When allegations surfaced last fall that former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill was engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers in her office and on her campaign, initially the media was uncharacteristically quiet about the alleged textbook Me Too situation. In the four months since her resignation, with a slew of talk show interviews and glossy magazine profiles, the media collectively decided that despite the legal and ethical gray areas, Hill would not be canceled.
In October 2019, RedState first reported photos and text messages showing Hill and estranged husband Kenny Heslep in an intimate relationship with a female campaign staffer. The response to the initial report was, well, nonexistent. There were no calls for her resignation, no calls for an investigation into House ethics violations. It took four days to even get a response from Hill, and it wasn’t a response, but a Politico report that she denied the allegations to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
In a recent profile in New York magazine, Hill said she initially planned to lie about the relationship with her subordinate staffer.
“You know, honestly, it was one of those things where it was like, Well, I’ll just deny it,” Hill told writer Caitlin Moscatello. “Morgan [the staffer] is not accusing me of anything. She doesn’t want it to come out any more than I do.”
She eventually admitted to the “throuple” relationship Hill and her husband had with the campaign staffer (she told New York magazine they fell in love), but did deny the other allegation that she was having an extra-marital affair with another staffer in her D.C. office.
After resigning from Congress on Oct. 27, divorcing Heslep, and finding herself tens of thousands of dollars in debt from legal fees, Hill is now returning to D.C., starting a super PAC, and writing a memoir to be published this fall. But it was almost immediately after her resignation that media allies begin rewriting her story.
The story being told is not about the ethics or power imbalance of a sexual employer-employee relationships, but getting to the bottom of who is to blame for the downfall of this “rising star,” and how will she make a comeback? Suspects so far have included political opponents, the right-wing media, purveyors of revenge porn, and rampant bi-phobia.
Just weeks after Hill’s resignation, she appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” where a chyron on the screen read “Katie Hill’s Experience With Right-Wing Media Smears.” She published a New York Times op-ed titled, “It’s Not Over After All.” In a Daily Beast interview titled, “Katie Hill Wanted Out of Her Marriage. It Ruined Her Life,” Molly Jong-Fast wrote that the “media-savvy 31-year-old congresswoman” was “villainized by the right,” and “derailed in a weirdly tragic, almost Shakespearean way.”
More recent examples include Elle magazine’s headline, “Katie Hill’s Next Chapter Starts Now,” and a story gushing over Hill’s new super PAC, called HER Time. LA Mag also got in on the PAC news with a story headlined, “Katie Hill Is on a Mission to Get Young Women Elected to Office.” The New York Times announced Hill’s forthcoming memoir, “She Will Rise,” focusing on “what Hill wants women to take away from her book is that they can own their mistakes and get back up.”
In an ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos, Hill referred to herself as a “victim of the photos or cyber exploitation,” before Stephanopoulos followed up with this tough question, “How much of [the size of this scandal] is tied to the fact, in your mind, that you’re bisexual?”
“A lot of it is,” Hill said. “It’s also partly because I’m a woman…but the bisexuality is a huge part of it. There’s a fantasy element of it. There’s bi-phobia that is rampant still.”
In an interview on “The View,” the hosts joked about Hill making “throuples” mainstream and gave her a full five minutes uninterrupted to discuss the horrors of revenge porn that her estranged husband weaponized against her. When host Meghan McCain pushed on how Hill thought she could get away with a relationship with a staffer, Hill’s answer culminated with, “I was always afraid of it, but you end up in those situations and it just was sort of what happened.”
So that’s all we need to know? “It just was sort of what happened.” The American public has gone through an exhausting three years of Me Too, accusing and ousting sexual predators at every level of power, but if the media deems your open marriage and bisexual preferences woke enough, it’s just “sort of what happened.”
Even New York magazine, which was one of the few more critical looks at Hill’s scandal, included some grade A media gaslighting, claiming, “the same aspects of Hill’s personality that propelled her as a candidate — the risk-taking, the unfilteredness — were at the center of a scandal.”
“A tenet of the Me Too movement is that a person can’t fully consent, not really, anyway, to someone who wields power over him or her,” Moscatello wrote. Hill wielded power over a female campaign staffer, and brought her intimately into her so-called “toxic” marriage, but no one has stopped her from getting a book deal, or stifled her from openly complaining about tabloids reporting on her newest love interest in DC.
If there is one thing Me Too has taught us, there is no sliding scale of problematic-ness that determines your cancellation (see former Sen. Al Franken, or Monica Lewinsky). There is no reason the media should treat Hill any different than the power imbalances of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, the freshly-resigned Chris Matthews, and so many others.
Due process exists to determine your standing with the law, but there is no such thing in the court of public opinion, which is of course adjudicated by our media gatekeepers. Yet when it comes to a Democratic, bisexual starlet like Hill, the jury is still mysteriously out.