NY Times writer Kantor speaks about covering the Weinstein case

  • 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners for public service journalism, Megan Twohey, left, Jodi Kantor and Ronan Farrow pose after accepting their awards during a luncheon ceremony at Columbia University, May 30, 2018, in New York. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Journalists Jodi Kantor, left, and Megan Twohey attend the Time 100 Gala in New York, April 24, 2018. AP FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2019 10:53:27 PM

SPRINGFIELD — In April 2017, editors of The New York Times asked a question that now seems “quaint,” as Jodi Kantor, an investigative reporter at the paper, put it.

The newspaper had just exposed sexual harassment allegations against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and the $13 million paid to alleged victims in exchange for their silence. The question editors asked at the time: “Are there other powerful men in American life who covered up abuse of women and can we do those stories?”

That question led Kantor and fellow reporter Megan Twohey to break the story about allegations of sexual harassment against movie producer Harvey Weinstein and secret settlements paid to silence women who dared to speak out. The journalists’ October 2017 piece helped popularize the current #MeToo movement, which was originally started in 2006 by civil rights activist Tarana Burke. It also earned Kantor and Twohey the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism, which they shared with Ronan Farrow, a contributor to The New Yorker.

On Monday evening in Springfield, Kantor spoke about “She Said,” a book she and Twohey co-authored that chronicles their investigation. Kathy Roberts Forde, associate professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, interviewed Kantor at the Springfield Public Forum event, sponsored by UMass.

“Part of the reason we wrote this book is we really wanted to bring you all on the journey,” Kantor said. “In this book, you will be on the phone for the first hushed conversations with nervous actresses, and you’ll meet the man who became the sort of ‘Deep Throat’ of the Weinstein investigation who was his own corporate accountant for 30 years.”

Tried and failed

In introducing the event on Monday, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy quoted The Washington Post and described “She Said” as “a sort of ‘All the President’s Men’ for the MeToo era, except the men are women, and they don’t protect the boss, they take him down.”

Other journalists had tried and failed to tell the Weinstein story before, which only motivated Kantor to get to the bottom of what happened.

“The fact that people tried and failed was alluring to me,” she said, causing the crowd to laugh. “Especially when people were really condescending on the phone, and they’d say, ‘Oh, Jodi, famous male journalists here tried to do this story … ”

Kantor and Twohey were able to document that at least eight women had received settlements over allegations against Weinstein and that they had signed nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), a confidentiality agreement that required them to be silent.

Kantor said confidentiality agreements are very common, and victims are often told that signing one is the best option.

“One of the most chilling revelations we had is that in this country we have a kind of system, or lack thereof, where women who have faced these problems are paid off in silence again and again and again,” she said. “The problem with settlements is that you are potentially enabling somebody to do it again.”

Getting numbers

Much of the book chronicles how the journalists found the alleged victims and convinced them to go on the record. As Forde put it, the book “lifts the veil on the newsroom.”

Starting the investigation was, Kantor said, “incredibly hard.” Just getting in touch with celebrity sources was difficult — the reporters decided that they needed to contact the celebrities directly rather than their agents or publicists who might shut the story down. Their article included the story of actress Rose McGowan, and actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie came forward with allegations of harassment after The New York Times investigation was published.

“We’d sit around the office saying, ‘OK, how do you get Salma Hayek’s phone number?’”

Eventually, the reporters did find sources — both famous and not — but it was hard for the women to decide to go on record and make their allegations public.

“It’s so unfair that women have to do this work,” Kantor said.

Days before she was scheduled to have surgery for breast cancer, Laura Madden, a former employee of Weinstein’s company, decided to go on the record with her allegations of harassment that she said took place in 1991. The reporters had thought they might lose Madden as a source because of the surgery. “How could you ask a woman to do those two things at once?” Kantor asked.

Actress Ashley Judd had allegations to share but was reluctant to go on the record out of fear for her career or being sued. In the end, Judd decided to speak out and was the first actress in the investigation to do so.

“I wanted her on the record more than, like, I wanted my two children to be born healthy,” Kantor joked. “I think it was the most I wanted anything ever, after my cares about my two kids.”

It was important to have a number of alleged victims and what Kantor called a “mountain of evidence” for them to stand on. “Sometimes I think about the story I’m going to tell my kids about all of this,” she said. “‘This is the story about how to confront a bully, and confronting a bully is so hard … the way you do it is you do it together.”

‘Blockbuster’

The book also shows how Kantor and Twohey worked to get evidence, including financial documents and memos from the Weinstein Co., to support the story. Kantor said she and Twohey are sympathetic to the phrase “believe women,” a #MeToo rallying cry, but “as a practical matter, believing women can’t really work as a journalistic imperative. Because everything needs to be checked and rechecked and rechecked again — and by rechecking it all those times, that’s how you get people to believe women.”

Though Kantor and Twohey wrote the piece, their New York Times editor, Rebecca Corbett, played a vital role in guiding the story.

“She was essentially the third woman who broke the Weinstein story,” Kantor said. “She’s kind of a quiet legend in newspaper circles.”

The night before the story was published, Corbett stayed at the office all night reading and rereading the story. “She fell asleep on her keyboard for 45 minutes,” Kantor said.

When the story was published, it was “a blockbuster,” as Forde put it, “a very long, deeply, deeply reported story,” and it led to more tips about allegations against Weinstein and other men. Subsequently, more famous men such as Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer have faced their own sexual misconduct allegations.

“We are still getting these tips every single day,” Kantor said. “As much as this is a story about the power of journalism,” she continued, “I think if we’re being honest, we have to acknowledge that it’s also a story about the limits of journalism. Because we cannot do all of these stories … this is a case where journalism stepped in because other systems failed, but it’s not a substitute for a functional system.”

People often ask Kantor and Twohey about where the #MeToo movement should go next. But that isn’t a question she tries to answer. “We have to be chroniclers,” she said. “We can expose information, but it’s your story to write, not ours.”

When Forde asked what she hoped the legacy of her book will be, Kantor said, “I want people to believe. I mean, we live in such a fractured time. It feels like the notion of a universal truth is collapsing … I want people to remember that, even at a time like this, stories can matter, and facts can matter, and people can change attitudes.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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