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The first question Ashley Judd fielded Tuesday night during TimesTalks L.A.’s “Uncovering Sexual Harassment” conversation was how she made the decision to go on the record to the New York Times to share her Harvey Weinstein story.
Her answer: “I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Judd shared the spotlight at Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills alongside three journalists from the Times who are credited with inciting the wave of sexual harassment and misconduct stories in Hollywood and beyond, thus resulting in a massive cultural shift in the way women are being heard, how their experiences are being reported and what the ramifications are for powerful predators. Those reporters included Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who broke the Weinstein scandal wide open with a dam-busting investigative piece Oct. 5, and Emily Steel, who co-authored (with Michael Schmidt) the investigations of Bill O’Reilly’s many sexual harassment settlements, which led to his demise at Fox News earlier this year. New York Times Magazine writer Susan Dominus moderated the conversation.
Judd elected to become the first woman to go on the record, she continued, because she was won over by Kantor, her “journalistic integrity” and the institution that is the Times. “I sure am glad I did,” Judd added, a statement that was met with applause in the standing-room only theater. (The L.A. event was broadcast live on TimesTalks and on the Times Facebook page.)
The event kicked off with just two chairs at the front of the theater, seats filled by moderator Dominus and Steel, the latter of whom detailed her reporting process with colleague Schmidt as they investigated Fox News star O’Reilly. It was during a meeting with editor Dean Baquet more than two years ago when their boss remembered the highly publicized 2004 settlement case O’Reilly had made with a producer, Andrea Mackris. Baquet suggested they re-investigate that case to see if they could uncover any additional details or stories that hadn’t been reported. Steel and Schmidt got to work and thus began their ongoing reporting that would last more than a year. Steel told the story of how O’Reilly had threatened her over the phone in 2015.
“Before [Bill O’Reilly] said anything and I asked him any questions, he told me that my reporting so far had been fair, but if I did anything that he found untoward, he would come after me with everything he had,” Steel said. She then addressed the parallels between stories of sexual predators that have followed her coverage of O’Reilly, mentioning how many of the allegations have included masturbating and vibrators, “things we don’t like to talk about.”
She also addressed the face-to-face meeting she had with O’Reilly when she and Schmidt went to a meeting at his lawyer’s office in Manhattan. “As much as I had done digging, I’ve never sat across a table from him,” she said, noting that he rarely looked at her, only looking at her male colleague. “I can’t imagine we are his favorite people,” she continued. “I’m sure he’s very angry.”
She also said that despite the many stories the Times have published about O’Reilly’s settlements — six settlements totaling $45 million — the ousted host has denied all wrongdoing, suggesting that the accusers are part of a politically charged campaign to destroy him. Regardless, O’Reilly exited the network in April, leaving his post as the top-rated cable news host as a result of Steel’s and Schmidt’s dogged reporting.
One interesting insight into her reporting came when Steel said that she employed a reporting tactic she has dubbed “dialing for dollars,” a practice that saw her use film and television database IMDB to track down everyone, male and female, who had ever appeared on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, “to see what they saw and what they knew.”
“We felt we needed people on the record,” she continued, mentioning how the women who had accepted settlements were barred from speaking out. “It would help to have a voice.” They were able to get people to go on the record, and in the months that have followed dozens of women — and men — have followed their lead. That’s the change Steel has noticed most in the wake of their coverage, she said.
“It really changes when people talk,” said Steel, who had the audience laughing when she detailed how she followed a potential source to what turned out to be a rigorous Pilates class in Los Angeles. “You can’t change anything unless you’re talking about it.”
Tuesday’s TimesTalk came just hours after another explosive report in the Times from Twohey, Kantor and Dominus that detailed the culture of complicity in Hollywood that enabled Weinstein to get away with so many instances of sexual misconduct over the course of decades. After Steel’s 20-minute chat, it was then Twohey’s, Kantor’s and Judd’s turn. Dominus asked Kantor about the latest piece right off the bat.
“The bigger the [Weinstein] story got, the more responsibility we felt to dig deeper,” Kantor said. “We were able to see that he built a complicity machine that enabled him. When you look at the degree of hurt…it was a collective failure.” She and her colleagues wanted to crack those systems — from politics and Hollywood to the Walt Disney Co. to talent agencies — that allowed Weinstein to exploit people, she said. “Essentially we felt there were a deeper set of questions to answer,” she continued.
Twohey then said that Weinstein didn’t just target female victims, he went after institutions and the media in order to cover his tracks. “He pulled people into his patterns of behavior knowingly or unknowingly,” she said. “Harvey was able to trade on juicy gossip. He was paying someone to feed him gossip to shield them from covering him.… It’s remarkable. He was very calculated and very smart.”
Dominus then asked Kantor if she was ever afraid that she would be personally targeted by Weinstein or that anyone would attempt to dig up dirt on her during the course of her investigation. She said no, she was more worried about her sources. Jokingly, she said she lives a “boring mom life” in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood so there wouldn’t be much to dig up, other than, perhaps, her baby’s dirty diapers.
She had another major concern, however. “My greatest worry was our fear of failure,” she relayed. She elaborated by saying that she was scared that Weinstein’s bullying tactics might work on their sources and they wouldn’t be able to move forward with the story. “We felt…the greatest sense of journalist and moral responsibility” to tell this story, and “the prospect that we could’ve failed and that we knew this material and could be holding this terrible secret and not be able to share it was the scariest part of the process.”
As for Judd, she enjoyed a very peaceful retreat around the time of the publication of Kantor’s and Twohey’s first explosive story, printed Oct. 5. She spent five days in the Great Smoky Mountains. The respite stood in stark contrast to the bullying tactics she faced with Weinstein, she noted. “When I know I’m being attacked, I immediately remind myself that that is a common strategy. It’s DARVO…[the perpetrator] denies, attacks, and then reverses the victim and offender,” she said.
Judd then detailed that earlier in the day, she’d spent two and a half hours at her agency where she engaged in a lengthy conversation with peers and agents about the subject of sexual harassment. [Though she didn’t name the agency, Judd is repped by WME.]
“The conversations I’ve been having with my fellow actors have been incredibly rewarding,” she said. “They are absolutely blowing this out of the water…. I left [the meeting] humbled because I didn’t have much to contribute.” Systemic solutions are coming, she added.
Kantor talked about Judd’s peers, noting the significance of having the event in this particular city, one known for the casting couch phenomenon and a place where it’s commonly believed that to be an actress means to “put your body on the line.” “I hope that one of the understandings from this cultural moment is that nobody should be subject to sexual pressure,” Kantor concluded.
Twohey, who recognized the presence of Lauren O’Connor in the room, one of Weinstein’s former staffers who went on the record for them, said that she and Kantor have been working “around the clock for months and months,” on various Weinstein stories. “We feel a strong sense of moral gravity and responsibility,” to continue the reporting, she added, despite the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. The two have been in near constant communication, often talking on the phone until midnight and texting each other at 5 a.m. while tending to their respective babies first thing in the morning.
The hard work has been worth it, Kantor said.
“We can see things now that we were never able to see before,” she said. “Now you can really see the patterns.”
The view isn’t always positive, she continued, because they’ve noticed the vast number of women who had their careers cut short or diminished because of harassment, assault and even rape. “There’s a sense of mourning and loss,” she said. “Even for all that pain, there’s power in seeing that pattern.”
“The first step to change is knowing what happens out there. Power of moment is seeing what’s happened,” she added.
The event ended with a brief Q&A portion during which audience members and Facebook live viewers could ask questions. One of the final questions of the night came from social media with a viewer asking for sexual harassment reporting on other industries.
“Stay tuned,” Kantor teased. “[There’s] a lot more journalistic work to be done.”
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