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MLRC Forum Brings Together Pulitzer Winners Jodi Kantor and Ronan Farrow

Panel Tackles Journalistic, Editorial and Legal Challenges of Breaking Harvey Weinstein Scandal

This year's MLRC Forum, which took place immediately before the annual dinner on November 7, brought an all-star panel together to provide an insider's look at the reporting that led to the downfall of one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood.

The Forum, titled "Breaking the Harvey Weinstein Story & Issues in #MeToo Reporting," was sponsored by Microsoft & Prince Lobel. The panel featured investigative reporters Ronan Farrow (of the New Yorker) and Jodi Kantor (of the New York Times), who each was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (along with Ms. Kantor's New York Times colleague, Megan Twohey) for their separate reporting that exposed decades of allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Mr. Weinstein and efforts to cover-up his behavior.

Although Mr. Farrow and Ms. Kantor had previously met and appeared together, the Forum was their first joint panel discussion. A remarkable fact that they reiterated during the discussion was that in the thousands of words that they independently reported and published (just a few days apart), Ms. Kantor and Ms. Twohey in the Times, and Mr. Farrow in the New Yorker, there was virtually no overlap in the sources and allegations printed in the two stories. Indeed, Ms. Kantor indicated that she only became aware that the Times and the New Yorker were in a "footrace" to break the story at the very end.

Joining Ms. Kantor and Mr. Farrow on the panel were Rebecca Corbett, Assistant Managing Editor for the Times, Fabio Bertoni, General Counsel for The New Yorker, and David McCraw, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for the Times, who also served as the panel's moderator. The packed audience of MLRC members gave a rousing applause to the prize-winning journalists at the beginning of the session, but both of them (Mr. Farrow, a Yale Law graduate, and Ms. Kantor, who became a journalist upon dropping-out of Harvard Law School) showed great appreciation for their lawyers' dedication to finding a way for them to report their stories.

Ms. Kantor called Mr. McCraw "unflappable" in the face of legal threats from Weinstein's lawyers, and indicated that while many lawyers see their job as saying "no," Mr. McCraw saw his job as finding a way to say "yes" to publishing the Weinstein story. Mr. Farrow, who had joined the New Yorker at a time when he had a story, but no news outlet, said that Mr. Bertoni and the magazine had "gone out on a limb" to bring him into the fold. Mr. Farrow further expressed his appreciation for the constitutional legal protections for journalists in the United States, noting the difficulty of doing the same kind of reporting in other countries where libel lawsuits pose more of a threat to journalism.

While the challenges of reporting the story ranged from the routine (how to get Gwyneth Paltrow's phone number) to the alarming (being surveilled by private investigators like the Israeli intelligence firm, Black Cube), Ms. Corbett, the Times editor on the story, underscored that the process of corroborating the facts of the Weinstein story was no different than any other story. Nevertheless, Ms. Kantor said that she and Ms. Twohey worked with the knowledge that every phone call they made might be taped and that every email they sent could be leaked, and that this forced them to be extremely disciplined in their approach to reporting the story and avoid making any comments that could be taken out-of-context to discredit them.

With respect to threat letters that were received from Weinstein lawyer, Charles Harder, Mr. Bertoni commented that while they were long (containing multiple pages of document retention demands), they contained little substantive argument that the magazine could be held liable for publishing Mr. Farrow's story.

One of the knottier legal challenges discussed was how to handle the concerns of sources who were afraid of violating the terms of non-disclosure agreements. The consensus on the panel was that news organizations must not offer any legal advice to sources who have signed NDAs, yet Ms. Kantor described a nuanced approach to persuading sources to cooperate notwithstanding any NDAs. The pitch starts with "I'm not a lawyer" and "I cannot give you legal advice," and then is followed by a "but" that appeals to the source's sense of fairness: that the source did not agree (in signing the NDA) to cover up sexual abuse or to help suppress the truth and that "you're not going to let the bullies do that to you," and that they may not be enforceable.

Ms. Kantor noted that the Weinstein story resonated more than other sexual harassment allegations because the victims/witnesses were, in the main, famous actresses the public knew and believed. While both Ms. Kantor and Mr. Farrow expressed being gratified that publishing their stories on Mr. Weinstein have led to a #MeToo movement that has enabled so many other victims of sexual abuse to tell their stories, Ms. Kantor said that she is "haunted" by the number of emails she still receives from women who want her to tell their stories, an experience that Mr. Farrow too echoed. They both indicated that they are heartbroken that they are not able to tell the stories of all these other women.
 
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