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30 October 2019

The making of #MeToo

The behind-the-scenes story of Harvey Weinstein’s fall.

By Sophie McBain

Before he interviewed the actress Rose McGowan about her rape allegations against the film-maker Harvey Weinstein, the investigative reporter Ronan Farrow phoned his sister, Dylan, for advice. Dylan says that their father, the director Woody Allen, sexually abused her from the age of seven.

“Well, this is the worst part. The considering. The waiting for the story. But once you put your voice out there, it gets a lot easier… It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid,” Dylan told him. “If you get this… don’t let it go, OK?” she said at the end of the call.

That conversation lingered in my mind. In 2017 Farrow chronicled in an explosive New Yorker story Weinstein’s pattern of sexual abuse and his extensive efforts to silence his victims, and it is clear that he felt a burning responsibility to expose the studio head’s sexual predation, no matter the personal cost, in part to atone for not fighting harder for Dylan. Catch and Kill, Farrow’s book about his groundbreaking reporting for the magazine on the power networks that protect predatory men, is punctuated by moving conversations with his sister that reveal his growing sense that he could have done more for her. “I don’t see why you can’t just move on,” Farrow remembers telling Dylan in 2012. “You had that choice,” she replied, “I didn’t.” There are so many ways survivors’ voices can be suppressed.

Farrow’s New Yorker story came out five days after the New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published the first account of Weinstein’s rampant sexual misconduct. The three journalists shared a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting, which marked a cultural tipping point, boosting the fledgling #MeToo movement as dozens of further Weinstein victims and literally millions of other survivors of sexual abuse were emboldened to start sharing their stories.

Public figures who for decades had harassed and assaulted women with impunity were called out: actors, comedians, journalists, politicians, CEOs and celebrity chefs. Few reporters can expect to have such impact. Since then there’s been a forceful backlash against #MeToo. Too many men, among them Donald Trump, have proved able to shake off credible sexual assault allegations. Sexual harassment remains endemic. But the unspoken rules about sex and power are finally subject to fierce public debate and renegotiation. 

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To think the Weinstein story could so easily have remained buried. Over the years other journalists have tried and failed to substantiate Hollywood’s open secret. Most of Weinstein’s victims had been paid off and muzzled by strict non-disclosure agreements. Weinstein was powerful, vindictive and backed by aggressive lawyers. He hired Mossad-linked private investigators who began trailing the reporters and trying to intimidate and slander their sources. Farrow moved out of his home fearing for his safety; multiple sources told him to buy a gun. And then, just as he was closing in on the story, the leadership at NBC, where Farrow worked as an investigative correspondent, ordered him to drop it. Farrow’s subsequent reporting suggests Weinstein was able to pressure senior executives to kill the story because he knew the network was trying to cover up similar assault allegations against one of its star anchors, Matt Lauer (NBC disputes this account). Farrow took his reporting to the New Yorker.

The cabal of spies, shady political operatives, mercenary lawyers and compromised journalists described by Farrow is close-knit and politically flexible. One of Weinstein’s former lawyers is Lanny Davis, a long-term Clinton loyalist and now a lawyer for Trump’s embattled former fixer Michael Cohen. Another, David Boies, known for his work to legalise gay marriage, reportedly signed off on Weinstein’s efforts to spy on New York Times reporters while simultaneously representing the paper (it later fired him). Most nauseatingly Lisa Bloom, a high-profile advocate for sexual harassment victims, also advised Weinstein. In an email obtained by the New York Times, Bloom told Weinstein: “I feel equipped to help you against the Roses [the actress Rose McGowan] of the world, because I have represented so many of them.” She described strategies he could pursue, including a “counter-ops” campaign to smear McGowan as a “pathological liar” and a pre-emptive joint interview in which Weinstein talks about “evolving on women’s issues”.

This is the sleazy, transactional elite that helped foster Trump. The title of Farrow’s book refers to the tabloid practice of buying exclusive rights to a story in order to bury it. He reports that the National Enquirer newspaper buried unflattering stories about the future president, including his affairs with women, and shredded a cache of Trump documents before the 2016 election (the Enquirer denies this). Sexual violence is never about sex, it’s about power – and Farrow found that what began as an investigation into one man’s abuses turned into a far bigger, darker story about America’s hidden power-brokers.

Farrow, whose mother is the actress Mia Farrow, has a freakishly overstuffed CV: he went to university at 11, got into Yale Law School at 16 and served as a diplomat before becoming a broadcast journalist. He’s also an engaging storyteller, wry, self-deprecating and deft at vivid descriptions and character sketches. Catch and Kill reads like a thriller, prime to be adapted for the screen.

She Said, Kantor and Twohey’s blow-by-blow account of breaking the Weinstein story, has similar cinematic potential. It’s a feel-good testament to the power of persistent, meticulous, scrupulous journalism, a story about the revolutionary power of female courage and solidarity. Like Farrow, the reporters are interested in the power structures – including the prevalence of confidential out-of-court settlements in harassment cases – that have enabled serial sex offenders to victimise women with impunity. Lawyers, often operating on a no-win, no-fee basis and taking around a third of payouts in commission, have a keen interest in encouraging their clients to settle (and clients themselves may want to avoid the stress of a court battle), but confidential agreements cover up the problem and leave predators at large.

One of the most interesting sections of She Said is the behind-the-scenes reporting on Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to publicly accuse Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were students. The soft-spoken psychology professor was reluctant to testify before Congress during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process but felt duty-bound to do so. Her quiet dignity on the witness stand contrasted markedly with Kavanaugh’s spluttering indignation and undisguised rage. Kavanaugh was appointed to America’s highest court; Blasey Ford received so many death threats she could not go home.

Kantor and Twohey argue that this was a turning point for #MeToo as public opinion split along political divides. Blasey Ford remains a hero to the left but is upheld by the right as an example of how men could be ruined by false, politically motivated accusations. Her public standing was damaged when Michael Avenatti, the anti-Trump lawyer, said he was representing a client who had witnessed Kavanaugh line up at a gang rape. Avenatti’s accusations seemed so extreme and uncorroborated that it became easy to see all the allegations against Kavanaugh as Democratic hit jobs. One of the slogans of the #MeToo movement is “believe her”, but Kantor and Twohey underline the extensive damage inflicted by false accusations and weak reporting.

“It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid,” Dylan Farrow said of speaking out. That seems true for many survivors, though perhaps not in the way Dylan presumably intended: less a short sharp shock than the sudden exposure of an unhealed wound; the offering up of raw, sore flesh to be picked at and prodded by unfriendly strangers. The final chapter of She Said describes a group interview the reporters conducted with women about what it has been like to go public. It included a number of Weinstein accusers, Blasey Ford and Kim Lawson, the fast-food worker who led the campaign to force McDonald’s to address sexual harassment on the job.

The interview took place at Gwyneth Paltrow’s home. The actress had helped the reporters connect with potential Weinstein victims, and later went on the record with her experiences: Weinstein had harassed her, and once tried to pressure her into a massage, but he had backed off after Paltrow’s then-boyfriend Brad Pitt intervened. Later she found out that Weinstein had told several women that if they submitted to his sexual demands they could have a career like Paltrow’s. “This has by far been the hardest part of this, to feel like a tool in the coercion of rape,” Paltrow said, beginning to cry. Lawson, who earns $10 an hour and had recently been homeless, passed a box of tissues to the star and “wellness” entrepreneur.

It’s not clear what the reporters intended to convey when they described this tableau – should this feel uplifting? Certainly Lawson demonstrated deep empathy and generosity of spirit, but it makes for uncomfortable reading. If gender relations are to be radically altered, wealthy, privileged women – the kinds of women who might be silenced with six-figure payouts – need to find ways to fight on behalf of women who are silenced in more brutal ways. To be successful the #MeToo movement requires a form of solidarity that is more demanding than a Twitter hashtag, it will require still more courage, more sacrifice, more political awareness. #MeToo has come so far; it has so much further to go. 

Sophie McBain writes for New Statesman America

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
Ronan Farrow
Fleet, 464pp, £20

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Bloomsbury Circus, 336pp, £20

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