Her alarm went off in the middle of the night. After spending two weeks tirelessly working on her first major investigative piece, Los Angeles Times reporter Amy Kaufman didn’t want to miss the moment when her story on sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood director and producer Brett Ratner would go online.
The day before, Kaufman had spent hours in her newsroom alongside editors, who gave last-minute notes and line edits, the art desk, who helped pull photos for the piece, and lawyers, who ensured everything was airtight. They were up against a tight deadline as they competed with another outlet to get the story out first. Kaufman said it was as close to an “old-school newsroom vibe” as she had ever experienced in her nine-year career as an entertainment reporter, since just a few weeks prior she had never worked on anything remotely similar.
“It felt more fulfilling to me than just having lunch at the Four Seasons with the star of the week.”
“I did feel like on a personal level, I was actually making a very small difference helping people,” Kaufman said. “And it felt more fulfilling to me than just having lunch at the Four Seasons with the star of the week.”
Kaufman wasn’t the only one adjusting to her new reality. As the world grappled with the #MeToo movement sparked by the Harvey Weinstein exposés published by the New York Times and the New Yorker in October 2017, so too did those outlets’ competitors. As more and more people were called out for bad behavior in show business, journalists used to covering casting news, awards, and upcoming projects suddenly found themselves thrust into new roles as investigative reporters or writing about wave after wave of sexual misconduct allegations. More than 12 months on, BuzzFeed News spoke to half a dozen reporters who cover entertainment for a variety of publications, revealing that Hollywood’s reckoning also proved a transformational moment for the news industry devoted to covering it.
Even though allegations against Weinstein weren’t made public for years, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Matt Belloni, executive editor for the Hollywood Reporter, said he had long heard rumors about the power producer. Well before the 2017 stories broke, Belloni’s magazine had set up a “war room” complete with a whiteboard that featured the names of women who worked at Weinstein’s companies, in the hope of getting someone to speak with them. But despite their best efforts to report on it, no one was willing to go on the record.
So why did it take reporters from outside the entertainment beat to finally break the story? The answer may be due to the time and funding given to those investigative reporters to pursue the piece, but it may also be because of the very nature of entertainment media.
“It’s still Hollywood, everyone’s still scared about their image.”
Entertainment reporters operate in something of a unique position compared to journalists covering other industries; the actors, celebrities, executives, and even the content at the heart of their stories are controlled by a high-priced army of publicists who serve as the gatekeepers in Hollywood, doling out access as they see fit. Fairly or unfairly, there is a perception that outlets that cover entertainment may be too closely connected to — or even starstruck by — the people they’re writing about, or that they may be too deferential to the PR machine.
Kaufman said in her experience it’s not uncommon for entertainment journalists to be at the mercy of publicists, adding that she’s encountered press reps who don’t want to work with her because of her #MeToo coverage. “It’s still Hollywood, everyone’s still scared about their image,” Kaufman said.
However, Kim Masters, an editor-at-large at the Hollywood Reporter who broke the allegations against Amazon’s Roy Price, said that regardless of perceived pressure from publicists, she worked for a number of Hollywood trades where they would have happily run the Weinstein story. “But you had to have him absolutely nailed,” she said.
Masters believes a unique combination of factors helped the New Yorker and New York Times finally break the story: the prestige of those publications’ names, as well as the election of Donald Trump as president, which sparked a national wave of women-led backlash.
Once the New York Times and the New Yorker stories did finally hit the stands, Beloni said the Hollywood Reporter’s tip line blew up as people “started coming out of the woodwork with stories.”
“I remember sitting in a meeting and saying, ‘Okay, now is the time. Every story that we’ve wanted to do on the subject, we should now be doubling our efforts to pursue,’” he said.
Kaufman said her LA Times editor also called a meeting with all of the entertainment writers soon after the Weinstein pieces dropped to discuss how to follow the story. “I definitely got the sense in that meeting that of course it was like, ugh, we did not break that, and what is the entertainment team going to do to show our skill since we’re in Hollywood and we should be covering this,” she said. “It’s really invigorated me in a way that I haven’t felt in a while about my job.”
Newsrooms everywhere soon had reporters shift beats and began aggressively chasing other stories about misconduct in the industry. Belloni said the Hollywood Reporter created a group of five to seven reporters who were responsible just for managing the stories coming through their tip line. There was a sense that something tangible had changed.
“Before Weinstein, I think a lot of outlets just dismissed some of these kinds of stories, or they didn’t gain traction or you’d get a nasty call from a lawyer and you’d just kind of drop it,” he said. “It’s a different era now.”
BuzzFeed News was not immune from change, either. Management parted ways with three staffers in October 2017 and restructured the entertainment news team to address what head of news Shani Hilton called “holes in our Weinstein coverage.” With a renewed emphasis on aggressively breaking scoops in the entertainment industry, reporters went on to produce stories with allegations against R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Piven, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, and Broadway designer William Ivey Long.
“It’s a different era now.”
Dino-Ray Ramos, who has spent 14 years reporting on Hollywood, almost two of them at the website Deadline, said once the floodgates opened, he and his team struggled to keep up with the onslaught of breaking news as more and more accusers came forward. “We’re a Hollywood trade so we had to continue doing what we do, but of course the hot story was Weinstein,” Ramos said. “And I remember when all of that news broke we would be writing so much and covering so much about him that it would get exhausting.”
It wasn’t just entertainment writers who were feeling the shift; cultural critics suddenly found themselves with a whole new beat. Dana Schwartz, a senior pop culture writer at Entertainment Weekly, said the current climate allowed her to write a piece of criticism about Louis C.K.’s foray back into stand-up comedy back in August, despite the website not being “particularly political.”
“I felt completely comfortable doing that both within the realm of EW’s brand and within the realm of culturally where we are,” Schwartz said. “It makes me incredibly angry to see men in positions of power get away with a slap on the wrist.”
Every outlet was working to publish an original story, pushing some outlets and reporters beyond their professional confines, the most infamous example of which came at the very beginning of 2018. On Jan. 13, 23-year-old Katie Way published a story about comedian Aziz Ansari for the website Babe.net, a Brooklyn-based news and lifestyle site aimed at women that’s a spinoff of the Tab, a website founded by Cambridge University students in 2009. Way said she started working at Babe.net in October 2017 after another internship of hers was ending. “They were hiring staff writers and I wanted health insurance, so I applied and got the job,” she said.
The recent college graduate had never before reported on sexual misconduct allegations, outside of aggregating other outlets’ stories. But in the midst of Hollywood’s new wave of stories, Way reached out to her personal network about rumors she’d heard about Ansari.
“I thought that story would be something that my editors had in mind and so it was on my radar,” Way said, emphasizing that she’d felt a moral obligation to write the piece.
Titled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” the Babe.net article detailed an encounter a woman named only as Grace had with Ansari in which the two went on a date, went back to his apartment, and engaged in sexual activity. Grace later said she had felt pressured and that the encounter had not been consensual. Ansari released a statement after the article was published, saying they had gone on a date together. "We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual,” he said.
“Everyone was kind of telling these stories, but I didn’t write about a celebrity’s misconduct because I wanted to put a journalistic notch in my belt or participate in a trend.”
The article received heavy criticism from people who said it was dangerous to lump in Ansari’s alleged conduct with the allegations of sexual assault and harassment that other Hollywood stars were facing. The New York Times published an op-ed titled “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” Others took issue with the way the story was reported, or rather how it failed to follow traditional reporting practices and was instead editorialized. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote an analysis for Jezebel, saying the fact that Babe.net approached Grace about her own story “raises questions about the website’s eagerness to tell this kind of story and why.” Jill Filipovic wrote in the Guardian that the story was “poorly reported” and a “missed opportunity.” (Representatives for Babe.net did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Way said she didn’t anticipate how much backlash her Ansari story would spark, but insisted that she still stands by it. She’s comfortable with her decision to cover the story, saying she was still confident Ansari acted wrongly. But she defended herself against accusations that she and Babe.net were simply jumping on a bandwagon. “At the time, everyone was kind of telling these stories, but I didn’t write about a celebrity’s misconduct because I wanted to put a journalistic notch in my belt or participate in a trend,” Way said.
Way has now left the world of entertainment behind her, an industry she was never keen on reporting on in the first place. She’s now a contributing editor to Cannabis Now, where she writes about issues relating to the cannabis industry. “I’ve never really wanted to be a journalist who had access to celebrities,” she said, “and I no longer think I would get access to a lot of celebrities if I did try to pursue that realm.”
As another industry-shifting year ends and a new one begins, entertainment reporters and editors are asking the question: Where do we go from here? The pace of stories about sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct in Hollywood has slowed down, but it still hasn’t necessarily come to a halt. Those working in entertainment media continue to navigate their new world.
“These assault allegations have put the whole industry in check and made us reevaluate this whole system and make us say, ‘What are we doing?’”
“These assault allegations have put the whole industry in check and made us reevaluate this whole system and make us say, ‘What are we doing?’” said Ramos, the Deadline writer. “The Weinstein stuff has just opened our eyes and made us say, Oh my god, we need to fix this broken industry.”
Belloni, the Hollywood Reporter editor, is sure that even though we’re more than a year out from the first wave of #MeToo stories, there are still many more to be told. “It’s certainly not as fast and furious as it was even six months ago, but I think that there are still stories that have not come out and we will continue to see more allegations,” he said.
Masters, who’s made a career out of covering the ins and outs of Hollywood, is even working on a couple of new #MeToo stories at the moment.
“I don’t care whether people are tired of reading them. I’ve had people say, I’m just tired of reading those stories, and I’m like, then don’t read them,” she said. “That doesn’t make a victim’s story less important. If the story’s there, I’m doing it.” ●
The description of the staffing changes at BuzzFeed News has been clarified to better describe what occurred.
A year after #MeToo became a household term, BuzzFeed News is bringing you stories about how far we’ve come, who’s been left out, and where we go from here. Read more here.