We’re in uncharted territory when it comes to allegations of sexual misbehavior by public figures. We should respect the privacy of individuals who, through no fault of their own, were victims of misconduct and don’t wish their names to be made public. But the impulse to pull a veil over the details of cases of sexual assault and harassment doesn’t serve the public well. If the full story isn’t told, it’s far too easy to make the case that a beloved figure has been taken down in a witch hunt.
Take Garrison Keillor. On November 29, he was fired by Minnesota Public Radio, which cited unspecified sexual misbehavior. He immediately began publicly spinning the case to his advantage, and now it seems that he was probably lying. In the meantime, though, MPR’s silence on the matter was damaging and created the impression that Keillor had been the victim of a hysterical overreaction to a single instance of accidental “inappropriate behavior” with a female colleague.
Since our priors play a role in how we perceive these matters, I’ll be frank: I like Keillor. I found his radio show A Prairie Home Companion (and the Robert Altman–directed movie of the same name) insufferable. But I enjoyed his podcast The Writer’s Almanac and much of his written work, such as his 2003 comic novel Love Me and his 2006 vivisection of American Vertigo, a follow-up to Tocqueville by the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy.
So I wanted Keillor not to have done anything bad, but it was a little hard to believe that MPR had fired him for inadvertently touching one woman’s bare back while attempting to console her, which was the story he told via an email to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune within minutes after MPR fired him on November 29. “It’s astonishing that fifty years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation,” Keillor said in a Facebook post shortly after he was canned. “Only a friend can hurt you this badly. I think I have to leave the country in order to walk around in public and not feel accusing glances.”
While it seemed unlikely MPR would end its biggest star’s career for such a trifling reason, the broadcaster left his rebuttal unrebutted for almost two months. So what were people supposed to think? MPR itself reported that Keillor fans on social media were calling his ouster the result of a “witch hunt.” In a widely read New York Times essay, Daphne Merkin cited the case as an example of worrying overreach and said women were starting to call the pursuit of sexual transgressors a “witch hunt.” Actor Liam Neeson turned out to be a Keillor fan and cited Keillor’s version of events as fact in an appearance this month on an Irish talk show in which he complained:
There is a bit of a witch hunt happening, too. There’s some people, famous people, being suddenly accused of touching some girl’s knee or something, and suddenly they’re being dropped from their program or something.
That isn’t at all what happened with Keillor, it now appears. MPR this week revealed that a female employee had accused Keillor of “dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents . . . over a period of years” including unwanted sexual touching and requests for sexual contact, all of this backed up by email and other written messages. Keillor’s response to the more detailed allegations is less than reassuring: “How to respond to so many untruths in a short space?” he asked, as though he were not allowed to defend himself at any length he chose.
Keillor went on to add context to the accusations, some of which was irrelevant (“I hardly ever saw her in the office”), some of which was possibly relevant (he said the woman had signed emails to him with the words “I love you”). But he never got around to denying the substance of the complaint against him in any detail. He closed with a huffy everyone-does-it flourish:
If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement. I’m an honest fiction writer and I will tell this story in a novel.
One side must be lying.
Keillor also claimed, “MPR never spoke to me or the complainant.” The broadcaster’s president, Jon McTaggart, said Keillor “responded to the allegations while accompanied by his attorney.” One side must be lying.
MPR and a law firm it retained had already investigated Keillor for weeks before the firing, and the decision does not appear to have been made in haste or unjustly. As tawdry as the details in a case like this may be, MPR made a mistake in not being immediately forthcoming with what it had learned. Journalists and the outfits that employ them don’t like being in the news on stories like this, and it’s understandable that MPR wanted to say as little as possible to minimize embarrassment, but when Keillor essentially denied he’d done anything wrong, he opened the door to a fuller explanation by MPR. Keillor is a public figure, firing him generated headlines, and in the public interest, MPR should not have been so shy about revealing why it parted ways with him.