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Andy Lack is the NBC News executive who fired Matt Lauer. The 70-year-old chairman is now under fire himself. Wochit

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If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, the song goes.

Evidently, making it in the highly-competitive television news industry in the Big Apple has often meant, for women, enduring sexual harassment at the hands of their male co-workers. 

The list of men ousted from high-profile seats of TV power grew this week with NBC's ousting Wednesday of Today co-anchor Matt Lauer.

But NBC is not alone. All of the major television networks have been hit with similar situations recently, making Lauer just the latest in a line that most recently includes Charlie Rose, who co-hosted CBS This Morning and had his own nightly show, produced by Bloomberg Television and aired on PBS for 26 years. He was dismissed from all three networks two weeks ago after accusations of sexual harassment and assault.

More: Sexual harassment went unchecked for decades as payouts silenced accusers

NBC News also last month terminated its contract with political analyst Mark Halperin who also appears on MSNBC. He had been accused of sexually harassing women while he worked at ABC News as political director in the late 1990s and much of the 2000s. Showtime also dismissed Halperin should the premium channel continue its political documentary series The Circus, which he co-hosted.

Back in April, Fox News Channel dismissed Bill O'Reilly, host of the network's ratings leader The O'Reilly Report after an internal investigation prompted by The New York Times report that Fox and O'Reilly had paid millions to settle several sexual harassment accusations. O'Reilly's ouster followed the July 2016 resignation of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who had also faced allegations of sexual impropriety.

That media scandals would arise in New York makes sense because that is where the major outlets' headquarters reside and house the executives who have the power to hire and promote staffers, says Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"New York is where the power is and this is fundamentally a scandal about power and the abuse of power in sexual ways," said Feldstein, a former journalist at NBC. "When I was a network correspondent it was often a running joke about the ugly TV executives bedding the beautiful on-air women, who otherwise obviously wouldn't have given them the time day.  … It seemed to be a consensual casting couch mentality that resembled the Hollywood version of that." 

That's why there's a concurrent wave of harassment allegations hitting Hollywood, too, he says. "It’s happening in Los Angeles because in the entertainment industry that is where the power is and if you look at sex scandals in politics, Washington is going to be the capital (place) because that is where political power is based," Feldstein said. "I suspect if you looked at impropriety in the fashion industry or finance industries, New York would also be tops." 

Harassment has permeated the media industry for decades, we've learned as the accusations have been made public. Many victims have remained quiet over fear of reprisal.

But the recent revelations do not surprise Mark Hertsgaard, an investigative editor for The Nation and author of several books, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden. When sent to CBS News in the early '90s to do a story on 60 Minutes and its kid-glove treatment of President Reagan for Rolling Stone, as the magazine's then-media reporter, Hertsgaard switched gears upon seeing out-in-the-open harassment.

While talking to a female producer, Hertsgaard saw Mike Wallace walk by and slap the behind of the woman with a rolled-up magazine. "I look at her and my mouth drops open and I said, 'Does that happen much here?' She said, 'You wouldn’t believe.' That is how I got onto the story," he said. The story was published in May of 1991.

He talked to three women who would not go on the record because show creator Don Hewitt "like Harvey Weinstein, for that matter, was famous for being vindictive and ruining peoples' careers," Hertsgaard said.

Wallace, the women told him, repeatedly put his hands on the thighs of his producers during meetings and snapped and unsnapped women's bra straps from behind "like an eighth-grade boy" would do, Hertsgaard said.

"While it is true that especially for people like Hewitt and Wallace, this was seen as one of the perks of the business if you were a powerful man," said Hertsgaard, who was the son of a Baltimore TV anchor. "It’s not true of all people. My dad never did that kind of thing. But there were very few women who I talked to at 60 Minutes who did not have a story like this. It is and has been an epidemic."

Betsy West can attest to that. Currently the Fred W. Friendly professor at the Columbia Journalism School in New York, West oversaw 60 Minutes as the senior vice president at CBS News from 1997 to 2005. Her time there coincided with that of Hewitt, who stepped down as executive producer in 2004 (he died in 2009), and Wallace, who became a correspondent emeritus in 2006 before retiring in 2008 (he died in 2012).

"By that time I think a lot of that had abated or I didn’t witness that myself," she said. "But certainly there were stories about that atmosphere. It did sometimes feel like a boys’ club."

A filmmaker whose newest documentary RBG on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will premier at Sundance in January, West says had heard stories about Rose and him "being abusive and yelling at people, but never the kind of reporting that came out about him."

However, West had her own experiences with harassment elsewhere. About one year into her first job, which was at ABC Radio, the male-dominated newsroom began to sing "Happy Birthday" to her. "I thought, 'Oh, this is so nice. They've got me a birthday cake' and they came around and as I got closer to the cake I saw it was in the shape of a penis," she said. "I was so mortified and embarrassed and I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to laugh,’ because I’m going to be a good sport. I’m going to go along with this. It was mortifying, but I just laughed and put it out of my mind and just moved on."

She recalls late Friday night work shifts when an executive would put raunchy cable access program The Robin Byrd Show on his TV and have pornography in the office.

Certain men considered it "their right," West said, to "look you up and down and make a comment about your appearance or say ‘Oh, gee, Betsy, I love it when you wear a skirt,’ always reminding you there was a sexual aspect to all of this and the way they were considering you."

These days when she recalls these events to her 23-year-old daughter, "she looks at me in horror like ‘Why would you put up with that?' The answer is we didn’t know what else to do," West says. "We thought it was the price of having these great jobs, of having opportunities to work in a business which had been closed to women to a large extent until the 70s."

With the events of recent weeks, West said, "everybody is remembering the things that happened including things you had suppressed."

The blowback in New York has not been confined to on-air talent and top executives or even TV newsrooms. On the same day that Lauer was fired for inappropriate behavior, so was Teddy Davis, a CNN senior producer on the network's State of the Union show, hosted by Jake Tapper. 

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Online content company Vox Media, headquartered in New York, fired editorial director Lockhart Steele, in October after allegations of sexual misconduct. And the president and publisher of the New Republic, Hamilton Fish, quit earlier this month after initially taking a leave of absence following charges made against him.

Having worked in news bureaus across the world, West says harassment certainly isn't confined to New York. "Nor do I think it is unique to the media," she said.

To be sure, recent events emphasize that harassment within the media does not have geographic boundaries. 

The New York Times' White House reporter Glenn Thrush was suspended two weeks ago amid accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior. Also in Washington, NPR new chief Michael Oreskes resigned earlier this month after sexual harassment allegations, first reported by The Washington Post that took place when he was a Washington bureau chief for The New York Times in the '90s. Subsequently, NPR said another more recent allegation of impropriety had been reported at the network. And Leon Wieseltier, contributing editor at The Atlantic, had his new magazine project dropped after numerous women said they had been sexually harassed by him during his three-decades at The New Republic.

After the Ailes and O'Reilly exits at Fox News happened, "I think a lot of people were saying, ‘Maybe this is a turning point'," West said. "But I think it wasn’t so clear then. I now think it really is a cultural upheaval … It’s causing a lot of people certainly in my business and in the journalism world, in the media and in the television world to look back at some of the things we put up with."

Journalists, she said, "are irreverent, but there’s a certain point at which where sexist, homophobic, racist comments can’t be tolerated."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

 

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