Oh dear. It may have finally happened. A famous man on a Zoom call allegedly “took it out,” as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character Elaine once put it so succinctly on “Seinfeld.”
According to Vice, which broke the story, Jeffrey Toobin was apparently engaged in an act of self-touching as his colleagues looked on, one imagines, in horror.
What was Toobin thinking?
The 60-year-old New Yorker writer and CNN legal analyst apologized to his family, friends and colleagues for reportedly being caught with his pants down during a Zoom call about potential election outcomes with other New Yorker luminaries, including Jane Mayer, Evan Osnos and Jelani Cobb.
Toobin said he erroneously believed that he had “muted” the Zoom video.
I guess I believe him. I mean, no one in his right mind would do such a thing on camera during a work meeting. Everyone knows you only do that with the camera off.
No one should do at work what Toobin has seemingly apologized for ever. It is disrespectful in the extreme, dangerous and has about it the whiff of wanton self-destruction.
It was, in any case, a moment made for Twitter.
Even the vile O.J. Simpson, whose murder trial arguably launched Toobin’s career, could not resist indulging in a moment of schadenfreude: “Damn @Jeffrey Toobin,” he tweeted. This from a man who was found civilly responsible for one of the more despicable acts in our lifetime.
Had Toobin exposed himself at the office in a meeting with colleagues, he almost certainly would have lost his job and perhaps even faced legal repercussions.
As it stands, social media is ablaze with a new hashtag #MeToobin, and a serious discussion about whether what Vice said Toobin did can rightfully be considered sexual harassment.
“I would say that a Zoom call from home is considered the workplace,” said Leslie Levy, an Oakland employment discrimination attorney. “I think his colleagues probably could make a complaint of sexual harassment against the employer. It’s definitely indecent exposure, though it may not amount to a criminal act.”
And maybe he will face professional repercussions other than an announced suspension at the New Yorker pending an investigation and time off at CNN “while he deals with a personal issue.”
The age of COVID has changed our working lives in ways large and small, but perhaps the one constant among white-collar professionals is that we no longer take meetings in person.
Instead, we gather in the electronic conference room, our heads stacked in little squares like an aging, less attractive Brady Bunch. Some of us, already comfortable at home, get a little too comfortable and forget, as Toobin may have, that while he was sitting at home, he was also sitting at work.
Zoom call etiquette would seem to be a fairly benign evolution of conference call etiquette, which some of us had trouble mastering. Who among us has not rinsed a dish or flushed a toilet while forgetting to put the phone on mute?
In my personal life, I have found that Zoom calls can create a deeper sense of connection than in-person meetings. For months, I hoisted a glass or two during a weekly Zoom cocktail party with three chatty friends that was remarkably free of cross talk. At a Zoom baby shower for my cousin, guests introduced themselves one by one and offered advice to the parents-to-be that ranged from practical to silly. (“If you and your baby have a fight,” my comedian daughter offered, “don’t go to bed angry.”)
A couple of weeks ago, I watched a young couple take their marriage vows online. I know they were disappointed not to be able to celebrate with their friends and families in person, but I can’t tell you what a relief it was not to have to get dressed up, put on makeup and wear heels. I threw a strand of pearls on over my T-shirt, put some lipstick on and that was it. At the “reception,” each guest had a few minutes in the spotlight, to offer the couple best wishes. I felt I’d gotten to meet everyone at the wedding, something that almost never happens IRL. Plus, no one got drunk and sloppy.
And then, on Sept. 21, in the most dramatic moment of my life, my father took his last breath during a Zoom call with my sister and our children. I sat next to him, as he lay in a hospital bed, holding my laptop so they could say goodbye to him from San Francisco, New Haven and Baja California.
It was an exquisitely wrenching moment.
There is certainly a lesson to be learned from what happened to Toobin.
Most glaringly, that you should always keep your hands in view during a Zoom call with colleagues.
Second, that some men have learned nothing from the #MeToo movement, even apparently a man such as Toobin, who has written and commented extensively on workplace harassment.
And third, that some people will always be willing to minimize bad male behavior: “Not sure someone getting caught doing something almost everyone does should be a national story,” wrote a male reporter for Vox, in a tweet that has since been removed. (But seriously, does “almost everyone” masturbate on Zoom calls?)
Another male writer tweeted that the reaction to Toobin’s situation should be “empathy, politeness & forgiveness … rather than punitive mockery.” Oh come on now. Maybe we’d feel that way if the offender was an adolescent boy. But a 60-year-old man?
So what will become of Jeffrey Toobin?
My guess is he will take himself off to some sort of treatment for compulsive behavior, resurface after the election and live to Zoom another day.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.