The media loves to call for soul searching in other industries. Rarely does it heed its own calls.
What has happened with Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer now accused of disturbing and innumerable examples of sexual misconduct, should be one of those moments, because the press has badly botched their coverage of this controversial man going on thirty years.
Yet instead of soul searching what you can expect to see over the coming days and months—and are already starting to see—is a lot of sanctimonious hand wringing and outrage about Harvey Weinstein, all he is accused of, and what it might mean.
How could the allegations only finally become public now? How could he have gotten away with it for so long? Why didn’t people stand up and say anything?
Great questions! But one needs to be added: How did the collective press—the Hollywood, media, gossip, and business journalists who follow every move of these power players as part of their job—miss this so badly?
Well, the answer is they didn’t miss it. They had the story, they were just too cowardly to publish it. As Sharon Waxman of TheWrap has written, she tried to break the story herself for the New York Times in 2004.
“The paper had a story on mogul’s sexual misconduct back in 2004 — but gutted it under pressure…I was told at the time that Weinstein had visited the newsroom in person to make his displeasure known. I knew he was a major advertiser in the Times, and that he was a powerful person overall.”
And yet it’s also worth pointing out that Waxman has run her own site since 2009 and not broken the story there either, saying that she had been too focused on “raising money, building a website and starting a media company.” “Bravo to the NYT reporters for publishing the story we all tried to get for decades,” tweeted the co-editor-in-chief of Variety. Tried? Really? Because you’ve covered the guy quite a few times in those decades. Take the now breaking story that David Boies, a lawyer who has represented The Weinstein Company, made a donation to NY District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s campaign after the DA dropped the 2015 sexual assault charges against Weinstein. (Vance’s office has said that Boies was not representing Weinstein in the investigation at the time.) Is this newly available public campaign finance data? Not at all. So where was Variety or the New York Times or The Intercept or any other media outlet on that story? Right. Not there. The New York Post definitely wasn’t there. In fact, in a 2015 article about that groping allegation, the Post had the classlessness to refer to the professional model who accused Weinstein of reaching up her skirt and grabbing her breast (a claim he only partly denied on the phone with the DA) not by her name, but as “the hottie.” (One New York paper, The New York Daily News, did do a cover story on a Weinstein accuser in 2015.)
It’s not just that the press let the victims in the entertainment business hang in the wind—they let their own out there, vulnerable and without a voice. As Rebecca Traister explained in New York Magazine last week, she and another journalist (her then-boyfriend) from the New York Observer had an encounter with Harvey Weinstein where the man not only called her a cunt, but then physically assaulted one of the journalists so fiercely that it caused permanent injury to a bystander. And when did this encounter happen? 2000! The Observer isn’t blameless here. Where was its response and why didn’t it raise holy hell? (I was in high school, so I can’t blame myself much). The paper has covered Harvey Weinstein many times over the years but no earth shattering exposé despite its first hand glimpse into the darkness. The New York Times covered the incident at the time, but only to give room to anonymous Miramax sources to blame the victims. And for New York Magazine who now published Traister’s recounting? Not only have they profiled Weinstein at least four times since 2000 (and only one of the stories briefly mentions the assault) but apparently New York Magazine also had an exposé about Weinstein last year that they killed after meeting with him.
No doubt dodging this reckoning many times contributed to Harvey Weinstein’s impression that he did not really have a problem and that he was not actually hurting people.
This is part of what makes it so galling that the New York Times followed up their now famous article not with any kind of critical self-reflection but with two different condescending articles castigating publicists and actors and movie producers for not standing up to Weinstein. I’m sorry but publicists aren’t the ones who are given special First Amendment protections in our society. They are not the ones we depend on for truth, nor are they protected by lawyers and the ACLU. And that’s why we don’t expect the courageous pursuit of the truth from flacks—in fact, we expect the opposite. But even if the entire Hollywood industry is complicit in allowing Weinstein to operate in their midst, as Brook Barnes implies, the same can be said about the media and Roger Ailes or Bill O’Reilly.
Many reporters jumped on the fact that the lawyer representing Harvey Weinstein in a potential lawsuit against the New York Times is Charles Harder, the man who famously sued Gawker into bankruptcy last year. As if to say, if that hadn’t happened, the media would have gotten this story right. It might be pretty to think so, but Gawker started in 2002. They could have investigated the same stories that I heard when I got my first job in Hollywood a decade ago and proved and publicized them—but they didn’t. In 2015, Gawker did publish an open call for scoops about Weinstein but stopped short of any, you know, actual fearless reporting. They did however do lots of publishing of leaked naked photos over the years, in some cases, of the same kind of vulnerable actresses that Weinstein is accused of exploiting.
I’ve interviewed Charles several times, and though I am not sure why he has taken on this client, it’s worth taking a minute to remember that the reason he was able to beat Gawker was because Gawker had run a stolen, surreptitiously recorded sex tape. It’s worth remembering they felt it was worth millions and millions of dollars defending this tape (instead of taking it down and apologizing) and that this too was money not spent aggressively reporting on and potentially defending any stories about Harvey Weinstein. Meanwhile, plenty of less powerful people who are not intimidating to the media never got the initial benefit of the doubt—or begrudging respect—because there were fewer repercussions. Their stories produced an endless amount of meaningless “gotcha” scandals and kerfuffles that have come to dominate headlines across the web these days. The media—online and on TV—has congratulated themselves many times over the years for taking down another minor bad guy over some minor infraction (We nailed the Juicero guy!), meanwhile their coffers are not unfamiliar to revenue from the ad buys for Weinstein’s films.
Now that someone has gone ahead and exposed Weinstein though, the media is rushing to overcover the story as if this isn’t an implicit rebuke of their own previous decisions. For instance, since last Thursday, Variety has published nearly 30 stories about Harvey Weinstein and the scandal. At least one for every year they might have missed! The same outlets who claim they were previously unable to tell their readers and viewers the truth for legitimate legal reasons are suddenly freed up by the fact that a competitor has beaten them to the story? Yeah, OK.
Once blood is in the water…suddenly everyone is a hero. But before that, they’re like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese.
Something similar happened with Bill Cosby. What was so amazing to me about the incredible swiftness with which the media turned on Bill Cosby was that it was another comedian who was brave enough to make a joke about Cosby on stage that triggered the piling on. Unlike with Weinstein, it wasn’t a half-confession from the accused or another outlet nailing down the story that did it. Nor was it new information. In fact, the Cosby allegations, just like the Weinstein allegations appear to be, are the same accusations, the same alleged victims, the same rumors, the same second-hand reports that were available yesterday or last year or last decade.
These men are only now being crucified (rightly) in the court of public opinion, not out of a genuine sense of justice and moral outrage, but rather because the direction of the peer pressure has shifted, and the editors and producers who previously feared lawsuits or being frozen out by publicists are now willing to accept the risk.
It is deeply hypocritical for the media to demand calls for investigations into other industries, the way they hold other public facing individuals accountable for doing nothing, yet when faced with the shortcomings of their own industry, they write about everything but their own moral failings. The New York Times headline was “Harvey Weinstein’s Media Enablers” but they neglected to mention their own gutting of a Weinstein story in 2004. In the case of Cosby, there are similar examples. Ta-Nehisi Coates who uses his eloquence to condemn people for not standing up to racism had spent months covering Bill Cosby in 2008 for The Atlantic, admits he knew about the allegations and believed them, but nevertheless did not stand up and do anything (let alone write) about it. In 2014, he finally did write about it…because Hannibal Buress’s joke finally made telling the truth acceptable.
If there had been this kind of cowardice and complicity in any other industry, one can only imagine the outrage and condemnation that these same editors and reporters would be piling up. There is a line from Nassim Taleb: “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” The truth is that the media is full of frauds. People who talk big about justice, ethics, caring about the little guy. People who celebrate whistleblowers and condemn those who compromise or sit on the sidelines. But when it comes to how they run their own life or industry? Well, suddenly it’s more complicated. Suddenly they want you to understand just how difficult it can be.
God forbid a United Airlines employee making a few bucks an hour follows policies that lead to a man being dragged off a plane. The employees and board members of Uber who didn’t stand up to Travis Kalanick, or the investors who didn’t single handedly take on the toxic culture in Silicon Valley—these people are easy to call cowards from behind a computer screen. It’s always harder to look at our own role in these things, or our own failings in similar situations in our own lives. I’ve worked at places that have had problematic track records in this regard and I’ve not always been proud of how I handled it. But when it counted, I think I did the right thing. And going forward, I’ve tried to be empathetic to the troubled, conflicted, and no-good-options position that a lot of folks who “know things” find themselves in.
The difference here is that the media’s incredible self-righteousness problem is directly related to its current credibility crisis. The difference is that private individuals don’t have the same kinds of obligations that reporters have as members of the 4th Estate. And there are consequences for the media’s failings and lack of self-awareness. If you’re a poorly informed Trump supporter and looking to explain away his own allegations of sexual harassment, you know what you can say? You can say, “The media didn’t care about standing up to Harvey Weinstein. They don’t actually care about victims, this is just political opportunism.” If you were a Fox News fan looking to defend the legacy of Roger Ailes, you can say the exact same thing. The calls now from the right to get Democratic donors to renounce Weinstein or to attack media figures who have been chummy with him might be self-serving but it isn’t wrong. It’s also exactly how many on the other side would act if right-wing billionaire or conservative media figure was exposed.
There’s no reason to expect a mea culpa from the press, no reason to expect much change, or that they’ll hold themselves to the high standards they hold others to. The chattering class seems to have their heads up their asses further by the day. Case in point, they are seeing Weinstein’s fall as a cause for celebration, not as an opportunity for reflection.
So it falls to us as readers to understand how this process works and not participate in it. Because we are not only being misled, but we are being whipsawed by the guilty consciences and cognitive dissonance of media personalities who rarely admit their mistakes, rarely make changes based on those mistakes, and have anointed themselves as the inspector of other people’s houses while their own is a disturbing mess.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Also by Ryan Holiday:
Unpacking the Absurd Logic of Cultural Appropriation—and What It Will Cost Us
We Used to Put Statues Up, Now We Just Tear Them Down
I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It.
How the Online ‘Diversity Police’ Defeat Themselves, and Leave Us All Much Worse Off
We Are Living in a Post-Shame World—And That’s Not a Good Thing
We Don’t Have a Fake News Problem—We Are the Fake News Problem
Want to Really Make America Great Again? Stop Reading the News.
The Real Reason We Need to Stop Trying to Protect Everyone’s Feelings
This Is the Hollowed-Out World That Outrage Culture Has Created