Early in She Said, the new book by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey on their investigation into Harvey Weinstein, the reporters describe the way that "he said, she said" dynamics prevent stories of abuse from getting published and taken seriously.
More than that, though, the authors suggest, telling stories through that prism does a disservice to the subject and reader, limiting the conversation to an up-down judgment, and stripping away larger questions and gray areas.
Basically, there are ways to cover complex, political allegations that actually do damage themselves. Two new books by duos of New York Times reporters — Kantor and Twohey’s, and the lesser Education of Brett Kavanaugh — book offers a glimpse into these competing approaches.
Called “an instant classic of investigative journalism” and a substitute for journalism school, She Said was received with rapturous applause upon its release this month. In riveting detail, Kantor and Twohey bring readers inside their process — the late-night drinks with sources to secure a paper trail, the uncomfortable doorstepping of victims, the fraught tug-of-war to try to get Hollywood’s biggest names to go on the record, the attempts by the Hollywood mogul and his team of enablers to shut the reporters down.
The book reads like a manual of best practices, driven by the desire to protect the women who spoke to them and to see justice, knowing full well that accusations of sexual assault — difficult to prove because of their private nature and the feelings of shame they can engender, meaning a lack of witnesses and often a lack of contemporaneous corroborating accounts — can devolve into a "he said, she said." Instead, Kantor and Twohey focused on the settlements and flew around the world to speak to sources. They don’t shy from revealing their discomfort or missteps — like when one approached the husband of a potential source in his driveway and realized she had revealed the contours of a story the husband had never heard before. They detail each interaction they had with Weinstein, but it is mainly women — the sources, the reporters, their editor — who are the subjects of the book.
She Said reads honest and clear — fascinating both for journalists and those who want an answer to the question: How did these two reporters help start a revolution?
Released one week later, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh could not be more different.
The inner workings on display in She Said show just how complicated and challenging a major investigation is to do well, and is especially revelatory for reporter-readers who haven't published one themselves. It's possible there's no book that would handle the Kavanaugh nomination — an already charged experience — well and Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly do report some new information. But the book is plagued by an approach that replicates the "he said, she said" construct, while failing to ask the bigger questions about a society in the midst of enormous change.
Where Kantor and Twohey present the key cultural context for their reporting — including the election of Donald Trump, who stood accused of claims of sexual assault and harassment as a candidate, over a woman more experienced and prepared for the role — that is completely devoid in the book by Pogrebin and Kelly. When Christine Blasey Ford (alternately referred to as Christine and Ford throughout) decides to tell a friend about what she alleges Kavanaugh did to her, all those decades ago in high school, it’s because the friend “had recently posted on Facebook about her own sexual assault at the hands of someone she knew.” There is nothing about the wave of anger — following the accusations against and the reporting on Weinstein — that prompted many women to share their own stories, to say, “me too.”
What follows is a disjointed narrative that repeats the "he said, she said" accusations. “What we tried to do is kind of what we always do as reporters, which is seek the facts and put them out there and let people come to their own conclusions,” Pogrebin said on CNN.
But the facts they found are few. The book seems to be missing key people — Dianne Feinstein, the senator who handled Ford’s initial complaint, provided a statement; Max Stier, who reported an alleged third incident in which Kavanaugh allegedly exposed himself at a college party, did not speak on the record, though Kelly strongly implied he spoke off the record; the woman at the center of that incident did not want to talk (though she did provide the authors a statement on a separate matter, attesting to the character of Deborah Ramirez, who accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at a different party). They did not speak to Kavanaugh and have been very public about the back-and-forth of trying to get him — though included none of that negotiation in the book. They did speak with Ford, but also don’t rely on her for key moments in her narrative — quoting, for example, a (male) friend of hers to describe how Ford decided to tell her story to the Washington Post.
The book ignited a furor last week after an essay adapted from it ran in the New York Times Sunday Review. This began with the incomprehensible tweet, which suggested having a penis unexpectedly thrust into your face was “harmless fun,” and that the worst thing to come from sexual humiliation would be feeling alienated at an Ivy League school. (After equivocating when asked about it on CNN, Pogrebin later admitted to having written it herself.)
But the piece brought a second wave of confusion and debate. The authors wrote they were better able to corroborate Ramirez’s story — “At least seven people, including Ms. Ramirez’s mother, heard about the Yale incident long before Mr. Kavanaugh was a federal judge.” But then they detail who those people were and how they found out what they knew: a friend who Ramirez told about the incident in the 1990s; two men had heard about what happened, not from Ramirez; a man who heard the story from one of those two men; Ramirez’s mother, whose daughter had told her something upsetting had happened; and two men who “vaguely remember hearing about something happening to Ramirez during freshman year.”
The piece also omitted a key line from the book — the woman at the center of the third incident has told friends she doesn’t remember it and refused to talk about it. The Times later added that information into the piece.
In between, Democratic presidential candidates called for Kavanaugh’s impeachment; Trump called for everyone involved in the story to resign. We were back in "he said, she said" territory, with everyone retreating to their well-worn postures. The “facts” had done little to expose the truth. “What we’ve seen,” Pogrebin told CNN, “and I don’t think we even anticipated to this degree, is that people seized upon certain things and magnified them for their own purposes.”
Is laying out the "he said, she said" and letting readers decide for themselves the right way to go? Do you lay out Rudy Giuliani’s case for corruption in Ukraine, and have Joe Biden’s camp respond? Is that really how we get to the truth, particularly when one side — be it the Trump administration or Weinstein — have a deep understanding of that conceit, and will use it to their advantage?
Kantor and Twohey brilliantly zeroed in on the nondisclosure agreements that Weinstein’s victims were made to sign, allowing them to present an airtight case. Many of the messiest stories in our world don’t leave a document trail. Ford backed up her recollections with the fact that she told friends about it, as well as notes from her therapist. But how do you report out a man being a drunken asshole at parties, and in a way that doesn’t fuel the "he said, she said"? That dynamic does a disservice to the women who are telling their stories and damage to progress on talking about women’s experiences at large.
In the end, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh becomes a book not about this revolutionary and confusing moment but, intentionally or not, about whether to believe the women who speak up. “Unproven as it is, the account of Christine Blasey Ford — to use Martha’s phrase — rings true,” the authors write in their final chapter, referring to a saying often used by Kavanaugh’s own mother, also a judge. They describe how rushed and incomplete the FBI investigation really was — but don’t engage at all with the question of what would have happened if it wasn’t. The question here is bigger than whether the events of 30+ years ago happened or not, it’s what to do with these difficult gray areas of #MeToo.
Maybe some stories aren’t meant to be books — or not books presented as “an investigation,” as The Education of Brett Kavanaugh is. Assume, for a moment, that the allegations are all true: You would be hard-pressed to find a woman who doesn’t know the mediocre guy you avoided at parties, who made inappropriate jokes and was obsessed with his dick. What’s remarkable is how — however slowly and inadequately — society has changed so that, these days, strength is defined by standing up to that guy, rather than trying to laugh off his behavior to fit in with the crowd. And the modern debate, the one that inspires deep emotion, is about what should happen now about these muddled issues from then. Laying out the unsatisfying, inconclusive "he said, she said" is as if it were a deep investigation hurtling you toward some definitive answer is, if anything, a step backward.