Rebecca Corbett on her role as the editor of the Weinstein story: “#MeToo is not the same thing as journalism”

The New York Times's investigations editor delivered the 2020 Reuters Memorial Lecture. Here she discusses her work
Rebecca Corbett

Photograph by Leslye Davis. / The New York Times

25th February 2020

“People would say that two women had broken the Weinstein story, but it had really been three,” wrote Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in She Said, the book on their award-winning investigation. The third woman is Rebecca Corbett, who leads the investigations department at The New York Times. As an editor, Corbett supervised every step of the process. She paired up Kantor and Twohey and encouraged them to keep their eyes on the bigger story. “I felt from the beginning that this should be about more than one man,” she says.

Rebecca Corbett started her career as an assistant editor at the Waterville Morning Sentinel, a small local newspaper in Maine. After working briefly in Connecticut, she joined the Baltimore Sun, where she oversaw award-winning projects and worked with a young reporter named David Simon, who went on to create The Wire. Corbett joined The New York Times’s Washington bureau in 2004 as enterprise editor. Since then, she has edited many Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, including the investigation on the secret surveillance of Americans by the NSA in 2005. 

An hour after The New York Times sent a news alert with the Weinstein verdict, I talked to Corbett on the phone. She was at her newsroom, waiting for Kantor and Twohey to gather reactions from some of their sources. Some of those women were stunned and relieved. Some were quite emotional as the whole saga came to an end.  

“A bunch of us walked over to the Metro desk when they were waiting for the actual verdict to come in,” she said. One of the city editors was editing the story from the court reporter. Another woman was writing the news alert with the verdict. Kantor and Twohey were right behind them. Corbett was sitting right next to them. “It was a pretty amazing finale to two and a half years of coverage,” she said. “For a lot of women, this is like: ‘Wow! People listened to these women.” This is a moment that really matters.’”

I asked Corbett about her role as an editor, her work on the Harvey Weinstein story, and the change in attitudes towards sexual harassment in the workplace. Our conversation has been lighted edited for clarity and length. 

Q. A recent piece from The Economist suggested that attitudes towards sexual harassment haven’t changed so much in the United States in the last couple of years. What’s been the impact of the Weinstein story?  

A. On the one hand, this was a trial about one man and his encounters with two women. It was not about anything bigger. Its symbolic importance, however, was much larger than that. 

Weinstein argued from the get-go that he was the victim of a #MeToo movement that had gone too far. His defence lawyer argued that. And many people recognized that he was not tried for a whole range of charges, that it was a narrow thing. But pursuing these cases, in particular, was risky for the prosecution. It was a watershed moment. They decided to push the boundaries a little bit here and the fact that he was in fact convicted demonstrates that when women speak out they can be heard and men can be held accountable. 

Q. How big do you think has been the broader impact of the #MeToo movement?

A. #MeToo is not the same thing as journalism and it does not adhere to the same standards. After the Weinstein story first ran, there were stories about other men and many men were held accountable or fired. This led to a cultural consensus that workplace sexual harassment should not be tolerated. What to do about that consensus and how to implement it and what the appropriate remedies are… There’s a whole lot of grey areas here. Last week, Michael Bloomberg was forced to talk about non-disclosure agreement and workplace sexual harassment. The day before, Condé Nast, the big magazine publishing company, announced that they would no longer make secret settlements. Some things are changing.

Pursuing these cases was risky for the prosecution. It was a watershed moment. The fact that he was in fact convicted demonstrates that when women speak out, they can be heard and men can be held accountable

Rebecca Corbett
investigations editor at The New York Times

Some states have introduced laws reducing statutes of limitation, broadening the definition of sexual harassment. So there’s a lot in flux. But it’s a very complicated and sometimes ambiguous problem and there’s a huge debate in this country and elsewhere about what to do about it. 

Q. You paired up Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and put them to work on the Harvey Weinstein story. Why did you think they would be a good team?

A. They both work for my department. We often pair people up on stories when we think that it would be more efficient to have more than one reporter on them. This was clear after the first few weeks doing some exploratory reporting. We began not knowing anything. But within a few weeks, Jodi heard various accounts about alleged sexual misconduct involving Weinstein. So there was something there to explore. But this was going to be hard and take time. 

I also thought Megan was a classic investigative reporter. She had done a lot of investigative reporting, some of it involving criminal behaviour and exploitation of children. Jodi is a deep-dive enterprising reporter. She is very good at conceptual stories. She did this pretty amazing story about Amazon and workplace abuses in 2015. So I thought they both had overlapping skills but also complementary skills. 

Both Jodi and Megan are very good at getting people to talk. Megan is particularly good with the people who had fewer reasons to talk. Jodi is very good with alleged victims, people affected by this kind of behaviour. It seemed to me that their strengths were really well matched and would help to expedite the story. 

Q. How would you describe your role in the Harvey Weinstein story?

A. As an investigative editor, I become pretty immersed in any story that my reporters are working on. I have a pretty good sense of the material. There are a lot of times when there is a lot of back and forth about the strategy. How do you write an email that would be intriguing enough to someone that they may respond but not so explicit that it would scare them away? Do we go to someone’s house and wait on the doorstep? This can work very effectively sometimes, but in other cases, it really alienates people. 

From the get-go, I understood one thing. Journalists had been covering sexual harassment complaints for decades. The whole point of this exercise was not to make it just about one person and what an accuser said. It was to use the tool of investigative journalism to really make a case with evidence, with documents, with memos, with emails, with witness testimony, with private settlements. All along, I felt from the beginning that this should be about more than one man

The entertainment industry has a particular history about the way it has treated women. So one of the big questions was: if there is a reason to believe Weinstein engaged in some of this behaviour, were there people and institutions in Hollywood that were complicit with him? That was the story.

The whole point of this exercise was to use the tool of investigative journalism to really make a case with memos, with emails, with witness testimony, with private settlements. I felt from the beginning that this should be about more than one man

Rebecca Corbett
investigations editor at The New York Times

From other coverage we had done, it was clear that sexual harassment was a systemic problem and that there were systemic reasons why it persisted. I also thought it was really important to explain what those reasons were and demonstrate that to readers. We were not able to fit that all into the first story. But we came back and did other stories. 

There was a story we ran around six weeks after the first story where we talked about what we called “the complicity machine”: institutions that allowed the whole casting couch culture in Hollywood to persist. And that complicity machine is about the tabloid press and it’s about private investigators and lawyers and Disney and all sorts of things. So it’s possible that someone else may not have been so intent on pursuing those aspects of it after the first story. But I felt very strongly that we had to continue with the Weinstein coverage and look at that stuff. 

Q. The Harvey Weinstein story had a much bigger impact than the accusations against Donald Trump. Why? 

A. I think there were a couple of reasons for that.  

Before the Harvey Weinstein story, we had the first Bill Cosby trial when the jury was deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial. Then the Donald Trump allegations during the campaign went nowhere. Megan did a lot of reporting on that, which was published before the Access Hollywood tape. 

But then The New York Times broke the Bill O’Reilly story about the multi-million dollar settlements paid to women who had accused him of sexual harassment. What was amazing to me about that story is that he was cable news biggest star and he was fired in less than three weeks. And he wasn’t fired because Fox News learned about these allegations. He was fired because advertisers were concerned that women consumers would be appalled that they were still advertising on Bill O’Reilly. Suddenly, people who were stars could become a liability for their employers and that would shift attitudes inside corporations. 

By the time Harvey Weinstein came along, he was fired within three days and he was fired by the company he founded. 

Q. What is the second reason?

A. The other reason I think the Weinstein story had such a big impact has to do with the actresses themselves. People weirdly identify with people they have seen on screen. They weren’t just strangers. A lot of these actresses were part of the story of how Hollywood portrayed femininity and what it means to be a woman. So the actual story-telling metaphor was part of the impact. I also think there were so many accusations that it immediately became clear that there was a pattern. 

So many women around the globe eventually spoke out… And again these were unverified comments. They don’t have to be fair or follow the standards of journalism but they still reflect the global outpour. Whether every individual allegation is correct, I have no clue. But this demonstrates that so many women have had these experiences. In the last couple of years, men discovered that their wives, their mothers, their daughters, their colleagues all had some type of workplace sexual harassment stories. They never told them because they were so common they thought it was not worth it.

Q. The night before publication you stayed overnight in the newsroom to work on the story. According to the book, “making the words in the story tighter, clearer, and stronger.” Sometime before dawn, you fell asleep at your desk for 45 minutes. At 7 am, you left the building, showered in a hotel room and came back to your desk. At this stage of the process, what kind of things are you looking at?   

A. Some stories are pretty straightforward. Others take a very long time. I worked on the NSA wiretapping story and that had been in the works for more than a year. This story didn’t take so long. But what you often do right before publication is looking at different pieces of it. 

In the night you mention, I knew we were going to publish soon. We had spent most of that day (and the day before that) deciding whether we were going to include this thing or that thing. The reporters had made some changes in the story. Another editor had made changes in the story too. So I needed to read the whole thing without distraction and make sure that it addressed both all the big questions and the small questions. 

There were several things we were not totally resolved whether to include or not. The sad truth is that during the day I’m so engaged in meetings with reporters that I can’t really edit without distraction until later in the evening. So I was looking at everything: the language but also a couple of things I still had some nagging concerns about and I wanted to discuss with the reporters, a couple of paragraphs that I deleted. 

Q. There’s a pretty dramatic scene in the book when editor-in-chief Dean Baquet, Jodi, Megan, you and others have a final conversation with Harvey Weinstein before publication. It must have been an incredible meeting to go through. 

A. Editors don’t typically go to meetings with sources or story subjects. But the reporters wanted me to come and Dean [Baquet] wanted me to come, partly because he was such a combative personality. 

I used to work in Washington full time and I edited a lot of stories that dealt with classified material and national security stuff. I was also the Wikileaks editor, the Snowden editor, the NSA editor. I’ve gone with reporters to many meetings where public officials tried to make the case that we shouldn’t publish new information. 

Over the course of the last couple of days, there were two meetings with Harvey and his team over the phone. He had with him all his hired hands. The final conversation was the one when Dean got on the phone and said: “We are going to push the button. Get the statement to us.” It was an amazing moment. Harvey kept delaying and was very focused on asking whether Gwyneth Paltrow was in the story. She was his symbol. She was the symbol of this princess going back to the days of Shakespeare in Love. She was a star that he created and he feared anything she might say more than anything else. 

So we told him she was not in the first story and they started sending the statements and the statements were pretty amazing. One referenced some Jay-Z song but got the lyrics wrong. Another one said he would fight like the NRA. Another one was from a lawyer and included some threatening language. There was this cacophony of statements that all seemed to be across purposes. So in the picture where we were all just leaning over, I was standing over our copy editor looking at the statements and saying: “OK, use this quote.” Then we all did one last read and hit the button. 

Q. How did you fall in love with journalism?

A. I wasn’t deeply into politics. When I started college, I had plans to go to medical school and I was a Science major. But I loved writing and literature and I decided to be an English major. My unrealistic plan was to be a documentary filmmaker. But my liberal arts college had a very small film department and I’m not technically inclined. So I had no clue about how to do any of this. Then I got a job at the Waterville Morning Sentinel, a local newspaper in Maine, and I loved being in the newsroom. And also I’m a very reserved personality and journalism gives you a complete reason to be snoopy about things. So that’s basically how it began.  

Q. Most people go into journalism because they want to be reporters. How did you become an editor? 

A. When I started to work in Maine, my job title was technically assistant editor. So I was doing a lot of rewriting and managing of these amateur correspondents all over the state of Maine. After two years or so, my boss left and they gave me his job. Then I married my husband and he joined the Associated Press in Connecticut. So it was easier for me to get a job as an editor than as a reporter and I sort of became an editor accidentally. In Baltimore, sometimes I said to my colleagues that I wanted to do some work as a reporter and they told me: “But you are such a good editor. We can’t let you do that. We need you.”

Temperamentally, I’m a low maintenance personality. I love working with people. On occasion, I do writing. We just call it rewriting. It’s great to have ownership of some things. But I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve done so much that I didn’t feel the need to cover City Hall or something.

If you want to know more...

Rebecca Corbett delivered the Reuters Memorial Lecture in March 2020 at Lady Margaret Hall. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion with Alan Rusbridger, Chair of the Reuters Institute's Steering Committee and former editor-in-ehief of The Guardian; Helen Lewis, Journalist and author of the book Difficult Women: A History Of Feminism in 11 Fights; and Javier Moreno Barber, editor-in-chief of El País America. You can watch the event below.