Newsroom predators in foreign bureaus hurt their colleagues — and their stories.
Today, I’m known as a strong advocate in my social circles, promoting women’s and minorities’ voices in media. But when I first moved to China seven years ago, as a 23-year-old Canadian reporter of Chinese ancestry, it was a different story. To some men in my professional network, I was a target, not a peer.
But the path from silent target to advocate has been a rocky one, a road signposted by incidents of harassment and aggression.
Once, a fellow journalist exited our shared taxi outside my apartment. I thought we were sharing a cab to our respective homes, but he had other expectations, and suddenly his tongue was in my face. On another evening, another journalist grabbed my wrist and dragged me out of a nightclub without a word. I was clearly too drunk to consent; it was a caveman approach to get me into bed while I was intoxicated. And on yet another occasion, in a Beijing restaurant, a Western public relations executive reached under my dress and grabbed my crotch.
The incidents aren’t limited by proximity. I have received multiple unsolicited “dick pics” from foreign correspondents — generally on the highly monitored messaging service WeChat
I have received multiple unsolicited “dick pics” from foreign correspondents — generally on the highly monitored messaging service WeChat
. Somewhere deep in the Chinese surveillance apparatus there is a startling collection of images of journalists’ genitalia.The #MeToo campaign has reminded us of how common these stories are — but the behavior of foreign men working abroad has, in my experience, been far worse than anything I ever experienced at home. Fortunately for me, I’ve experienced this only as part of the wider journalist community, not in my own workplaces – but others haven’t been so lucky. The phenomenon is not a problem unique to the press, but it’s one that’s especially problematic for journalists.
A somber meeting this Tuesday of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which represents the interests of foreign journalists in a difficult local environment, provided another painful example of this. As the New York Times reported, former club president Jonathan Kaiman, who had resigned in January after being accused of sexual misconduct by Laura Tucker, a former friend of his, was now accused of sexually assaulting a female journalist, Felicia Sonmez. After the second accusation, the Los Angeles Times quickly suspended him from his role as Beijing bureau chief and has begun an investigation. But as the Hong Kong Free Pressnoted, the original accusation had prompted many male correspondents to launch misogynistic attacks on Tucker in online conversations.
Such actions, and entitlement, reflect a sense of privilege and a penchant for sexual aggression that threatens to distort the stories told about Asia, and that too often leaves the telling in the hands of the same men preying on their colleagues. I have seen correspondents I know to be serial offenders in private take the lead role in reporting on the sufferings of Asian women, or boast of their bravery in covering human rights. In too many stories, Asian men are treated as the sole meaningful actors, while Asian women are reduced to sex objects or victims. And this bad behavior — and the bad coverage that follows — is a pattern that repeats across Asia, from Tokyo to Phnom Penh.
To be sure, some of the most vocal male advocates for women I’ve known have been people reacting against this dynamic among their peers. But a few good men aside, the entitlement and actions of many of the men I have encountered in media-related industries from Hong Kong and Beijing was unlike anything I encountered at home in Vancouver, Canada, or as a student in New York. The corrosive culture of expatriates spans multiple countries, and bad sexual behavior — dubbed “sexpat behavior” in the expat world — is hardly confined to tourists. Often the worst damage is done by men ensconced in positions of influence in journalism, diplomacy, and international business.
Often the worst damage is done by men ensconced in positions of influence in journalism, diplomacy, and international business.
At the core of the problem is a lack of accountability. Behavior that could (or should) get you fired in New York often goes unremarked on in Beijing or Kuala Lumpur, where remote foreign offices have little contact with the home base and, in some cases, no mechanisms for employees to report abuse. Even when cases are reported, correspondents are sometimes simply quietly transferred to another part of Asia.
“I think a lot of expat men — especially in China and Southeast Asia — have a pretty messed up view of women,” a male photographer based in southern China says. He requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak with press. “I think some of them get away with being one way at home, but when they find themselves in these places where sex is so easily available — especially if you’re a white dude and some local women see status in that — some men abuse it.”
The problems are worsened by the unequal power dynamics in the offices of multinational media that employ “local staff” to provide translation, conduct research, and navigate complex bureaucracies, but pay them a fraction of what their foreign colleagues earn. In China, these “news assistants” are mostly young women. This pattern is mirrored in other countries, where the pool of those with the English-language skills needed for the job often skew female. “Many people, especially those with real regional and local knowledge, are not hired on proper terms and have little or no recourse to the law or to union support, or even just commonsense support and mentoring,” says Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a Hong Kong-born journalist. Far-off company headquarters may not know they even exist