Let's Talk: Personal Boundaries, Safety & Women in Journalism
JUNE CROSS, FILMMAKER & PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA JOURNALISM SCHOOL
Ann Cooper: So you may recall that a few years ago, Lara Logan was attacked in Egypt. Lynsey Addario was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in Libya, and there was this huge public discussion, or at least amongst journalists, a lot of discussion about the vulnerabilities of female correspondents.
There were reports and checklists and tips and everything was put out and then that sort of died down. But here we are again, after the death of Kim Wall, discussing this again. And I guess the new element here, and the thing that some people found very shocking is she died in a western democracy, in Denmark. How could this happen to a female western correspondent in a western country? Should we really be surprised by that?
June Cross: No.
Ann Cooper: Why not?
June Cross: Because men are men, all over the world. And I think, ultimately, when you're talking about sexual harassment or sexual violence against women, it's not about the sex. It's about men exerting power over women when [men] feel powerless.
And I don't think that's ever going to go away. Whether you're in Denmark or North Dakota, it's a problem of the human condition, I think. It's one of the things that people do, try to make people feel less than, I think is just something that people who feel powerless and want to lash out do.
Ann Cooper: Even though we as journalists always hope that things will be fixed if they are exposed.
June Cross: True. Well, Christiane Amanpour yesterday said that journalists, she doesn't think of herself as a he or a she. She's a journalist.
I think when I was a young journalist I tried to adhere to that very closely. I wore my hair very, very short, like buzzsaw short. And I think I, basically, was oblivious to things. A lot of things that were said or done that I just acted as if I had blinders on. I just didn't notice it.
But it is still a problem. It is definitely still a problem. It's not going to go away.
Ann Cooper: Well, we probably went into newsrooms at roughly the same time. There were very few women, and at my first job there were zero African American women. And you said you thought of yourself as a journalist. That's what you like to think when you're going in.
But take us back to some of your early newsrooms. How did they think of you? Were you always a hyphenated something?
June Cross: Yeah, actually, when I think back to times when I had to deal with sexual harassment, like my first job out of college, which was not in a newsroom, I actually never had to deal with anything in newsrooms. I'm very grateful for that. And I don't have any stories to tell from that period.
But from that period I was working as a freelancer, and needed to augment my income, as many freelancers do. And I took a job working with a business association. And my boss liked to take me out for drinks or dinner and tell me, he had told me rape stories of women who had gone out with men that they thought were safe and then ended up raped.
And he had a whole, I don't know if he went home at night and read these things in a book somewhere, or what. There were variations on a theme. And I think I lasted in that job about four or five months and then I was like, I can't do this anymore. This is just too weird. And I quit. I should add, now that I’m thinking about this, that by then I had been date raped twice in college, and raped once while hitchhiking; and I’d developed an instinct for weird guys. As a reporter, I turned off my inner feminine. And my inner defense mechanisms became very highly developed.
Ann Cooper: Why do you think he was telling you those stories?
June Cross: I have no idea. And I decided that I wasn't going to keep sticking around to find out, because very often I would be the last ... I was the secretary, so I would be the last one there alone with him. And I just, nah. Time. Out of here.
But that's the only one. As I go through my career, I don't recall other instances; but I worked in television. And we had crews. Perhaps it was the safety of working in collaboration which drew me to television. Very rarely was I alone. Or if I was working alone, I had a fixer. And I could trust that person. It was very often a man. But I never really felt endangered.
I think times have changed now. By the time I got to the point where I was going overseas, I had been in the business about 20 years or so. I had a fair amount of life experience. I had a situation in Haiti after covering the attempt to return President Aristide, the first time. I had actually learned Creole, and I got my hair straightened, and did the whole thing. And had pretty much convinced the anti-Aristide people who were working there that I was one of them.
And I was filming from inside while they were having a huge demonstration. There was a U.S. gunboat. And there was a huge demonstration they were having. And I was in the middle of it. Then somehow or another, I don't know what happened. Somebody figured out that I actually wasn't Haitian. That I was news media. And at that point, the crowd turned. And I got surrounded. And I was separated from my crew, much like Lara Logan was in Egypt. It doesn’t take but an instant. I looked up from my camera eyepiece, and they were on the other side of the crowd in a jeep. And the crowd was attacking the jeep.
And finally our fixer came and grabbed me by the arm and just pulled me out of there. And gave me hell for risking my life and getting separated, because he hadn't wanted me to go into the middle of that crowd in in the first place. But I wanted to get the shot. And I got the shot. And I don't think I realized at that time how much danger I had put all of us in until we got back, and not only him, but my cameraman read me the riot act for going in there like that. That's the diciest situation I've ever been in.
Ann Cooper: Did he read you the riot act because you were a female going in there? Did they?
June Cross: Yeah, I think all of that. I was female. I was stupid. It was just an immature thing to do. And I put all of them in danger, really, because the crowd had baseball bats. And they went after our headlights. And they were getting ready to go after the windshield. We were able to get away. The driver just stepped on the gas.
But you know, they had to come get me. So having somebody have to get out of the car to come get me was, in hindsight, not the smartest thing. It was a very crazy time. Four of the people that I interviewed for that film, three of them were assassinated before I had even left the country. So it was one of the harder films I've done.
Ann Cooper: The crews that you were working with, were they usually male?
June Cross: Oh yeah, always.
Ann Cooper: How did they treat you?
June Cross: I don't know. It never came up.
Ann Cooper: Yeah?
June Cross: It just never came up. They usually had wives, or girlfriends, or something and we'd talk about that. When we were together, it was like we were a clique. We'd all share stories. I was dating some guy that I ultimately married. I would tell stories about how he was driving me crazy. I would hear stories about how their wives were driving them crazy. I was not ... A lot of reporters end up, TV people especially end up in affairs with their camera persons. I was never one of those people, but I heard about it a lot. I just wasn't one of those people.
I think, as I said, I just acted as if I wasn't female. You know, I was not. And I think being black, wearing short hair, actually, sort of helped in that way because I didn't have that sort of blonde, blue-eyed sort of look that was very, is very popular. I wore very baggy clothes. So I sort of felt protected by that in a way. I'm not somebody that they're going to ... I didn't feel like I was desirable as a woman in that environment. And I didn't carry myself that way.
Ann Cooper: So we had a panel here a couple of years ago with the Committee to Protect Journalists, which did a book about gender and press freedom. And Kim Barker was one of the panelists and she started out by saying, "So when they called me up to say will you be on this panel? My first reaction was, really? Do we still have to talk about this?"
June Cross: Yeah.
Ann Cooper: And then for the next hour and a half these…
June Cross: She talked about it.
Ann Cooper: Talked about being propositioned and groped. You know, harassed in all kinds of ways. Being afraid to turn down an assignment, because I'm a woman and they're going to go, "Oh, she's a wuss. So we're never going to offer her this kind of assignment again." And by the end of the evening, I'm kind of thinking, has anything really changed?
June Cross: I don't think so. I was talking to a recent graduate a couple days ago about this very topic. And she's working as a freelance camera person for CNN. I told Christiane about this yesterday. She's working as a freelance camera person for CNN and she told me about when covering Trump supporters she was, at one point, a woman came up to her with long fingernails and just dragged her nails down her arm. And a guy had come up and kissed her. Given her a big sloppy kiss on the neck. She freezes. She said, "I just froze. I didn't know what to do," which is usually the reaction that I hear from women who have gone through these things. It’s what I did in college; and what I learned not to do.
And I think it is worse now, because television people don't have crews. I can't imagine myself two years out of graduate school, or whatever, 27, 28 years old, being alone with a camera in a hostile situation, with no backup. And that's new. And I think that that puts younger women ... It's not just because they're women, but because they're younger and they don't quite yet have the life experience to know how to deal with it.
And it's not that it can't happen to you if you're older, but you sort of develop, you begin to develop defenses. You begin to develop coping mechanisms to tell guys to go take a hike, in stronger terms.
Kim, that's a great story about Kim Barker where she talks about being in Afghanistan and she gets out of the car and all these guys are groping her. And she turns around and just punches one of them in the mouth. And they're still at it, and she's just punching and kicking for everything she's worth.
Ann Cooper: That's a coping mechanism.
June Cross: That's one kind of coping mechanism. And she did manage to get away. She managed to get back in the car and keep going. I think it's different now. I think women in thinking that we're invincible, and by and large we are, in the United States, I mean, not totally invincible but as journalists we're allowed to practice professionally. Then when we take that overseas, we're in a different culture, different mores, we represent more than who we are. And I think that power thing I talked about comes into play. You're not just a journalist, you're a representative of the American news media and everything that that stands for. And I think, in some ways, that makes us lightening rods.
Ann Cooper: That happens now at Trump rallies, too.
June Cross: It does. Katie Tur has talked about this. Kim Barker talked about it. My student talked about it. My former student.
Ann Cooper: So the panel that you moderated recently about Charlottesville, so in both cases, both of those reporters were female. What did you think as you were listening to, of course, we didn't have the VICE reporter here, but we had the team.
June Cross: Tracy was alone with that crazy guy with all those guns in a hotel room. And she didn't realize it until after he started pulling all of the guns out.
Ann Cooper: But what did you think, talking with them, what did-
June Cross: I did have a ‘nothing has changed’ moment. I actually did have a nothing has changed moment. One of my first assignments, I had to go to southern Georgia in 1979 to cover a rally. God what was the name of that little town. Smyrna, Georgia? To cover a rally. African Americans in the town were having a protest in order to get hired as garbage men. They had no black civil servants in this little town.
Civil rights lawyer Millard Farmer was leading the demonstration. Anyway, there was a Klan counter rally as the African Americans were doing this rally. But again, I had a crew. I was there by myself for about the first seven or eight hours. And it was sort of weird. I did not cross to go talk to the Klan until the crew arrived, with my correspondent. And then, at that point, I had to go across and talk to the Klan people, and get them to agree to go talk. So there's a double thing. I'm female and I'm this black woman having to cross the street to go talk to Klan members and get them to agree to be interviewed on the PBS News Hour. And I did. And that was my first assignment.
So I was listening to Ilia and Tracy as they were talking about doing this assignment and thinking that in many ways, this has been a strain, this neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, alt-right, whatever you want to call it, has been a strain in American politics since 1865. So it's not going away. And we're in a moment where it's sort of bubbling up. And I think this happens periodically, in the history of the country.
Ann Cooper: So we have, I think it's 75% of student body now is female.
June Cross: Oh my gosh. No wonder there's always a line in the ladies room.
Ann Cooper: Our responsibility is to teach them to be journalists, how to report, how to write, how to do good interviewing and whatnot. What do we tell them about being a female journalist today?
June Cross: You know, I really hate to do this, but I always want to say, do not go out wearing short dresses. Don't make yourself up like you're going out on Saturday night. You just want to be as neutral as possible. I bought my pants at Lands End, and my shirts like at Polo. I was not at all trying to be, I was trying to be neutral. As close to a neutral gender, androgynous human being as I could be, I think, in those early days.
I don't know that I would tell women to do that now. That was my coping mechanism.
Ann Cooper: But why wouldn't you? Wouldn't that still be a good coping mechanism?
June Cross: It might be. I don't know. It just feels so draconian.
Ann Cooper: Or does it feel like you're ...
June Cross: Do you have to hide yourself in order to do your job? It feels sort of awful to have to say that. But at the time I entered this business I was a walking wounded person. I did what I had to do to defend myself. It doesn't apply in all instances, but if I was walking into ... If somebody sent me to southern Georgia, I'm still going to be wearing my khakis and my blousy tee shirt to go down there, just because for a number of reasons. But anyway ... Yeah, I just urge them to be neutral and classily dressed, as opposed to the way you would go out on Saturday night or Friday to a party.
Or even here, after a day of classes and going into a bar in New York. When you go anywhere outside of the coast, into the interior of the country, into the southern parts of the country, it's helpful to be as neutral ... Neutral in your dresses, neutral in your presentation and your language. You want to be a blank slate so that you can reflect the people that you're interviewing.
Ann Cooper: What do you mean by that?
June Cross: But actually, this never comes up in my class, oddly enough.
Ann Cooper: And you don't specifically?
June Cross: We have conversations about safety and how do you handle it. And I usually say, don't go into strange people's homes. If you're in a sketchy neighborhood, get out before dark. But on the other hand we've had students, I had this one East Indian student. She was about 4' 11" and she ended up lost somewhere in the Bronx one night. And she was sitting on a bench crying, and somebody came to help her and he turned out to be like the mayor of the neighborhood. And that was her source for the rest of her year here.
So I'm leery about giving people, never, don't do this or don't do that. Or never do this, because you never know where that lightning is going to strike. And that's the story you'll have. So I don't know. I have no words of wisdom.
Ann Cooper: Do you see female journalists doing stories or in situations that you wouldn't do?
June Cross: Well, I'm over 60 years old now. So there's a lot of things that I wouldn't do.
Ann Cooper: Would you have done the VICE piece?
June Cross: Yeah, I would have done the VICE piece, they were with a crew. There were two cars. I think I might have let somebody know, and I might have gone with a satellite phone. I'm talking about Ilia and the Univision crew.
I think more about would I have gotten on that submarine? I don't think I would have. And this is not to blame Kim in any way, because she was an amazing reporter, and she had done amazing work. And she had absolutely no reason to think that this was the crazy guy. But you never know when you're going to find the crazy guy. I’d already had an experience with the crazy guy, and I managed to survive. So I’m speaking from a hindsight she was not fortunate enough to develop.
I wouldn't have gone by myself. I would have tried to go with somebody. And that's without saying ... She's not to blame for what happened to her in any way. But, what's the word, judicious. There's another word that I'm looking for.
Ann Cooper: Prudent? Easier in hindsight in other words.
June Cross: It's easier in hindsight. Yeah. I mean, given all the places that she had been. She survived the Congo. She survived Syria. She survived, and then to meet it like that is just like, what are the chances? It's just bullshit, yeah.
Ann Cooper: What about Trump rallies? When you say Trump rally, would you be in there?
June Cross: I actually know, there is a black woman. She won Emerging Journalist of the Year at NABJ. God, what was her name? I think it's Candace Smith, at NBC. She was a producer for NBC. And she did a lot of the Trump rallies.
Here's what I think about alt-right, white nationalists, all those people. They look at you, they will come to like you as a human being and separate you from all those other black people. That was sort of the way I approached being female, as well. Yeah, I'm a woman. And I'm talking to you. And I'm separate from all those other women.
And my experience has been, I've spent a lot of time in South Carolina talking to people who are on the tea party side, and on Trump's side. And my experience has been, I can develop a relationship with anybody. And then there's a moment where they're just like, well, you're not like all those other blacks. You're not like all those other journalists. You're not like all those whatevers. But that's what my job is as a journalist is to get them to establish that trust.
Yeah. I thought this was about women. Why are we talking about black people?
Ann Cooper: We are talking about women.
June Cross: Okay.
Ann Cooper: I just said, you know, in the '70s there were three women and white about zero.
June Cross: Yeah, I had to cover, I researched a story on this even when I was at CBS. I think that was in the late '80s. I feel like this thing is cyclical, you know. You go through ... Have you ever covered white nationalism?
Ann Cooper: No.
June Cross: That's right, you were in Russia. So you were in the heart of the belly of the beast, so to speak.
Ann Cooper: Washington.
June Cross: In the belly of the beast.
Ann Cooper: It's definitely nationalistic.
June Cross: I covered Lebanon in the early '80s and one of my sources was a guerrilla war expert. This was when the U.S. Army was trying to figure out how do we fight guerrilla wars. And so they had all these, Lebanon was the case example, right, because the Israelis had to go door to door and figure out how to do this.
I remember one time, it was in the middle of whole nuclear thing, he says to me, "United States and Russia are never going to fire off any of those missiles." And I said, "Well, why are you so sure?" And he's like, "Because the master race will never eliminate itself." They know that if they fire off those muscles, it's going to be the rest of us that are left to run the world. And they'll never do it.
I was astonished because I'm in Lebanon, right. I had no idea that he was identifying with me as a person of color, I'm just here covering the story and all of a sudden he's like, "The master race is never going to eliminate themselves." And I was like, "Oh, okay. All right."
Ann Cooper: So where all did you work overseas?
June Cross: Well I covered the Middle East for the News Hour. I wasn't over there a lot. I would go back and forth, but I covered the Marines in Lebanon right before they got blown up. We had just finished a longer piece for them. Me and Charlayne Hunter-Gault worked on it.
I was covering the Pentagon and the National Security Council, so I knew a lot of what the conversations were without having to go. And I went over like two or three times. But I was never stationed.
Ann Cooper: Yeah.
June Cross: I was never stationed there.
Ann Cooper: And always with a crew.
June Cross: And always with a crew. Yeah. Which was always a male crew when I think about it.
Ann Cooper: No, but that's interesting. It sounds like the male crew. I mean we talk about this here at the Journalism School, there's this collective effort. You are part of a team.
June Cross: Yeah camaraderie.
Ann Cooper: Not just TV, but that's the way we have to think of it. So it sounds like, they were protectors. I don't mean protective in this way, but…
June Cross: They were looking out for me. They would look out for you. I mean, when I was at CBS, the cameraman literally used to coach me in how to do interviews because I was, I don't know, was I 32 or something. I didn't know shit. I'd sit down and do an interview. I had a list of questions, you know. And the cameraman would say, "Take the list of questions out." And then he'd whisper questions in my ear afterwards. Like, "You didn't ask this. You get a better answer if you ask that."
I mean, those guys had been there for 30 or 40 years. They were way more experienced as journalists. I never went to Journalism School, so I didn't have that benefit.
Ann Cooper: You spoke about in the south. You were saying that you
June Cross: Candace. I think that's her name. Candace Smith, if I'm not mistaken. So anyway, she was the one that talked about this idea that when you're talking to White Nationalists they very often, they separate you from the rest of the group. So individually, they like you. But you're not part of the "them". The "them" that they are going to take America back from.
Ann Cooper: Right. Good. Can I ask the final question, but anything else you want to talk about? Any other stories that you think are relevant for this?
June Cross: I have two funny ones, that are sort of irrelevant, because it was a long time ago. But my predecessor here at the J School was a black professor named Phyllis Garland, who had been the editor of Ebony Magazine. And Phil and I started talking about this one night, and she told me a hilarious story about being assigned, when she was in her mid-30s to go interview Duke Ellington at the, I think he was staying at the Hotel Theresa at that point. And she goes and she knocks on the door and he opened the door and he was stark naked. And she just said, "Hi, Mr. Ellington, I'm Phil Garland, I'm from Ebony Magazine and I'm here to do the interview. And he said, "Come in." And she sat and she just began asking the questions and talking to him. And she said after about 15 minutes he just got up and put on his robe and they continued the interview.
I'm not sure that would happen in the same way today, but it was a hilarious story.
Ann Cooper: It almost sounds innocent. He wasn't thinking.
June Cross: Well, Duke Ellington was a gentleman. And so I think the difference today is, if a reporter was sent to do that, she'd be dealing with, most likely, a rapper. And rappers are not gentlemen. So by and large. Not gentlemen, so there'd be a whole different dynamic at play.
And you need krav maga. That's my... krav maga is Israeli Defense System where you use the force of the person coming at you to overcome them. And I actually have taken some classes in this. And I also have a former student who told me about having an experience where a man, a source that she was talking to, invited her up. They had a drink in the bar. He invited them up to the room for some reason. And for some reason she went. And he attacked her. And she was able to overcome him, even though he was a much bigger guy because she knew this defense system. And she had him in a choke hold at the end. And she asked him, "What did I do to make you think that I was the kind of woman that would agree to do this?" And he said, "You agreed to come to my room." And she was like, "Okay. Thank you for letting me know that. I'll never do it again." And she dropped him and walked out of the room.
Ann Cooper: Great story.
June Cross: Learn krav maga.
Ann Cooper: Say it again?
June Cross: K-R-A-V M-A-G-A.
Ann Cooper: Okay.
June Cross: But there's a place down on 105th where they give classes in a little basement. It's like a martial art. It's like an Israeli martial art. Sort of like Jujitsu, where you use the energy of the person coming toward you as an offense, instead of trying to push back, you sort of use their energy to flip them or turn them inside out. Or whatever. So you can use the force of their energy to compensate for the fact that you're small and can't overcome a 210 pound human being. So that was ...
Ann Cooper: So is that something that all of our students, or all of our female students-
June Cross: Maybe, yeah, maybe all of us, actually all of us might want to consider. Yeah.
The other story I heard was from Scotty Williston, who used to teach here, and retired from CUNY. And I don't think this will make the cut, because it's got some raunchy language in it.
Ann Cooper: That's okay.
June Cross: She told me a story about, she was working... Scotty was the first, one of the first black producers at CBS News. And she had done a story about gang members in Harlem. And for some reason, she was also young, and she lingered after the crew had packed up and left, which I learned later, is something you never do. You always leave first and let the crew pack up after you're done. This was if you were lucky to have a crew.
So anyway, Scotty somehow lingered, and the guys decided that they wanted to have fun with her. And when she realized what was happening, she ripped open her blouse and she was like, "Oh you guys think you want some of this. The person with the biggest dick, come on first." And they all backed up because nobody wanted to get in that situation. And she was able to walk away.
I don't know that I would have had the gonads to pull that off. But that was her story. So you know, it was a different time.
Ann Cooper: Yes.
June Cross: It was a different time.
Ann Cooper: We're probably not going to be teaching that one.
June Cross: No, we won't be teaching that one. The krav maga, I would definitely recommend.
Ann Cooper: We have the final question.
June Cross: Oh, what is sexual harassment?
Ann Cooper: Yeah, how do you define sexual harassment?
June Cross: How would I define sexual harassment? Anytime somebody crosses a boundary that makes you feel uncomfortable sexually. If you are fully clothed and the other person is naked or exposing himself or herself, you’re in a harassment situation. If someone is touching you without permission, you’re in a harassment situation. If you are touching someone else without their permission, you need to back up ‘cuz you’re in a harassing situation. I think it's a fairly simple.
I know it when I see it.
June Cross: On tips or advice, I carry my keys sticking out through my fingers. So putting your house keys, if you're going home late at night, putting your house keys so that the key part of the thing is sticking out. You're holding the key in the palm and the keys are sticking out this way. And you go for the eyes. You want to go for a soft part of the face. Either the eyes or the throat, but usually the eyes is the best part.
Stomping on somebody's, the instep of the foot is very sensitive, if you're wearing a heel. Women don't wear heels so much anymore, but that used to be that piece of guidance.
When I'm walking, I do not wear earbuds at night, period. I want to know what's going on around me. And I want to hear what's going on around me. And I'm aware of what's ... I'm not looking over my shoulder every five minutes, but if I'm walking down ... If I'm in a situation where it's dark and I'm walking around, I want to know who is back there five minutes ago? And every half block or so, I'm checking.
And I'm not afraid to go out into the street and walk by the cars because generally they're not going to attack you if you're walking in the street. But if you're next to the wall, next to the building as you're walking that's not so cool. You want to be as close to the outside pavement as you can be.
What else. Aware of, if you're getting on an elevator, and there's some stranger that you don't recognize, don't hit the floor that you're getting off until that person gets off. And also be aware, if he's getting off at the same ... Yeah this was one, we had a student that went through something like this. Somebody got off and forced his way into her apartment and assaulted her. So that was, sort of being aware of who is around you.
Here at Columbia, the university police, if you're coming late, like after 10:00 and you're anywhere within range of Columbia, they will come and take you home. Let them take you home. Don't be a hero. Don't try to be a hero. You never know when craziness is going to happen.
The number one thing, having grown up as a native New Yorker, do not look mentally ill people in the eyes on the subway. Do not do that. I don't know why, but it's like looking at a mad dog. It like drives them insane. So I never make eye contact with crazy people, or homeless people on the subway when I'm there late at night.
So those are some rules that I sort of live by.
I see young women walking around with the damn earbuds. And they're walking next to ... And it's dark outside. I say, "What the fuck?"
I would meet in a public place. I never go to somebody's apartment for a first meeting, or a second, or a third, actually. I try to always meet in a public place where other people know where I am. And I also let somebody know where I'm going and what time to expect me back if I'm doing freelance work.
When I'm working on documentaries and I'm working by myself, that also applies. And I'm also trying my best to get home before dark, because if I'm in a strange place, I don't know where I am. Especially some place like South Carolina, where you can get shot for driving while black. I'm not going to try to test the state police in South Carolina.
I was stopped several times. I tried to get home on the earlier side as opposed to staying out. If I was going to be real late, there were a couple of times that I just slept over at the home of the person I was doing the film about.
Ann Cooper: Did you ever have to use the fist?
June Cross: No, fortunately never have. But during the '70s that was the advice that a lot of women were getting living in New York. But I still do it. And a lot of women don't know about it, so it's like for free. Okay.