How investigative journalism sparked off the #MeToo movement
- Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey describe their chase to nail Harvey Weinstein in their new book
- The takeaways for Indian readers are power lies in collective action and criminal defamation needs to go
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book She Said: Breaking The Sexual Harassment Story That Ignited A Movement has over 30 pages of footnotes. This sums up its essential character: a no-nonsense, meticulous documenting of their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Harvey Weinstein for The New York Times (NYT) in 2017. The #MeToo movement was kicked off by activist Tarana Burke as early as 2006, but the NYT investigation spurred another wave.
This is not an emotional, teary book—and it is the better for it. The writers are all business as they reveal Weinstein’s harassment and assault of nearly 90 women, from Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow to unknown young assistants.
The book has been compared to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All The President’s Men on the Watergate scandal. To me, it felt more like “Spotlight", The Boston Globe’s investigation into the sexual abuse of young boys by the clergy. The victims here are every bit as helpless in the face of Hollywood’s casting couch, and the power of Weinstein.
Who: Kantor and Twohey are both journalists for NYT, but they come from very different backgrounds. Kantor had written extensively about how women were mistreated in large corporations—Starbucks, Amazon—and got these companies to change their policies. Twohey had exposed years of groping and harassment of women by Donald Trump, who was running for president at the time. Trump threatened her with a lawsuit, notes the book, then bellowed down the phone, “You are a disgusting human being!" Twohey went ahead with the story, but Trump was elected anyway. “Very few suburban white women appeared to care about his trespasses," write Twohey and Kantor.
What: The investigation began with Kantor noticing actor Rose McGowan’s oblique tweet about harassment by Weinstein in early 2017. “Because it’s been an open secret in Hollywood and they shamed me while adulating my rapist," she tweeted, with the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport. But McGowan, like most actresses, was not willing to go on record.
In the press, Paltrow has been lauded as the woman who stepped up. Actually, it was Judd who was the first woman to go on record, after which other women gathered the courage to do the same. Kantor burst into tears when Judd agreed, the only time she would display emotion.
Paltrow was reluctant to go on record, because she was already dealing with bad publicity. Her lifestyle website, Goop, was being roundly ridiculed for selling $66 (around ₹4,700 now) jade eggs, meant to be inserted into the vagina for good energy. But Paltrow did offer help from her Hollywood network to find other women, and later, revealed her own story.
The two journalists painstakingly persuaded women to go on record to make the strongest case. “We need a pattern." They turned up at the houses of Weinstein’s victims at dinner time, drove across the UK to trace other victims, spent two weeks meeting a Deep Throat-style whistle-blower within Miramax, painstakingly fact-checked all accounts. Twohey’s line proved most effective in persuading women. “I can’t change what happened to you in the past, but together we may be able to use your experience to help protect other people."
Tiny details make this book. One young assistant wore two pairs of tights and a thick winter parka in a futile effort to protect herself from Weinstein. Another had to constantly source a supply of Weinstein’s erectile dysfunction drug. Most astonishingly, Weinstein pointed out Paltrow’s success to other starlets and asked, “Don’t you want what she has?"
Why: Read this book if you want to learn about best practices in investigative journalism, and how the two reporters took the #MeToo movement from vague tweets to a concrete lawsuit (Weinstein’s criminal trial is scheduled for January, and there are also some civil suits).
To begin with, Kantor and Twohey followed the money. The breakthrough came when Kantor traced settlements paid by Weinstein to his victims. “The agreements involved lawyers, negotiations, and money—colleagues, agents, family members, and friends," they write. “The settlements didn’t prevent the story; they were the story."
As the reporters continued their investigation, the book says, Weinstein threatened them, stalked them on social media, and eventually sent private investigators from security firm Black Cube after them in a bid to stop publication. One of the most chilling sections of the book is when both McGowan and Kantor are contacted by one Diana Filip, a female Black Cube agent posing as an event manager.
This book makes sad reading if you are Indian, and have watched how the #MeToo movement has crumbled over the last year. Indian law allows those accused of harassment to defend themselves by filing criminal defamation suits, which means that victims can face jail time. One ongoing case is that filed by former minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani.
While Kantor criticizes the American legal system, it is still vastly better for journalists than India’s. The first amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is virtually sacrosanct. Criminal defamation exists in theory in the US but is not widely prosecuted. Numerous Supreme Court decisions have spoken out in favour of press freedom. With all this backing, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of NYT, was able to stand firmly behind his reporters.
The reporters did not anticipate that the story would make a splash, but it prompted a flood of stories from women. After the story came out, NYT expanded its investigation into the harassment of blue-collar women working in restaurants, factories and prisons—another thing that hasn’t happened in India, where #MeToo has been confined to mostly privileged women. The book also covers Christine Blasey Ford’s attempt to keep Brett Kavanaugh off the US Supreme Court, which ended with Ford having to virtually go into hiding.
It’s hard to criticize this book because it does what it says on the tin. If one were nit-picking, it might be to say that the book ends anti-climactically, with a gathering of victims in Paltrow’s house. Somehow the drama of the previous pages is dimmed, as the women ranging from a McDonald’s worker to Ford talk over Japanese food.
Nevertheless, this is a deeply inspiring book, especially for women. The takeaway for Indians: Power lies in collective action. Newspapers need to back their journalists. Criminal defamation needs to go. It will be a long haul. But as Judd said after she spoke out: “I have to know the hill on which I was willing to die. The equality of the sexes is that hill for me."
Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.
Twitter - @kavitharao