Rose’s Turn

If you’d asked me a week ago to list my 25 favorite Americans whom I haven’t personally met, Charlie Rose may well have been among them.  I have watched Rose’s eponymous PBS program regularly for the better part of a decade now, plowing through hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews with people from every imaginable walk of life—political leaders, filmmakers, musicians, authors, historians, scientists, businesspeople, fellow journalists—you name ’em, Charlie’s interviewed ’em—and I cannot conceive of my life as an active global citizen without having done so for so long.

In a media ecosystem that tends to value screaming over substance and certainty over wisdom, Rose has truly been a godsend, drawing out more knowledge and insight about the world around us than any other TV newsman in the last 25 years.  The Spartan set of his studio—a large round oak table surrounded by darkness—embodied the simple, unpretentious mission of Rose’s program:  To bring an understanding of a given issue to a wide audience through conversation between serious-minded individuals.  With the possible exception of C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, he did this better than anybody in the business.

If you want a shorthand for how Rose comported himself in his job—and why it proved so darned engaging day in and day out—just imagine if Larry King had bothered to study up on his nightly guests more than ten minutes before the show began—and had he truly cared what they had to say once it did.

Like King, Rose was adept at the rare—and increasingly rarefied—art of allowing his guests to talk for extended periods without interruption and to take the conversation in any direction they chose.  Unlike King, Rose was unfailingly curious and well-read about whatever the topic at hand happened to be—indeed, he seldom if ever booked a guest to whom he showed indifference or dislike—and was equally in his element with Bashar al-Assad as he was with Amy Schumer.

Never content merely to plug some actor’s new movie or boost a rising senator’s presidential prospects, Rose always made his best effort to cut right to the heart of a question, probing his subjects about what truly drives them to do what they do:  What is it, precisely, that gets them out of bed in the morning?  What does success mean to them?  What have they learned from failure?  What makes them happy?  What, in short, is their own personal meaning of life?

Naturally, not everyone who came to Rose’s table was up to the challenge of having their souls plumbed for deeper meaning.  However, a great majority of them were—including many who tend to be reticent in other settings—and those interviews are treasures to behold, and are available for viewing in their entirety at CharlieRose.com, where I will continue to spend time on a fairly regular basis.

However, over the last week, a big fat asterisk has affixed itself to all that I have just written, following a devastating report in the Washington Post about Rose’s secret history of sexually abusing and intimidating at least eight different women in his employ—behavior that ranged from traipsing around hotel rooms in an open bathrobe to forcibly kissing and touching would-be romantic partners to angrily firing those who rejected his advances, potentially ending their careers as a result.

Indeed, from details in the Post story alone, Charlie Rose would seem to be the Harvey Weinstein of broadcast television—a perfect scumbag whose libido and sense of male entitlement are almost farcical in their reckless audacity.

Reading these women’s accounts in full—as I did when the story broke last Monday—felt very nearly like a personal betrayal.  Despite having never met the man, nor frankly known much about him beyond what he presented when the cameras were rolling, Rose had long struck me as a fundamentally decent and respectable elder statesman of news media—a true gentleman whom I could (and did) trust to present the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about how the world really works—up to and including the problem of sexual assault in and out of the workplace.

That he, of all people, would turn out to be a Dirty Old Man who treats women as pure flesh and is so clueless about human nature that he had no idea of his predatory tendencies until he read about them in the Washington Post—well, it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Founding Fathers had it exactly backwards in granting full citizenship exclusively to landowning white men.  Whether, indeed, it might not be such a crazy idea to bar all men from positions of power until (to coin a phrase) we know what’s going on.

In any case, speaking as someone who can occasionally differentiate right from wrong, I understand why Charlie Rose will not—and should not—be allowed on television for a very long time, if ever, and that my continued viewing of old episodes of his show is, for the most part, indefensible.  For all the enjoyment his interviews have given me over the years—right up until last week, in fact—I accept that his fall from grace is a small price to pay for a society in which women’s job security and physical safety are not determined by the carnal urges of the men who sign their paychecks.

All the same, I cannot help but echo the reaction of Gayle King, Rose’s CBS This Morning co-host (along with Norah O’Donnell), who expressed an equal measure of disgust and sadness at the revelation that our boy Charlie is not the man we thought he was—that his periodic and rather creepy on-air flirting with female guests was a massive red flag that no one in authority was willing to see or do anything about.  As King explained to multiple outlets in the days after Rose was banished from CBS and PBS for good, one can be disgusted by behavior that is reprehensible and destructive while retaining a degree of affection for a person one has come to know and love and who, in his better moments, was undeniably charming and respectful to men and women alike.

The truth is that it is extraordinarily difficult to have your entire perception of another person negated in an instant and be able to adjust your loyalties accordingly.  As liberals are continually learning about Trump supporters—and as conservatives learned about many Obama voters before that—once you convince yourself of the inherent goodness of a given individual, it takes an awful lot of bad behavior on his or her part to alter your basic conclusion as to what kind of a person he or she truly is.  Once your initial opinion is established, confirmation bias kicks in and protects you from inconvenient information that might lead you to unattractive truths.

One solution to this conundrum is to be a lot more skeptical about your own assumptions, mindful of Mark Twain’s famous observation, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble:  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Over the past year, there have been a great many things I knew for sure that were proved false by human events, not the least of which was the notion that a man who systematically—and openly—treats women horribly could never be elected president of the United States.  You’d think that fact alone would’ve steeled me against being surprised by anything ever again, and perhaps the truth about Charlie Rose will snap me out of my naïveté once and for all, just as the revelations about other celebrities have snapped other people out of theirs.

I just wish I could be more confident that I won’t be proved wrong about that, too.

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