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Episode 87: Jodi Kantor Said

Nahanni: Hi, it's Nahanni Rous, here to kick off the spring season of Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women's Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. 

Just a quick note first: If you haven’t already done it, please head over to jwa.org/podcastsurvey and take a couple minutes to give us your feedback about Can We Talk?. Thanks—and on to the show.

Jodi Kantor: Listen, ever since third grade, you know, I've wondered, like, how do you take on a bully? You know, how do you do it? And I think the answer is you do it together and you do it with allies and you do it as a team.

That’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jodi Kantor. In 2017 she and Megan Twohey broke the story in the New York Times about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women. Several women went on the record for their story, and afterwards, dozens more women spoke out. Their work lit a fire under the #MeToo movement, led to Harvey Weinstein’s conviction and sentencing, and prompted a national reckoning with sexual abuse.

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey chronicled the experience of reporting the Harvey Weinstein story in a bestseller called She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. It was recently made into a film called She Said

In this episode of Can We Talk?, we hear from Jodi Kantor about how she built trust with the women who became her sources, how Weinstein tried to pull the “Jew-to-Jew” card with her, and how she felt about the film’s portrayal of her as a working mom.

Nahanni: I just first wanted to ask you, what's it like to see yourself and your life's work on a big screen like that?

Jodi: Oh, I mean, it's surreal and it's an honor. And listen, we're very grateful to the filmmakers because our jobs are to persuade people to tell the truth and to build their confidence in doing so, and to persuade the public that people who tell the truth are not tattle-tales, they're not disloyal. They're in fact, you know, really important figures in our democracy and figures to be honored, I think, and thanked.

And so I feel like the film really helps make that case in a cinematic sense. So listen, I mean, it's not a documentary, it's not an exact representation of what happened. The film is really lovely, but you know, it's an artistic interpretation of what happened.

Nahanni: One of the things I really loved about the portrayal was the way your character showed the combination of chutzpah and compassion that you approached your subject and your reporting with. And, you know, I wanted to know, like, what you learned about the interviewing process through talking with women who had been violated, and raped in some cases.

Jodi: Well, thank you for saying that because you're right. I mean, reporting is a combination of chutzpah and respect. Um, so I wasn't coming new to this. I mean, I had had, you know, 20 years of journalism experience when I went into the Weinstein story and I had, you know, taken on big corporations. I had, um, investigated all sorts of institutions and I had done a lot of work involving gender and gender in the workplace.

So, I think that it wasn't a question of learning things from scratch; I think it was a question of taking everything that I had learned and applying it to a task, to the hardest story I had ever worked on—where, I mean, listen, you know, some of these women were legally bound from speaking to us. They had signed settlements saying that, you know, if they wanted recompense, they could never speak to another human being about what happened.

And early in the reporting process, I called a lawyer in London, um, for his advice, because there was a British victim I wanted to approach. And without telling him any of the specifics of the situation, I described the generalities and he said, “What you're doing is irresponsible. You could cause harm to these women. They could be sued by whoever it is that they signed the settlement with. They could be financially ruined by your project.” So that was very chastening and, you know, you have to have a lot of confidence that you're doing the right thing. Um, and it was very, very, very delicate surgery.

So I think the answer to your question is…that investigation felt like a test of the tools that Megan and I believe in. You know, we had made the case to, you know, many people in the past about going on the record, but this was just more extreme. You know, it's like, “Can I look at your settlement agreement even though it's technically, like, a legal violation for you to show it to me?”

“Ashley Judd, will you put your career on the line to go on the record for this story, and how can I make a persuasive case for you to do so?” I mean, her bravery was immense, but I also had to…make the case that there was a path, you know, that it could work, without promising too much or sounding like a used car salesman.

Um, and for Laura Madden, she was going into breast cancer surgery, you know, and she was really nervous. So, you know, it was also like a moral test for me as a journalist. You know, can I responsibly put this woman through this? Is it an okay thing to do? 

Nahanni: Did you have any doubts?

Jodi: Oh, sure. I mean, remember that, you know, none of this was foretold, the idea that these women were going to be lauded as heroes and there was going to be a giant reaction and a global uprising, you know, spurred by their stories. We didn't know any of that. I mean, we were—Hollywood executives were lecturing me that I was naive and that sexual harassment was just a part of Hollywood and everybody accepted it.

Nahanni: Mm-hmm. What in your background and education do you think prepared you to go up against this giant, um…you know, I don't even know what to call it exactly, but like—

Jodi: Right, an intimidator.

Nahanni: Block of silence and—

Jodi: Yeah.

Nahanni: And intimidation.

Jodi: Yeah. And Harvey Weinstein was a bully. And I think, listen, ever since third grade, you know, I've wondered like, how do you take on a bully? You know, how do you do it? And I think the answer is you do it together and you do it with allies and you do it as a team.

Um, what in my background…? Well, I mean, I think most obviously the teamwork and the Times, and being immersed in this journalism for a long time leading up to this. Having time to really learn the craft, having—Rebecca Corbett has been my editor seventeen years now, so this is, like, a really long dialogue we've been having about, you know, power, secrets, gender, change. Having the partnership with Megan for sure. Um, and then just having the power of these women's stories.

Here's one thing I really, really, really—I'm so grateful for with the book and the movie. As a journalist, you often end up in these searing, unforgettable interviews that don't fully translate to the black and white of the newspaper page.

And listen, I'm a newspaper person. I love that form. The article form has held up incredibly well over time, but…you know, there's something brisk about black-and-white newsprint. And you're often saying to yourself, did I really bring home to the reader, you know, what it meant to sit in a darkened café with this person and just be bowled over by the power of what they were saying, you know, and just feel the emotion of it?

There's a scene in the film with my character—Zoe Kazan plays me and Samantha Morton plays Zelda Perkins, and they're having a conversation in a café. And then there's another scene between my character and Laura Madden. And those two conversations, I think, convey what it's like to sit down with somebody and hear a

[Clip from movie plays]

Laura: I felt such shame…that I let him do that.

Jodi: Did you think that he had done the same to other girls?

Laura: [sounding tearful] I thought that he must have tried it…but—but they’d all…they’d all said no. It was like he took my voice that day…just when I was about to start finding it.   

Nahanni: Why did you call it She Said?

Jodi: Ha ha ha, that's a—I mean, honestly, that's one of my favorite parts, because those two little words say everything. And to us, those two little words are not simple at all. They convey all the complex layers of who spoke and who didn't speak, and who are the women who will never come forward about these stories. And, you know, the “she” is mostly, obviously, the victims, but it's also Megan and I, and what happens when the narration becomes female, and who were the women who were legally prohibited, uh, you know, from speaking—and how did the story get so universal, right?

I mean, She Said—it's not, you know, “the actress said,” or “the former assistant said,” it’s She Said. And that's because in this story, this particular strain of women became symbolic, you know, of women all over the globe. Um, so anyway, I have to say all these years later, that title still makes me happy because I just—I feel so much power in those two little words.

Nahanni: Yeah, it also highlights the kind of dangerous power of silence and being silenced.

Jodi: Exactly.

Nahanni: So there's a moment, um, that you have with a key source where you discover that you're both related to Holocaust survivors. And it's at a moment when you're trying to convince him to help you uncover the cover-up of Weinstein's abuses. Do you draw a parallel between the silence around sexual abuse and the silence around Holocaust survivor's experiences?

Jodi: Um…very carefully and very personally, yes, but very carefully and very personally. And I say that because—so my grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. She's actually in hospice now; we're going to lose her soon. But having grandparents who are Holocaust survivors was, you know, absolutely the most formative experience of my life. And I grew up, you know, around survivors at bungalow colonies in the Catskills, especially in the summer, in addition to during the year.

And, you know, there was always this question, even when I was a child of, you know, who were the ones who spoke about their experiences and who were the ones who didn't, because they sort of came in two flavors. There were like—there were the talkers and there were the silent ones. And in my own family, my grandmother, who was a talker, fared better psychologically than my grandfather, who was very bottled up about what had happened.

So I do feel that, like, from a young age I had studied this question of, you know, who talks and who doesn't, and should you get them to open up? How do they open up? What opens somebody up? Does it change with time, you know?

Um, but I think you have to be careful with the analogy, because, as you know, the Holocaust can be summoned sometimes for metaphors and analogies where it doesn't necessarily belong. Um, and…you know, and I think the thing Megan and I would really emphasize is that each of these women is so individual and different, and each of them really had to decide, you know, what was right for them personally.

I've talked to many women who came forward about sexual abuse, who were glad they did it, even if it was very difficult. And also the knowledge that they can help other people in the process is a big, I mean, that is, um, that's a big motivation. I mean that, I think, is the primary motivation.

Nahanni: Mm-hmm. You said that, um, that, that Harvey Weinstein tried to pull the Jew-to-Jew card with you?

Jodi: [laughs] Yeah.

Nahanni: What did he do?

Jodi: Um, it's been pretty consistent. [laughs] Um…he, I think from the beginning, um, you know, looked—listen, he conducted a campaign against our story, including hiring Israeli ex-intelligence agents and private spies to try to dupe us and our sources. And I mean, these people, like, came to my apartment building, they took pictures. One of them posed as a women's rights advocate, you know, and tried to get me to like, I don't know, meet with her or sign onto her program.

So even as he was siccing these Israeli agents on me, um, he was looking up—he and his people were looking at my background and trying to appeal to me that way. And it was very much a tone of like, “You're Jewish, I'm Jewish—we understand each other.” You know, he's made these Holocaust movies, like almost a kind of tribal, you know, trying to relate to me. Which I—so as a reporter in those situations, your job is not to react, like it's really not good if you lash out or lecture somebody, because it gives them an opportunity to turn it into a dispute, which you don't want. Like I was never going to give Harvey Weinstein an opportunity to be like, “This is a personal fight between me and Jodi Kantor. Jodi Kantor just doesn't like me, we had an altercation.”

So my reaction had to remain very private, but privately, I mean, it was just outrageous. Like, the idea that he was taking this very sacred thing about me and using it, um, to try to protect himself against accountability for really serious abuse. I mean, it was pretty gross and it was also very motivating in terms of getting the story.

Nahanni: Mm. Did you find that any reactions to the story got filtered through the lens of the stereotype of Jews controlling Hollywood?

Jodi: I think that's a really good question. I think that…well, one reaction, for sure, was that Jews are very embarrassed by the Harvey Weinstein story, as they are by, uh, you know, Jeffrey Epstein's last name. Um, and…they, or we, are embarrassed in part because these stories could appear to play into antisemitic stereotypes of, you know, Jews as avaricious, like…you know, taking advantage of people, um…wielding power in a really bad way, um, preying on innocent people. And so it's very uncomfortable.

But one of the things that, you know, I tell Jewish audiences all the time is that, listen, if there's one thing this body of reporting proves, it's that this behavior is universal. I mean, like these MeToo stories—part of what's so staggering here is that they come from every culture, every economic sphere, every religion, every area of the country and the globe, every income level. These stories are completely universal, no matter where you look. And so there was nothing Jewish about this abuse. These stories are universal; they exist in every culture.

Nahanni: Yeah. So, shifting gears a little bit back to the film, it shows, um, how much your work percolated into your family life.  How do you feel about that emphasis, that portrayal?

Jodi: Oh, I thought it was beautiful. Megan's depiction is actually much more personal than mine because, you know, Megan had postpartum depression, um, after her child was born and she came out of the Weinstein—she came into the Weinstein investigation from a very difficult personal place in her life. And it was part of what we first bonded over, because I had had it with my first child.

And then I think the stuff that the film portrays about the questions your kids ask you and wanting to protect them are very universal. And also I think that the movie does a good job of portraying the challenge of being fully immersed in a very difficult professional project while raising young kids. But it does so, I think, with a lot of dignity. I mean, there are a lot of scenes of my character, like, answering the phone while she's pushing a stroller, to the point where colleagues teased me about it, because, I mean, actually I do my work at a desk, you know, where I can type things.

Nahanni: I mean, that's what I was wondering. [Laughs]

Jodi: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And like, it's very important to write things down…

Nahanni: Yes.

Jodi: …when you get an important phone call, um, which you can't do if you're pushing a stroller. But what I really liked about it was I think they imbued it with a kind of dignity and grace, and even as you're watching the character juggle, and you get that it's an important phone call, they never made her look incompetent for having young children. Like, you never got the feeling of like, she's gonna blow the call because you know, the toddler’s throwing Cheerios across the room.

Nahanni: [Laughs] Absolutely, absolutely.

Jodi: So I thought it was a really beautiful aspect of the film.

Nahanni: Yeah. I mean it's, it's like All the President's Men, but you don't see Woodward and Bernstein answering calls from their sources while they're making their kid’s lunch. [Laughs]

Jodi: Yeah, exactly.

Nahanni: You mentioned the film revealed the questions that your kids ask you. When you were working on this story, when did you first tell your daughter about what you were working on, and how did you talk about it?

Jodi: So Tali was 11, and I tried to keep it from her for a long time, and I mostly did. Um…Tali’'s very good at keeping secrets, but, you know, there are times that I don't really tell her what I'm working on, and this was one of them, in part because I think it's just not fair to her. I mean, like the level of secret-keeping that I have to do in my job is very intense. And not only is it—not only, I think, would my sources be concerned, you know, to find out that a young kid knew what was happening, but I think, it's like, to burden her with that level of knowledge, I don't think it's right. So I kept a lot from her.

But the problem—you know, that was a six-month investigation—and so as things went on and on, you know, there's only so much you can hide in a New York City apartment, and she's also a very attentive kid. I was doing things like sending her into the bedroom, you know, with an iPad and headphones while I was talking to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Um, and so she did eventually start asking questions, and also it became possible to tell her things. Um…it was possible to tell her, like, the topic of what I was working on without, for instance, revealing anything about who I was speaking with.

And it was a real—I think the film portrays as well, it was, like, a really powerful shared experience in those moments. I mean, her exposure to the whole thing obviously became much greater after publication. And it was really the aftermath, you know, that she lived through more fully with me, because that was all public.

But…I mean, what I hope it was for her and for many people was, you know, ultimately a really optimistic, galvanizing experience that says that even the most painful material can be confronted. And that there's strength in numbers, and that all of the sorrow and all of this anguish can be turned in a more productive direction, and that, you know, a really small group of people can have enormous impact.

Nahanni: Do you think that we're, as a society, responding the right way to what this movement and your reporting has revealed?

Jodi: Well… [laughs] Listen, it's really important that Megan and I refrain from being activists or telling anybody what to do or telling anyone what laws to pass. I know that it may sound funny the first time you hear it, but there's a paradox of doing this work where you just have to be very pure about only pursuing the truth. And the second you become an activist, you kind of lose that posture because—like, even during the investigation, some sources would say, “Okay, go get him, go get Weinstein.” And it was like, no, like we're not actually trying to get anybody, we're trying to get the truth.

And once you're guided by that then, like that's your kavanah and then, like, everything else falls into place, because then you're fair to everybody—you know, then people know that your reporting doesn't have any spin on the ball. Then people trust you because, you know, they feel that you're not using them for anything, that your objectives are very pure.

And it's, you know, on the playing field of democracy, we have to stick to our role, which is…it's our role to put hidden information on the table for society to consider, and then everybody else has to decide what to do.

Nahanni: You've recently, or you're currently, writing about the Supreme Court and about, um…like, for example, leaks regarding the Hobby Lobby case. And I'm gonna recommend to people to listen to your interview on The Daily about this because it's…

Jodi: Oh, thank you.

Nahanni: …incredible, and your source is incredible. Very, very moving. I'm wondering if you draw any connections between that story and the Harvey Weinstein story?

Jodi: Sure. I mean, well, again, I'd be really careful with any analogies, but I think… the thing I think about with almost all of these stories—and it's definitely true in both of these cases—is, you know, what's the culture of secrecy and how much secrecy is appropriate in these situations?

And they're very different situations, but you know…I think as somebody who, you know, walks up to strangers and asks them to reveal things, in the name of the public good…um, I would say there's a difference between privacy and secrecy. You know, lots of people and institutions deserve privacy. The first draft of a New York Times story written in our editing system is private—you know, it would be really horrible if that leaked. But secrecy that conceals problems, that prevents people from having honest conversations, prevents society from having fruitful discussion. I mean, you know, I'm never going to stop making a case against that kind of secrecy.

[Theme music fades up]

Nahanni: Thank you, Jodi.

Jodi: My pleasure. It's so great to be with you. Thank you for these wonderful questions. Nice to sit back and take the other role for once.

Nahanni: Jodi Kantor is an investigative reporter for the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. With Megan Twohey, she co-wrote the book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. You can hear her talk in-depth about her reporting on the leaked Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision on the New York Times podcast The Daily.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum.  Our theme music is by Girls In Trouble.

JWA continues to collect and archive Jewish stories about #MeToo experiences. You can share yours at jwa.org/metoo or on JWA's story aperture mobile app.

You can listen to Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please help us spread the word by sharing this and your other favorite episodes with your friends, and share your feedback about Can We Talk? with us at jwa.org/podcastsurvey.

I’m Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

[Theme music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 87: Jodi Kantor Said." (Viewed on March 3, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-87-jodi-kantor-said>.