The Unseemly Urge to Excuse Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin speaks at Arizona State University in 2017. (Gage Skidmore)

It should not be an unreasonably high standard to ask people not to engage in sex acts while talking to their work colleagues.

Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, was suspended from his jobs and subjected to a round of public mockery for visibly exposing himself while masturbating on a Zoom call with New Yorker colleagues. The call was designed to role-play post-election scenarios for a contested election; Toobin was assigned to be the courts (justice is blind, and all that), and Jane Mayer to be the Republicans, if you want the flavor of intellectual self-pleasuring that the exercise was supposed to involve. From the various reports, it would appear that Toobin was multitasking with some sort of phone-sex videocall at the same time, and did not realize that his work colleagues could see what he was doing.

This is, first of all, quite properly a firing offense in any remotely normal workplace, and for anyone not insulated from ordinary discipline by star status or a powerful union. It is not just catastrophically bad judgment and reckless in creating possible legal exposure (so to speak) for his employer, it also subjected multiple female colleagues to a prominent man in their workplace conducting a vivid sex act for them to witness. The fact that Toobin does not appear to have expected to be seen makes the offense slightly less obvious predatory conduct than the things done by, say, Louis C.K. or Harvey Weinstein, but it is still something no woman should have to put up with.

What should shock us is that Toobin has yet to be fired, when nearly anyone else would be — any ordinary person, and almost any prominent person whose politics were different from Toobin’s. Instead, it took over a week for anyone to even disclose that he had been disciplined at all. This is perhaps not a great sign regarding how much the media have learned since Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, or Mark Halperin. This is by no means the first indication of Toobin’s horrible, abusive sexual morals. Let’s recall his affair (while married) with Casey Greenfield, the 20-something daughter of Toobin’s CNN colleague Jeff Greenfield; as the New York Daily News reported in 2010:

Greenfield . . . was in her 20s when she fell for Toobin, now 49, even though he was wed to Amy McIntosh, the Harvard sweetheart he’d married in 1986 and who gave him two children. “[Casey] started seeing Jeff again. He said he was going to leave his wife for her. But, by then, Casey had begun to distrust him. She suspected he had several other mistresses.” In 2008, when Greenfield became pregnant, and when she told Toobin the news, he offered her “money if she’d have an abortion,” says a source . . . “When Casey wouldn’t have an abortion, Jeff told her she was going to regret it, that she shouldn’t expect any help from him,” claims another source. Toobin ultimately cooperated with a DNA test that proved [paternity]. In February, a Manhattan Family Court judge ordered him to pay child support. When he refused to pay the full amount, say sources, Greenfield’s lawyer threatened to notify his employers and garnish his wages; Toobin then paid up.

At least we know that Toobin’s long, loud advocacy for legal abortion is sincere and consistent with how he has lived his life. His rants against sexual predation by political opponents, not so much.

What is bizarre and unsettling is the rush of voices in journalism trying to excuse or normalize Toobin’s behavior. German Lopez of Vox, in a since-deleted tweet, mused: “Not sure someone getting caught doing something almost everyone does should be a national story.”

Just because a lot of people gratify themselves sexually does not mean that doing so in full view of your workplace colleagues is “something almost everyone does.”

Scaachi Koul of BuzzFeed wrote a column on how “Jeffrey Toobin Can’t Be The Only Person Masturbating On Work Zoom Calls.” “I mean, who among us, you know?” she asked. Jonathan Zimmerman of the New York Daily News asked: “why the resolute focus on this celebrity? The answer has to do with his particular transgression, of course. . . . News flash: Toobin masturbates. But I’m guessing that you do the same, dear reader. Maybe you should stop feeling weird and guilty about that. Then we can all stop making fun of Jeffrey Toobin.”

Then there were the people who just could not bear the loss of Toobin right now. His CNN colleagues Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy, who glory in every foible and scandal over at Fox News, bemoaned that Toobin “has been sidelined at a pivotal moment in the run-up to the presidential election. The reason: He exposed himself during a Zoom call with colleagues in what he says was an accident. . . . A spokesperson for CNN said ‘Jeff Toobin has asked for some time off while he deals with a personal issue, which we have granted.’. . . Ordinarily Toobin would be busy covering a controversial Supreme Court confirmation and an election that could end up being challenged on legal grounds.” While it is difficult to report fairly on a story involving your own co-workers, Stelter and Darcy could not spare even a syllable of sympathy for the women exposed to Toobin’s behavior. Then there’s Vinay Menon of the Toronto Star:

Just when the world needs him most, Jeffrey Toobin exposes himself on Zoom. Why, Jeffrey? Why? The U.S. election is less than three weeks away. The Supreme Court is hurtling toward momentous change. Legal analysts are the tour guides who can help us navigate these inflection points in democratic history. We needed you to explain looming vote challenges and constitutional loopholes and point out that “Amy Coney Barrett” is an anagram for “Ratty Cobra Enemy.” What we did not need is for you to unbuckle your pantaloons and touch yourself . . .

Now, look. I do not want to minimize any possible trauma experienced by anyone on that video chat who, one second, was yammering on about the Electoral College and then, the next, was screaming at their screen in absolute disgust: “WHAT THE HELL IS JEFF DOING?”

Menon resuscitated the old Bill Clinton defenses that seem to resurface whenever socially liberal elites (men, but also women such as Katie Hill) get caught in these situations — The Cause must take precedence:

But we need to keep perspective. We need to see the big picture. Granted, there are few things more unprofessional . . . Toobin is a lawyer. His judgment is now suspect. I get it. All I’m saying is we need to forget this ever happened. Block it out. Toobin may not grasp streaming technology. He may well be cursed with the hormones of a randy teenager. But he also has one of the sharpest legal minds on the continent. He cuts through the noise. He brings deep context to shallow airwaves. As a writer and broadcaster, he is everything we need, now more than ever: smart, thoughtful, insightful, incisive and knowledgeable.

The only person Toobin hurt . . . is Jeffrey Toobin . . . So end this investigation, New Yorker. Chalk this XXX call up to neo-Luddite horniness. Or at the very least, hold off on investigating until the election is over. The same goes for you, CNN. Rescind this “leave of absence” and tell Toobin his service is urgently required. America is at a crossroads and Toobin has a pretty good map in his back pocket, assuming he can keep his pants on . . . Let’s leave it at that and get on with saving America.

Toobin’s super-valuable insight famously includes predicting that Roe v. Wade would be gone by the end of 2019:

Moreover, the calls from these quarters for lending Toobin a hand here are so very different from how sexual harassment scandals at Fox News were handled: They were made into a movie. Nobody argued that Bill O’Reilly or Roger Ailes were too valuable to be held to account. (Then there’s the latest pile-on directed at Rudy Giuliani.)

There are reasonable cautions to offer here. Kevin Williamson, who has seen his share of the madness of “cancel culture” and rage mobs, argues that the pile-on is too motivated by the human need for collective public-hate objects. Hugo Schwyzer, who has been through the wringer some years back over the publication of sexts, argues that we need more grace towards people who are publicly humiliated in this fashion. These are fine sentiments, although in the particular situation, they underplay Toobin’s appalling past and the impact of his conduct on his co-workers.

Fundamentally, Toobin did something requiring not only contrition but consequences. This might be a different situation if Toobin had been caught adjusting himself, in embarrassing fashion, or spotted with a naughty browser tab open. But it should not be an unreasonably high standard to ask people not to engage in sex acts while talking to their work colleagues. If your urge is to defend that simply because it’s a man who supports legal abortion, you may need to rethink your value system.

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