Journalist Jodi Kantor talks about the Hollywood exposé that led to sweeping cultural change
In October of 2017, The New York Times published an explosive 3,000-plus word exposé detailing the decades-long sexual assault, harassment, and rape of actresses, many of whom were famous or up and coming, by filmmaking heavyweight Harvey Weinstein.
Written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the article launched to national prominence the Me Too movement, a campaign begun in 2006 when activist Tarana Burke used the term as a rallying cry for all victims of abuse and injustice.
Kantor and Twohey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article led to their 2019 book She Said, which detailed the arduous task of securing the documents and on-the-record interviews they needed to buttress the article. A film adaptation of their experience, starring Zoe Kazan (as Kantor) and Carey Mulligan (as Twohey), was released last year.
As a part of the Solomont Speaker Series from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Kantor shared the story behind the article at Tufts on October 11; she recalled what it took to get the Weinstein article done and gave a peek at the underbelly of investigative journalism.
Below are three takeaways from her conversation.
Tough projects bring epiphanies
“We were worried about what would happen to the sources. Nothing was foretold,” Kantor said, remembering the week the article was ready to go. “We know now that Weinstein is in jail and that the Me Too movement exploded all over the world. But it certainly didn’t feel like that was about to happen when we pushed the button.”
Their article’s impact reached beyond the scrutiny of sexual harassment in Hollywood because the truth was closer than many wanted to admit.
“In the early days of the Weinstein reporting, every industry had their own explanation for why [the harassment] was so prevalent,” Kantor explained. “The restaurant people would say it’s because alcohol is served and people become uninhibited. In Silicon Valley, people would say there’s so much money sloshing around, people have no restraints. In the movie business, it’s because of actresses, physical beauty, and the objectification of women.”
Those things may have been true, Kantor said, but she realized, “This is everywhere. It’s not the alcohol, not the money, and not the fact that these are gorgeous actresses. Sexual harassment is, sadly, a universal solvent in our society.”
Investigative stories can be a sign of the times
“For investigative journalism, you look for the stories that are ripe,” Kantor told the attendees, who included budding reporters.
“What’s ready to burst? What are the stories that feel like they can be told? And we felt like we had an opening,” Kantor said. “People were really mad about the allegations about Donald Trump and were mad that he was later elected anyway. And that created and predated a conversation.”
Around that time, Kantor’s colleagues had also done a story on former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
“The idea that he was being fired because of sexual harassment kind of felt like a reversal in psychics of how power works,” Kantor said. “And that too felt like an opening.”
Show up and earn their trust
“When my friends read [She Said], they were like, ‘This is what you do? You show up in people’s homes unannounced and ask them either very nicely or a little more aggressively, depending on who they are, to give you information?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah…!’” Kantor remembered, as the audience laughed. “I can’t tell you how much of my job is calling strangers up, out of the blue. And what you’re looking for in those first few moments is to connect.”
The early reporting for the Weinstein story was tough because victims were reluctant to talk, let alone go on the record. Kantor, and later Twohey, needed their interviewees to trust them. And that’s gotten harder in the social media era since people have retreated more than ever. “You’ve got to reach across that divide and establish that trust, and [show that their story] is in the public’s interest,” Kantor said.
Kantor and Twohey tracked down records and traced Weinstein and his company’s legal and financial settlements, so by the time Kantor finally called actress Ashley Judd, Kantor was able to confidently assure her.
“I said, ‘I need to ask you to go on the record, and no other major actress will do it, so I need to ask you to do it alone.’” Kantor knew it was a huge ask but told Judd she would be standing on a mountain of 25 years’ worth of evidence they had accumulated. When Judd agreed to be a named source, Kantor said, it took the story “out of a ‘he said, she said’ fuzzy gray realm and more in the realm of fact and documented evidence.”
That the article meant so much to so many and prompted open discussion and overdue changes across industries, Kantor said, showed the power of journalism and why it still matters.