Women have faced sexual harassment and abuse in their places of work for decades, if not centuries. But it is only in recent years that popular and media attention has focused on it in a sustained fashion and has forced tangible consequences for abusers. As part of our 2021 virtual Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History virtual conference, Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Women in American Journalism, the Center for Women’s History recently hosted a keynote conversation addressing these developments, She Said, and the World Listened: Breaking News in the #MeToo Era. The conversation featured Megan Twohey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with the New York Times and co-author of the book SHE SAID: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. The book takes readers behind the scenes of Twohey’s and Jodi Kantor’s 2017 investigation of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, which helped trigger the global reckoning on sexual misconduct. She discussed how to report on these topics with sensitivity and fairness with New York magazine senior correspondent Irin Carmon, whose reporting in the Washington Post on allegations against television host Charlie Rose ended his career.
The conversation began with Twohey and Carmon discussing why the allegations against Harvey Weinstein “broke the dam” and captured so much attention, when similar reports in earlier years had failed to gain traction. They credited several factors coming together at once—something historians refer to as contingency. On one hand, the story broke at a particular moment in 2017 when many women were angry that accusations of sexual harassment and abuse had not seemed to affect the 2016 presidential election. On the other hand, the firing of Bill O’Reilly after the Times revealed that Fox News had previously paid millions of dollars to settle claims of abuse signaled that a cultural shift was underfoot, and galvanized women to come forward. Twohey and Carmon also noted that many of Weinstein’s accusers were well-known celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, whose word was perceived as more credible because they couldn’t be denigrated as fame seekers. Twohey believes this resonated with the wider public, as many people realized that if these abuses could happen to someone famous, it could happen to anyone. She stressed the bravery of the first women who agreed to go on record with their stories. After the first story was published, dozens more women were willing to share their stories, and the “mountain of evidence” against Weinstein became too massive to be ignored or explained away. The Weinstein story also created momentum for other reporters and news organizations to publish accusations of abuse and harassment. Carmon revealed that she had been tracing allegations against Charlie Rose since 2010, but it was only after the Times covered Weinstein that people were willing to come forward. The #MeToo movement, which had existed for years, took off like “wildfire.”
Twohey and Carmon also discussed how in the wake of the Weinstein case, reporters and news organizations refined and institutionalized changes to their reporting mechanisms in order to sensitively and carefully report on allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Reporters and editors across various outlets turned to one another to share tips and strategies, including how to find documents about legal settlements, to corroborate sources, and to approach sources both on and off the record. There is now an “established playbook” for these cases, and media institutions take them seriously as matters worth investigating rather than personal matters that should be left private. They also discussed the difficulty of approaching potential sources, who may be terrified of the legal or professional ramifications of publically revealing their abuse or re-traumatized by relaying what may be the most painful experiences of their lives. At the same time, reporters must maintain professional boundaries with their sources, making it clear that they are “not your friend, therapist, or advocate.” Rigorous reporting standards, and asking potentially painful questions, are necessary so that journalists can protect their sources after publication.
Finally, Twohey and Carmon reflected on how reporting these cases has affected them personally. They are both mothers of young children, and while reporting on these abuses can be extremely difficult emotionally as well as logistically, it also helps motivate and inspire them to continue uncovering these abuses. Twohey recalled telling her then-infant daughter, “I am working on this story with the hopes that it is going to make the world a safer place for you, [and for] girls in your generation.”
Stay tuned for more events for this year’s Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History, Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Women in American Journalism! In conjunction with the exhibition Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO—opening in the Joyce B. Cowin Gallery of Women’s History in May 2021—the wide-ranging conversations and panel will take place as a series of programs throughout the run of the exhibition. Our virtual 2021 conference features a mix of pre-recorded “keynote conversations” and live panels held via Zoom. Through a series of keynote conversation and panels, we scrutinize the production, polarization, and power of news, the Center for Women’s History explores the complex history of women in journalism. Beginning in the early 19th century and continuing to the present day, women have made vital contributions to American journalism. Many extraordinary practitioners—including activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, investigator Nellie Bly, photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson, Washington insider Alice Dunnigan, and publishers such as Mary Ann Shadd Carey, Charlotta Bass, and Katharine Graham—made their marks on the profession while fighting against persistent, systemic sexism and racism.