McGuire on Media

Amelia Rayno’s courageous story teaches lessons of compassion and journalism

Amelia Rayno, the talented college basketball writer for the Minneapolis Star
Tribune, committed outstanding journalism today when she published her own personal account of harassment by Norwood Teague, who resigned last Friday as the University of Minnesota Athletic Director.

Rayno displayed incredible courage, compelling storytelling skills and shone a penetrating light on the devastation and gross unfairness of sexual harassment. She took a big personal risk and disclosed she was also a victim of Teague’s disgusting advances. Her work put a lie to the impression left last Friday by Teague that the transgressions disclosed last week were an unfortunate error fueled by alcohol.

Transparency and disclosure alert. I was the managing editor or editor of the Star Tribune from 1979-2002. I am still profoundly loyal to the paper and to many of the people.  The Sports Editor, Glen Crevier, is one of my very good friends. I  have had two coffee dates and one dinner with him in the last 60 days. He never discussed this issue with me and I decided not to put him on the spot by talking to him for this blog post.

I do not know Amelia Rayno at all but I admire and enjoy her work. I remain a big Minnesota Gopher football and basketball fan. I have thought for some time Rayno brought a special verve to basketball coverage.

With those disclosures in mind my first inclination was to pass on writing this post, but my fiancée argued that if I did that I was buying into the culture of silence on this subject. I hated that idea so let me share a few thoughts on this monumentally important issue.

First, the raw power of Rayno’s account mesmerized me. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never experienced the same visceral impact of the damage sexual harassment can do to a victim. Rayno explains with calm certainty what a difficult spot the harassment created for her.  Her entire career flashed before her eyes and giant questions of the viability of her future must have torn her apart. All because a clod with real power didn’t understand boundaries.

Rayno wrote a follow-up blog this afternoon expressing her hope that her disclosures will start a conversation. Thanks to her talent and candor I think that will clearly be the case.

Some naïve men on Twitter are saying Rayno should have reported Teague immediately. That attitude simply fails to recognize the societal complexities a victim of harassment faces. I fervently hope both men and women reread Rayno’s column and appreciate what a lose-lose situation powerful men like Teague can create for their prey.

I think this sad circumstance may be one of the most important diversity cases I have seen in years. I have taught ethics and diversity for almost 10 years and I have never seen a case where the duties to all stakeholders are so difficult to navigate. From my experience, gender is not addressed enough in ethical diversity discussions and this case should be carefully examined.

Rayno was first openly and seriously harassed on Dec. 13 2013 and after a lot of tears and fears discussed it with fellow women professionals who urged her to report it to her editors and superiors. She did that in April. I appreciate the complexities and trepidation she struggled with and I applaud her actions. In any ethical case discussion her conflicts between doing the right thing and ruining her own career must be deeply respected.

Now the ethical plot thickens. I am going to make an assumption here that the editors of the Star Tribune knew about this issue when Rayno reported it to human resource officials but that is not clear.

I ardently hope editors knew at that time and I wonder if they did the ethical balancing editors required in such a case. The fact that nobody reported it to the university administration seems problematic but I understand that Rayno, the victim, did not want to create a fuss that would jeopardize her relationships with the University. It is a legitimate concern but if the university was not contacted, there are two ethical considerations that may not have been discussed enough based on what I have read.

The first is ongoing harm. When faced with wrongdoing of any sort the prime journalistic question is whether this is an isolated case or is it the canary in the coal mine that indicates a serious pattern of behavior? That needed to be explored carefully, judiciously and thoroughly.

Certainly Rayno and the the paper did not want make Rayno the main story but any knowledge at the leadership level requires follow-up in a newsroom or elsewhere. Every possible trail to prevent future harm needs to be explored. The duty of the newspaper and Rayno’s personal duty must extend beyond themselves. I say that because the larger social context of this sort of harassment by powerful people demands accountability. Now I understand that is much easier to say in retrospect. and that too is an important point worth making. Cases like this are always much clearer in hindsight than they are when they are unfolding.

And that brings me to the second ethical issue and the only thing here I will say that resembles advice. I always suggest to students that before they make a decision or take an action that might be questioned, they consider whether they would want their mother to know or whether they would want to see it on the front page.

I wonder if the newspaper played out what would happen if the Teague story blew up. Rayno herself in today’s story indicates that may not have been the case.  She wrote:

“But as I reread his texts to me and the ones that were released Friday, I regret not doing more initially, especially now that I know Teague continued to harass women. At the time, I was still fairly green on my first real beat and, frankly, unprepared for something like this. I wasn’t bold enough in my reaction. Had all of this developed now, I might have handled it differently. That’s why, in light of the brave women who did step up, I decided to put my name behind my story in hopes that it will never happen again.”

I feel total empathy for Rayno and her editors. This was a horrible position for all of them to find themselves. However, one of the ways to avoid some second-guessing is always to  think out and talk through possible scenarios and results. What’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s the best? How will we react if particular scenarios unfold.?

It can be a lot of work and it is not foolproof, but I think it often leads to decisions that protect your news organization and allow you to do the right thing for your readership.

Here’s hoping the conversation Rayno hoped to start unfolds constructively and with heart.