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The New York Times’s Emily Steel on Covering #MeToo

Fresh off her talk at Chicago Humanities Festival, Steel recounts breaking the Bill O’Reilly scandal, what she learned from Spotlight, and more.

Emily Steel, left, and Michelle Goldberg at Chicago Humanities Festival.   Photo: Ben Gonzales, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival

In the summer of 2016, New York Times media reporter Emily Steel and national security reporter Michael Schmidt began reporting on Fox News’ culture of sexual abuse, after Gretchen Carlson came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against CEO Roger Ailes. They started poring over a 2004 sexual harassment lawsuit, filed by former Fox producer Andrea Mackris against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. In the process, Schmidt and Steel discovered that Mackris wasn’t the only woman who had accused O’Reilly of improper behavior.

In April 2017, after months of reporting, Schmidt and Steel published a story detailing how O’Reilly had settled lawsuits with several women who either worked at Fox News or appeared on his program. Eighteen days later, O’Reilly was forced to leave the network. Since then, the Times has gone on to report on sexual harassment in Hollywood, New York restaurants, Silicon Valley, Ford plants on Chicago’s South Side, and Vice Media. For their reporting, Schmidt and Steel won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Times Chicago Bureau Chief Monica Davey moderated a panel called Covering #MeToo with Steel and op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg at the Chicago Humanities Festival this past weekend. There, they discussed where the movement has gone, Bill Cosby, Aziz Ansari, and whether everyday Americans will begin to see the impact of this reporting. Steel also spoke with me about her work on the O’Reilly story, Vice Media, and what’s next for the Times. The following are highlights from Steel’s comments during the panel and our conversation.

Nobody wanted to talk to us

It’s great for storytelling if there is this one moment [that made the story work], but it was really this months’ long, really hard reporting. You have to remember that this was a year before the #MeToo movement came out and nobody thought they would be believed. Six settlements that totaled $45 million that all included very strict, ironclad confidentiality agreements—if anyone who was a party in agreement was found to have talked to us, they would have faced millions of dollars worth of penalties.

It was just this gradual slog of knocking on doors, making phone calls, getting doors closed in our face, writing handwritten cards, and then somebody would pick up. But it was once we actually had figured out that there had been this record of harassment that went back more than a dozen years, kind of his whole tenure at Fox News, we realized there was a story here.

During this process, Mike [Schmidt] and I, we really didn’t know how to do this reporting. There is this record of confidentiality agreements that nobody can talk about, but there was a point in the reporting where one of our sources said, you know, this is really similar to how the Catholic Church handled priests who were abusing children. And so Mike and I thought, let’s go read the Boston Globe’s coverage, the Spotlight coverage of the sex abuse scandal, and we watched the movie. We re-created a lot of that reporting and it was really helpful to us.

There’s a shift in the way we believe women

A really significant shift that has happened, just in the last couple of years, is how much we do believe women and how we really understand a lot more about how the victims of harassment or assault will respond. One of the things we did in the reporting was we went back to 2004 and read all of the coverage about [Andrea Mackris]. We went back and read the tabloid stories and watched the news coverage at the time. It was so starkly different than how we would cover that story today. The initial round of the stories were about the salacious claims, and then the next round of stories were fed by information that had been dug up by private investigators, given to Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, and then leaked to the tabloid press—they painted her as a promiscuous woman who was out to shake him down. And that wasn’t an anomaly at the time. That’s how a lot of those stories were told. I think it’s really significant now that we’re listening to these women and listening to these stories.

Still, some things haven’t really changed

I think that my reporting has shown—and the Vice story is an example of this—that a lot of people think harassment is about sex, because it’s called sexual harassment. But it’s really about power. The Vice story showed that there was this younger generation of men who have come of age after all of this behavior was taboo, and yet they were still treating women this way. So what does that say about our culture and society that allowed this problem to perpetuate? What are we teaching men? What are we teaching women? Why was this perceived as being something that people could get away with?

What’s next for the New York Times: Looking at systemic issues of harassment

What has gone on in HR departments—the executive or most senior people were protected, rather than the people who worked for them. Nondisclosure agreements have often allowed a perpetrator to continue to abuse people, whereas their victims were silenced and nobody knew that there was a problem. Why has the law been written in a way that’s pretty hazy and fuzzy. So I think we’re seeing a lot of exploration into those topics and issues, but it’s not as salacious and tweet-worthy and attention-grabbing as when it’s a powerful man, the allegations against him, and the downfall of that person.

The Times’s decision to cover sexual harassment

It’s a powerful statement that the Times in 2017 decided to pour investment and resources into covering this topic, at a time when the newspaper industry is facing all sorts of challenges. This sort of reporting takes time and it takes resources and money and energy and a lot of reporting power. It’s incredible that there was such a commitment to tell these stories. But it also gets to the heart of why we do what we do and what the Times stands for, which is holding people in positions of power to account and giving a voice to those who have been silenced.

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