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What was Jay Severin thinking?

Posted by Rob Anderson  April 6, 2011 11:50 AM

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jay.JPGI was listening live to Jay Severin the day he shamelessly announced (though not in these terms) that he had sexually exploited female employees in his political consulting office. I remember because I was driving with my mouth wide open; if it had been summer, I would have swallowed a mosquito. I kept asking myself, "Is he really saying this?" Then I started wondering: Why?

Because I'm not at all sure that Severin did what he said — had sex with a string of young employees, in tacit exchange for giving them work experience out of town. As Scot Lehigh notes today, the well-paid WTKK host has a history of grossly embellishing the truth. Severin has worked hard to forge a persona that amounts to a walking libido wearing a shirt that says "GOP," which may or may not be the person he really is.

Talk radio is the art of telling people what they want to hear — or encouraging them to tune in for the self-righteous pleasure of getting all riled up. So surely, when he spoke, Severin was making a calculation. Did he merely want to make some of his listeners mad? Or did he figure that his audience, filled with people who delight in being told that they're the "best and the brightest," would largely agree that he'd done nothing wrong?

After all, what Severin was describing — a history of having sex with underlings — isn't especially different from what David Letterman admitted to doing less than two years ago, for which he suffered precisely zero consequences from CBS. Paul Levy, the former Beth Israel CEO, hired a younger woman with whom he had an ‘‘improper relationship,’’ and might have survived with a slap on the wrist if Attorney General Martha Coakley hadn't pressed the issue. Despite anti-discrimination laws and an evolving sense of morality, our nation still has a shocking amount of tolerance for acts of sexual misconduct on the job, provided the perpetrator is charismatic enough or profitable enough for his company. Even the young women who called into Severin's show, moved to respond to his tales of sexual exploits, were incredibly polite, almost deferential, as they tried to explain why his actions were wrong.

I'd like to think this was a teachable moment for Severin's dwindling supply of listeners — and that Severin, who isn't stupid, actually knew which side was right. I suspect that's wishful thinking. But I'm glad, in a sense, that Severin said what he said. He's given us yet another reminder of how far we have to go.

Globe file photo: Radio host Jay Severin in 2009.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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