It wasn’t just the complicit silence around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment that made it so dangerous.
It was the opposite of silence, too.
It was the public humiliation that could be used to retaliate against alleged victims who spoke out.
Weinstein used the media like a bludgeon to keep his alleged victims in line, by many accounts. He did it skilfully — and with plenty of help. “Harvey could spin — or suppress — anything; there were so many journalists on his payroll, working as consultants on movie projects, or as screenwriters, or for his magazine,” Rebecca Traister wrote last week in New York magazine’s the Cut about an altercation in 2000 with Weinstein. One technique: Supplying information that would drag an accuser’s name through the mud. The Italian actress Ambra Battilana Gutierrez found that out when she filed a sexual assault complaint against Weinstein in 2015.
“Details about Gutierrez’s past began to appear in the tabloids,” the New Yorker reported last Tuesday in its expose of Weinstein’s sexual misbehaviour. (the New York Times broke its major story on the same subject last week; and in its wake, Weinstein was fired from his own company, though he denies many of the accusations.)
The gossip pages reported that Gutierrez had attended one of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous orgy-parties, and that, as a teenager, she had made a charge of assault against a business executive, but later backed out of cooperating with prosecutors.
It was a powerful — and a tried-and-true — method of control.
Just last week, as a blockbuster New York Times story on Weinstein moved towards publication, negative information about one of Weinstein’s accusers was offered to a Washington Post reporter. The timing could, of course, be coincidental, but seems suspicious and tracks with Weinstein’s well-known practices. (The Post had begun checking into it when the Times story, naming the accuser, was published.)
All of this raises a tricky journalistic question: Should reporters consider, before deciding to publish, a source’s motivation, or the effect of a story on reputation and career? In politics, opposition research on a candidate has resulted in many legitimate — and important — news stories. The journalistic standard is fairly simple: Is the information true, and is it newsworthy? This same standard tends to be used for public figures of any kind — and Hollywood actresses may, or may not, fit into this category. (Are we talking about Meryl Streep or an unknown starlet?)
What the conventional practices often ignore is the reality of a vast power imbalance — the kind experienced by the women victimised by Roger Ailes at Fox News, or by the dozens of accusers who have come forward regarding television star Bill Cosby.
Weinstein’s media manipulation could also cut in quite another direction, Jordan Sargent wrote in a 2015 piece, published by Gawker Media’s Defamer site: “Tell us what you know about Harvey Weinstein’s ‘Open Secret’.”
He could hype the reputations of aspiring actresses who cooperated with his demands. A blind item in one gossip column was widely read as a cautionary tale planted by Weinstein: An unnamed actress mysteriously scores a prestigious magazine cover as the next It Girl, but then withdraws her favours from her powerful benefactor.
“Well, It never happened,” the item read. “So she’s gone back to the major player who tried to make it happen for her the first time.”
The message, over time, was clear: Cooperate with me and you might be a star. Accuse me and you’ll be smeared.
Far more than complicit silence, this was Hollywood buzz at its most insidious. But then serious reporting, amplifying the voices of courageous accusers, came along to change all that.
Given Weinstein’s decades-long media manipulation, it’s fitting — gratifyingly so — that what brought his downfall was media exposure.
— Washington Post
Margaret Sulliva is an American journalist who is the media columnist for the Washington Post.