By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — The New York Times reporters who broke the story about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment of women, which helped to ignite the “#MeToo” movement, spoke Tuesday at the Westport Library’s new topical program, “The Exchange.”
They recounted the challenges they faced investigating Weinstein — a former resident of Westport — and the impact the investigation has had on American culture.
“#MeToo is such a powerful force four years later,” said reporter and author Jodi Kantor, citing the recent sex-trafficking conviction of rapper R. Kelly and downfall of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We’re all living through this enormous social change.”
Kantor and Megan Twohey, co-authors of the book, “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” faced threats during their investigation, were followed by a private detective firm hired by Weinstein, and had their telephone conversations tapped, Twohey said.
Plus, women who had been harassed by Weinstein initially were afraid to talk about their experiences because of fallout to their lives and careers if they spoke publicly about abuse.
To convince the women to speak out, the two reporters first had to collect internal company records of abuse allegations, and secret financial settlements Weinstein used to muzzle his accusers, before his the women would speak. “We came to the women with a mountain of evidence,” Twohey said.
“We told them, ‘We may be able to put your private pain to public use … to hold this bad guy accountable.’ ” The reporters weren’t sure if their article would garner much attention – but it did. “The dam broke,” she said after their investigation was published.
The reporters’ work was recognized with the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Since then, they wrote a book recounting their Weinstein investigation, “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement.”
Twohey, who also investigated sexual harassment allegations against Donald Trump during his first presidential campaign in 2016, said Trump screamed at her when she asked for a statement from him. “He said that all women are liars,” Twohey told the Westport audience. “He said I was a disgusting human being.”
“There’s a misconception about this — that it’s all about sex,” her partner, Kantor, said of people who have misconceptions about the causes of sexual harassment and abuse. “It’s all about power.”
What made the Weinstein case different, the women agreed, was that Weinstein’s accusers were mostly his employees. Submitting to his demands became part of their job, and made them afraid to speak up and lose their position, or their status in the entertainment field where Weinstein wielded a lot of power.
“They were women at the beginning of their careers,” Kantor said of the actresses and assistants Weinstein is accused of abusing. “The form of predation that he used was to use their ambition against them.”
Both reporters praised the women who were willing to tell their stories, and the other men and women who helped them collect evidence and build their investigation. “They were really brave,” Twohey said of the abused women who agreed to speak publicly. “They couldn’t stay quiet any more.”
The reporters said that, because of the #MeToo movement, women now are more likely to go public with accusations, and businesses and agencies make more of an effort to hire and promote women.
However, they noted, there remain three major unresolved issues in the struggle to ensure protection for women against sexual harassment and abuse. Those issues are:
- “What behavior is under scrutiny?” Clearly criminal acts such as rape should be investigated, but what about “uncomfortable dates, or playfulness in the halls of high schools?” Twohey asked.
- The second unresolved issue she listed is, “How do we vet allegations of sexual misbehavior?” Do victims go to the human relations department of their companies to make charges “or to the court of public opinion?”
- And lastly, accountability is still an issue, she said. “What should punishment look like?” she asked. “Rehabilitation?”
The presentation Tuesday was the inaugural event in the Westport Library’s new program, The Exchange, featuring “Conversations of the Issues of Our Time,” which is also a fundraising event for the library, according to William Harmer, the library’s executive director.
“We want to explore areas our community feels passionate about,” he said, “… key issues in front of the community.”