There's an old saying in journalism about "the story that's too good to check." Often, that refers to an urban legend that's more fun to believe than to disprove with a phone call or two. But the flip side of the phrase is more troubling. There are some important – yet true – stories that can't easily be "checked" and thus don't make it into print for years, even decades, especially when the powerful are involved. Some cowardly reporters don't want to lose access to the rich and famous, but just as often there are intrepid journalists thwarted by a system designed to protect the elite. Sources suddenly vanish or are intimidated into not speaking on the record – followed by the arrival of high-powered lawyers threatening libel suits and complaining to reporters' bosses.
All of those things seem to have happened in the disturbing case of Harvey Weinstein, the powerhouse Hollywood producer and friend to many top Democratic pols and liberal causes. Late last week, the New York Times reported that Weinstein had used his position of power to sexually harass and try to force himself on young actresses and other women repeatedly for years; the multi-millionaire mogul or his company had settled some eight harassment lawsuits – all of which bought the silence of Weinstein's victims, which freed him to harass again and again. On Sunday night, the Weinstein Co. board of directors terminated him.
The Times reporters were able to get some high-profile targets of this predator on the record, such as the actress Ashley Judd, who said Weinstein invited her to his hotel room for what she thought would be a business meeting only to show up in a bathrobe and ask her to massage him or watch him shower. Others told the Times they were bullied into massaging Weinstein, naked, and after the first article appeared, more women came forward to recall times when Weinstein had been physically and verbally abusive or even pleasured himself, uninvited, in their presence.
Weinstein's repulsive behavior makes him a poster child for toxic male supremacy and a culture of entitlement and abuse that has long permeated America's top institutions. One of the more predictable reactions over the last few days has been the efforts by almost everyone to put a partisan political spin on this. Republicans – delighted, no doubt, to change the conversation on the one-year anniversary of the leak of President Trump's appalling Access Hollywood tape – twisted the Weinstein scandal as a broader indictment of modern liberalism, while Democrats relentlessly tried to bring the focus back to President When-You're-A-Star-They-Let-You-Do-It.
"When you're a star, they let you do it." That was the piggish, sexist, dehumanizing attitude of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein and Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby and Ted Kennedy and Rep. Tim Murphy and etc., etc., etc. Where's the common ideology? There is none, aside from corrosive sexual politics. Maybe that's why powerful men tend to defend themselves in a way that transcends all their other beliefs.
And in a kleptocracy like modern America, every institution is compromised. The media is no exception. The New York Times media critic, Jim Rutenberg, has an excellent column that takes journalists – and others – to task for helping to cover up Weinstein's decades of gross behavior, including those who were chasing lucrative movie or book deals through the Weinstein empire or folks like the Los Angeles Press Club, which gave Weinstein an award just last year. All true, all demoralizing – and yet let's not forget that this is a double-edged sword, because in the end journalism was also the only way to take down this serial predator.
Don't forget all the other players who could have stopped Weinstein years ago but didn't, either because of a culture of intimidation – victims who were cowed into not going public – or greed and corruption. In that latter category I would place Manhattan's incredibly shrinking Democratic district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who failed to pursue 2015 groping allegations against Weinstein and who accepted a $10,000 campaign contribution from a Weinstein lawyer who's a longtime Democratic insider. In the end, the only two people who weren't bought off or scared away were the two Times reporters who broke the story, Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey.
Weinstein and his allies hired a high-powered legal team that had every intention of killing their article, just as they'd been able to do in the past. Nevertheless, Kantor and Twohey persisted, and after months of relentless, fearless reporting, they published the truth. Despite the damning evidence, Weinstein is still threatening to sue the Times, and he's hired the attorney who not only successfully sued the edgy and irreverent website Gawker in the Hulk Hogan case, but who successfully drove Gawker out of business, in a case which sent a chilling message to newsrooms across the country.
That Gawker lawsuit was funded by a billionaire, Peter Thiel, who didn't like its journalism and wanted to destroy it. Take a step back and look at the big picture. The New York Times is, financially, the strongest legacy print news organization in America and can surely withstand whatever Team Weinstein might throw at it, but there are a lot more Gawkers or struggling metro newspapers that are one lost billionaire lawsuit away from insolvency. The oligarchic sharks are circling the water, and now their head shark is ensconced at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Trump has spoken repeatedly of changing libel laws that would make it even easier for people – like his longtime acquaintance Harvey Weinstein – to sue news organizations. There's good reason to believe this won't happen – passing legislation isn't really Trump's thing – but the president does seem determined to use the bully pulpit of the White House to undermine journalism and the 1st Amendment. First as a candidate and now as America's 45th president, Trump has whipped up hatred of the news media to hold his political base together even as he's failed to deliver anything politically to the people who voted for him.
Trump's newest anti-media tweetstorm also included that chilling threat, a call for Senate investigators to stop probing possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election and investigate the media instead. No president in American history has been so hostile to the fundamental concept of a free press in this country. That's because Trump knows that with a GOP Congress and now the Supreme Court in his back pocket, an independent media is the last line of defense that can hold the president accountable and halt the rise of American authoritarianism. What's just as scary is that a lot of the rich and powerful – liberal or conservative – would like to see Trump succeed.