Jodi Kantor and Emily Steel, two investigative reporters from The New York Times who broke the allegations of sexual harassment against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, sat down for a discussion at the Rotman School of Management on Wednesday, February 21.
The sold-out event, titled “Journalism and the #MeToo Moment,” also featured the Times’ new gender editor, Jessica Bennett. Bennett is the first individual to hold this position, the goal of which is to improve coverage of women’s and gender issues across platforms.
The event was co-hosted by the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Institute for Gender and the Economy at Rotman, as well as the Times. Jamison Steve, the Prosperity Institute’s Executive Director, opened the event by acknowledging the value of Rotman’s relationship with the Times; this is the third event that the outlet has hosted at U of T.
Panelists discussed the cultural impact of #MeToo and the explosion of stories regarding sexual harassment and misconduct that have emerged since Kantor and her colleague, Megan Twohey, broke the story on October 5, 2017 of Weinstein’s mistreatment of women over the course of three decades.
Ian Austen, who has reported on Canada for the Times for over a decade, thanked the paper’s subscribers for their support of quality journalism and briefly introduced the discussion’s moderator, Catherine Porter. Porter, a former columnist for the Toronto Star, has served as the Times’ Canada bureau chief since February 2017.
In her introduction of Kantor, Porter noted that Kantor’s reporting has not only focused on Weinstein as an individual actor, but also the “complicity machine” that enabled him to continue his behavior, even as it was something of an open secret in Hollywood. For their investigation, Kantor and Twohey spoke to more than 200 people over the course of four months.
In addition to her reporting on O’Reilly alongside fellow Times reporter Michael Schmidt, Steel has written about the culture of harassment and inappropriate conduct at VICE News. Porter pointed out that Steel’s reporting has demonstrated how legacy media outlets are not the only ones with issues of sexual misconduct, but that newer and millennial-oriented ones have problems as well.
Bennett began her tenure as gender editor on October 30, just weeks after the Weinstein story had broken. She said that it was “overwhelming” to see the widespread response to the story. “We’ve been staggered by the global reaction to this reporting,” added Kantor.
One audience member asked about the factors that had led to this public reckoning. “People always want to look for one moment,” said Steel, “but it really is a chorus of voices growing louder and louder over the years.”
The difficulties that journalists face while reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct were a recurring theme of the conversation. Kantor and Twohey were writing under legal threat from Weinstein, and they were pushed by their editors to obtain as much documentation as possible to corroborate the women’s stories.
They were also trying to speak directly to high-profile actresses without involving agents or managers. “How do you get Gwyneth Paltrow’s phone number?” asked Kantor, to laughter from the crowd.
Other stories, like Bennett’s reporting on allegations by nine women against the playwright Israel Horovitz, did not have the same type of paper trail available, and they relied more heavily on corroboration of each woman’s story.
All of the panelists were vocal about how many of the high-profile figures accused of sexual harassment, such as Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, and Charlie Rose, were “narrators and authors” of the culture, who often exerted significant influence through the media.
“These were people who were, in part, responsible for how we thought about ourselves,” said Kantor.
Kantor noted that there are often institutional obstacles to preventing sexual misconduct, which she termed the “systems and machinery of harassment.” Human resources departments may not be properly equipped to deal with allegations, or workplace sexual harassment training may be treated as a joke.
Still, Bennett seemed hopeful. “I do think there’s a lack of tolerance among young people for a lot of behaviour that has been normalized,” she said. “Young people are not going to put up with what our mothers’ generation did.”