"Albrecht's ruin," the local business reporter called it, in his account of Chris Albrecht's firing on Wednesday as CEO of HBO. Over the weekend, the respected executive (I don't know him, but that's what people say) was arrested in Las Vegas at 3 a.m. on suspicion of assaulting a woman who was identified as his girlfriend. Supposedly, he dragged her out of the hotel, holding her by the neck, leaving marks on her skin. Shockingly enough, he smelled of alcohol.
Albrecht might have survived, professionally speaking, with a leave of absence and a trip to the Betty Ford Clinic had it not come out on Wednesday that his company paid a six-figure sum 16 years ago to settle a harassment claim against Albrecht brought by one of his executives with whom he'd had an affair while married. Mr. Albrecht is now single. He is also now unemployed, having been fired Wednesday in the wake of the disclosure of the earlier settlement.
The poor guy must not know what hit him.
He could kill someone, and they'd probably keep him on payroll through the appeal; he could kill a lot of people, and they'd just want his rights. But a guy who abuses women? No one wants to touch it, or him, at least not the second time it happens.
Nothing has changed — and everything has.
It wasn't that long ago that there were no lawsuits to bring for sexual harassment, and that no one would have cared that he had to pull her out of the hotel where the actual boxers had been fighting, as he would have described what police are calling an assault.
Now, no one wants to hang around and find out whether the charges are even true.
It's instant death instead. Guilty until proven innocent. Albrecht's ruin, because we say so, and therefore, of course, it is.
But this isn't the first time. That's what everyone says. That's what's killing him. The first time we cast a skeptical eye. The first time, the woman is presumed guilty. The first one is a nut or a slut.
Imagine if Lana Clarkson had been the first woman, and not the last, to play guns with Phil Spector.
If Chris Albrecht did something 16 or more years ago that caused the company to pay what looks like more to us than to them (reportedly somewhere in the $400,000 to $500,000 range), does that mean he's guilty as charged of whatever happened on Wednesday night?
It shouldn't. First of all, we don't know whether he did anything back then, only that the company settled, which companies do for a lot of reasons, not all of them related to wrongdoing on their side. Second, even if he did something wrong, it may or may not have anything to do with what he is charged with doing on a drunken night in Las Vegas, which, in turn, may or may not have anything to do with his ability to keep doing the job he's been doing very well.
You might think that as a rape victim and advocate, I'd be pleased at the formal and informal forces that seem to impose an almost irrefutable presumption of guilt on men who are charged with any form of sex abuse, at least the second time it happens. I'm certainly glad police are taking domestic fights seriously, responding promptly and acting aggressively, even to the point of asserting control over the decision to prosecute, rather than leaving that solely in the hands of the woman, who might well be fearful or intimidated.
But that's as far as we should go. When we rush to judgment, we are often wrong, as many of us were in the Duke case because we trusted too much in the prosecutor's account. When we prove wrong, there is almost always a backlash, which leads other women to fear the reception their complaints will meet. Even when we're right, the rush to convict and condemn before the facts are heard creates an aura of unfairness that detracts from the legitimacy of the process and the result it produces.
If Chris Albrecht really is a bad guy who has a problem — a violent problem — with women, he shouldn't be working at HBO. But with 16 years between injuries, and no threats to life or limb, we can afford to wait and find out for sure.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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