Office Hours: “Facts Matter”
The NYT Reporters Who Broke the Silence on Sex Abuse in Hollywood
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey threw the first exhaustively researched stone into the water on October 5, 2017. The resulting ripple quickly grew into a tsunami that swamped the careers of some of the most powerful men in media.
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Kantor and Twohey, investigative reporters at The New York Times, exposed the open secret in Hollywood that Harvey Weinstein, über-producer of Oscar award-winning movies, is a sexual predator who preyed on actresses and employees of his production companies for decades. Now the writing partners are promoting their new book, She Said, which chronicles the two years they spent before and after that first explosive publication, sharing with readers the effort it took to convince traumatized women to go on the record about their abuse.
Prior to investigating Weinstein, Twohey also investigated claims by various women in 2016 that then-candidate Donald Trump harassed or assaulted them. While researching the book, Kantor and Twohey spoke with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who provided testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing Supreme Court nominee (now Justice), Brett Kavanaugh, of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school.
As I sat in the front row of the Vic Theater on October 15, as close as I could get to the authors without joining them on stage, I was struck by how unemotionally they spoke about the horrors revealed to them by their sources. I don’t mean unemotional in terms of not caring. They obviously cared. I mean, they lived and breathed these traumatizing accounts for two years, and yet they seemed defiant and confident rather than morose or sad. I spent a semester in college as an intern trying to convince members of Congress that they should pass legislation that would keep the US from helping dictators oppress their people and prevent children all over the world from losing limbs or lives to exploding landmines. (Neither initiative passed.) Three months was more than enough for me to realize that I cannot directly engage with these types of issues if I want to maintain my own mental health. Kantor and Twohey spoke to women about some of the most frightening and degrading moments of their lives for two years, and emerged on the other side looking for more abusers of power to take on.
When asked how they were able to do the work and keep their sanity, Twohey shared what they told the women they hoped would share their stories: no one can change what happened to these women, but exposing the truth can help prevent others from having the same experiences. There was satisfaction in standing up to men who rarely (if ever) faced the consequences of their actions. Both Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein tried to intimidate Twohey into stopping publication, but, as Kantor suggested to the Chicago Humanities Festival audience, confronting the powerful is what they do. With the weight of The New York Times behind them, the reporters could tell the (meticulously fact-checked) truth and the men could not shut them up as they had repeatedly done to their victims. Granted, one of them still became President of the United States, but Kantor’s and Twohey’s reporting jump-started the #MeToo and TIME’S UP movements, helped empower women around the world, and forced men in all industries to re-assess their behavior in the workplace.
As with any movement, there has been backlash. Many think the movements have treated accused men unfairly. Al Franken was pressured to resign from the US Senate before getting the opportunity to defend himself. Actor Aziz Ansari was publicly criticized for making a woman uncomfortable during a consensual sexual interaction. Others believe that much more needs to be done to hold men accountable. For their part, Kantor and Twohey identified three sets of questions that society is still trying to answer two years later:
- What is the scope of behaviors that should be addressed? Is all inappropriate sexual contact equal? Should sexual harassment be treated the same way as sexual assault? And how long ago is too long to hold abusers and harassers accountable?
- How do we know what really happened? The title of their book, She Said, is a direct reference to the phrase used to describe many rape cases. How should the courts adjudicate if the man says one thing and the woman says another? What is the burden of proof?
- What does accountability look like? Should the abused be entitled to financial compensation? A public (or private) apology? How should the law deal with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which legally prevent many abused women from speaking about their experiences? Is jail time appropriate? Community service? Is it enough if a man’s career is ruined? Should the abuser be given another chance in society?
There are no easy answers to these questions. There is also no consensus on what to do about the companies and their employees that willfully covered up the misbehavior of their stars and, in many ways, facilitated their abuses. Until society recognizes that the “boys will be boys” or “locker room” mentality (applied almost exclusively to white men, by the way) actually enables women to be harassed and assaulted, until legitimate allegations of sexual harassment or abuse become disqualifying conditions for US President or Supreme Court Justice (two sitting justices were accused of sexual misconduct before their confirmation), until the women who come forward with their truth are safe from internet trolls who threaten to rape them (?!?!?!) for their courage, until women are listened to and believed, rather than being summarily dismissed, there is still work to be done and stories to report. It’s comforting to know that Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are still on the case. Kantor declared on October 15 that “facts matter.” We need more investigative journalists who will not rest until the truth is revealed and abusers have nowhere to hide.