As men try to come back after #MeToo, journalists weigh the size of truth

October 5, 2018

It’s been a year since The New York Times and The New Yorker broke news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults against women and the attempts he made to cover up his actions. In that time, conversations about sexual harassment, especially in the entertainment and media industries, have matured. But in journalism—which has rallied behind, and propelled, the #MeToo movement—there remains uncertainty when it comes to giving ink to men as they re-enter public life. Do we need to hear both sides, if one side is willfully regressive? How much space should journalism lend the accused?

The story of the moment is Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men and a writer on The Sopranos, who has been profiled in the November issue of Vanity Fair by Joy Press and interviewed in the Times by Kyle Buchanan. Last November, Kater Gordon, a former writer for Mad Men, alleged that Weiner said that she owed it to him to show her naked body. She did not oblige, and she wasn’t invited back for subsequent seasons. Weiner denied making the comment and said that her exit from the show was standard. Gordon’s accusation got overshadowed by other women’s accusations against other men; concerned parties seemed to move on. Weiner had a new show to focus on, The Romanoffs, for which he is now making the publicity rounds.

The question that Press and Buchanan wrestle with in their coverage is: How much should an allegation factor into coverage of a new show—which, according to Press, is full of “morally compromised characters”? In a case that has not been settled by collective opinion—Amazon, which produced The Romanoffs, evidently deemed its creator’s name unsullied—should Weiner’s alleged harassment be presented as a billboard or an asterisk?

Press’s answer is to print everything. She describes how Weiner is nervous to talk about Gordon, and he says, “I’m not hedging to say it’s not impossible that I said that, but I really don’t remember saying it.” When Press goes back to him for clarification, he claims not to remember what he said in their interview: “I know this seems weird, but I can’t imagine that I used the word ‘hedging.’” What’s a journalist to do in the face of such waffling? (How can we accept that the only thing we may know about past events is hypothesis?) Press doesn’t hold back on hype for the show—“a cavalcade of high-end actors,” “filmed in eight countries,” “it should be the victory lap of Weiner’s career”—and seems ambivalent on whether to burrow deeper into Weiner’s “difficult man” genius or his sheer difficulty. The result is an airing of Gordon’s experience juxtaposed with a Romanoffs plot summary. Her profile, unable to determine his fate, passes on to readers the angsty task of assessing his character.

The interview in the Times, too, is split between discussion of the new series and the allegations, bridged by a section about male gaze in the show. Buchanan observes, “Whenever the husband in that episode fantasizes about another woman, the camera takes his perspective and ogles the woman from head to toe.” Weiner responds by saying that the treatment of the woman onscreen reflects the character’s view: “He is projecting this onto her. She is exotic and objectified by him, but that’s in his mind. They’re at an impasse in their marriage, and it is 50/50 to me. His wife has half the story.”

Weiner’s statement here sounds like what’s traditionally known as objectivity—50 percent male gaze, 50 percent whatever the woman’s story is—and belies its failings. Is truth to be found in nuance, the nooks and crannies of male experience? Or is it in sweeping appraisals, the broad truth as told by the victims of patriarchy? The way in which men have been represented in journalism, and across writing, is the result, inevitably, of the time in which we live—polarized, in this case, between an assembly of voices and their dissenters, who point to ambiguities in survivors’ stories.

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The unsorted thinking in the Weiner pieces reflects a collective unease as the straightforward message of #MeToo—don’t abuse women—begins to grow and fracture. In September, Jezebel published a piece arguing that “the next step for #MeToo is into the gray areas,” before telling the story of women being emotionally coerced into sex and gaslighted by a writer at Mic. In October, men who have come under scrutiny aimed to make space in the gray zone for themselves—John Hockenberry, in Harper’s, and Jian Ghomeshi, in The New York Review of Books. “I’ve been aware that weighing in to reclaim it and inject nuance into my story is fraught, to say the least,” Ghomeshi writes. Their (poorly written) self-defenses are presented as valuable simply for adding complication, in the form of the male account: “It is an angle on an issue that is clearly very important and that I felt had not been exposed very much,” Ian Buruma, the Review’s editor, told Slate. (He was ousted days later.)

The virtue of nuance is to challenge our feelings about right and wrong—to see that good people do bad things and bad people do good things, motivated by situation or desire. The views formed by ideologies are not always exactly right; reality is more complicated. Storytelling helps upend these false certainties. This is where the power of shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos comes from. (“Fiction,” with its “irreducible ambiguities,” “is in most ways hostile to ideology,” Joan Didion wrote in her 1972 essay, “The Women’s Movement.”) “This sort of multi-valence works beautifully in art,” Press writes in her piece. “The muddiness of real life is another story.” But what should journalism’s response be?

Those who worry about the so-called moral puritanism of #MeToo think that journalism has sided with political groupthink, leaping beyond truth and its complications. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, nearly capsized by accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, has turned into a public debate over uncertainty itself; some in the GOP have chalked the whole thing up to an alliance between the Democrats and the press (“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit,” Kavanaugh said in the Senate committee hearing).

But to understand #MeToo as an ideology imposed on women’s accounts is a failure of imagination, giving into a false dichotomy between nuance and ideology. The most important part of the movement has been the dovetailing of individual stories. It’s taken the most morally complicated moments of women’s lives and forced us to pore over them—to enter into their minds, and to compare our own experiences. The nuance is what’s been supported by journalism, and accumulated, into a series of the most authoritative and thoughtful narratives about women’s experience ever to be told.

Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.