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On the Firing of Jeffrey Toobin

November 2020

On the Firing of Jeffrey Toobin -- Richard Stallman The New Yorker fired star writer Jeffrey Toobin after colleagues said they had seen him masturbating in a work videoconference.

I have no particular opinion about Toobin. I don't recall reading anything he wrote, and when I read of his suspension, a few weeks before the dismissal, I hardly knew who he was — but that wasn't the point. I became concerned because I had recognized that this might be a case of punishing someone for suffering misfortune.

The article's subheading says he "exposed himself"; that active verb implies an intentional act on his part. He, however, said that he believed that his colleagues could not see what he was doing: it was visible to them by mistake. It was legitimate to question his story. People do sometimes tell lies to avoid a punishment, so it was not unreasonable to wonder if he had perhaps done that.

The honest way to question his story is to say you are doing so. The Times article does the opposite: with those two words, it implicitly denies what he said while covering up what it was. It fails to acknowledge the denial.

Back to Toobin's actions. Was Toobin telling the truth? Let's question this the honest way.

There was something fishy about the description of the event, as I saw it originally: why was his masturbation in the view of the camera? Normally when doing a videoconference you point the camera at your head and upper torso. Whatever you do with your crotch, no one can see it through the call. Why was Toobin's crotch visible at all?

The Times article shows us why (though it does not make the connection explicit). Toobin switched to another call, in which he did video sex, at a time when he thought no one would miss him in the meeting. He pointed the camera down so his masturbation would be visible — to his sex partner, not to his colleagues from the New Yorker. He thought the New Yorker call was somehow on hold, but it wasn't. The report of the sex call corroborates Toobin's story that he believed his colleagues could not see anything that would embarrass them.

Given this factual conclusion, was it right for the New Yorker to fire him?

The New Yorker's unpublished note to staff was vague about its grounds for firing Toobin. Indeed, it did not even acknowledge that he had been fired. This is unfair, like convicting someone on unstated charges. Something didn't meet its "standards of conduct", but it won't tell us what — we can only guess. What are the possibilities?

Regardless of what the New Yorker won't say it is doing, we can see what it ought to do now: take him back.

Toobin made an embarrassing mistake. New Yorker staff are surely resolved that it not happen again. I am sure that Toobin is equally resolved that it not happen again. The embarrassment itself will have taught him to be extremely careful to avoid any risk of repetition, so that intentional punishment is superfluous. The only motive for punishing Toobin is sheer vindictiveness. Adults should act with more maturity than that.

Copyright 2020 Richard Stallman Released under Creative Commons Noderivatives 4.0