The Media Today

The conviction of Harvey Weinstein

February 25, 2020

At the beginning of the year, as Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial got underway, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey—the New York Times journalists whose reporting on Weinstein helped spark the global #MeToo movement, in 2017—warned, with their colleague Jan Ransom, that the trial might not live up to the cultural burden resting on it. While “the outcome already is anticipated as a verdict on much more than one man’s alleged wrongdoing,” they wrote, “the jurors will be hearing a narrow legal case, with an already-fraught back story and a highly unpredictable result.” Yesterday, those jurors handed down a result: guilty. Weinstein was convicted of raping one woman and forcing oral sex on another. He was acquitted of three other charges, two of which, related to “predatory sexual assault,” were the most serious he faced; still, he faces up to 29 years in prison. (He’ll be sentenced on March 11, and held in custody until then; his lawyers plan to appeal that, and the verdict as a whole.) The ruling, Kantor and Twohey wrote yesterday, suggests accountability does, indeed, stretch “from the court of public opinion to the court of criminal law.” Their piece was headlined, “With Weinstein Conviction, Jury Delivers a Verdict on #MeToo.” The trial, in a sense, saw its cultural burden, and met it.

As I wrote at the beginning of the trial, the involvement of an actual court didn’t silence the court of public opinion. Before proceedings started, numerous Weinstein accusers who weren’t involved in them reminded the world of the stakes, including in a photo portfolio in New York magazine. Weinstein, for his part, sought to alter the pre-trial narrative via rare interviews, including one, with Page Six, in which he cast himself as a “pioneer” for women in Hollywood. When New York’s Irin Carmon reached out to Weinstein’s publicist for comment on the magazine’s package, she received back a 57-slide PowerPoint entitled, “The Proper Narrative for Addressing the Harvey Weinstein Case.”

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As the trial progressed, Weinstein’s representatives continued to strike out, casting the women in his case as liars and the broader #MeToo movement as puritanical, and an erosion of women’s responsibility for their actions. Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s lawyer, spoke with Twohey on The Daily, the Times’s podcast; when Twohey asked if she’d ever been sexually assaulted, Rotunno said she had not, “because I would never put myself in that position.” After the episode aired, prosecutors said Rotunno had violated an order barring discussion of the witnesses in the media during the period of the trial. Rotunno said she’d taped the interview “a while ago,” prior to the order, but the Times told Jeremy Barr, of the Hollywood Reporter, that it had been recorded on January 28—several weeks after the trial began. Shortly before the jury began its deliberations, Rotunno published an op-ed in Newsweek that called on jurors to “look past the headlines” and reach a verdict “solely on the facts, testimony and evidence presented to them in the courtroom.” On that occasion, prosecutors accused Rotunno of jury tampering, and the judge ordered her team to control “the tentacles of your public relations juggernaut.” Rotunno also taped an interview with an Australian version of 60 Minutes, in which she again accused Weinstein’s accusers of lying. It aired on Sunday.

Yesterday’s verdict reverberated immediately through the court of public opinion and its media. When Whoopi Goldberg announced the news during The View, on ABC, loud whoops from the studio audience drowned out the end of her sentence. The reactions of many of Weinstein’s alleged victims echoed through articles in multiple outlets. “What I wanted to do was cause a massive cultural reset. We achieved that today with what happened,” one of them, Rose McGowan, said during a telephone press conference. “With today, the trashman came and he said to all of the little girls and the little boys who get hurt in this world, ‘Some day, maybe you, too, can have a voice.’” On NPR, Rosanna Arquette, who also accused Weinstein of sexual abuse, teared up during an interview with Mary Louise Kelly. Arquette and many others thanked the journalists—Kantor and Twohey, as well as Ronan Farrow, of the New Yorker—for the journalism that made Weinstein’s conviction possible. On Twitter, Farrow, in turn, paid tribute to the women whose testimony made the journalism possible. “Please keep those women in your thoughts today,” he wrote.

Legal and journalistic standards are different, of course. Journalism, rightly, can’t put people in prison; likewise, if Weinstein had been acquitted on all counts yesterday, the measure of justice achieved in the work of Kantor, Twohey, Farrow, and others would not have been erased.

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Yesterday showed, however, that journalism can profoundly influence the legal system—by shining a public spotlight on the misdeeds of powerful people, but also, as importantly, by scrutinizing the iniquities and limitations of the system itself. As Kantor and Twohey wrote, the criminal case against Weinstein was “a long shot.” The evidence presented—which showed, among other things, that the victims had consensual sex with Weinstein after he abused them—was messy, and lacking in corroborating forensics or direct witness testimony; as such, the case was a step beyond typical prosecutorial boundaries. Its partial success, Kantor and Twohey wrote, “could prove a symbolic turning point”— showing “that sex crimes don’t necessarily follow neat scripts and reshaping public beliefs about which victims deserve their day in court.” Journalism didn’t just fell Harvey Weinstein. It’s had institutional impact, too—however flawed our institutions may still look.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.