I've learned more than I ever wanted to about a brazen stunt targeting female TV news reporters after a vulgar phrase was recently dropped on one of Minnesota's own, Eva Andersen of KARE.
Although I've been in the news business for more than 20 years in print and radio, I didn't know this was a thing until Andersen started to publicly share what happened to her a few weeks ago.
You also may have been in the dark. Yes, grown men have been hailing themselves as hilarious by ruining journalists' live shots by using a revolting phrase that refers to a sexual act with a woman's genitals. The practice became a viral trend in 2014, and some Minnesota bros apparently are still belly-laughing about it.
Andersen told me she had been twice targeted with the phrase — both were drive-by incidents — while working at her last news station in Iowa, and that's on top of all the other verbal abuse thrown her way.
"When you are reporting on the street, there is a reasonable expectation that you can be harassed," she said. "You can be honked at, yelled at, sworn at, called a bitch. It happens a lot."
What made this last incident so violating was it took place in the comfort of her own apartment. And not by random men on the street — but by a source. She had been interviewing a group of Minnesota dudes in their 30s over Zoom for what was supposed to be a lighthearted story about their goofy friendship.
Andersen, 32, showed me the recording of the interview. You can see her with a big grin as she engages them and brings out their story. Near the end, she asks the men if they have anything else they'd like to add. That's when one of the guys, who's holding a pint of beer, drops the obscenities. His buddies seem shocked, but they all laugh.
As someone who shoots and edits her own video, Andersen also had a camera trained on herself. When she hears this familiar attack, you can see the light go out of her. The smile fades and she slightly cocks her head in instant recognition that the joke's on her.
Immediately she told herself, Eva, keep it together. You can't tell them off. You still have a story to file.
But when I talked to her at length about the incident several days later, eventually she teared up. She could pinpoint exactly why these men's actions stung.
"I am a woman, I am a professional, I am a strong journalist. And you see none of that," she said. "I have shown you respect, I have shown you professionalism. You return it by degrading my very identity."
Andersen can fight back and knows her way around a good punch line. Did these guys know that? Before she became a journalist, she was doing live stand-up, improv and sketch comedy in New York. She interned for "The Colbert Report" and "Saturday Night Live." She enjoys humor tied to unique observations. She can even appreciate a well-placed fart joke.
"Never found a rape joke funny. Ever," she told me.
After the interview, Andersen realized she couldn't put her face, name or voice to this story. She would have felt taken advantage of. She typed up a note to the weekend manager and her news director, Stacey Nogy, explaining the incident. It's telling that Andersen had to censor the words she wrote because the offending quote could not pass the company's e-mail filters.
The bosses, both women, agreed to not give these guys any airtime and apologized that she had to experience this. KARE needs to be commended for doing the right thing. I hope Andersen's colleagues continue to support her and other journalists who may be under assault in these polarizing times because of their very identities.
Andersen also reached out to Caroline Lowe, a pioneering former WCCO crime reporter who has mentored her. Lowe told me she dealt with various sorts of sexism — even with a male stranger touching her pregnant belly at a Target store — but never experienced anything along the lines of the vulgar slurs that Andersen encountered.
"I feel a strong sense of Mama Bear now with Eva and others," said Lowe, who said female multimedia journalists are especially vulnerable these days because they're in the field solo. "It makes me so angry that she went through this."
After the incident, one of the men apologized in a text to Andersen on behalf of his friend. She told him she hoped if the offending man ever had a little girl, that she would never grow up to be a woman on the receiving end of that same humiliating phrase in a professional setting. The friend acknowledged it was wildly inappropriate and noted he was "ashamed of being associated with that crap."
But days later, that same group of friends was on TV with another local news station, featured in a fun story about their silly friendship.
For those who think this is just a joke, I'd argue that the phrase is a symptom of something much more insidious. It's part of a misogynistic culture that objectifies women and rails against us when we are in positions of power. It's the same culture that elected a president who was caught on tape bragging about how he could do anything with women and "grab 'em by the p—."
The man who blurted the obscenities to Andersen might not ever change. He, too, e-mailed her an apology, but I wonder if it came only after he realized — insert caveman "duh" sound here — that the whole interaction was recorded, and she could destroy his reputation and maybe even his livelihood if she were to release the video.
But she's not going to do that. Andersen is not publicly sharing the men's identities.
"I do not want to be a part of cancel culture, even if it is warranted," she told me. "I feel like canceling somebody as a journalist is wrong."
But she is speaking up about the incident, through Twitter and Facebook. Her message is for two groups of people. The first is other young women or anyone else harassed for who they are, so they know they shouldn't have to tolerate dehumanizing behavior. Be like Andersen: Talk to your mentors, to your family, to your colleagues, to your bosses, and find the people in your corner.
"The more we talk about it, the less it is normalized," she said.
The second audience is for those who are pals with someone who might utter something as demeaning as that vulgar phrase.
"Can I connect with one person, just one, who will be able to stand up to their friend?" Andersen said, adding that the correction needs to happen in the moment. "Could they say, 'Knock it off — that's not right.' Could they please do that?"
Lowe, Andersen's mentor, thinks about the times she kept her mouth shut as a female journalist so as not to be part of the story, so as not to make waves.
If her younger self had been in Andersen's shoes, Lowe "might have brushed it off," she conceded. "I'm really proud of her, that she didn't just let it go."