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'New York Times' Reporters Explain How They United Women, Helping Trigger #MeToo

Sep 9, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 7:44 pm

Nobody wanted to go first.

That was one of the essential problems for Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey — the New York Times investigative journalists who helped ignite the #MeToo movement with their 2017 story about film mogul Harvey Weinstein — as they detailed in an interview with NPR airing Monday.

Despite years of whispers circulating Hollywood, when Kantor and Twohey first started investigating claims of gross sexual misconduct against Weinstein, which Weinstein has denied, none of his alleged victims wanted to be the first to speak up — some out of fear, others out of legal obligation.

But eventually, the pair found the words that could break the ice.

"We can't change what's happened to you," Twohey said she would say when she knocked on alleged victims' doors, "but if you work with us and we work to tell the truth, we may be able to prevent other people from getting hurt."

This sentiment — revealing the truth for a greater good — is at the heart of Kantor and Twohey's new book, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement.

Two years after that explosive, Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, the book reveals the many-layered struggle of bringing that story to the masses: from the investigative hardships of talking to sources to Weinstein's alleged attempts to derail and intimidate victims, from the "surprising heroes and surprising villains" in Hollywood and beyond to the many ways women have, and continue, to come together for one another.

It's an ongoing fight, the authors said in the interview about the book, in a cultural landscape still filled with "secret settlements that silence women."

Kantor and Twohey also reflected on the lawyers involved in the investigation and on the #MeToo movement. Here are some highlights from the interview.


Investigating Hollywood

Jodi Kantor: Getting some of these actresses' phone numbers practically became mini-investigations into themselves because we're not really connected to Hollywood in any way; it's not our usual area of reporting. And so we would sit around saying, "OK, how do you get to Salma Hayek? How do we get Ashley Judd's phone number? Angelina Jolie — how are we going to reach her?

We did a couple of things. I'll reveal some investigative reporter tricks here. You can do relative searches just in the phone books and find out who their relatives are, who are usually more reachable. You might convince one or two feminist Hollywood executives to open up their Rolodexes to you. ... Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham helped us get to people. I was definitely a little worried about discretion because Lena Dunham was not known for keeping secrets. She was a big tweeter but she actually was remarkably disciplined and really helped us. And we also wrote very, very carefully worded notes. It's tricky because we couldn't even put Harvey Weinstein's name in a lot of the emails — we didn't want them to leak and you can have legal problems if you assert certain things in emails that then get found out.

A landscape of complicity

Kantor: Nobody wanted to go first. Nobody wanted to be out there alone. And this is not just a story of persuading women to talk; it's also about investigative journalism and how you build a mountain of evidence behind a story.

All the while, even as we're calling these famous actresses, we're looking for legal and financial records, and we're looking for company human resources records, we're trying to figure out what happened at Miramax and the Weinstein Co. And that was actually very helpful, because what we began to glimpse is that this wasn't just about one predator — it was about an entire system.

It was about the nature of complicity and why people go along with behavior like this and don't challenge it. It was about how it gets covered up. It was about secret settlements that silence women. And so we began to see in the course of this work and with our colleagues at the Times, a much wider landscape. And that's part of why we wrote this book, because that landscape is still intact today. Women are signing these kind of secret settlements every day all over the country.

Going on the record

Kantor: When I made the final ask [to Ashley Judd] to go on the record, I could hear a voice inside my head being like, "This is all wrong. She's going to say no." And it was because we didn't have 10 actresses or five actresses at that point. The pattern of actresses not being the one to name Harvey Weinstein had held to that point, and what Ashley, like everybody else, had wanted, was company in going on the record. So lo and behold, she calls me back a day after I made the final ask, and I picked up the phone and when I saw it was her number I just I braced myself for rejection.

I picked up the phone and she said, "I'm prepared to be a named source in your investigation." And I just started crying. I lost it, because for months Megan and I had just been living with this responsibility of we're going to get the story, or we're not going to get the story. And I think that was the moment I knew that it was really going to work.

Secret settlements

Megan Twohey: These secret settlements have been used to silence not just Harvey Weinstein's victims, but victims of sexual harassment and sexual assaults around the country. It's really this insidious legal system that is hiding under our noses in plain sight and that is still in place today. Oftentimes — whether it was Weinstein victims or other victims of sexual harassment — well after they've experienced the alleged violation, they'll turn to an attorney seeking help, wanting to do something about it, and all too often they are steered into accepting money in exchange for silence. And what we do in this book is really pull back the curtain on these secret settlements and dive into some of the jaw-dropping restrictive settlements that come with them. ...

Kantor: It was really a collective recognition at the Times because Emily Steel and Mike Schmidt were working on the [Bill] O'Reilly story, and we were working on the Weinstein story, and other colleagues were seeing the same thing in every industry, we're seeing there is this system that exists across industries.

Surprising heroes, surprising villains

Twohey: I think one of the more surprising figures is Lisa Bloom, who is actually Gloria Allred's daughter and another one of the most prominent feminist attorneys in the country, who really prides and presents herself as a champion of women. In 2016, she crossed over to the other side and went to work for Weinstein. She has said that she went to go work for him because she thought that he had only made inappropriate comments to women and that she wanted to help him apologize for his behavior. And what we did is, we obtained confidential records — some of which we reproduce word for word in this book — that showed she had a much deeper knowledge of the serious allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against him, and that she also had a much darker involvement.

Beyond Weinstein

Twohey: One of the reasons that we wanted to write about Christine Blasey Ford is that she has become one of the most polarizing figures in the #MeToo era. We didn't want to just stop with the Harvey Weinstein story. We wanted to push through into the year that followed and all the complicated questions that arose once the #MeToo movement took hold. And Christine Blasey Ford, I mean, millions of people watched her testify that day [at the confirmation hearing of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh]. Some people saw her as a hero. Some people saw her as a villain. You know, once we started to piece together her behind-the-scenes story of her private path to testifying in Washington, we realized that it was so much more complicated than anyone could know. ...

[A few months after the testimony] she was still very much feeling the repercussions of testifying and while there were many people who were heralding her as a hero, and while she was getting a lot of accolades and messages of support, she also was getting a lot of criticism and security threats. ...

And one day she was tallying up all the reasons not to come forward, about an assault, against a high-profile person like Kavanaugh. The next day she would claim to have no regrets. In this book, we kind of relay her very complicated journey to testifying in Washington. And it was clear that her journey was going to remain complicated for many months, if not years, to come.

Coming together, and stepping forward

Twohey: This fall marks the three-year anniversary of the Access Hollywood tape, the two-year anniversary of the Weinstein story, and the one-year anniversary of Christine Blasey Ford testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And we decided that we would bring together some of the women who had been central figures in all three of those stories — women who had helped spur change and become central figures in the #MeToo movement.

Kantor: Rowena Chiu, who had never come forward, was at that gathering. ... And then, when she came to this gathering what we realized when she was there is that she was deciding whether to come out or not.

So it gave it all a kind of heightened quality, because she was listening to the other women so intently about what their experiences were like because she was trying to glimpse life on the other side, trying to glimpse what it would be like to be public. And part of what was fascinating is that she was sitting there right near Christine Blasey Ford, who as we know has had a pretty difficult path coming forward, has been attacked a lot. And even after hearing more about everything that Dr. Ford had gone through, Rowena still decided to go on the record and to go on the record in this book for the very first time.

Her feeling was, it doesn't matter that 80-plus women have already come forward about Weinstein. She felt it was important to tell her story. She wanted to add to the history. She felt that not that many women of color had come forward about Weinstein and she wanted to be one of them. And her final word on this was, "I'm not just going to let it slide away."

The legacy — and the work — of #MeToo continue

Twohey: One of the things that happened the moment that we published the Weinstein story is that our inboxes and our phones just started ringing off the hook. I mean, we were inundated with a flood of women coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault and abuse. And you know that continues to this day. So while yes, there are a lot of complications, there also are still so many women who want to come forward. There are still so many stories to report. So we're hard at work on that every single day.

Kantor: The durability of [#MeToo] has been staggering. It's not even a news story anymore. It's like a permanent reality. Megan and I have been reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein situation all summer and it evokes a lot of the same feelings as Weinstein. You know, how big can this possibly be? How many people were affected? ... And so I think this is something we're going to be living through for a long time. I know there's a lot of controversy about solutions and how to address what's been brought up, but you can't address a problem that you can't see. And we're still beginning to just see the problem fully.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What happens when the old rules on sex and power are swept away and it's not clear what the new ones will or should be? That question is at the heart of a book out tomorrow. It's titled "She Said: Breaking The Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite A Movement." The authors are Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the Harvey Weinstein story in 2017 for The New York Times. Their book makes plain just how hard it was to nail that story, how hard Weinstein fought to kill it and how for many of the women who spoke up, the reckoning continues.

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are in our New York studios, and I want to say a big welcome to you both.

JODI KANTOR: Thank you.

MEGAN TWOHEY: Thanks so much for having us.

KELLY: I love that you set the tone for quite how hard this was. The very first line of Chapter 1, which reads - and I'll quote - "The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein began with the most promising source refusing even to get on the phone." That was May 2017. And I want to start there and ask, how did you go about finding the women whom you needed to talk to to do this story and then persuading them that they should talk to you?

KANTOR: Well, we had no idea if there was any truth to the rumors about Harvey Weinstein.

KELLY: This is Jodi speaking?

KANTOR: This is Jodi speaking. We also really did not know any actresses, let alone any famous actresses. We weren't sure how we would get them on the phone.

KELLY: Their numbers are not listed.

KANTOR: They practically became mini-investigations unto themselves. And so we would sit around saying, OK, how do you get to Salma Hayek? You know, how do we get Ashley Judd's phone number? Angelina Jolie - how are we going to reach her?

KELLY: And you didn't want to just call their agents because their agents are part of the system. You didn't want to violate anybody's confidentiality.

KANTOR: Exactly.

KELLY: So what did you do?

KANTOR: We did a couple of things. I mean, I'll reveal some investigative reporter tricks here. You can do relative searches just in the phone books and find out who their relatives are, who are usually more reachable. You might convince one or two feminist Hollywood executives to open up their rolodexes to you. And we also thought about when you get somebody on the phone who might be a victim, what can you say to them in that first 45 seconds, that first minute to try to get them to trust you?

KELLY: Yeah. And, Megan, you actually came up with a sentence that seemed to work to get through to people. What was it?

TWOHEY: Well, in my experience reporting on these stories, one of the lines that I found that really resonated with women when I would knock on their doors was, listen; we can't change what's happened to you. But if you work with us, and we work to tell the truth, we may be able to prevent other people from getting hurt.

KELLY: You're not saying I know what happened. You're not saying I can fix it but that there may be power in speaking up now.

TWOHEY: Absolutely.

KELLY: And the challenge, as always, was nobody wanted to go first. Nobody wanted to be out there alone.

KANTOR: Nobody wanted to go first. Nobody wanted to be out there alone. And this is not just a story of persuading women to talk. It's also about investigative journalism and how you build a kind of mountain of evidence behind a story. So all the while, even as we're calling these famous actresses, we're looking for legal and financial records. And we're looking for company human resources records. We're trying to figure out what happened at Miramax and The Weinstein Company.

And that was actually very helpful because what we began to glimpse is that this wasn't just about one predator. It was about an entire system. It was about the nature of complicity and why people go along with behavior like this and don't challenge it. It was about how it gets covered up. It was about secret settlements that silence women.

KELLY: I want to stay with those secret settlements because a lot of the women you were trying to talk to had signed them. And you write about the realization, you know, we can't let that stop the story. That has to become the story. Explain.

TWOHEY: Yeah. This is Megan. I mean, these secret settlements have been used to silence not just Harvey Weinstein's victims but victims of sexual harassment and sexual assaults around the country. Oftentimes, after they've experienced the, you know, alleged violation, they'll turn to an attorney seeking help, wanting to do something about it. And all too often, they are steered into accepting money in exchange for silence. It was often sort of presented to them as sort of the best, in some cases, if not only option that was available to them.

KANTOR: So then what was left to us was the really tough task of approaching these women who had signed settlements. For example, I took a plane to Northern California. I went to a house that I already had looked at on Google Maps. I walked into a driveway. The woman I wanted to speak to was not home, but her husband was home. And I knew a little bit about what we thought had happened to this woman at Weinstein's hands. And as I tried to speak to the husband, it became clear that that woman had not even told hold her own husband because, in part, she was legally barred from doing so. These settlements prevent women from talking about their own life experiences or warning other people.

KELLY: How did the two of you decide when to go to Harvey Weinstein and lay out your reporting and ask him to respond? - because you had to do that. You had a ethical journalistic responsibility to do that, and you wanted your story to be as complete as possible. On the other hand, it sounds like you were convinced that he might go to some of the women who you had as sources and try to bully them into recanting.

KANTOR: It took a lot of debate because you're laying it out exactly right. We knew that that would be our sources' most vulnerable moment. They're kind of not protected by public scrutiny at that point. He can smear them. He can intimidate them. He - we wondered whether he would have somebody scary show up at their homes. And when we explained to the women that this is what we needed to do, it was sort of their final act of faith in us.

KELLY: I want to insert here for the record that Harvey Weinstein and his attorneys deny many of these allegations. He's not been convicted. His trial is scheduled to get under way early next year. There's another dramatic moment sometime around here. Jodi, you were - sounds like you were right up against deadline. You were trying to figure out if you would have a big name that you could put on the record. And you get the actress Ashley Judd on the phone. And what did she tell you?

KANTOR: Well, I had been working up to that with Ashley for months. We didn't have 10 actresses or five actresses at that point. And what Ashley, like everybody else had wanted, was company in going on the record. So lo and behold, she calls me back a day after I made the final ask. I picked up the phone, and she said, I'm prepared to be a named source in your investigation.

And I just, you know, I started crying. I lost it. You know, Megan was looking at me down the hall, and she could tell what had happened just from looking at my face. But the bosses were all so close, and I remember being a little embarrassed.

KELLY: Is that true, Megan? You knew exactly what had just transpired.

TWOHEY: It's true. It's true.

KANTOR: You know, for months, Megan and I had just been living with this responsibility. And I think that was the moment I knew that it was really going to work.

KELLY: That's Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times.

Ashley Judd was quoted in the first of a number of stories the reporters wrote about Harvey Weinstein, as they chronicle in their new book "She Said." They also write about what happened to some of the women who accused Weinstein and other powerful men of sexual misconduct after they came forward. Elsewhere in the program, we hear about college professor Christine Blasey Ford, Justice Brett Kavanaugh's accuser. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.