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Media Meltdowns

Who Can Guess What Jeffrey Toobin Did Wrong? (Not So Fast, Malcolm Gladwell)

Jeffrey Toobin, former New Yorker journalist
D Dipasupil, Getty Images

Jeffrey Toobin, the lawyer and journalist, lost his job at the New Yorker earlier this year after an incident in which he pulled his dick out and jacked off while participating via webcam in a Zoom meeting with his coworkers. I was very careful with the wording of that sentence, so as not to muddy the question of what, exactly, Jeffrey Toobin did that was wrong.

Perhaps you are now thinking, It does not seem to me that there would be much “question” about what a guy did wrong who exposed his dick and masturbated while participating via webcam in a Zoom meeting with his coworkers. Perhaps you are thinking, It is self-evidently fireable in virtually any non-sex-industry working context for a person to expose their sex parts and masturbate while participating via webcam in a Zoom meeting with their coworkers. I quite agree! But apparently there has been some confusion about this, most recently in a New York Times article from earlier today quoting several people who appear quite mixed up on the issue. I am here to clear things up!

Here is mega-ultra-brain-genius Malcolm Gladwell, being quite perplexed about it:

Malcolm Gladwell, one of the magazine’s best known contributors, said in an interview: “I read the Condé Nast news release, and I was puzzled because I couldn’t find any intellectual justification for what they were doing. They just assumed he had done something terrible, but never told us what the terrible thing was. And my only feeling — the only way I could explain it — was that Condé Nast had taken an unexpected turn toward traditional Catholic teaching.” (Mr. Gladwell then took out his Bible and read to a reporter an allegory from Genesis 38 in which God strikes down a man for succumbing to the sin of self-gratification.)

Two points here. Firstly: Jeffrey Toobin was not fired for the sin of masturbating. Probably every one of his coworkers at the New Yorker, if asked “Do you think Jeffrey Toobin commits the sin of masturbation?” prior to his having exposed his dick and masturbated on camera during a work meeting, would have shrugged and said, “I dunno, probably,” and/or disputed the characterization of masturbation as a sin. He was fired for the insanely and inarguably fucked-up workplace violation of exposing his dick and masturbating while participating in a work meeting. Secondly and perhaps less importantly: That is not what happens in Genesis 38.

Here is Masha Gessen, a New Yorker journalist who witnessed the incident:

Even Mx. Gessen, who initially found the incident “traumatic,” said they now feel sympathy for Mr. Toobin. “I think it’s tragic that a guy would get fired for really just doing something really stupid,” they said. “It is the Zoom equivalent of taking an inappropriately long lunch break, having sex during it and getting stumbled upon.”

Two points here! Firstly: It is not the Zoom equivalent of that. It is the Zoom equivalent of opening your pants and masturbating under the table during an in-person work meeting, and failing to notice that the table is made of transparent glass and everyone can see what you are doing. The transgression is not “getting stumbled upon.” The transgression is honking off while participating in a work meeting. That is against the rules of work even if nobody stumbles upon it. Secondly: If you took an inappropriately long lunch break from a normal job, had sex during it in a place where your coworkers might plausibly encounter you, and one of your coworkers walked in on it, you probably would, in fact, lose your job.

Here is Jonathan Alter, another journalist and a longtime friend of Toobin’s:

“You are a fine person and a terrific journalist and did nothing here to hurt anyone outside of yourself and your family,” Jonathan Alter, a friend of Mr. Toobin’s for 40 years, tweeted after Mr. Toobin announced his exit from The New Yorker.

Two points here! Firstly: When a man exposes his dick and masturbates while participating via webcam in a meeting with his coworkers, he is, in fact, doing something to hurt someone outside of himself and his family. He is doing something to hurt his coworkers, who rightly expect that they should be able to have work meetings not only without having to see him jacking off but also without having to wonder at all whether he has pulled his dick out and begun masturbating during the meeting. Secondly: I think the label of “a fine person” is at least up for debate in reference to a guy who exposes his dick and masturbates while meeting with his unwitting coworkers.

And here are the article’s authors, Katherine Rosman and Jacob Bernstein, in the text of the article (emphasis added):

Now that name was a punchline, a headline, a hashtag (#MeToobin) — and a point of debate. For as many people were excoriating Mr. Toobin for lewd and inappropriate behavior in a virtual workplace, others were thinking, or even saying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” acutely conscious of all the private or potentially embarrassing moments they’d stolen in this odd new zone where we now meet our colleagues.

Two points! Firstly: I do not doubt that some number of others, when they learned that famous journalist Jeffrey Toobin did not realize his webcam was on and pointed at his crotch while he pulled his dick out and jacked off in the middle of a remote work meeting, and that he got fired from the New Yorker for it, thought or said, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Those people are sex creeps who open their pants and masturbate during work meetings. For everyone else, for what I feel confident are the vast majority of readers who heard about this incident, they did not feel that only the grace of God had prevented their coworkers from seeing them open their pants and masturbate in the middle of a work meeting, because they have never opened their pants and masturbated in the middle of a work meeting and would never consider doing that because they are not animals. Secondly, when you decide to open your pants and masturbate in the middle of a work meeting (note: never do this), that super duper is not a “private” moment. That is the middle of a work meeting, and somebody has decided to haul their sex junk out and fiddle with it in the middle of the work meeting.

Let’s clear all this up! Opening your pants and masturbating while you are in a meeting with coworkers is creepy sex-weirdo shit for which you should be fired. If you are sitting in a room with those coworkers and honking off under the table, it is creepy sex-weirdo shit for which you should be fired. If the table is transparent glass and everyone can see you honking off under it, you are a creepy sex-weirdo and should be fired. If the table is solid oak and no one has any idea that you are honking off under it, you are still a creepy sex-weirdo who should be fired. If you are participating in a Zoom meeting and your webcam is on and aimed at your exposed dick while you masturbate because you get a thrill out of making your coworkers see you masturbating, it is creepy sex-weirdo shit and you should be fired; it is also, and no less, creepy sex-weirdo shit for which you should be fired if your webcam is on and aimed at your exposed dick without your awareness while you masturbate during a work meeting. If you are participating in a Zoom meeting and your webcam is all the way off and also aimed at the ceiling and no one has any idea that you are flogging your hog, and you are flogging your hog, that is creepy sex-weirdo shit and you should be fired.

In this respect, what happened to Jeffrey Toobin is not in any way at all a peril special to “this odd new zone where we now meet our colleagues.” Here is a story: One time, years ago in my former career as a miserable technology industry guy, the inseam of my very cheap and ill-fitting Target-ass dress pants caught on some kind of sharp corner and ripped extravagantly, in a huge and perfectly right angle, without my having noticed, somewhere between when my coworker and I exited his car and when we made it to the reception desk of a client’s office that we were visiting for the day. I had no idea that the crotch and ass of my pants were flapping open, exposing my equally cheap and worn-out underpants and the back of my upper thigh, until my mortified coworker leaned over and whispered, “Your pants are torn open,” in my ear while we stood in the very small lobby waiting for our host to come out and greet us. My coworker could, for all practical purposes, see my ass. Anyone who passed behind us would also possibly be unwittingly exposed to my ass. It was very embarrassing to me and to my coworker. As an added fun detail, we were in Philadelphia, a four-hour drive from home. I did not lose my job for this. Not because those were in some way different times, when people took a more relaxed view of a man inadvertently exposing private areas of himself to coworkers, but because, in that context, accidentally exposing oneself to coworkers did not reveal some deeper and more profound lapse in professional judgment that permanently toxified my presence in the workplace. I’d just been the victim of extraordinarily bad luck.

Likewise, if what had happened to Jeffrey Toobin was that he’d unknowingly left his webcam on and then failed to notice a catastrophic zipper failure on his way back from stepping away to go pee, it’s at least possible that both his employment at the New Yorker and his reputation would be more-or-less perfectly intact today. It is not in all cases an absolutely fireable offense to accidentally and innocently stumble into a situation in which adult coworkers behold your pelvis! It is a fireable offense to reveal yourself to be the sort of person who, while ostensibly participating in a work meeting, will intentionally pull out his dick and jack off. If you’d like to avoid a similar fate, and in all other cases, I advise not masturbating during work meetings.