Jodi Kantor on bringing down Harvey Weinstein and helping start the #MeToo fire
When New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey started reporting on allegations of sexual harassment and assault against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, they knew the story was a big one. But even they had no idea how big it would get, how it would be the tipping point in a growing movement, deemed "#MeToo", of thousands of women and men stepping forward to expose sexual abusers in every industry, many of them famous and powerful men.
In their new book, "She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement", Kantor and Twohey give context to these heady times, by telling the incredible tale of how they broke the Weinstein story in the first place, going up an intimidating protection racket constructed by the notoriously hot-tempered Mirimax founder. Salon's Amanda Marcotte spoke with Kantor about the book and about the #MeToo movement.
As you write in the preface, the reporting you and Megan did on the Harvey Weinstein story opened up the floodgates and caused thousands of women and some men to start telling their stories publicly in the #MeToo movement. There had been some stories before: Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, but this really opened up the floodgates. And after writing this book, I want to know, do you have a better grasp on why you think it was the Harvey Weinstein story that was really the tipping point there?
It's really true what you say about how so many different factors played into this. If you look at the long history of people working on and fighting for these issues, it involves everybody from Anita Hill to Tarana Burke, the Roger Ailes story to the Cosby story, et cetera, et cetera.
But to answer your question, we were staggered by the impact of the Weinstein story. As one of our editors frequently pointed out to us during the process when we were working on the original investigation, Harvey Weinstein was not that famous. And so part of why we wanted to write this book is that we wanted to understand how the story accumulated so much power and also make sure that we really investigated it fully.
When we broke the story, we had pieces of the puzzle, but now we're able to dig so much deeper and understand so much more, whether it's talking about the role of Lisa Bloom, famous feminist attorney who crossed sides to work for Weinstein, or interviewing Bob Weinstein, Harvey's brother and company co-founder.
#MeToo has affected so many of us so deeply that we wanted to bring other people inside these original events, and have you there with us as we're on the phone with actresses, for the first time, trying to understand their story. Or have you here in the offices of the New York Times during our final confrontations with Weinstein. For a long time we had to keep those events secret. A lot of them were off the record, and it's frankly a relief, to be able to share them.
I recommend people read the book, just because the play-by-play is so fascinating. One of the things that was really interesting to me was the theme of safety in numbers. You see it in stories like Gwyneth Paltrow's and Ashley Judd's, but nearly everyone that you interviewed was afraid to step forward, unless they were stepping forward with many other women.
It's so unfair, in so many ways, that it's women's job to go on the record about these experiences, because these women did not do anything to get assaulted or harassed. So why should they have to go through the painful public ordeal of describing these experiences, of potentially getting attacked, of maybe having career consequences, of losing a lot of sleep? That's part of why everybody wanted company. All of our sources, whether they were movie stars or not, were scared to be first into the breach.
I want to tell you a story about a woman named Laura Madden, who was one of the first women to go on the record about Weinstein. The other is Ashley Judd, and everybody knows her name, but Laura Madden was a stay-at-home mom in Swansea, Wales. She was a former Weinstein assistant. She had a terrible story of on-the-job assault, which took place in the early '90s, meaning she was one of the Patient Zeros of the Weinstein story. She was very young when it happened.
Like everybody else, she was very worried about going on the record, and she certainly wanted company. Also, the point at which we came to her was a really difficult point in her life. She had just gotten divorced and she had also just had breast cancer. And as the story got closer and closer, her courage to go on the record was building up.
But in the final days before publication, she and I had a terrible mutual recognition, which is she still needed more surgery because of her breast cancer. She needed a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and we realized that the surgery date was going to coincide with the publication of the story. And I just felt terrible about that. I thought, how can we be asking her to do this? This is too much stress for any person to bear.
At that point, she was our only woman on the record, and we couldn't lose her. So, to Laura's incredible credit, she still went through with it.
She sent me a note the morning of publication saying, I have been through life-changing health issues. I have spoken to my daughters, and I realized that confronting bullies and telling the truth is important.
So when people talk about the bravery of the women who went on the record about Weinstein, that's the kind of bravery that was at work here.
Christine Blasey Ford has been cast in very polarized terms. She's been cast sometimes as the heroine of the #MeToo movement and a symbol for all survivors. She's also been cast as a villain, and a person who epitomizes the overreach of the #MeToo movement.
So we were very surprised to learn, when my colleague Megan started interviewing her, that she never intended to play that role. She's not an activist type. She is committed to her science. She had not really been involved in the #MeToo movement before this.
There was actually a period, in late August of 2017, when she decided not to come forward. One of her advisors, Ricki Seidman, had actually worked with Anita Hill, during her own testimony. Seidman had always been very privately worried over the years about what Anita Hill's testimony had cost her personally and she counseled Blasey Ford not to come forward.
So the idea that this was all a plot by a bunch of overeager feminist activists to sabotage a Supreme Court nomination and that Blasey Ford was leading the charge is just simply not true.
There's a tension throughout the book between the personal cost to women who speak out versus the potential gain of speaking out. You've probably spoken to more women that have been at the crossroads of that decision than nearly anyone. What do you think are the main factors in choosing to be the kind of person who does stick your neck out? Who does make that choice?
As you and I sit here and talk, we're coming up on a third anniversary of the Access Hollywood tape being leaked, the second anniversary of the publication of the Weinstein story, and the first anniversary of the Kavanugh hearings. And a few months ago in January, we were able to gather women who had spoken up in all of those stories in one space. We also included Kim Lawson, a McDonald's worker, who has been active in the fight to toughen sexual harassment laws at that company.
The reason we got them all together was not for some sort of group therapy. It was for a group interview and for journalistic purposes. The question we wanted to ask them was, what does life look like on the other side? All of you have faced wrenching decisions to come forward. All of you found that your personal, intimate stories had this larger than life impact on the national and world stage. What can you see from where you stand that the rest of us don't? What can you say in the end about the experience of coming forward?
Part of what was so fascinating was the variation in their experiences. On the one hand, Ashley Judd has been given a hero's welcome. She put her career on the line to speak out about Weinstein, and she really has been given lots of applause. She's teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School this semester. At one point there was a line of people waiting when she got off an airplane to congratulate her. So I think that's an example of somebody whose bravery has been recognized.
On the other hand, there was another woman there named Rachel Crooks, who Megan worked with in 2016. Crooks was one of the first women to go on the record about allegations of sexual misconduct by President Trump. Two years later Crooks was still struggling with the pretty dramatic ways in which going on the record had changed her life for good and for bad.
The women in the group interview really began to coach one another. At one point, Christine Blasey Ford was talking about whether she can go out without being recognized. She was also talking about how to deal with criticism on the internet, especially when people are saying things about you that are totally wrong, totally unfair.
And Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd starting to coach her. They basically said, "We've lived in the public eye for decades."
They cautioned her strongly against spending too much time on the internet. Ashley Judd has, you can find this quote in the book, says something like, if an alcoholic can stay away from a drink one day at a time, I can stay away from the comments section of the internet. And they were really trying to lend her support.
You're starting to see a rise of people criticizing work like yours by saying that these cases shouldn't be tried in the media, but should be adjudicated in the courts. People should be filing EEOC complaints, suing, pressing charges, etc. What did you find, in terms of how well the legal system is working for victims? Things like filing EEOC complaints, how's that working out for people?
We're used to thinking of the law as the arbiter of what's right and wrong in society. And I think the question we all have to ask is whether the law has abdicated its role.
There are plenty of hardworking people at the EEOC who are deeply devoted to this issue, but it's a relatively small and underfunded government agency. And according to its very mandate, according to the rules that were set up at its founding, it has to do a lot of its work in secret. The EEOC collects a fair amount of information about what's going on in American workplaces, but we can't access it.
So for example, if I was thinking of taking a new job tomorrow at Macy's, I would not be able to go to the EEOC and say, "Okay, what's Macy's record on dealing with sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace?"
Our country basically has this quiet system for muting sexual harassment claims.
Say a woman is sexually harassed in the workplace, and she goes to an attorney and says, "This is a fairly big problem. I need help."
What she is likely to be told by the attorney is, "Okay, we'll get you a settlement."
What that means is that the attorney may be able to secure some sort of renumeration for her, but in exchange she's probably going to have to hush up what happened. The deal is often literally money for silence.
There are good reasons, sometimes, why individual women will take those deals. You can preserve your privacy. You can go on with your work life. You can avoid being branded a tattletale or flirt or a traitor.
But the problem we've not seen — not just through the Weinstein story, but also through so many of these #MeToo stories — is that secret settlements also enable abuse because they enable the alleged perpetrator to just pay somebody off and silence them. These women are locked in a ridiculous position where they can't even tell their mother or their brother what happened, and if they see another woman being abused by the same man, they can't speak out about that either.
There's a lot in this book about the courage of the women who spoke to you and Megan, and that's I think unassailable. But Harvey Weinstein, in particular, was aggressive about trying to shut you down. He really seemed to have no limits in how much he would fight. Were you afraid personally, either of you, about the repercussions of doing this work?
No. We were afraid for our sources. We're investigative reporters. Confronting the powerful is why we get up in the morning. We were much more worried about the vulnerable women who were coming forward. We now know a lot more about the methods that Weinstein used to try to dupe people, to try to smear people, and they're truly scary. And every woman had something at stake, whether she was a famous actress or whether she was someone nobody had heard of.
Our biggest fear was just fear of failure, fear that we would not get the story or that we would botch it somehow, and we would spend the rest of our lives watching the Oscars, watching Harvey Weinstein on screen, and not being able to reveal what we knew.