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Jeffrey Toobin Doesn’t Need a Defense

What, exactly, are people trying to cover for here?

Screenshot: illustration: Jack Crosbie

No one, including the man at fault, contests the basic facts of the story: Jeffrey Toobin, the star legal analyst for CNN and a New Yorker staff writer, was caught jerking off on camera during a work Zoom call.

Throughout the Toobin Tug news cycle, various parties have jumped in to defend Toobin’s actions, or to plead for some form of clemency for him. Their argument generally goes like this: it was an accident, everyone does it, give the guy a break. Before we knew the lurid details of the incident thanks to Laura Wagner’s reporting at Vice, there was also the possibility that Toobin’s nudity was more of an innocent mistake: a wardrobe malfunction, or forgotten camera mishap while changing. But we now know this was not the case: according to Wagner’s multiple sources, Toobin was caught full-on jerking it during some sort of election-night role-play with New Yorker staffers for the publication’s WNYC show, during a moment when he believed himself to be off-camera but was clearly still on the clock.

This is, in a word, indefensible. Despite the fact that it was unintentional, it was by no means unavoidable: Toobin jacked off in front of his coworkers like a fucking sicko. He could have waited, he could have left the room, he could have not jerked off during work hours while in the middle of a complicated role-playing simulation.

And yet, here we are:

What Toobin is experiencing right now is undeniably excruciating for him. This is the worst nightmare of every person who has ever performed a sexual act in front of a webcam that they assume to be off, which at this point is probably a broad majority of the population. But here’s the thing: who fucking cares. Jeffrey Toobin does not need your defense. Jeffrey Toobin is not a powerless victim in this scenario. Instead, Jeffrey Toobin is one of the most comfortable, renowned journalists in the country. He has an enormous amount of power and influence within the industry. As Maya Kosoff put it in a blog earlier today:

If Zoom Dick has reinforced anything about journalism, it’s the reminder of a stark stratification in the industry. There are people who feel totally fine literally jerking off at work and collecting a comfortable paycheck, while the media underclass writes SEO posts in a permanent stress-crouch position for barely enough money to cover rent. You’re a figurative Toobin, or you’re writing 7 posts a day, wondering if you’ll be allowed back in the office to collect the stuff on your desk if you get let go in the looming next round of layoffs, or if they’ll just throw out your succulent and your notepads when they decide to shift to permanent WFH in a few months because of the overhead rent costs.

The Toobins get talking heads spots on cable news networks. They often look like him, too. “Diversity” at media companies gets siloed into social media and low-paying editorial roles, the cogs that allow the machine to keep turning, lets the Toobins keep, uh, cranking along. The low-paid grunt workers feed the content mines, absorb the social blowback from a hastily written headline, and allow for the Toobins of the world to continue their largely metaphorical — but sometimes literal — masturbatory practices.

Kosoff (who is, full disclosure, a friend of mine) does a beautiful, succinct job of illustrating the power that Toobin and people like him wield in the industry. But it’s also worth looking at how Toobin specifically has used that power in the past. In 2008, Toobin got Casey Greenfield, his erstwhile mistress of almost ten years, pregnant. Toobin and Greenfield’s affair began when the latter was a 20-something fact-checker at Glamour and Toobin was a star staff writer at the New Yorker. After Greenfield told Toobin she was pregnant, he reportedly offered to pay for her abortion (she declined), then offered to pay for her to have a different child through a sperm donor that wasn’t him (she also declined). He also reportedly refused to acknowledge his paternity of the child until the courts got involved.

Aside from this general sleaziness, there’s also the time that he reportedly followed another woman in media to her hotel room while begging to perform sex acts on her that were too lewd for the Daily News to print. Neither of these incidents have any direct relation to Toobin deciding to fire one off while on a Zoom call with Masha Gessen, David Remnick, and Dexter Filkins, but they do indicate that his interpersonal moral code bends toward his own self-interest and gratification. And yet!

Swap out Toobin for accused serial sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh in that tweet from Vox writer David Roberts, and you have something that is indistinguishable from the dozens of respectable figures who leapt to Kavanaugh’s defense during his Supreme Court hearings in 2018, which almost always came from people who looked like him and had similar jobs to him. Of course Toobin was nice to you, Roberts: he considers you one of his peers, someone deserving of his respect. This is how things work in this industry. If you are a journalist who looks like Toobin or Roberts or me, you use your Ivy League connections and education and ideally a modicum of talent to hurdle the bars for thought-provoking academic work or journalism for a few years, write some extensively promoted and well-reviewed books (the people promoting and reviewing are your friends), and are eventually rewarded with a career that allows you to rest on those laurels in perpetuity. That sounds like a dream, and I truly hope I get to do it someday. CNN, if you need a better media analyst, my email is easy to find. But like Kosoff pointed out, the vast majority of people in this industry aren’t so lucky. They cannot coast. Jeffrey Toobin, meanwhile, is so comfortable in his status that he can combine work with pleasure whenever he wants, whether it’s an affair with a fact-checker or a wank session on Zoom.

Someone in this position does not deserve our sympathy. It’s objectively funny that one of the high-powered scions of American judicial knowledge is a sex pest who thrashes his hog during work hours. The only people defending him are those whom his predicament threatens, because the public and professional repercussions he now faces are something they previously couldn’t imagine facing themselves. Most of us would be instantly fired if we jerked off at work. Toobin probably won’t be. The least we can do is humiliate him enough that the next time he tries something like this, he finds himself not up to the task.