On October 5th, 2017, the world teetered off its axis. That’s the day New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, helping to spark a global movement against sexual harassment and abuse. In the months since, they’ve continued to hold powerful men accountable, reporting on the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Louis C.K., and Jeffrey Epstein, among others.
In She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, Kantor and Twohey pull back the curtain on the challenging process of reporting the Weinstein story, from knocking on strangers’ doors to trading eleventh-hour communications with Weinstein’s belligerent legal team. They also highlight the diligent, unsung work of the editors, lawyers, and fact-checkers who burned the midnight oil alongside them.
Yet She Said is more than a rehashing of the investigative process—it’s a nuanced look at the structural levers that abusers push to silence their victims, from intimidation tactics to staggeringly restrictive settlements. The authors also provide new information about the sophisticated machinery of complicity that exists to protect abusers like Weinstein, from board members at his own company to tabloid publishers who squashed negative stories. Kantor and Twohey even-handedly assess the impact of the #MeToo movement thus far while also turning a perceptive, hopeful eye on the path forward.
Esquire spoke with Kantor and Twohey about honoring their sources, resisting ideological categorizations, and what’s next for the #MeToo movement.
Esquire: You write about approaching Rose McGowan for an initial conversation, and you say that pressuring an assault survivor wouldn’t be right. By now you’ve had countless conversations with survivors of assault and abuse. What’s the right, sensitive way to approach someone in that position?
Megan Twohey: Over the years, one line that has worked for us is, “We can’t change what happened to you in the past, but if you work with us on this story and we publish the truth, we might be able to protect other people.” That tends to tap into something. While sometimes women don’t have the courage or the inclination to go out on a limb for themselves, they’re eager to do something to help others.
ESQ: You encouraged Jessica Leeds and Rachel Crooks to come forward, calling their bravery a public service. However, you also write, “There are times in journalism when the right thing to do is turn and walk away, to leave a source alone.” What are the circumstances where you wouldn’t advise someone to tell their story?
MT: Ultimately the question resides with the individual women. We can’t make that decision for them. But what we can bring to the table are the rigors of investigative journalism. We can seek out the corroboration and documentation that can be extremely valuable and necessary when reporting these stories.
ESQ: How do you manage the fear that bringing these stories to light will invite harassment and suffering for the women telling them once their name comes to light?
Jodi Kantor: The hard part is that you don’t know. Some of the women who have come out against Trump have faced a lot of harassment and abuse. With the Weinstein victims, it’s varied. Some of them have faced some troubling situations, but others have been treated like heroines. A few weeks after our first Weinstein story ran, we went with Ashley Judd to an award dinner, where she was given a trophy that read, “For being a named source in an investigation.” The tough thing is that you never know what lies on the other side. When we speak to sources, we have to be careful not to make promises or predictions.
ESQ: You write of reporting on Bill O’Reilly, “The settlements didn’t prevent the story; they were the story.” What skills have you added to your reporter’s toolbox, now that you’ve landed on this new way of reporting about sexual harassment through the paper trail?
MT: One of the critical parts of this type of reporting is working with women to go on the record about their stories. In this book, we were also able to pull back the curtain on another crucial aspect of this reporting, and that is these settlements. Often when women come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, they turn to attorneys, because they want to try and stop the behavior. Oftentimes the lawyers will tell them that their best, if not only, option is to enter into a settlement in which they accept money in exchange for silence. The clauses that go along with these settlements are jaw-dropping. We ran into this in the course of our Weinstein investigation. We were able to determine that as many as eight women had been paid off through these secret settlements over the years, going back to 1990. We thought it was incumbent not just to reveal the existence of these settlements, but to collect some of the clauses. For example, two of Weinstein’s victims, in signing these settlements, were prohibited from telling anybody what had happened. They couldn’t see a therapist about what had happened unless the therapist agreed to sign a confidentiality clause. One of the women who ultimately goes on the record in this book, Rowena Chiu, didn’t tell even her husband what had happened to her for 20 years. It wasn’t just gathering the paper trail with these settlements. It was illuminating the outrageous clauses that go along with them, as well as the lawyers who have been involved.
ESQ: That leads us to Lisa Bloom, a purportedly feminist attorney who worked to protect Weinstein. How do we as a society get better at separating performative feminism from people who are the real deal?
JK: All I know is what Megan and I can do as journalists. We’re not feminist activists. We’re just trying to learn what really happened, and we find that when you do, you come up with a lot of surprises about whether these ideological labels really apply. Our Weinstein investigation was full of surprises that don’t fit into neat categories. Consider the fact that somebody like Linda Fairstein, who is probably the most famous sex prosecutor of all time, was actually on Weinstein’s side in a number of these episodes. Or consider that one of our best sources ended up being a man, Irwin Reiter, an accountant who worked for Weinstein for 30 years. He did nothing for a long time. In 2014 and 2015, he struggled inside the company to confront the problem. When he failed to make any change, he turned critical information over to us that helped us publish the story.
ESQ: Confidential settlements have the effect of silencing survivors and protecting perpetrators from scrutiny. Should they be outlawed?
JK: There are many people who make the case that these settlements are beneficial to survivors, that oftentimes this is in fact their best option. Some survivors will tell you that this does feel like the best option for them, that they don’t want to deal with the criminal justice system or invite public attention. But there have been efforts in some state legislatures to address this issue. California is among the states that has within the last year passed a new law to prohibit confidentiality clauses. These secret settlements have become a public danger, allowing predators to remain concealed and hurt other people.
ESQ: You’ve written about Kim Lawson, a McDonald’s worker organizing against the company for its weak stance on sexual harassment. Does reporting on a less high profile case of sexual harassment change the process?
JK: We try to treat every woman the same way. The process of hearing and corroborating stories is always the same, but we’re thinking about the context differently. Part of the context for Kim’s story is that McDonald’s is the second-largest employer in the country. There’s a corporate policy question there of whether or not they will modify their sexual harassment policies. They’re starting to take some really interesting initiatives. With a story like that, you could argue that it has a higher potential for impact than the stories about Hollywood stars, because the number of people those policies will affect is really extraordinary.
ESQ: You write about how Weinstein’s accusers were filtered through journalists, but Christine Blasey Ford’s account came to the public unfiltered. How do you think that shaped the public reaction to her story?
JK: Her story was reported in a variety of ways along the way, including in a Washington Post story by Emma Brown. The question for her was whether or not she was going to go public in any other way. One of the surprising things we learned that had played out behind the scenes was that after the Washington Post story ran, the conversation immediately fast forwarded to whether or not she would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. One of our findings was that her attorneys went on TV and asserted that she would testify, even beginning negotiations with the Senate Judiciary, while behind the scenes, Christine was saying that she absolutely did not want to testify. Her attorneys felt she was so credible that a lack of intermediaries was going to be the best avenue for people to hear her story.
I think that that’s one of the reasons her story stands out. For that moment in time, the entire world was captivated listening to her walk the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee through what had happened to her. She had the courage to tell her story not just in the pages of the Washington Post, but before the Senate Judiciary Committee with the whole world watching. Her lawyers had really made the case to her that, with the whole world watching, they would be able to see up close how credible she was. I think that’s one of the things that happened when there was no filter, when it was just her up there in front of the committee. The world could see for itself how focused she was on precision and accuracy, on telling her story as earnestly and accurately as possible.
ESQ: You write that journalists stepped in when the system failed, but that it’s not a permanent solution. What, then, is the permanent solution?
MT: Two years into the #MeToo movement taking off in earnest, there are a lot of complicated questions and a lot of frustration. Both the accusers and the accused would tell you that they don’t feel there have been adequate reforms put in place to make sure that there is a fair way for complaints to be made and vetted, for accountability to be dished out, for there to be adequate protections that keep everybody safe. It’s clear that there is much more work that needs to be done on the systemic level. But we also believe that you can’t solve a problem you can’t see. As reporters, we’re going to continue to do what we think we can do best. That’s to unearth as many facts as possible and to publish those facts.
JK: Part of what we hope to do with this book is bring people into the world of journalism, to tell them a little bit about how we evaluate information in case it may be helpful to them in their own life one day. If that can be helpful to other people in figuring out how to think about these difficult problems, then that’s great.