She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Harvey Weinstein, one of the most renowned and influential Hollywood producers and co-founder of Miramax, was exposed by two New York Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, to be a serial sexual abuser. He used his position of power to sexually harass and exploit young women in Hollywood for years.
After receiving an email from actress Rose McGowan recounting a sexual assault at the hands of Weinstein, the journalists began investigating the story, uncovering a pattern of ongoing sexual abuse and cover-ups that went back to the 1990s. Kantor and Twohey corroborated the story with evidence and personal accounts from Weinstein’s business partners, former employees, and other Hollywood actresses. The article was published in October 2017, despite Weinstein’s attempts to smear his accusers and kill the story.
The breaking of the Weinstein story launched the nationwide #MeToo movement. Many more women came forward to speak out about their experience with sexual abuse and hold their abusers accountable.
Perhaps the most high-profile case to come out of the #MeToo movement was the Brett Kavanaugh case. Kavanaugh was President Trump’s pick for Supreme Court nominee when Christine Blasey Ford alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh in 1982. She testified to her experience at Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings, but despite her testimony, Kavanaugh was still appointed to the Supreme Court.
The Email That Started Everything
In May 2017, actress Rose McGowan sent an email to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor. McGowan was known for calling out sexism in show business, and she had recently recounted a story on her Twitter about having been raped by a big-name producer, although she did not specify who.
Off the record, McGowan told Kantor the whole story. She recounted the details of meeting Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. He invited her back to his hotel under the pretense of a business meeting, but when she arrived later that night, he instead trapped her and forced himself on her. Afterward, he propositioned her for a “special arrangement.” McGowan, disgusted, refused the offer and hired a lawyer. He was able to win a $100,000 settlement from Weinstein, but only on the condition that the entire incident be kept private.
After speaking to her editor, Rebecca Corbett, to decide how to proceed with the story, Kantor and Corbett decided to bring in another Times investigative reporter, Megan Twohey, to help dig into the story. Weinstein was both an influential media mogul and very politically connected. He actively fundraised for the Democratic party, including for important candidates like Hillary Clinton. Because of Weinstein’s power and influence, any accusations against him would have to be extensively corroborated before any story could be published.
The Problem of Corroboration
Kantor and Twohey began a further investigation into McGowan’s story, but corroborating the accusations proved exceptionally difficult due to the subject matter. They tried getting in touch with other women who had similar unsavory encounters with Weinstein, but many other actresses and former employees of Weinstein were reluctant to come forward. Some refused out of concern for their reputation, while others outright dismissed the allegations as a non-story.
Eventually, Kantor made contact with the actresses Marisa Tomei and Daryl Hannah, who were willing to come forward and speak about the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, despite the fear of possible repercussions in the industry. Finally, Kantor contacted Ashley Judd, who recounted having a similar experience with Weinstein when she was a young actress. She was also invited to a private meeting in his hotel room, but when she arrived, Weinstein, dressed in only a robe, made increasingly aggressive and inappropriate demands before Judd was eventually able to slip out of the room. It seemed Weinstein had a habit of tricking young actresses into meetings, before making unwanted sexual advances and implying that he would ruin their careers if they did not give in to his sexual demands.
They were sure there were more victims of Weinstein’s abuse, so, with Judd’s help, Kantor and Twohey reached out to more actresses. Eventually, they got in touch with Salma Hayek, Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, and Gwyneth Paltrow, all of whom recounted a similar pattern of unwanted sexual behavior from Weinstein. By August of 2017, Kantor and Twohey had dozens of corroborating stories, but the problem was that none of the actresses were willing to go on record with their accounts.
The Problem of Confidentiality Agreements
With no one willing to go on record, the journalists needed to find evidence to back up their story in some other way. Twohey searched California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing for records of complaints by Miramax employees, and while a public report hinted at some complaints, there were no paper records and thus, no hard evidence.
Twohey and her colleagues began to suspect that the reason there were no documented employee complaints about Weinstein was due to the fact that they had signed confidentiality agreements. Because sexual harassment is not a criminal offense, complaints can be, and often are, settled out of court. The victims receive a payout, but in exchange, companies can tack on conditions, such as demanding they agree to never speak of the accusation and turn over all the evidence they have in their possession. Confidentiality agreements were essentially a way for Weinstein to pay off his victims in exchange for silence.
There were plenty of suspicious records of young women who were employed by Weinstein before they abruptly left the company with no explanation, but none of them were willing to talk to journalists. That is until they contacted a former Weinstein employee named Zelda Perkins. She confirmed that she and another colleague, Rowena Chiu, had received inappropriate advances from Weinstein. They had hired lawyers and attempted to fight back, but they were unable to beat Weinstein’s powerful legal team, and they were eventually bullied into taking the settlement and signing confidentiality agreements. Even so, Perskins was willing to come forward on the record, despite the potential ramifications of breaking her confidentiality agreement.
Kantor also got lucky when she finally made contact with a woman named Laura Madden, who had a similar experience with Weinstein while working for him as a production assistant in 1992. Madden was free to talk on the record, as she had never signed a confidentiality agreement.
Weinstein Goes On The Defense
The Times was prepared for Weinstein to defend his reputation and attempt to discredit the story. Dean Baquet, the Times executive editor, advised that neither Kantor nor Twohey should speak with Weinstein off the record. However, when Weinstein’s associate, Lanny Davis, reached out to speak to the journalists on background, they, along with their editor Corbett, agreed to meet with him. In the meeting, Davis helped to corroborate McGowan’s story, admitting that Weinstein had arranged a settlement with the actress. He also told them that Weinstein was aware of the ongoing investigation.
Davis thought Weinstein had no plans to meddle with the investigation, but that was untrue. By July 2017, Weinstein had hired a lawyer named David Boies to help kill the story. Boies and Weinstein then hired Black Cube, a private intelligence firm, to stop the investigation. Black Cube agents, having already manipulated McGowan into leaking her unpublished memoir, began their work surveilling Kantor and Twohey. Weinstein promised to pay Black Cube an additional $300,000 if they successfully killed the Times article.
Weinstein also launched a smear campaign against his accusers, while working to improvise his own public image, especially focusing on touting his credentials as an enlightened feminist.
In addition to hiring private intelligence, Weinstein also enlisted the help of a lawyer named Lisa Bloom. She was deeply involved in all aspects of Weinstein’s defense, including helping discredit witnesses, kill the investigation, and reworking Weinstein’s public image.
Twohey and Kantor now had corroborating accounts from Weinstein’s victims, but they needed evidence from Weinstein’s business partners before they could publish their story. Irwin Reiter, who had been the Weinstein Company’s accountant since 1989, came forward and was willing to work with them, even telling them there were far more recent incidents regarding Weinstein than the ones they were currently investigating. In addition to a personal dislike of Weinstein, Reiter hated the fact that his actions were harmful to the company. He also suspected Weinstein was misusing company funds for his sexual escapades.
Kantor and Twohey found another unlikely but powerful ally in Weinstein’s estranged brother and business partner, Bob Weinstein. Bob Weinstein was fed up with his brother’s behavior, most particularly with how it negatively impacted the company. In the past, he had tried to rein his brother in with contracts, penalties, professional treatment, and personal pleas to change, but none of it had worked. Wanting to protect the company, Bob Weinstein was willing to talk.
With the information from Bob Weinstein and Reiter, Twohey and Kantor were able to publish their first piece on Weinstein in September 2017. The article detailed how Weinstein committed possible fraud by funneling $600,000 from an AIDS fundraiser back to his own investors.
The First Draft
After the first Weinstein article was published, Reiter turned over a memo from a former junior executive named Lauren O’Connor, dated November 3, 2015, that detailed Weinstein’s pattern of sexual abuse and history of cover-ups. This memo proved to be the final piece Twohey and Kantor needed to begin writing their explosive piece on Weinstein’s history of serial sexual harassment. Altogether, they had ten accounts of sexual misconduct dating back to 1990, the O’Connor memo, and an on the record interview with Laura Madden.
When they contacted their other sources, most of them still refused to speak on the record. But Ashley Judd, after taking some time to think it over, agreed to go on the record with her account of meeting Weinstein in the hotel room. Her story became the article’s lede.
After the draft was completed on October 2, Kantor and Twohey reached out to Weinstein for comment. They revealed the details of the story and gave him 48 hours to respond, either confirming or denying the details. The conversation was heated, with Weinstein bringing his legal team on the call, along with Charles Harder, a lawyer who specialized in bringing libel suits to media outlets. Weinstein also threatened to speak to other, friendlier media outlets and let them break the story in a way that would be much more favorable to him.
The Rise of #MeToo
The Weinstein team intentionally delayed the process. The article was scheduled to be published at 1 pm on October 4th, but Weinstein did not send an official response to the Times until 1:43 pm. The response came from Harder and was 18 pages long. He denied all the allegations, personally attacked Weinstein’s accusers and threatened legal action against the Times, claiming that running the story would violate journalist standards and Weinstein would sue the paper for millions of dollars.
After the Times legal team reviewed the response and determined they were safe from legal liability, they decided to publish the article at 1 pm the following day, with or without an official statement from Weinstein. The next day, Weinstein’s team still tried to stall. However, when Baquet, the executive editor, intervened, Weinstein’s team finally sent a rambling, incoherent statement. In it, they announced Weinstein would be taking a leave of absence from the Weinstein Company.
At 2:05 pm, the article was published under the headline “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.” After it went live, dozens of more women contacted Kantor and Twohey, including big-name actresses like Angelina Jolie and Rosanna Arquette. They wanted to share stories about their own encounters with Weinstein and were willing to go on the record.
Meanwhile, the Weinstein Company, working with Bloom, attempted to do damage control. But board members, knowing it was over, resigned. Weinstein was eventually charged with two counts of criminal abuse.
The Weinstein story was a catalyst for a national movement. Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist, coined the term #MeToo, as a way for women to share their own experiences of sexual abuse. After Weinstein fell, other powerful men, including comedian Louis C.K. and Senator Al Franken, were also called out and identified as sexual abusers. #MeToo became a national movement. However, some criticized the movement, saying that media outlets were too quick to publish stories without verifying the sources, it was too focused only on high-profile cases, and that there was no clear consensus on the definition of sexual assault.
The Kavanaugh Case
The controversy around the #MeToo movement came to a head in early August 2018. Rumors were circulating that President Donald Trump would be choosing Brett Kavanaugh, a high-ranking judge, as his pick for the Supreme Court. A psychology professor named Christine Blasey Ford alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh and a friend at a party in 1982. After news of Trump’s pick went public, Ford’s lawyer, Debra Katz, reached out to Kantor with Ford’s story.
Ford was reluctant to go public with her story, but she felt a sense of duty to come forward when she learned of Kavanaugh’s appointment. First she contacted her congressional representative with her story, before detailing her account in a letter sent to the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein. Hearings to investigate the matter was scheduled for September 4th. But with the hearings looming, Ford got cold feet and withdrew her testimony.
However, rumors about the allegations were already swirling, and in mid-September, Ford’s identity was leaked to the Washington Post. Supreme Court nominations are already contentious, and Kavanaugh’s nomination was extra heated, with supporters of the #MeToo movement on one side, and Republicans who were determined to appoint Kavanaugh on the other.
Hearings were scheduled for September 27th. Despite facing death threats and public mocking from Kavanaugh’s supporters, including President Trump, Ford decided to fly to DC to testify.
Ford began the proceedings by reading a statement outlining her experience. Then she was subjected to hours of questioning, which she answered calmly, despite the deeply personal and traumatizing nature of the questions.
In contrast, Kavanaugh came off as furious and indignant, portraying himself as the victim of a smear campaign. After the hearings, Kavanaugh’s nomination went through, and he was appointed to the Supreme Court. Although Ford’s testimony did not block his nomination, many members of the #MeToo movement still saw her testimony as a success, saying the fact that she was able to tell her story was proof of forwarding progress.
In the year after the initial Weinstein story broke, the #MeToo movement continued. Women continued to speak out about their experiences and call out abusers, from famous and successful men to ordinary perpetrators. Kantor and Twohey continued to publish stories reporting on sexual harassment and abuse.
All the women who came forward had their lives changed. Ashley Judd joined the board of Times Up, a new organization that worked to institute protections in the workplace, and took a job at Harvard. Rachel Crooks, a woman who had come forward and accused President Trump of forcibly kissing her, ran for a state legislature seat. These women had also faced public scrutiny, embarrassment, stress, and pain when they came forward with their accounts, but many also reported feeling relief and a sense of power that came with not being afraid to speak up and hold their abusers accountable.
The Main Take-away
New York Times journalists Kantor and Twohey broke the story of influential Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior, abuse, and cover-ups that dated back to the 1990s. After months of investigation, Kantor and Twohey published the story and exposed his predatory behavior. Following publication, Weinstein was criminally charged, and the story led to even more powerful men being held accountable for their sexual misbehavior. The story mobilized women around the world to share their own stories about sexual abuse and launched the start of the #MeToo movement.
About the Authors
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are New York Times investigative journalists and the co-authors of She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. New York Public Library, NPR, and The New York Times ranked the book as one of 2019’s best books of the year.
Kantor and Twohey won the George Polk Award, a Sydney Award, and the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage from the Grady College of Journalism. They were named on Time’s list of 100 most influential people of the year in 2017. The New York Times won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for Kantor's and Twohey's reporting on the Weinstein story.
Twohey is married to literary agent Jim Rutman and lives in Brooklyn with her daughter. Kantor lives with her husband, Ron Lieber, in Brooklyn.