NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - For two decades movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s mistreatment of women was an open secret. So much so that blowing his cover became known as the “white whale” in certain journalistic circles. Exposing his lurid and allegedly criminal behavior proved a tough assignment, not just because of the courage required for victims to go on the record but because of legal agreements that muzzle them. Two new books about Weinstein’s fall illustrate the insidious rule of so-called non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs.
New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and New Yorker contributing writer Ronan Farrow broke a series of stories about Weinstein in the autumn of 2017. The sources ranged from actors like Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd to junior Weinstein Co executive Lauren O’Connor and others. They accused the movie producer of rape and intimidation; he has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex. Their willingness to step forward – risking serious consequences – inspired many women, and men, to speak up about harassment in the workplace, lighting fire to the #MeToo movement.
“She Said” by Kantor and Twohey and “Catch and Kill” by Farrow are accounts of how they cracked the cone of silence. But they add up to much more than a journalistic how-to manual. There’s also an instructive exposé of corporate America’s addiction to NDAs. The Weinstein Co is a bankrupt husk of its former glory because of their reporting. There are other examples where NDAs and bad behavior proved to be ticking time bombs. CBS lost billions of dollars of market value when its Chief Executive Les Moonves stepped aside amid accusations of sexual harassment and allowing a culture that encouraged covering matters up.
Of the two, “She Said” is the tauter page-turner because it mainly focuses on Weinstein. Kantor and Twohey expertly describe the anguish of their sources, including Hollywood royal Gwyneth Paltrow. The “First Lady of Miramax” – the earlier Weinstein movie studio that produced “Shakespeare in Love” and “Pulp Fiction” – worked her network behind the scenes to get others to come forward. Paltrow had reservations herself, too. The lifestyle maven was worried because when Kantor and Twohey approached her, her company, Goop, was under relentless press attack for selling a widely derided feminine product. She was concerned if her name was attached to the Weinstein story it would bring the wrong kind of spotlight, potentially harming the company and its employees.
The common thread in both books, besides the bathrobe-wearing predator, was that no victim wanted to be the first to come forward. Practically speaking, many couldn’t because their settlements prevented them from talking. Ultimately, though, they laid bare a cottage industry populated by high-profile attorneys like Lisa Bloom, previously known as an advocate for women’s rights, and litigation heavy-hitter David Boies. Women were encouraged to sign NDAs because it was “easier” and their lawyers could skim the payoff for fees. Many of the victims weren’t even allowed to keep a copy of their agreements, a double insurance policy against leaks.
When Weinstein’s publicist Lanny Davis told the New York Times duo that Weinstein probably settled with as many as 12 women they were shocked. “Do you think that is normal for men to make so many payoffs?” Twohey asked. Davis shrugged that it was the course of business.
Farrow’s book takes the concept of the cover-up further, detailing how media organizations keep secrets under wraps. He was originally chasing the Weinstein story under contract with NBC News, yet he alleges the network chilled his efforts because it was dealing with its own sexual-harassment settlements involving executives and on-air talent. The title of Farrow’s book refers to a method used by the tabloid publisher American Media, which would purchase damaging stories and documents and keep them in a vault. Chief Executive David Pecker is close to Donald Trump and he used those methods to bury the evidence from women who claimed to have had affairs with the U.S. president.
Buying victims’ silence does at least two problematic things: It stigmatizes the wrong party and it often perpetuates a toxic environment. That means either the harasser involved gets to carry on harassing or worse, or the company concerned doesn’t feel the need to improve its processes for handling accusations of wrong-doing, or both. That’s a pity, when many organizations could use the incentive to improve. McDonald’s employee Kim Lawson, for example, told Kantor and Twohey she wasn’t aware of her options to stop co-workers from harassing her, other than telling her manager. McDonald’s offered anti-harassment training, but the fast food chain acknowledged it didn’t reach many employees.
That’s typical. More than 90% of human-resource professionals say their organizations have anti-harassment policies, yet almost a quarter of non-management employees do not know for sure the policies exist, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Meanwhile, a survey by the organization in 2018 found that 36% of HR professionals reported at least one sexual-harassment allegation at their organization in the prior 12 months.
That disconnect is a risk. Required training for all employees seems one simple answer. Linking top executives’ compensation to minimizing the number of cases reported internally is another way to make sure management takes seriously the creation of a non-hostile environment. Eschewing NDAs – or at least ensuring the victims concerned aren’t silenced – would be another way for companies to ensure they face up to problems in their ranks.
Because of Kantor, Twohey and Farrow’s reporting, more people have been willing to discuss their situations and raise awareness. Lawson at McDonald’s helped inspire a national protest at the fast food chain, for instance. There’s still work to do, but the #MeToo genie is out of the bottle. Soon after the New York Times published its blockbuster piece on Weinstein, he and Bloom, his attorney, still believed he could gain the backing of women’s organizations. “There will be a movement,” Weinstein said. It wasn’t the one he expected.
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