‘She Said’ is more important than ‘All the President’s Men.’ There, I said it
An avalanche almost always begins with a trickle of dirt or a few bouncing pebbles, and then the world caves in.
So it was for Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times reporters who, along with Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker, broke the Harvey Weinsten sexual-abuse story, leading to, among other things, #MeToo, the firings of many high-profile men, the horrifying drama of the Bret Kavanaugh hearings and, at the very least, a greater awareness of the widespread, systemically supported and always devastating nature of sexual harassment.
Now Kantor and Twohey have written “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Unite a Movement” (Penguin Press) to tell us, in fascinating detail and with a remarkably ego-free eye on the story’s enormous impact, how they did it.
It is a binge-read of a book, propelled, for the most part, by a clear, adrenaline-spiking ticktock of how their stories came together, and studded with all manner of new astonishing details (R.I.P. the careers of attorneys Lisa Bloom and David Boies.)
As with “All the President’s Men” in whose company it now stands, the action in “She Said” began with a seemingly small, albeit disturbing, event. For Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was a break-in at the Democratic headquarters in D.C.’s Watergate building; for Times reporters Kantor and Twohey it was a tweet from actress Rose McGowan claiming that she had been raped by a Hollywood producer.
As with the Watergate break-in, many American journalists were aware, or became aware, of the tweet. Some dismissed it as just one more instance of McGowan, known then as a promising actor whose career had somehow derailed, trolling Hollywood. Others made an effort to follow it up; there was a general assumption that McGowan was referring to Harvey Weinstein, who had long been suspected of, at best, a sleazy penchant for hooking up with young female stars, and at worst, predatory behavior. Certain reporters had been trying to investigate Weinstein for years.
But McGowan, it appeared, wasn’t talking beyond the tweet.
Kantor and Twohey were just like all those journalists with a few notable exceptions: They each had backgrounds in top-tier investigative journalism, often done on the behalf of women; they worked for a paper that had the resources to allow them to pursue their leads (occasionally internationally) and they simply refused to give up.
Mostly, it came down to persistence. The agonizing over the wording in email requests, the repeated phone messages, the willingness to knock on the doors of women who had not answered either, the “Columbo”-like “Can you just tell me...” ability to get and keep people talking (even in one case when their editor in chief had told them not to talk to anyone in the Weinstein camp off the record) long enough to reveal even one more lead.
Kantor got McGowan to talk, albeit off the record, and her editor, Rebecca Corbett, suggested she broaden her scope and try to find other women who might have also been assaulted by Weinstein. Corbett also put her in contact with Twohey. Though still recovering from childbirth and the fallout from working on a series about women who accused then-candidate Donald Trump of sexual aggression (hint: she became a a target of public vitriol from Trump andfor multiple allegations of sexual harassment), she agreed to help.
Neither of them had any Hollywood contacts, which was a blessing — no history with the whole Weinstein myth/machine (at one point, one of their editors wondered if anyone would care since he was not that famous) — and a curse — no contacts.
Slowly but surely that changed. Columnist Nicholas Kristof put them in touch with actress Ashley Judd, which would prove invaluable; another source led them to Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham, who “became a two-woman celebrity switchboard” of contact information, including Gwyneth Paltrow, who had her own Weinstein story, off the record of course. Paltrow began reaching out to other women she knew, or suspected, had been abused by the producer.
The stories Kantor and Twohey collected are familiar to anyone who followed the investigation, but to see them as they saw them, piling up in a sickening pattern (the hotel room, the bathrobe, the demand for a massage, the groping, the rape or assault, the promises, the threats, the payoff) from a wide array of women remains a gut-punch.
For the two reporters it was a double gut-punch because a year or so into the investigation they had no one on the record. Each woman either felt bound by a confidentiality agreement or too afraid of Weinstein’s reach to go public. With very good reason. Weinstein may not have been at the zenith of his influence but he remained, as the two reporters quickly learned, aggressively defensive, a famously uncontrollable man whom the entertainment industry had granted the ability to make or break a career. With deep pockets and rabidly fierce lawyers, he was willing to threaten just about anything to protect his image.
For months, Kantor and Twohey could do nothing about what they knew.
Not that there is much, or any really, reportorial hand-wringing in “She Said.” No complaints about missing kids’ bedtimes or self-portraits in noir of the nights spent staking out sources amid messy boxes of Chinese takeout. No scenes when one or the other says “Dammit you should have talked to me first” or wondering if this undertaking is worth it. No “You’re on the wrong side of history” showdown with a source or an editor. There are a few actual showdowns — Weinstein presents himself at the Times’ offices more than once — and plenty of pulse-racing excitement in “She Said,” but all of it is organic to the story rather than the storytellers.
This is an account, not a memoir. The narrative (which is written in third person) acknowledges the frustration, mostly in moments when one editor or another says, “There is no story yet.” But whatever Kantor or Twohey felt during this time is left to the imagination; they are far more interested, still, in telling the story of how one man allegedly abused so many women and got away with it for so long.
Until they figured out the way to expose that.
While the two were investigating Weinstein, the New York Times broke the story of the millions of dollars Fox had paid to women O’Reilly had allegedly abused. Like Woodward and Bernstein before them, Kantor and Twohey realized they too could follow the money.
Which led them to nondisclosure agreements and legal deniability supported by a phalanx of lawyers and executives, including and especially Harvey’s brother Bob, who used payouts as a way of making a “problem” go away without ever having to fully admit what the “problem” was or hear about it ever again.
It also led them to Irwin Reiter, a very worried Weinstein executive who, in a scene that is pure Hollywood, leaked a damning memo. The reporters finally had a story that didn’t require a reluctant woman to go on the record (although, in the eleventh hour and another Hollywood moment, Judd agreed.)
And they knew it was a good story by the way Weinstein and his team responded — threatening, cajoling, whining — up until the very moments before their editor hit publish.
I don’t want to spoil any details or steal any thunder because this is Kantor and Twohey’s story and one everyone should read for a panoply of reasons.
By simply recounting their reporting, the two offer a masterful explanation of how a man like Weinstein is allowed to abuse his power and many women for so long in something approaching plain sight (that so many of the people Kantor and Twohey spoke with seemed to assume that women willingly trade sex for career advancement in Hollywood is chilling).
They have also documented the long-exposure process of courage. Bravery is not a characteristic so much as it is a journey, and for each woman involved, the decision to tell her story was difficult to excruciating. But eventually they did it anyway.
“She Said” reminds us how difficult, tedious, frightening, frustrating and important the work of journalism remains. Kantor and Twohey, and then Farrow with whom they shared the 2018 Pulitzer for public service, broke the Weinstein story because they worked the Weinstein story. Tirelessly, doggedly, from any angle they or their editors could think of. Like “All the President’s Men,” the film of which spawned a generation of journalism students, a story like this proves the importance of skilled reporting and platforms that can afford to focus on months/years-long investigations (and send their reporters to, say, Wales.)
And in many ways, “She Said” is more significant than “All the President’s Men,” and not just because journalism is currently under siege, financially and politically, in a way it was not in the 1970s. There was a finite number of people responsible for the crimes of the Nixon administration; the alleged crimes of Harvey Weinstein are also the crimes of our culture, and they continue to be committed every day by many men all around the world.
Although now, one hopes, without as much silence, secrecy and cultural complacency.
“She Said” is not a perfect book. It wanders a bit toward the end as the two attempt to examine the impact of #MeToo with a timeline of the Christine Blasey Ford story, which they reported on but at a distance, and, for the final chapter, a gathering of 12 of the women who had been part of their reporting to, well, yes, it must be said, Paltrow’s house. Here the reporters’ voice, which works so well throughout much of the book, falls a bit short. It would have been nice to feel that Kantor and Twohey were part of this conversation rather than simply recording it, and by ending with each woman given a final say, the book concedes its own.
But that’s OK; certainly after years of silence, each deserves to be an equal part of a final chapter, and it is impossible to write about how an avalanche ended while the mountains continue to fall.
Just before reading “She Said,” I watched the upcoming Netflix drama “Unbelievable.” It’s an adaptation of another Pulitzer Prize winning work, a ProPublica series about Marie, a young woman who after being raped was so disbelieved that she recanted her testimony, and the pair of female investigators who brought down a serial rapist and proved he attacked her.
Hard not to see a parallel.
At the end (I don’t think this is a spoiler because the story won a Pulitzer) Marie thanks the detectives for proving that the world is not filled with terrible people; there are also people who want to help and who will work hard and tirelessly to do so.
As a woman and a journalist, I would like to take a moment to thank Kantor and Twohey for pretty much the same thing.
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