan: [01:01:12] You know, there’s the Jane Pauley, there’s the wife who’s been with you since you were 20 years old. And then there’s the trophy wife sitting there waiting to swoop in. She’s thinner, she’s taller, she’s beautiful, she’s blonder, you know? And I really think that if Deb had been a little more plain looking, it wouldn’t, there wouldn’t have been quite the blowup that there was.

Julia: [01:01:36] But so, circling back to your own feeling about your beauty and what you said that it’s funny that people say that I was so beautiful, I never felt so beautiful is kind of paraphrasing what you said. And as I reflect on this, it’s just, it’s so fucked up about our culture. Because I would bet money that I couldn’t find one woman in a hundred who would NOT say that. Because I could imagine, for example, black women or women of color talking about, well, sure, beauty, for you, you’re a white woman, right? I, who doesn’t have white skin, I’m never going to accede to that level. And then here, my own self, who is in fact a white woman, I say, well, but I’m never going to be seen as truly beautiful because I’ve always been a little bit too plump. And here you’re saying —

Joan: [01:02:24] I’ve never been blonde.

Julia: [01:02:26] And I can imagine that even if we had, you know, freaking Charlize Theron, or I don’t know who we’re going to pick sitting here, that she would figure out a reason that she herself never felt quite beautiful enough. And it’s this thing that we do to women. We, we make women want to be beautiful and chase this ideal of beauty, but it’s absolutely never good enough.

Joan: [01:02:48] I think that the younger generations, while not perfect, are maybe better at this. I mean, look at the body positivity and success of Lizzo. I mean, toss my hair, paint my nails. How you doing? It’s that kind of confidence. And you know, I mean, companies like dove, we know beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. If we could get a little bit more of that —

Julia: [01:03:10] Or Thirdlove, you know, their ads are, I would say at least half, maybe three quarters, full figured models. And they’re, and they’re not a full-figured company. It’s not like they cater to plus size women. And I think part of that is because average women are actually a lot heavier than what we’re accustomed to seeing on ads. So the Thirdlove ads probably are using average looking women, and they just look heavy, compared to you know, the rail thin models that we’re accustomed to seeing. So I think there is a reason to hope and reason for change.

But I tell you, it’s, it’s conversations like this, you know. One at a time, strengthening one another, empowering one another, listening to one another, supporting one another, cheering one another on as we each go forward in the things that we’re all doing. So.

Joan: [01:03:53] Well, I’m trying to, I’m trying to bring it for the old crowd.

Julia: [01:03:56] Yeah, yeah. I’m right there behind ya. You know? It’s, I, I still I think of myself as 38. Which isn’t young, you know, 38 is, I mean, a lot of people are like 38, that’s middle age. And I’m, here I am wishing to be 38 again. And I’m realizing, wow, it is more than a decade in the rearview mirror at this point.

Joan: [01:04:15] Yeah. You got to make your peace with it. Cause it just doesn’t stop.

Julia: [01:04:19] No, no, no. As they say, it’s better than the alternative. Well, Ms. Esposito, it’s been lovely talking to you.

Joan: Thank you Ms. Kline.

Julia: You are just a treasure and I’m so delighted to be able to call you a friend and also a guest on our podcast and would love to have you come back sometime again.

Joan: Sure. You got it.

Julia: Thank you. Have a great rest of your day.

Joan: Thank you. You too.

Conclusion

My thanks to Joan Esposito for being our guest today. What a great conversation about media in Chicago, back in the day. And some of the ways that it is better, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Listeners, what do you think about beauty? Let us know about that. Send us an email feedback@solvingmetoo.com or you can hit us up on any of the socials.

We are on Facebook. We are on Twitter. We are on LinkedIn, not so much Instagram. And if you want to put a hashtag in your message, it is either #SolvingMeToo, or #TheSMTPodcast. 

And that email address again is feedback@solvingmetoo.com or just come visit us on the website, SolvingMeToo.com.

I hope you are having a terrific day, whatever you are out there doing, feeling empowered and authentic and ready to take on whatever matters to you in the world. 

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