Leah Letter

No justice for bad men

Why the Harvey Weinstein story took so long to come out.
Leah Letter

No justice for bad men

Why the Harvey Weinstein story took so long to come out.

Another week, another powerful man finally revealed as the sexual deviant everyone already knew him to be. Thanks to the popularity of meta-narratives, whenever a bombshell story drops nowadays media goalkeepers can look forward to reading at least a dozen pieces on how so-and-so knew this news was coming or so-and-so almost published this story 15 years ago. I personally live for this shit so I lap it all up. But there are two distinctly depressing things about the media and the Harvey Weinstein story, besides the fact that he got away with being a disgusting perv for the better part of three decades and everyone (allegedly) knowing this. I will explain them here.

The first reason is that Weinstein, who was ousted from his own production company yesterday after The New York Times published a report about how he reached settlements with at least eight women over sexual harassment allegations in the course of his otherwise illustrious and profitable time in Hollywood, was a man whose career had crested. As detailed in a Hollywood Reporter article this weekend, the Weinstein Company, which has dominated the Oscars since 1990, has been “hemorrhaging money and staff since the box-office failure of 2015’s The Hateful Eight… this year, even before the publication of the Times article, the prospects for TWC's slate of Oscar hopefuls looked painfully bleak.”

In other words, a once impervious man at the head of an all-powerful company had become, well, a little vulnerable. It’s much more difficult to take down a figure on the up-and-up, with the golden light of fame and success shining down upon him and those who surround him. No one wants to do that. It would be rude! Also what if he wanted to hire you or option your screenplay? Not saying journalists suppress stories in favor of their own personal success but it’s totally something that would happen in a movie. But when that light starts to dim, and the figure loses some of that shiny power and becomes less outwardly useful — an opening emerges for shit to rise to the surface.

It’s much more difficult to take down a man on the up-and-up.

For once in my life I would love to see a disgusting man taken down at the peak of his power. I’m not sure if I can even name a single time that has happened. Bill Cosby? Nope, didn’t get brought down ‘til he was almost blind and 60 women had accused him of sexual assault. Roger Ailes was falling out of favor with the Murdoch sons when he resigned (with $40 million payout) after allegations from six women; same for Bill O’Reilly (although he only got $25 million). Clarence Thomas, who bragged to his staff about watching bestiality porn, is still a Supreme Court justice (shoutout to Joe Biden here). Eliot Spitzer was taken down at his peak, but he was paying women to have sex with him instead of paying women off after he tried to have sex with them (not to split hairs but the distinction matters). Bill Clinton, horndog-in-chief, is now a lovable old vegan who spends his days chasing after big red balloons. Donald Trump, whom at least 16 women accused of sexual misconduct last year, is now the president. Heh.

I mean, I get it. It’s hard, in media, to go up against very rich and powerful men who think they can show their dicks to anyone. I cannot think of a scarier adversary than a man in love with showing off his dick without recrimination, and this is why I always carry a very small pocket knife with me. But we enter a shades-of-gray territory in whether it is “worth it” to confront this type of visceral power. The Weinstein rumors had been circulating for decades, but reporters could not “nail the story down,” so to speak, both because victims were understandably leery of going on the record, and news outlets rebuffed the story. Sharon Waxman, the editor of the Wrap, wrote over the weekend that she reported the story when she was at the Times in 2004, even discovering evidence that Weinstein had paid victims off, only to have it shut down by a male editor. “The Times’ then-culture editor Jon Landman, now an editor-at-large for Bloomberg, thought the story was unimportant, asking me why it mattered,” she wrote. ‘“He’s not a publicly elected official,’ he told me.” New York magazine reportedly killed their Weinstein exposé after the man himself met with the magazine’s editor in chief (New York denies this).

There is a fairly obvious theme: the media is very bad when it comes to reporting stories of sexual misconduct against women. This is not because media men are huge cowards — many are — but because women’s stories are devalued and seen as “risky.” By nature of the power structures that exist in our world, the burden of proof falls on the weaker party. The words “lawsuit” and "we will ruin you" usually get thrown around as a way to get reporters to stand down.

The media is very bad when it comes to reporting stories of sexual misconduct against women.

A while ago I did an interview on the Longform podcast, which will be a nice thing to have for my grandchildren to listen to but was otherwise a very uncomfortable experience (although it may seem fun to talk about yourself for one hour for public consumption — and some people do it very well — I was very bad at it, and I almost threw up when taping completed. It turns out I only like to talk about myself recreationally). Anyway, midway through the podcast the (male) interviewer and I got to chatting about one of my favorite topics, the allegedly disgusting comedian Louis C.K. The story concerning Louis C.K.’s rumored dick-whipping-out-in-front-of-women was one I worked on while I was an editor at Gawker. The reporter on the story, Jordan Sargent, had received numerous tips from people saying C.K. had taken his dick out unrequested, but none were willing to go on the record.

This was a frustrating situation since we felt we were very close to getting the story. One particularly interesting tip was from a man who emailed C.K. to tell him that he should stop sexually assaulting female comics. Surprisingly, this man received a reply from the comedian asking if they could talk on the phone, and they did. The man told Jordan that it seemed like C.K. was trying to “size him up” in the conversation and “find out what he heard,” which was that C.K. went up to his friend at a comedy show, grabbed her by the back of her neck, and whispered “I am going to fuck you” in her ear. C.K. did not deny these allegations.

We published this story in a way that was a signature of the pre-Peter Thiel Gawker. We let the sources be anonymous and poised it — as the Times has done with the Weinstein story — as a call for additional tips that would hopefully lead us to cementing a larger, on-the-record narrative. This methodology was not sufficient for my Longform interviewer, leading us into an awkward exchange in which he said there was not enough evidence to accuse C.K. of anything — innocent until proven guilty, after all. I argued that in order for these stories to come to light even the tiniest bit, it was necessary for journalists to do something very simple: believe the (many) women who say that this shit happens, and report their stories without forcing them to reveal their identities and put at risk their livelihoods.

This is an uncomfortable, and risky, ethical gray area. But the ethics of reporting on sexual misconduct are skewed in favor of those who have nothing to prove and, as history shows, those people can lead very full, profitable, unchecked lives before their behavior catches up with them. Women, on the other hand, are left to linger in the dark until a perfect storm of vulnerability, timing, and pressure clears a path for their stories to be told. They shouldn't have to wait that long.

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