TimesTalks Features Women Journalists at the Forefront of Recent Sexual Harassment Stories

Photo by Haley Davidson

Photo by Haley Davidson

For decades, women have been silent. But today, they are at the forefront of investigative journalism that is targeting powerful men.

On Nov. 9, The New York Times hosted a TimesTalks panel discussion on exposing the male abuse of power, featuring three of those women: Megan Twohey, co-author of the Harvey Weinstein investigative piece, Emily Steel, co-author of the piece that led to Bill O'Reilly being fired from Fox News, and Katie Benner, who reported on Silicon Valley’s sexual harassment culture.

The panel was moderated by The New York Times gender editor and author of “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace,” Jessica Bennett. Watch the full talk here.

The way the world thinks about sexual assault and harassment is changing, thanks to these women's accomplishments in investigative journalism. Instead of victim-blaming, reporters are leading the way to understanding how abusers use power to keep victims silent.

Twohey, co-author of the The New York Times piece on Harvey Weinstein, found that institutional systems tend to facilitate the predatory behavior.

“What happened in the course of all these stories is that it wasn’t just a single predator coming into view,” Twohey said. “It was very similar patterns of behavior that had been used in the workplace, with a whole system that supported that, and silenced women.”

Revealing these patterns of behavior is difficult, the panel revealed.

Steel, who reported on Bill O’Reilly, said that, though the culture of shame surrounding sexual harassment is changing, getting women to go on the record is “not easy… there’s a lot of work and three hour phone calls and lots of time and energy.”

Without at least one source on the record or extensive evidence of other kinds, the story can’t be published.

Twohey pointed out that a journalist’s work doesn’t end with receiving one or two allegations in their inbox.

Photo by Haley Davidson

Photo by Haley Davidson

“You’ll never see in the The New York Times... a woman’s allegations without any other reporting that went around that,”  Twohey said. “There is a misimpression that a place like The New York Times would just turn around and report allegations without doing additional reporting. That’s not the case. These stories take a lot of work even when women do agree to go on the record.”

Journalists must use documents from settlements and try to “reverse engineer” what happened in cases of assault and harassment, tracking a “trail of evidence,” according to Twohey. In some cases, this kind of evidence is sufficient and the victim does not even have to go on the record.  

Obtaining evidence is not the only obstacle female journalists have faced in seeking to write about the truth. Each of the panelists shared some kind of story about being threatened by the powerful men they were writing about.

Twohey explained that she was threatened by President Trump while breaking a story on his history of sexual harassment, and Steel told of how she was bullied by Brian Williams while reporting on his false stories. Even Benner explained that an investor she was investigating tried to intimidate her by indirectly threatening her colleagues.

Nonetheless, the world is becoming more receptive to hearing stories of harassment and assault, and women are finally being heard.

Steel pointed to the increase of women in newsrooms as a change in the right direction, and Bennett’s position as gender editor--a new position at The New York Times--points to positive change as well.

Benner added that the culture of harassment in Silicon Valley is changing.

“The industry wants to professionalize,” Benner said. “They want to be a respected industry. They feel like they build these big companies… they want the credit for it and they want to be known for it and not for this other stuff.”

The journalists explained that, in the past, women have responded to their stories by voicing their own complaints or thanking them for reminding them that they are not alone.

But as more and more allegations continue to come to light, it is clear that there is still work to be done.

“Right now, the system is setup to protect a man’s right to make money over a woman's right to live her life and have a job,” Benner said. “That’s the power difference… that’s what we’re fighting, and that’s what we’re trying to uncover.”