Times Talk: Exposing Male Abuse of Power

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Exposing Male Abuse of Power Times Talk, hosted by the New York Times here in NYC. The all female panel, three New York Times investigative reporters that broke some of the biggest news stories this year, discussed the abuse of power by individuals and systems.

Megan Twohey helped uncover Donald J. Trump’s harassment allegations during the presidential campaign, and broke October’s Harvey Weinstein story, which exposed decades of abuse allegations against him.

Emily Steel is an investigative reporter focusing on the television industry, who broke stories on Bill O’Reilly’s harassment allegations and their settlements by Fox News.

Katie Benner reports on technology, venture-capital and start-ups. Katie exposed harassment allegations against venture capitalist firms in Silicon Valley.

The three reporters delivered a rich discussion as it pertained to their published stories, their experiences confronting predatory men in power, and the difficulty of incentivizing victims to come forward. Here are a few take-aways from the conversation:

Intimidation as Power: Tactics of the Rich and Famous

It’s only in recent weeks that we’ve begun to understand the extent of Harvey Weinstein’s truly gargantuan effort to keep his predatory behavior a secret. On November 6th, The New Yorker ran a story alleging that Weinstein used a slew of investigation firms, corporate intelligence agencies and former Mossad agents to trail accusers and reporters alike, in an effort to keep allegations under wraps.  His effective intimidation campaign to silence accusers and journalists is largely why he’s been able to propagate his abuse unscathed, despite it being one of Hollywood’s biggest “open secrets”.

Megan spoke extensively of the hesitation she encountered while trying to motivate his victims to speak to her. Their fears of the consequences of coming forward were difficult to allay – the extensive costs of lawsuits, reputational damage and the legitimate prospect of never finding work in their industry again. One of the women who was forced into a settlement with Weinstein was offered a pointed threat by his lawyers: “if you go public we will drag you through the mud by your hair”.

Rumors abounded for decades while settlements with victims continued to multiply. Journalists have throughout the years pieced together bits of a greater picture, only to abandon threads of evidence when confronted by Weinstein’s power-house legal team. This ultimately amounted to one of the largest hurdles for Megan in reaching out to sources. His victims had spoken to so many journalists over the years, put faith in their commitment and laid bare the most intimate details of their trauma, only to have news outlets pull the story from under them once the weight of legal pressure became too much.

Megan’s experience with intimidation doesn’t start with Weinstein, however, but with Trump.  In May of last year, she reported on a series of allegation concerning Trump that are now all too familiar, such as instances of groping women on planes and forcing unwanted kisses backstage. She was 8 months pregnant when Trump shouted and called her a “disgusting human being” after she offered him a chance to comment on her story. Unsurprisingly, he dismissed the women that had come forward as liars and threatened to sue them all.

For Megan, the abuse was two-fold. Not only was she under constant attack from Trump and his legal and PR teams, but from his supporters as well. The account of the hate mail she received is harrowing.  Emails, calls and letters arrived with detailed descriptions of how she should be raped, tortured or killed, along with similar threats to her family and colleagues.  “I truly felt battered by this point in time”, she admitted, as a palpable sense of collective rage shrouded the audience.

Each Revelation Builds on the Next

A lot has changed since the election. Progressive issues have taken a central position in our discourse since Trump was elected president. The feeling of intolerance and disgust with perpetrators of sexual abuse has swelled as each new revelation has hit the papers. We wait with a mixture of anger and dread to see who this tempest will swallow up next. Norms have changed for the better, at least for the time being. A demonstrable indication of this is the sheer volume of women coming forward to tell their stories.

Megan described how the New York Times still serves as a makeshift hotline for women to report allegations. Many phone in with no intention of filing a police report and with no request for a reporter to look into their accusations. Many simply want to speak to someone about what has happened to them, to be counted in the ever-growing tally of women and men who have fallen prey to the abuse of a person in power.

With each growing scandal, victims have been fortified and motivated to come forward. “When O’Reilly fell, it was felt across the country”, Emily says with a smile. While the lingering allegations against Trump have hit a wall, the firing of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News may have been the catalyst for what has amounted to this year’s tsunami of allegations against powerful men.

According to Katie, the unmasking of sexual assault allegations has caused a noted pushback against settlements and Non-Disclosure Agreements, the favored legal tool of predators. There was once a time when NDA’s were watertight safety nets for the accused. They are rampant in the tech industry, Katie noted, as she encountered countless settlements in her research on Silicon Valley. It is common practice to base a settlement payout on the therapy bill a victim is able to produce for the year. For a few thousand dollars, victims are permanently signing away their right to speak and seek justice for the crimes committed against them.

Norms seem to have changed, not only in the way that individuals have been given the space to come forward, but also in the way that businesses and private organizations have chosen to handle these scandals. Kevin Spacey has been kicked off of a completed film and fired from Netflix, and Louie CK has had a similar fate. Even certain GOP hardliners have called for Roy Moore to step down in light of the 6 allegations he has against him to date.

This is a remarkable improvement from 2004 when the original accusations against O’Reilly were made. When an accuser went public with her story, O’Reilly hired a PR firm to feed false information to tabloids to portray his victim promiscuous woman. It would be unthinkable for a company to take this project on today, as the public backlash against their brand would be commercially fatal.

Abuse of Power is Systemic

While we ride this wave of justice for victims, dethroning titans of industry as we go, some of us feel vindicated, others feel triggered. We unequivocally sense the shift in the public reception of victims and their stories. We are, however, too intelligent to assume the problem is anything near fixed.

All three panelists agreed that the abuse of power is systemic. Predatory behavior isn’t limited by industry or political affiliation. There is no class of protected women – the Weinstein allegations prove that even celebrities experienced the same feeling of powerlessness and of being silenced as their anonymous counterparts. Systems serve to protect those in power and people in power are still predominately men.

Fox News tried to protect O’Reilly for as long as they could, even renewing his contract after funding his $45 million worth of settlements with alleged victims. After the negative publicity, 21st Century Fox wrote a letter to Fox News requesting more females to be hired as directors within their company. Currently there is only one female on their board.

Companies who tried to address their complicity in abuse only after their scandals have hung them out to dry seem to be engaging in transparent PR exercises that fool exactly no one. Unsurprisingly, there are no women on the Weinstein board and one of company’s assurances post scandal was to amend this. This seems like a vapid promise at best, especially given that out of the 9 original board members, all have resigned aside from three, as the company continues its downward spiral towards dissolution.

Final Thoughts

While the panel inspired a sense of hope that women are more empowered to speak about their experiences, I keep dwelling on the violent threats that Megan described so vividly. I can’t help but recall a similar conference that I attended last year on Stopping Violence against Women in Politics, held jointly by the UN and the National Democratic Institute. In a panel of female politicians, British MP Jess Phillips recounted the quantity of online threats she received once elected to Parliament, threats that mirrored Meghan’s exactly.

Within a few months, in the throes of the Brexit campaign, Jess’s friend and colleague Jo Cox was murdered outside her home. Her murderer had reported links to white supremacist groups in the US and resented her outspoken advocacy for the rights of immigrants and refugees, and her commitment to the human rights values of the European Union. Jo received similar threats to Jess and to many other women who work in politics or have public lives.

The threat of violence that women face, in every form, when engaging with politics or when speaking out against those in power, is stark and unrelenting. Encouraging women to speak of their experiences is the first step in bringing awareness to this danger. We especially owe a great deal to women in journalism who take considerable risk when reporting against powerful figures and systems who enable abuse against women. I am abundantly thankful for the contributions that Megan, Emily and Katie have made towards social justice issues, and for their invaluable insights at this panel.