Column: Five years after #MeToo, I am haunted by the stories we could not tell

Illustration for #MeToo package for digital.
(Illustration by Hayley Wall, for The Times.)

“Says she was raped by producer.”

Sometimes, when I least expect it, these words will float across my consciousness and saturate a few hours of my day with anxiety and guilt.

They were written on a pink “while you were out” message slip, which was left on my desk sometime in the fall of 2017 under a stack of identical slips with similar messages.

It was the height of #MeToo, and like many media platforms the Los Angeles Times was deluged by women reaching out to report sexual harassment and assault by high-profile men, many in Hollywood.

Thousands of women, emboldened first by the New York Times reports on Harvey Weinstein, took to social media to share their stories of harassment and abuse. When the L.A. Times began launching investigations into some of the accused men, hundreds of women began contacting us directly. Some reached out to reporters, others just called the main number and asked to speak to someone in Calendar. Multiple women. With different stories. Every day. For months.


As the deputy managing editor in charge of Calendar, I got handed those stacks of messages. I would look through them and pass them on to those reporters working on #MeToo stories, which, frankly, was pretty much everyone. Most of The Times’ entertainment and business reporters were pursuing leads, as were critics and columnists. Three weeks after the original Weinstein story published, Times awards critic Glenn Whipp broke a story in which 38 women accused producer James Toback of sexual harassment.

That number eventually grew to 395. Whipp talked to all of them.

Whenever anyone uses the term “witch hunt” to describe the year this country came to terms with the enormity of sexual harassment, I know that person did not set foot in a newsroom during 2017-18. In our newsroom anyway, it was like an enormous dam giving way, or the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Even with dozens of reporters working 15-hour days seven days a week, we could not keep up with the women and their stories.

Instead we were forced to do triage, make battlefield choices: Is the accused a public figure? How serious are the allegations? How many accusers are there? Are they willing to go on the record? Do they have corroborating evidence?

Reporters and editors were exhausted and horrified, filled with admiration for many of the women who came forward, outraged by the culture of fear and shame that kept them silent for so long, shocked at times by the number of allegations. Knowing we could never report on all of them, we were occasionally overwhelmed with grief.

“Says she was raped by producer.”

It was at the bottom of a pile whose papers I know I handed out during one of the many mini-meetings we had during that time. At that point, we had lists of leads, Google Docs of the accused and their accusers. We had ongoing investigations into Brett Ratner, Russell Simmons, James Franco and many others. I remember combing the lists and asking reporters if someone had followed up on this message or that one, but I was never sure someone had called that woman back.


There were so many leads to pursue, so much pain and trauma being shared, much of it never expressed in public because, in the end, so many women would not go on the record. Reporters wrestled with the need to convince sources to go public and the fear that they were pressuring people who had already been coerced or attacked. For every story we were able to tell, there were five more we could not even fully report.

Some of the accusations were sketchy — vague or ill-remembered, occasionally contradictory. But many more were quite specific and often still happening in real time. I still worry about the young woman who claimed she was being stalked by one famous actor or those who said they were being harassed while working for another. They could have been lying, I suppose, but the reporters they spoke with said that, in each case, they just sounded afraid.

For good reason. As Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan proved, careers could be ended. As recent revelations of how members of the Los Angeles Police Department covered up charges made against Les Moonves catastrophically proved, the balance of power almost always lies with the accused. Few of the hundreds of women The Times spoke with had even the potential protection of name recognition.

And as silence-breaking as the Weinstein scandal was, it also set a destructively high bar. Weinstein’s decades-long crime spree was so heinous, so calculated and enforced by in-plain-sight thuggery that “Not as bad as Weinstein” became an asterisk accompanying too many other revelations of harassment and assault. This not only discouraged many women from speaking out on the record, but it also allowed people to diminish if not dismiss those cases that did not meet Weinstein’s standard of horror. To use words like “witch hunt.”

At some point in 2018, as cultural attention turned from the chillingly long lists of men who had been accused of sexual harassment, the conversation moved to what exactly we were supposed to do about it. There was no single answer for such a wide variety of accusations, many decades old. Some men were fired, some were not; some faced criminal prosecution, most did not; some fought back or laid low and then quietly returned to their chosen profession. Women stopped reaching out, at least in such numbers, and the moment passed.

As #MeToo turns 5 and Weinstein, already incarcerated, faces additional charges in an L.A. courtroom, I sometimes can’t believe what happened even though I was there when it did.


Occasionally I wonder if the message from the woman who said she was raped by a producer is a figment of my imagination, an image conjured by my subconscious to symbolize all the women whose voices were not heard.

Harvey Weinstein’s rape and sexual assault convictions prove that rape is a crime, not an HR issue or a cultural talking point.

Feb. 24, 2020

I want to believe that #MeToo has had a bigger and more significant legacy than putting Weinstein behind bars and removing a few abusive men from their positions of power. I want to believe that it has at least weakened the systems that allowed and even encouraged sexual harassment, challenged the ethos that frames sexual access as one of the spoils of success.

Then I think of the woman who called to say that she had been raped by a producer and pray that if I did somehow misplace her message, she reached out to someone else who did not.