By JIM RUTENBERG
Because of the stories that have come out over the last week concerning the complaints about the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, including two deeply reported New York Times investigative stories and an 8,000-word report from The New Yorker, readers now know all about his alleged pattern of sexual misconduct that victimized numerous women stretching back decades. And many of them are asking on social media why the story didn’t come out sooner.
As I wrote last week, the answer lies in the power Mr. Weinstein had to mint stars and make millions for his investors and production partners, not to mention the interdependence (some might say codependence) of the entertainment and news industries.
There is also another dynamic at play, involving something akin to a protection racket. This is the network of aggressive public relations flacks and lawyers who guard the secrets of those who employ them and keep their misdeeds out of public view.
The racket is a formidable opponent for anyone who is trying to expose the truth. It uses everything at its disposal to wear down reporters or break their wills, either by wooing them with invitations to premieres, access to stars and, in some cases, possible book and movie deals.
If the charm offensive doesn’t work, it may resort to smears and legal action.
Any news organization that goes up against the protection racket has to be ready for a fight and has to have enough confidence in its reporting to face down a possible lawsuit.
At a time when the news media is under financial distress, when billionaires with political agendas or personal grudges, like the Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, have shown a willingness to fund lawsuits able to run media entities out of business — as Mr. Thiel did to Gawker — legal threats are newly intimidating.
It is far worse for the victims of those in power, who are all too aware that speaking up may lead to stalled careers and ruined reputations. Many women who have fought back against sleazy, powerful men by filing lawsuits against them often end up with the consolation prize of an out-of-court settlement that comes complete with a nondisclosure agreement dictating that they must remain silent on the matter forevermore or face a steep financial penalty.
In this climate, breaking a story that includes tough accusations against those in high places requires more than a scrappy reporter with a notebook. It means having the resources to work the story exclusively for months. It means withstanding any legal challenges that may come. It means coaxing understandably reluctant victims to speak out against those who have the means and motivation to crush them.
In the days since The New York Times first published an article on Mr. Weinstein that named names and included details of at least eight settlements, a number of reporters and editors have spoken of their own missed chances to write the story earlier. For many journalists, Mr. Weinstein was the white whale that got away.
Bruce Headlam, a former editor for the late Times media columnist David Carr, told me that Mr. Carr twice came close to nailing down a story about abuses committed by Mr. Weinstein. In both cases, the accuser “backed out after agreeing to talk.”
As David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, told me on Wednesday, a news organization cannot go after a powerful figure or institution if it does not have the resources for lawyers, fact checkers and experienced editors who won’t be intimidated by the protection racket.
“Journalistic institutions like these are rare and the times, the economic and political times, have made them fragile and essential at the same time,” Mr. Remnick said. “The stakes are very high.”
Publishing aggressive stories like the ones about Mr. Weinstein can be costly in other ways. As The Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, told me, “Harvey Weinstein is an advertiser – but that never even crossed my mind.”
Mr. Baquet added that he did not know how much the Weinstein Company spent to advertise its movies in The Times, but the newspaper was too large to be influenced by any amount. “That’s the other thing – you have to have the size and the history to not even take that into account.”
It costs serious money to give two reporters the go-ahead to devote months to an article that may or may not pan out, as The Times did in the case of Mr. Weinstein, especially as legal threats loom.
The threats, however, were combined with a personal touch from Mr. Weinstein, which, Mr. Baquet said, he rebuffed. “Harvey Weinstein a few times reached out to me to talk about the story, and I told him I did not think it was appropriate for him to talk to the executive editor about a story,” Mr. Baquet said. “He should be talking to reporters.”
Over the years, Mr. Weinstein spent as much time schmoozing reporters as he did berating them. A.J. Benza, a former gossip columnist at The Daily News – and, for a time, my colleague on the paper’s “Hot Copy” gossip column – described how Mr. Weinstein would provide him with access to the director Quentin Tarantino or the actress Salma Hayek as they were making their way into Hollywood’s stratosphere. He also provided Mr. Benza with invitations to his famous Oscar parties.
“I’ll put it this way: There’s a certain feeling you get when you’re allowed in those parties and other journalists are on the other side of the rope and can’t get through,” Mr. Benza said.
Tina Brown, with whom Mr. Weinstein started Talk magazine in 1999, wrote this week that the mogul kept a number of his journalists on his good side with sweet consultancy or development deals with Miramax.
“Another of his co-opting tactics,” she wrote for the Women in the World Summit she sponsors with The New York Times, “was to offer a juicy negative nugget about one of the movie stars in his films or people in his media circle (fairly often, me) in a trade to quash a dangerous piece about himself.”
Mr. Weinstein’s expertise in media manipulation was evident after the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez went to the police with her charge that Mr. Weinstein forced himself on her at his TriBeCa offices in 2015. “Role Play: ‘Grope’ gal asked for movie part,” screamed a front-page New York Post headline above a large photo of Ms. Guitierrez a few days later. (A spokesman for The Post did not respond with a comment.)
The tabloid cover served as a warning to anyone else who might have considered challenging Mr. Weinstein and others of his ilk. Luckily, it turns out that there were enough people in the media business who are not part of the racket. They’re the ones who finally brought the real Mr. Weinstein to light.