Roundtable: Powerful Men in Media and Politics Finally Face Reckoning for Sexual Harassment and Assault

BuzzFeed’s Katie Baker and The Intercept’s Betsy Reed join the Intercepted podcast to discuss politics, sexual assault, and the messy process of change.

WASHINGTON, DC:  After delivering a speech at a conference marking the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, Brandeis University professor, Anita Hill, gives an interview on the topic of discrimination based on gender, at Georgetown University Law School on Capitol Hill Thursday, October 6, 2011.  (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC: After delivering a speech at a conference marking the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, Brandeis University professor, Anita Hill, gives an interview on the topic of discrimination based on gender, at Georgetown University Law School on Capitol Hill Thursday, October 6, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In the wake of the exposure of Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual predations, every day seems to bring fresh evidence that men in virtually every industry and sector of society have abused their power over women by harassing them sexually with impunity. With a new awareness, the public is now re-examining cases like that of Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of having raped her in a hotel room in 1978, when he was Arkansas’s attorney general — and Anita Hill, who famously confronted a panel of skeptical male senators when she came forward with her story of being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, subsequently confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. Today, men are finally facing accountability for these abuses — but the long history of harassment and cover-ups has taken a huge toll on women that will not be simple to reverse. Host Jeremy Scahill talks with Intercept Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed and Katie Baker, a BuzzFeed reporter who broke many important stories on this beat well before the “Weinstein Moment,” about politics, sexual assault, and the messy process of change.


Jeremy Scahill: Katie Baker is an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News. She’s tenaciously covered this beat for years and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief of The Intercept. Welcome, both of you, to Intercepted.

Katie Baker: Thank you for having me.

Betsy Reed: Thanks, Jeremy.

JS: I was trying to think of any kind of historical analogue to what we’re witnessing right now with so many people coming forward and stating what happened to them at the hands of powerful men, whether they’re in Hollywood or media, etc. And there seems like there is, in many of these cases, this immediate sense of there’s going to be accountability right now. The closest thing I can think of is the overthrow of dictatorships or kind of like the Arab Spring where you see this sort of instant reaction, the likes of which I can’t recall another moment in time that would be similar to this. How do you see this moment that we’re in right now, given all of the reporting you’ve done for years on these issues?

KB: I think what’s unprecedented is not just people sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment, but the almost immediate accountability that appears to be happening, at least with famous people. I’ve written about a lot of powerful men who women accused of sexual assault and harassment who faced bad publicity but no repercussions. And I think what’s happening right now is really exciting and overwhelming because it does feel like the consequences are happening — literally the same day, in many cases.

JS: A lot of the coverage of this right now links back to the Harvey Weinstein moment and this deluge of allegations against him from a variety of very prominent women in Hollywood. You also have the reality of Donald Trump being president and openly bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Donald Trump: You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet. Just kissing. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything.

Billy Bush: Whatever you want.

Donald Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

JS: Not to mention the fact that there are serious questions about whether he’s raped people or committed acts beyond what we already know that he’s owned. Your view on where we are right now.

BR: Well, I think Donald Trump’s election in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape and all the allegations that the New York Times had reported before that, it really tapped into a well of fury and outrage among women. I think it helped establish that this was a really legitimate area for mainstream newspapers to pursue. It takes a lot of resources, as we all know, to pursue these stories, and the New York Times devoted two top reporters for almost a year, right, on the [Weinstein] story.

But it is ironic that basically Trump seems to have gotten off scot-free and it’s perfectly appropriate for him to be facing heat. It’s unclear what path that could take politically, but it’s very legitimate, how those women feel who came forward with their stories about Trump and basically felt like they were slapped in the face by the result of the election.

JS: Now, Katie, you’ve written about Juanita Broaddrick, who now for several decades has been emphatic that she was sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton.

Juanita Broaddrick: It was not consensual.

Lisa Myers: You’re saying that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted you, that he raped you?

Juanita Broaddrick: Yes.

JS: What do we know about Bill Clinton and sexual assault, sexual harassment? You did a deep dive into Juanita Broaddrick. What’s the truth of that as you understand it from your reporting?

KB: In the summer of 2016, my editor Ben Smith suggested I try and profile Juanita Broaddrick because no mainstream media outlet had done so since she first spoke out in the late ’90s. I did not know who Juanita Broaddrick was. I’m not that young — I’m 30. So, it’s not as if — I had no excuse. And when I started researching and reading up on her extremely credible, consistent allegations, I was really shocked that I had no idea who she was. And I asked people of various ages, older, as well as younger, and even if people kind of remembered her, people just thought, “Oh, well, those were not credible,” or they didn’t quite remember them. But Juanita Broaddrick has said for years that Bill Clinton raped her in a hotel room, not a gray area situation. She said that she was supposed to have a business meeting with him when he forcibly raped her.

And the reasons why she didn’t speak out right away are extremely credible, the same types of reasons that we’re hearing almost every day right now: She was scared, she didn’t think anybody would believe her, she fell intimidated, and she only ultimately spoke out because reporters were on to her. She didn’t seek out reporters — sort of like what we’re seeing with Roy Moore, and his accusers didn’t go to the Washington Post, the Washington Post came to them. Juanita was bombarded until she finally sat down and tried to tell her story and then she was almost immediately disbelieved and dismissed.

BR: I was really struck by, in your piece, how you show this very revealing chronicle of the costs when these kinds of cases are politicized and used as weaponized political footballs. And, as much as you are respectful to Broaddrick and her credibility in her story, you also raise some really hard questions about how she allowed her story to be used.

KB: Completely. It was a really, really complicated story to write, especially at that time. That was before Juanita had officially decided to essentially join the Trump campaign and go to the debates and sit there and really campaign for him.

Juanita Broaddrick: Hi, I’m Juanita Broaddrick, and I’m here to support Donald Trump. I tweeted recently, and Mr. Trump retweeted me, that actions speak louder than words. Mr. Trump may’ve said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me, and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.

KB: Juanita Broaddrick kept telling me that the only reason she was voting for Trump was because she didn’t want Hillary to win, and that she wasn’t ever going to work for his campaign. And I could kind of tell that that she was lying and that it was the direction she was going in.

But I also completely understood why, because if you find her allegations credible, she has been dismissed not just by the Democratic Party, but by the types of progressive organizations that typically support and believe rape victims. And then, at the same time, you had Breitbart treating her story with the sensitivity of Jezebel or something, going, “Well, it’s very common for rape victims to not come forward and this all makes a lot of sense.” And then you had liberal publications completely ignoring it, and I agree that the politicization of sexual assault claims is really troubling and I think that we’re seeing that happening right now as well.

JS: Betsy, I want to ask you about this other major high-profile case that took place during the same time period in terms of when it came to public light, and that was the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill, even this past week, was on the Sunday talk shows and was calling out both Republicans and Democrats for their role not only in perpetrating these kinds of crimes against women, but in building this wall of silence around them.

Anita Hill: I think we’re really at the tip of the iceberg here. Many stories have already come out. But there are still women who are marginalized, women who are in minimum wage jobs, women of color who may be fearful of coming forward with their stories because they don’t want to embarrass people racially. There are all kinds of things at play.

JS: Clarence Thomas wouldn’t be confirmed to the Supreme Court today, is that your assessment?

BR: I would say that’s a fair assumption. I remember personally watching it, being completely glued to it and horrified.

Anita Hill: After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next, and telling the world about it, are the two most difficult things, experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and sleepless number — great number of sleepless nights, that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends.

BR: I just couldn’t believe, you know, having this feminist education, I couldn’t believe that things were really this bad. That not only would you get harassed like this, but you come forward, and then to be subjected to this kind of character destruction.

And then I thought, you know, sort of hopefully, well, this will provoke a conversation, there’s a lot of feminist organizing around it. But actually then what we saw over the succeeding couple of decades is not a whole lot of progress, and, in fact, we had the development of this entire system which, in many cases, has served the interests of the harassers. As we saw with Weinstein, basically, he had this whole apparatus with lawyers and NDAs and settlements.

And if you look now at what’s gone on in Congress, that now it’s under the spotlight, what’s happening with the congressional system for investigating reports of sexual harassment, in light of the accusations against John Conyers, it’s coming under a long-overdue scrutiny that it’s essentially a mechanism for covering up all of these payouts, and there are calls to reveal not only the people in the last year but going retroactively. If that happens, if we actually get some sunlight into that and see what’s happened over the last 20 years, you’re gonna see a lot more people going down.

JS: The House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was on Meet the Press this weekend and she quite clearly tried to draw a distinction between the allegations against her Democratic colleagues and Roy Moore.

Nancy Pelosi: John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women, the Violence Against Women Act, which the left wing, right wing is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that. And he did great work on that. But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he won’t do —

Chuck Todd: Why don’t you — ?

Nancy Pelosi: May I finish my sentence?

Chuck Todd: Sure, sure.

Nancy Pelosi: That he will the right thing.

JS: And a lot of people went berserk at her, and I think rightly so. What did you make of the way that she talked about John Conyers and the allegations against him versus Roy Moore and the allegations against him?

KB: Well, I think this goes back to what we were just discussing about Juanita Broaddrick, the politicization of sexual assault claims, the way that they’re used by politicians to attack the opposite side, but as we’re seeing now, and as we’ve seen for decades, when it comes to their own party, both sides are not very good at taking accountability.

And I definitely think that there’s no accountability without transparency, which is why all of this news that’s coming out, from Weinstein to Conyers, about all of these confidential settlements and NDAs. I report a lot on academia and they call it “passing the trash” there. If people are allowed to pay out settlements and there’s no record, and people can just go from job to job, whether that’s in Hollywood, in academia and politics, without anybody knowing what really happened, in my experience, at least, that means often times that they face multiple accusations of the same behavior.

BR: I do think that we are seeing some progress, though, in that there are prominent Democrats really calling for accountability for Al Franken and John Conyers, really vocal people like Jackie Spears and Kristen Gillibrand. So, I mean, I think there is more willingness now —

KB: Definitely.

BR: — than before, you know, Nancy Pelosi aside, to actually really clean our own house first. And you even see this with Fox News, right? And some of the women who came forward there and what ultimately happened.

KB: Well, something I was really struck by is last week when Sarah Huckabee Sanders said:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders: I think in one case, specifically, Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the president hasn’t. I think that’s a very clear distinction. Major.

JS: What Trump has sort of shown is if you just bulldoze through this and you refuse to cede any territory, it’s like — the guy won the presidency.

KB: Right.

JS: He has more than a dozen allegations, specific allegations of either rape or other forms of sexual assault and harassment against him, he openly brags about this, and he won. I mean the message that has sent, and I think the Roy Moore thing taps into it, is just deny, deny, deny, fake news, fake news, and that’s my model for doing it.

Donald Trump: He totally denies. He says it didn’t happen. And, you have to listen to him also. You’re talking about, he said 40 years ago, this did not happen. So, you know.

BR: That is partly the consequence of what we’ve been talking about, like all of these charges have been so politicized for so long. The nasty way that the parties operate with opposition research kind of allowed Trump to say, “This is just fake news. This is just another example of the Hillary oppo research.” And then look at Bill, and then he trots out all of Bill’s accusers and he puts them in the front row, and it just became part of that circus.

JS: Let’s talk about men in our industry, in news media, the most prominent recent case is probably Glenn Thrush, who was at Politico, now at the New York Times, and he basically has done what I would call a sorta culpa, where he’s saying, “Oh yeah, maybe I was inappropriate, but I was an alcoholic.” What do you make of those kinds of responses — Glenn Thrush is not alone in sort of treating it that way.

KB: Something that I am really interested in thinking more about is what do we do with all of these men, if the #metoo movement shows how endemic not just sexual assault and rape are, but sexual harassment and other coercive forms of gender-based discrimination, whatever you want to call it, from more minor grievances all the way down to rape. And I think if we’re going to talk about everything on the spectrum, which I have been trying to do for years in my reporting and which I really support, we have to think: What does rehabilitation look like? What does it mean for someone to be held accountable? You know, we can’t just expect all the men in our lives to disappear from the face of the earth. I don’t want to send more people to prison, personally. So, you know, what do you do? Should companies be held accountable? Should institutions be held accountable?

Unfortunately, I do not have the answers, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and I do think that I don’t want to put more responsibility on the victims to have to hold their assaulters or harassers accountable and make sure they do better. But I also don’t feel that optimistic about institutions doing the work to make sure people are going through counseling or whatever else we decide would show that somebody was really changing their behavior.

JS: Dylan Byers, who now is at CNN, he now has deleted this tweet because he said he was misunderstood, but he tweeted that obviously the focus should be on the victims, but what an incredible “drain of talent” this has resulted in.

And it’s like, first of all, I want to ask him, “What is the world missing from Mark Halperin disappearing from our lives?” Zero. It makes Morning Joe slightly more tolerable, but what should the consequences be? I don’t necessarily mean legally in courts, but in this industry.

BR: In terms of the talent drain, what my immediate thought was: What about the massive drain of talent that this epidemic of sexual harassment has produced in terms of women in leadership? There are countless stories if you look hard, it’s like, OK, what happened after this person was harassed? A lot of them have taken a different turn, they choose a different career, they leave that organization, and they don’t have that path to rise up.

So, I think that’s what we need to be focused on, and also on the opportunities that this kind of crisis and discussion creates for a different kind of path to leadership for women, because I think it really does — I mean, women are not perfect in power. There are women in many of these scenarios who played shameful roles. Like Charlie Rose’s producer, right, was an enabler and has really, you know, apologized for what she done. So, it is not perfect to have a woman in power, but I do believe it makes a difference and I do think that if we can really gain anything from this moment, you know, it’s going to shift the overall gender power dynamics in the industry.

KB: I completely agree with Betsy. I mean, one thing I hope comes out of this moment is ensuring that there are more women in positions of power, as imperfect as they are.

BR: I wonder, maybe it’s just a fantasy, but it is interesting to imagine what Hollywood would be like, what changes in film and television we’ll see, if this genuinely empowers women in that industry in producing and directing and writing roles, because I think we do see the sort of sexism of the behind-the-scenes part of the industry reflected on the screen.

JS: I wanted to ask you both, you know, some weeks ago it came to public light that there was this Google spreadsheet — that was shared by, we don’t know necessarily the specific individuals, but led to believe that it’s women in media — that was referred to as the Shitty Media Men list, and you had dozens of names of people working in media and then it had specific allegations against them and some of those cases ended up in the public light. And, in some cases, there seems to be validity to it.

In others, it seems plausible that some of the men that are being accused on that list by anonymous individuals may not have anything that they’ve done, and it’s been used by the Mike Cernovichs of our current world to try to destroy people’s careers. What do you think about that, specifically, that Shitty Media Men list, but also the anonymity of some of the allegations against a variety of men?

BR: First of all, it has to be understood as what it was originally intended, as a document to be shared among women privately. It was never intended, in the first place, for public consumption, and the accusations on there, while, as you note, some of them have turned into real cases where real victims have come forward, that is not true of a lot of the stuff on that list.

And we do have to take this whole situation very seriously, and part of that means distinguishing when you have an actual credible accuser, a person who’s making a specific claim, and a random, anonymous list circulating that doesn’t even have any particular individual attached to any of the allegations on it. So that belongs in a different category, and we have to take seriously what evidence is before us, and that means believing women who come forward as a starting point.

KB: As far as the list goes, when I first saw it, my first thought was, “This is not a true community resource,” because it is anonymously accessible and edited by anyone. And I support women gossiping and sharing stories, and I think that’s crucial, and I understand that women that aren’t as connected, or that are newer to media, might really benefit from a list when they couldn’t get that gossip firsthand. But definitely as a reporter who, as I just said, really thinks a lot about how to support peoples’ stories, my first thought when I saw the list was, “Oh my God, this is not going to end well for the women on the list, you know? Who knows if they’re even writing this themselves.” I definitely found it alarming.

And the more I thought about it, I thought, well, this is a messy solution to a messy problem. And I’ve written about women coming together in similar situations in different industries before, and often people feel like they have no other option, especially when investigations are often covered up with confidentiality agreements. Or otherwise, I think that people often feel that they have no other option but to write on the bathroom wall, so to speak.

And so I am really sympathetic to it and I understand it, but definitely as a reporter, my first thought when I saw the list was: “Is this the best way to create change?”

However, it’s been a month or so, and from my perspective, at least, the list has led to some really important reporting, and as far as I know, I haven’t heard of any unfair repercussions as a result of the list. Again, I think the best way to put it is I think it’s a messy solution to a messy problem.

JS: Katie, as we wrap up, I wanted to make sure that we address the fact this is not just famous men who do these things or prominent men who these things that need to be held accountable. You’ve written about powerful non-globally famous or even nationally famous men alleged to have raped people. Your latest report is documenting these 180-plus allegations of sexual assault at a company called Massage Envy, which is a chain of spas around the country.

Maybe you could talk, tying in this piece and some of the other reporting you’ve done, about how women across the country are facing the same kinds of sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment that Harvey Weinstein’s victims face, but there really isn’t reporting on it.

KB: My story was about predominantly women going to Massage Envy spas and being very brutally sexually assaulted by male massage therapists. There are just so many reports of it, and after looking into it, I found that the policies and practices of the company is to investigate these claims internally without any training or outside help. And I think from colleges to businesses such as Massage Envy, there are a lot of companies and institutions that really care about protecting their brand, sometimes more so than assuring that these complaints are handled appropriately. But then, of course, our criminal justice system is completely awful at investigating and handling rape claims, which is something I also report a lot about, so I hope that this cultural moment that is happening now trickles down so that people whose assaulters are not famous are still being addressed even if they’re not Harvey Weinstein or a politician.

JS: Betsy, I have to ask you, because you’re the editor-in-chief of The Intercept, a former employee of First Look, our parent company, who also did work on Intercept stories over a certain period of time, Morgan Marquis-Boire, there are very serious allegations of rape that have been leveled against him. The Verge did a very in-depth report on these allegations, we also — I mean there are specific women I know when this started coming out told me that friends of theirs had been victims of him. Maybe you could explain to people who listen to this show, or are supporters or readers of The Intercept, your perspective on that case, because you just had to deal with the fact that you had a man who was employed at our institution and did do work and was bylined on some pieces at The Intercept accused of very heinous, serious crimes, including rape.

BR: Morgan Marquis-Boire was a director of security here, he was working directly with The Intercept in 2015, so I overlapped with him for about nine months, and then he went on to a different role within First Look, and throughout, we actually did not hear any allegations like this about him, and his employment here ended in September of this past year, right before, like three weeks before all of this spilled out on social media. So, I can understand how it kind of looked like, “Oh, we discovered this and fired him.” But that didn’t happen. We were as shocked as anyone else reading this on social media, and horrified. And we also had no kind of specific allegations from anyone to follow up on, because this did not happen to anyone who’s on our staff.

And that was not true of Freedom of the Press Foundation and Citizen’s Lab, his other employers, and they did their own internal process of investigation, and they made statements. But since we didn’t have an accuser, there was nothing to actually follow up on, until we saw the exhaustive and chilling report in The Verge by Sarah Jeong, which laid out in painful detail many very specific claims from multiple different women. And, at that point, we felt like it was really important for us to make a statement about it, and to say that we have no tolerance for this kind of behavior here, but not only that, that we recognize that this person was in our orbit and he’s accused of these things and we’re determined to stamp out misogyny and sexual harassment and abuse and do anything — everything — in our power to confront it and to support the women who have come forward.

JS: We’re going to leave it there. Betsy Reed, thank you very much for joining us.

BR: Thank you, Jeremy.

JS: Katie Baker, thank you and congrats on such great reporting over a sustained period of time, it’s a great public service you do.

KB: Thank you so much.

JS: Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief of The Intercept and Katie Baker is an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News.

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