Want proof that journalism matters? Look no further than Harvey Weinstein. Were it not for The New York Times and The New Yorker, the indie mogul would still be hobnobbing at Oscar parties, attending movie premieres and, if allegations are to be believed, routinely abusing and harassing women.
Instead, Weinstein is facing multiple criminal investigations and possible jail time. He’s been fired from the Weinstein Co. and drummed out of Hollywood. And he’s got company. Since the Times published its first story on Weinstein’s abuses, a slew of big-name media and entertainment personalities have been exposed as serial harassers or abusers. Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Brett Ratner and Kevin Spacey are just a few of the figures who are being forced to face the music, as other news organizations pick up where the Times and The New Yorker left off.
New York Times investigative reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor deserve a lot of credit for helping to spark this industry-wide reckoning. Their tenacity helped them break the initial Weinstein story and, along with The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, they’ve painted a portrait of a serial predator who was able to use his power to prey on female employees and actresses in a methodical fashion. By meticulously chronicling Weinstein’s abuses, these reporters have inspired other people to speak out and go public about the cultures of harassment in the workplace.
“This was a story that only got bigger and deeper as we kept going,” Kantor says.
On a recent Friday afternoon at the Times’ midtown Manhattan offices, Kantor and Twohey took a break from reporting on a blockbuster exposé about the institutions and power brokers who enabled Weinstein’s bad behavior to reflect on the fallout from their stories. They also discussed the substantive change they hope the wave of harassment allegations will inspire.
What prompted your investigation into Harvey Weinstein?
Kantor: The Times has made a huge commitment to sexual harassment reporting. Our colleagues Emily Steel and Mike Schmidt broke the Bill O’Reilly story, and our colleague Katie Benner wrote about female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who are pressured by venture capitalists for sexual favors. I know it seems like those were many sexual harassment stories ago, but at the time, they were really a light-bulb moment for the paper because they made us realize there may be a lot more buried truths here.
Donald Trump was accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing a woman’s private parts. Yet he was still elected president. Did that motivate women to come forward about Weinstein?
Twohey: Emily Steel says that some of the women in the O’Reilly stories decided to speak out after Trump’s election. There was a flare-up of public discussion around sexual assault and sexual harassment during the campaign with the “Access Hollywood” tape. Even though Trump went on to be elected, some of the women that she reported on still felt angered and empowered to come forward.
Kantor: It cut both ways. Some women felt that this is what I can contribute now to this moment in American history. Other people were very discouraged by it because they felt there was a lack of accountability. They’d note that Trump was elected anyway. Another thing that was discouraging for people was that [Bill] Cosby hasn’t faced criminal consequences for his alleged rapes. They would say, “Cosby got off.”
Were you able to point to the O’Reilly story as evidence that going public about Weinstein could have an impact?
Kantor: Absolutely. The Bill O’Reilly and Silicon Valley stories meant a lot, because we could show successful examples of allegations being documented and people going on the record without apparent negative consequences. They showed that there could be accountability and impact. In those cases, it was not the world just shrugging and saying, “I don’t believe these women and I don’t care.”
You said that Weinstein’s behavior was an “open secret.” Did anyone know the full extent of his alleged misdeeds?
Kantor: Almost nobody knew thefull extent of what was going on. I have sources who knew a fair amount and have still been shocked by what’s come out. My sense is that a lot of people had more of a vague awareness.
Were there people who you spoke to who had upsetting experiences with Weinstein that they weren’t sure rose to the level of harassment?
Kantor: We lack a common definition of sexual harassment. You take Weinstein, for example: One of the revelations is that the casting couch is a form of sexual harassment. For a long time people in Hollywood didn’t think of it that way. They wrote it off. They accepted it as part of the culture.
Twohey: Sometimes you’d talk to a person who said they had this odd experience with Harvey Weinstein 20 years ago where he asked them to give him a massage. You hear one story like that, and it does not make for an investigative exposé. But that woman doesn’t know she’s part of a larger pattern. A request for a massage might look innocent but is actually part of a pattern of predatory behavior that can range from inappropriate comments and touching to, in the case of Weinstein, allegations of rape.
A lot of the people that you spoke to had signed nondisclosure agreements that could have prevented them from sharing information about their time working for Weinstein. Were those agreements a hurdle in breaking this story?
Kantor: Sure, but it’s not specific to this story. The world has gotten much more NDA’d up. It’s almost a routine conversation now that we have sources. We regularly make the case that NDAs are meant to protect proprietary company information. They are mostly threats and means of intimidation. While we can never predict any kind of legal path, it’s very rare that somebody gets sued over an NDA. Harvey Weinstein is not going to want to open up a discovery process.
“A request for a massage might look innocent but is actually part of a pattern of predatory behavior that can range from inappropriate comments and touching to, in the case of Weinstein, allegations of rape.”
Twohey: If you put the NDAs aside, there were these fears that to speak out against Weinstein in any way could have negative repercussions for people’s career paths. Just because people had left the Weinstein Co. or Miramax didn’t mean that they felt that they were clear of Harvey Weinstein. This was a man whose tentacles extended to basically all areas of the entertainment industry.
Weinstein and others in the industry acted as gatekeepers. Getting on their good side could help people break into the business, but they could also close down access to jobs on a whim. Did that power allow them to engage in sexual predation?
Twohey: “Gatekeeper” is a great way to describe the role that Harvey played in the industry. Young assistants who worked for him were told if you pay your dues and go through this intense boot camp, in which you may have to suffer abuse, you will be rewarded. A letter of recommendation from Harvey Weinstein will open doors to get you the jobs that you dream of getting some day. By the same token, if you speak out, those pathways will close down.
Where does the Harvey Weinstein story go from here?
Twohey: You’re not just going to see coverage of the individual predators but of the institutions behind them. Who knew what, when, are really important questions. The next layer of significant reporting, not just in the case of Harvey Weinstein but in all of the cases of sexual harassment and misconduct that are emerging, is who else is responsible? Who was aware of this predatory behavior, and what did they do? What did Disney know about Weinstein when they owned Miramax? What did the talent agencies know when they were sending women repeatedly into hotel rooms for meetings with him?
At what point did Harvey Weinstein become aware of your reporting?
Kantor: We heard from a widening circle of lawyers and PR people and crisis managers from nearly the beginning. By the end, he was trying to exert overwhelming force on the Times. He threatened to sue us. He had a large team coming at us. We were getting phone calls constantly. And that was only the stuff that was overt. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes attempts at suppressing the story.
What kind of behind-the-scenes attempts?
Twohey: We can’t get into too much of it. One thing that surprised us was the eleventh hour emergence of Charles Harder, the lawyer who was notoriously involved in suing Gawker out of existence, as part of Weinstein’s team. That was a pretty calculated move.
Was the reaction from Weinstein more intense than from other figures or companies you’ve published tough stories about?
Kantor: This was the desperate last stand of a man who knew that his secret was going to get out. It was very personal to him, clearly. It wasn’t like dealing with a big corporation. When a big company doesn’t want you to know its secrets, it’s personal for them on some level, but it’s still a job. With Weinstein, his whole legacy was on the line.
Did you have any idea that the Weinstein reporting would open the floodgates on other stories of powerful media figures engaging in sexual abuse?
Kantor: It’s counterintuitive. One of our editors said to us, “You know he’s not that famous.” It was true, because Weinstein was Hollywood famous, but he wasn’t a household name. One of our editors, Matt Purdy, has an interesting theory, which is that this was the rare situation in which the accusers were more famous than the accused.
I’m of two minds about the potency of fame in making this story impactful. On one hand, I kind of resist and resent it, because I believe every woman’s story counts. Harvey Weinstein appears to have done the same thing to a lot of women regardless of their stature in the industry. As a journalist and as a human being, I don’t like the idea of weighting the more famous women’s stories more heavily than the lesser-known women’s stories. That said, I have to concede that the impact of big stars like Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow going on the record was enormous, in part because they were saying it’s not shameful to tell your story. I ask myself would it have played out the same way if the really famous women had not come forward? I’m not sure it would have.
The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow has published several bombshell pieces on Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct and attempts to intimidate journalists and accusers. Have you talked with him?
Kantor: Barely. We exchanged an email or two. We formally invite him for a drink some time.
Twohey: We just want to tip our hat to Ronan Farrow. We’d like to acknowledge the impressive and important work that he did.
Jodi, after the Weinstein story broke, you were interviewed on “CBS This Morning” by Charlie Rose. Now he’s lost that job because of harassment allegations. What is it like to look back on that interview?
Kantor: I guess I’d just like to know what Charlie was thinking as we were talking.
This harassment scandal has grown to the point where a Times colleague, Glenn Thrush, now faces accusations. Is it discomfiting to report on a story that eventually lands so close to home?
Kantor: These allegations are hitting close to home for so many people. This is personal for almost everybody, whether you’re a woman who has been harassed or if you know somebody in your office who has dealt with something like this. I wonder how many of your readers know somebody whose life has been affected in some way by this or who works for an organization that’s dealing with similar allegations. It adds to the feeling that this is kind of a collective experience.
Twohey: The New York Times is investigating [the Thrush] allegations, and we’re completely removed from that investigation.
More and more outlets are chasing stories of harassment. Is the competition changing things?
Twohey: There are stories that news organizations want to horde and keep to themselves. This is not one of them. As journalists who care about the issue of sexual harassment and assault, we’re thrilled to see so many other news organizations take up these stories. It’s helping to expose the issue in a way that a single news organization can’t do on its own.
“Sometimes it has felt as though we’re standing in a river of pain, and I don’t want to diminish that, but there have also been moments of recognition and hope and connection. The question now is whether or not private pain can be turned into collective strength.”
We can only speak for what we do here at the Times. It’s been two months since the first Weinstein story, and the standards that we apply to doing this type of reporting and publishing stories hasn’t changed just because there’s competition. We are very determined to get women on the record. We are looking for documents that corroborate allegations. Are things moving at a faster pace? Are Jodi and I working around the clock as we try to nail the next story? Yes, but are we altering the standards that we use? No.
Some outlets are now publishing stories about alleged harassers without any sources going on the record. That goes to issues of power and repercussions. Do you think it’s right that historically the accuser always had to go public if they wanted justice?
Kantor: It’s a fair question, and there are women who have said to us, “Why is it women’s work to do this? I didn’t do anything to get harassed. I was just showing up to work every day, so why is this my problem to solve?” We take that question seriously. We look for varieties of evidence. You could argue that on-the-record statements from women are the essential ingredient, but there are other forms of evidence too. There are internal documents. There are emails. There are human resources records. There’s the settlement trail. We emphasize those other ingredients because we do want to take the burden off the women as much as possible.
Bari Weiss recently published an opinion piece in the Times in which she argued that news outlets can’t just take accusers at their word. She believes that someone is going to publish a false accusation, and there will be a backlash that’s similar to what happened when Rolling Stone published a discredited story on campus rape. What’s your reaction to that?
Twohey: We certainly haven’t seen anything like the colossal mistake that was the Rolling Stone article. One of the more interesting stories to come out was that there was a false allegation that was brought to The Washington Post involving [Alabama U.S. Senate candidate] Roy Moore. When the paper started to investigate it, they found out it had been fabricated. They did a story about the effort to lie to them about Moore. That’s evidence that news organizations are doing the due diligence.
What do you make of the #MeToo movement that has sprung up in the wake of the harassment scandal?
Twohey: Jodi and I have been so immersed in the reporting process that there have been these rare moments where you kind of catch a breath and it’s 10 o’clock at night and you’re saying, “OK, I’m not going to do anymore work today, and I’m going to take a break.” There was a night where we’d been in such a bubble for so long, and I went on to Facebook, and it was the first time that I had seen the #MeToo stories popping up on my feed from friends and relatives. It was an emotional experience for me. It brought tears to my eyes.
The stories that are coming out about these predators are so depressing. Has it taken a toll?
Kantor: It’s an honor to do this work.
We always say to people that we can’t change what happened to them in the past, but we need to be able to put what happened to them to some constructive purpose. Sometimes it has felt as though we’re standing in a river of pain, and I don’t want to diminish that, but there have also been moments of recognition and hope and connection. The question now is whether or not private pain can be turned into collective strength.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Emily Steel’s last name. We regret the error.