Editor's column: When Susan Braudy, a well-known journalist and author who was employed by Michael Douglas, came forward to allege that he harassed her and masturbated in her presence, the star chose to go public with the claims before they were made, highlighting the media's responsibility and challenge in the post-Weinstein era.
In December, I was connected to a woman who was ready to share her story. The approach was familiar, something that has happened dozens of times to editors and reporters at The Hollywood Reporter and other media outlets since Oct. 5, the day Harvey Weinstein's first accusers came forward and launched the #MeToo movement that is sweeping the worlds of entertainment, media, politics, fashion and more.
The woman, a well-known journalist and author named Susan Braudy, had been telling this story to her closest friends for decades. In the late '80s, when Braudy was in her 40s, she was hired to run the New York office of Stonebridge Productions, the production company launched by actor and producer Michael Douglas, then one of the biggest and most powerful stars in Hollywood. She claimed she was subjected to sexual harassment by Douglas that included near-constant profane and sexually charged dialogue, demeaning comments about her appearance, graphic discussions regarding his mistresses and more. The most traumatizing experience, she said, took place during a one-on-one script meeting in his apartment, during which Douglas masturbated in her presence, prompting her to run home crying.
Thus began the vetting process. Many have dubbed the #MeToo movement and the sudden willingness of women to tell their stories of abuse as a "reckoning" for Hollywood, but it has sparked an equally large shift in the way the media covers these stories as well. For decades, most publications wouldn't touch accounts of alleged workplace harassment and abuse, either because the alleged victims wouldn't go on the record or, if they did, they weren't taken seriously, or the accused perpetrator could strong-arm an outlet with an effective publicist or lawyer. The Weinstein story changed all that.
Now, the accounts are being taken much more seriously, and story after story has become public. Media outlets each have their own standards of what rises to the level of fit for publication. I can only speak for THR (though I've discussed this issue with editors at other outlets), but what I look for in evaluating claims is whether there has been an alleged abuse of power, whether there are witnesses to the alleged behavior or people who were told about it in the aftermath and will say so, and whether there is any other corroborating evidence. Our lawyers also are consulted on each story. Many accounts don't survive the vetting process. Some do, such as past articles revealing claims against Dustin Hoffman, Russell Simmons, Roy Price, Robert Knepper and others.
In Susan Braudy's case, she provided a detailed written account of her experience with Douglas based on notes and files she kept, a timeline of her employment (including pay stubs), and three people she told of her experience who were willing to back her publicly, including two well-known authors. She also has a 1993 letter from the California Women's Law Center showing she inquired about remedies for sexual harassment in the workplace (read it here), though she says she was too intimidated to follow through with a complaint.
Braudy's job, which she performed first in a small office suite but then mostly out of the living room in Douglas' Manhattan home, was to "read scripts, hire and supervise screenwriters, and perhaps most important, to babysit Michael in his apartment," she writes in her account. The entertainment industry is filled with such unconventional workplaces, many of which blur the lines between public and private lives. Movie sets often are considered akin to summer camp. And everyone from personal assistants to makeup artists to, yes, development executives often find themselves in the inner sanctums of those with enormous power and influence.
While Douglas, whose star in the late '80s was rising thanks to the hits Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, was not often in New York, when he was, Braudy writes, she "did my best to shrug off the cloud of sexual aggression that Michael reflexively emitted." She says he openly discussed affairs with co-star Kathleen Turner and a European heiress. "I knew something was off but had no name for it," she writes. "I'd never heard there was a phenomenon called sexual harassment and didn't know the term until the Anita Hill hearings in 1991."
There were incidents with Douglas she says she found especially alarming. In a one-on-one meeting on her first day, he used a crude term for female genitalia. Later, "one screenwriter I hired asked if he could bring his daughter to meet Michael," she writes. "She asked Michael for a banana. Michael strode to me and said so that only I could hear, 'Yes. And then you can tell your friends you licked Michael Douglas' banana.' I was appalled."
To stop his commenting about her body, "I began wearing long, loose layers of black," she writes. "He asked a producer, 'Why does Susan dress like a pregnant nun?' Another time I laughed loudly and he shouted to a group of agents, 'Oh yeah, she's a screamer! I bet she screams in the sack.' I protested, 'Please, don't talk like that. It's inappropriate.' This made him laugh until he got pink splotches on his cheeks."
At script meetings in his apartment, "Michael was usually barefoot, his blue oxford shirt unbuttoned to his navel," she writes. "I sat across the room on the yellow silk couch taking notes." Then one afternoon in early 1989, as they brainstormed an idea about an E.T.-like character, she recalls him sliding down the back of his chair and onto the floor. "Michael unzipped his chinos and I registered something amiss. Still complimenting my additions to our E.T. imitation, his voice lowered at least half an octave. I peered at him and saw he'd inserted both hands into his unzipped pants. I realized to my horror that he was rubbing his private parts. Within seconds his voice cracked and it appeared to me he'd had an orgasm."
Braudy writes that she closed her notebook and rushed for the door: "I said nothing. I was surprised I wasn't falling to pieces even though I was humiliated. I realized he thought he could do anything he wanted because he was so much more powerful than I was. Michael ran barefoot after me to the elevator, zipping his fly and buckling his belt. 'Hey, thank you, you're good. You helped me, thank you, thank you.'"
Braudy says she jogged 13 blocks home, locked her front door, got into bed and crawled under her quilt: "I vowed I'd never be alone with him again."
Some women who want to come forward with stories of harassment must contend with the challenge that they never told anyone of their experience until years later. But Braudy says she did tell people, including best-selling author (and Hollywood Reporter columnist) Michael Wolff, the author and former Newsweek journalist Lynn Povich, and Joseph Weintraub, a film editor who currently lives with Braudy.
"I was told in the immediate aftermath — that day or the next," says Wolff in an email. "We have discussed the incident many, many times since, as well as Douglas' relentless, goading, mocking and belittling sexual behavior." Wolff describes Braudy's state of mind in the aftermath of the alleged incident as "shaken, bewildered, frightened, angry."
Braudy also reached out to Povich to ask if she remembered being told about the incident. "Yes, they can use my name because it's true you told me at the time," Povich wrote back in an email. "Keep me posted."
After the alleged incident, Braudy writes, her working relationship with Douglas soured. "When he sweetly asked me to sign a confidentiality agreement, I knew Michael was preparing to fire me," she writes. "'Don't sign,' my lawyer Leon Friedman said. 'Keep saying your lawyer is out of town.' So Michael waited six months for my lawyer 'to return.'" She was let go in late 1989. Unlike most employees in a position like hers, she says she never did sign a confidentiality agreement.
Another part of the process of reporting a story about alleged harassment is reaching out to the subject of the story for comment. Douglas, via his lawyer, first asked to speak off the record with the editor. So THR's deputy editorial director Alison Brower and I arranged a call with Douglas and his team. The conversation was off the record, but he provided a written statement in which he called the story "an unfortunate and complete fabrication." His statement also addressed Braudy personally: "This individual is an industry veteran, a senior executive, a published novelist and an established member of the women's movement — someone with a strong voice now, as well as when she worked at my company more than three decades ago. At no time then did she express or display even the slightest feeling of discomfort working in our environment, or with me personally. That is because at no time, and under no circumstance, did I behave inappropriately toward her."
He acknowledged inappropriate discussions but refuted her claim of a hostile workplace. "Coarse language or overheard private conversations with my friends that may have troubled her are a far cry from harassment," he said. "Suggesting so does a true disservice to those who have actually endured sexual harassment and intimidation."
A terse statement of denial is how many of the accused have responded to allegations of misconduct. But Douglas wasn't finished. Last week he gave a phone interview in which he preemptively denied Braudy's claims before they were even made public and attacked her without mentioning her name. "Maybe she is disgruntled her career didn't go the way she hoped and she is holding this grudge," he said. Public relations experts call this getting in front of the story.
At THR, Douglas' strategy didn't alter our vetting process. We determined that both Braudy's story and his denial deserved to be published. As the floodgates have opened and new accusers come forward nearly every day, some have said the #MeToo movement has gone too far and that the media is either complicit in a burgeoning witch hunt or, worse, exploiting the situation for notoriety or web traffic or whatever. While there are stories that have crossed a line, I don't think the solution is to listen to women less or dismiss their stories more. Responsible media outlets, it seems, should be listening to these stories, vetting them thoroughly and presenting those that pass muster in the proper context. That's our standard, at least.
As more women come forward, we are looking forward to the next stage of this movement: We're reporting aggressively on gender-based pay inequity, the opportunities being offered women (particularly women of color), and we're seeking hard data to hopefully provide the bedrock for real change for women in the entertainment workplace and beyond. We're excited about getting to the next stage, where evolution truly occurs.
For Braudy, she says she isn't surprised Douglas came out swinging against her. "I believe this is part of the problem, as is his pretext of victimization," she told me in one of our phone conversations. "These are some reasons why so many women don't come forward with their stories — Lord knows it's taken 30 years and a movement for me to gather my courage."
Matthew Belloni is editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter.