Fighting ‘the Gawker effect’ in the wake of Weinstein – Columbia Journalism Review

Roy Price (L) and Harvey Weinstein are seen here on June 6, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Museum of the Moving Image )

I used to joke that I could wallpaper my house with threat letters during a career in which I’ve worked for publications including The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Time, and Esquire. In every case, I’ve relied on the advice of smart lawyers to make the pieces work, and in every case, the story in question eventually was published without incident.

This time was different.

My recent efforts to find a publisher for an article I wrote about allegations involving Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios, represents one of the most difficult chapters in my decades-long career in journalism. Not only does it show the lengths to which a deep-pocketed subject will go to shut down a negative story, but it reveals the fear that now permeates news outlets at a challenging time for journalism.

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The fact that my story, like the recent investigative pieces about now-disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, centered around allegations of inappropriate sexual comments in an industry dominated by men also shows how hard it still is to convince big organizations to take on stories about misconduct of powerful executives and the abuse of women.

Perhaps the Weinstein story will prove to be the dam-breaker, and indeed women are already coming forward to tell stories they hadn’t previously felt emboldened to tell—and news organizations are standing with them. But I fear the Weinstein story may be an outlier; after all, Weinstein was no longer at the peak of his game, and his power had ebbed. In the wake of Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker, a case that essentially bankrupted the company, we seem to be at a point when the wealthy feel emboldened to try to silence reporters by threatening litigation even if they stand virtually no chance of winning. Some of the lawyers vetting my story expressed fears that even the weakest of legal claims could wind up being heard by a dangerously hostile judge or jury. Their usual caution seemed to have turned into very real fear.

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It didn’t help that one of the lawyers fighting my story was Charles Harder, who successfully represented Hogan in the Gawker case. He was part of a tag team with Lisa Bloom, who along with Harder also represented Weinstein in his unsuccessful efforts to fend off The New York Times and The New Yorker. Bloom resigned from representing Weinstein after initially arguing that he was an “old dinosaur.” (Her own mother, Gloria Allred, reproached her.) In my case, one of Bloom’s tactics was to try to kill the story by telling multiple outlets that I had approached Price and Amazon for money to support my radio show. There was no truth to this, as I had never asked either for funding.

The version of my story that finally posted in August by the tech website The Information reported, among other things, that in 2015 Price had made unwelcome sexual comments to Isa Hackett, a key producer of The Man in the High Castle—one of Amazon’s highest-profile shows—and the daughter of the novelist Philip K. Dick, on whose work the show is based. Amazon had brought in an outside investigator, Christine Farrell of Public Interest Investigations, to investigate the alleged incident, and Farrell had returned in spring 2017 to question staff again about Price and another executive. (An Amazon spokesman has said the second inquiry did not focus at all on Price but my sources dispute that.) The outcome of these inquiries is not known.

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I knew much more than made the cut in the story that initially ran—for example, multiple sources told me exactly what Price allegedly had said to Hackett—but certainly I was glad to get a piece published at all. The Wall Street Journal on October 6 ran an article on the troubled workplace culture at Amazon Studios that included material I had confirmed months earlier but had not been able to get published. One example: Price’s efforts to have Amazon buy an idea for a series called 12 Parties from his fiancée, Lila Feinberg. (Ultimately she did get a deal—from the Weinstein Company.) It was painful to see reporting that had been in my original story published elsewhere.

When in the course of my reporting I asked Amazon about Hackett as well as some other conduct I’d heard about, the company responded with two generic statements about company standards. But Price’s attorneys went on the offensive without going on the record.

Price, 51, is well-known in Hollywood. He has presided over Amazon Studios’s growth into a giant streaming service with such series as Transparent and movies such as Manchester by the Sea. He has long family connections in the entertainment world: His father ran Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures.

People in Hollywood and the media world were surprised my byline ended up in The Information, given that I worked at The Hollywood Reporter. (My editor there, Matthew Belloni, said in a Recode article about my difficulties getting the story published that “any suggestion that a story on this topic didn’t run because of outside pressure would be false.”) THR did allow me to shop the story elsewhere, but it came with a guaranteed threat of litigation from Price’s attorneys. Over the weeks that would follow, as I began searching for a home for my scoop, Harder and Bloom convinced every publication that considered my story that they weren’t just threatening legal action but would indeed sue.

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Perhaps that threat was so convincing because Harder had handled Hogan’s devastating suit against Gawker with backing from billionaire Peter Thiel. In her zeal to protect her client—who has yet to address any of the allegations in my piece publicly—Bloom claimed that I had turned on Price after he rebuffed my demand to have Amazon underwrite The Business, the public-radio show that I host on KCRW. I can’t guess who concocted that allegation, but I assume the idea was to establish a potential argument that I had behaved unethically and had a personal grudge against him and therefore didn’t care what the facts were. (Since Price is a public figure, his only hope of prevailing in court would be to argue that I published information I knew to be false or acted in reckless disregard of whether it was false.)

When I first read the claim in an email from Bloom, I was angry, but I also laughed because it was ridiculous. I’ve never discussed underwriting with anyone, even internally at KCRW. I don’t know the first thing about it. I’m told Bloom insisted she had proof, though of course none was produced. My editor at THR told her that the story was false, but she repeated it to other publications nonetheless. (Bloom on Thursday said she no longer is working with Price.)

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I assumed the lawyers at the various outlets that considered my story would ask about the allegation. But I didn’t expect that they would ask again and again. One editor asked me whether my email signature, which says I’m host of The Business, had ever included words urging support for public radio. (No.) One asked if I could produce “exculpatory evidence.” (I offered to ask my employers at KCRW to give a declaration that there had never been any discussion of underwriting.) And while ultimately all these editors said they didn’t believe I had done anything wrong, I had to wonder: If this happened to me—with a résumé that includes awards, two books, and stints at national publications—what does it mean to writers less established in the field?

In fairness, the threat of litigation was not the only issue with my piece that could give editors pause. While I had a general statement from Hackett addressing the need for respect in the workplace, initially she didn’t directly confirm that the episode had taken place. Ultimately, she gave The Information a statement confirming a “troubling incident with Roy” and an investigation, but the earlier version of her statement was not definitive and none of my other sources would speak on the record. (This is often an issue in stories involving allegations of sexual misconduct, and it explains why it took more than 20 years to get the Weinstein story out. Making matters worse is that most settlements come with nondisclosure agreements, though in this case Hackett did not pursue a legal remedy.)

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I knew that not having my sources on the record was an obstacle. But five people had agreed that if Price were to sue, they would come forward and testify truthfully as to what they had relayed to me. Several offered to talk to any editor or lawyer who wanted reassurance about what they had seen and heard. But repeatedly, lawyers who vetted the piece asked: What if all five ended up lying under oath? Then what?

By the time I was done, I had talks with more than six publications and went through legal review at three. The anxiety is always high when there’s a threat of a lawsuit around a story, but this time, it seemed off the charts. At one point, an attorney reviewing the piece only sputtered when I asked her to explain what, exactly, was legally problematic with portions of the story that she wanted to delete. She literally could not construct a sentence to explain her reasoning.

I have great respect for all the publications that opted not to publish my Amazon story and I won’t list them, other than those named in the Recode piece about my difficulties; reporter Peter Kafka found those on his own. As he reported, I tried BuzzFeed, which questioned me extensively before passing without offering an explanation. (The publication told Kafka that the version that ran in The Information “turned out great” and noted that BuzzFeed had published an expose on R. Kelly so obviously is unafraid of critical stories about rich and powerful subjects.)

I thought my luck was changing when The Daily Beast offered to buy the piece and indemnify me. It was edited and vetted and I was happy with the relatively complete version of the story that was readied for publication. I was told to give Price one last chance to comment and to advise him and Amazon that the story would post that night. Harder and Bloom quickly weighed in—still putting nothing on the record—and at the end of the day, I was told that we would give them more time to respond. The next morning, the editor said that at least one source had to go on the record. With that, the Beast and I were at an impasse and I withdrew the piece. The Beast’s Noah Shachtman told Recode the issue was that Hackett declined to go on the record. (Again, she had provided a statement but at that point it was not definitive.)

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Just before I had agreed to sell the piece to the Beast, The New York Times had approached me with great urgency saying I should have brought the story to them. I told them I had placed it elsewhere, but after I withdrew it from the Beast, I circled back. The Times quickly reversed course—without seeing the piece—saying it wasn’t possible for the paper to go forward with a writer who wasn’t on staff. (“But you called me,” I said.)

By now, because I had made so many calls in my reporting, pretty much every major player in Hollywood knew about my story, which was becoming something of a cause in media circles, too. New York-based filmmaker Alex Gibney, who had used me as an on-screen source in his Scientology documentary, Going Clear, asked me what was going on. He said he’d heard about my story from four different people. He tried to help, connecting me with Stephen Engelberg, the editor in chief of ProPublica. Engelberg read the piece and was interested in  publishing it, but finally concluded it was simply too far outside of ProPublica’s wheelhouse. He tried to connect me with another prominent outlet that he thought might want it. The editor there said the decision was to pass “after a lengthy discussion with our lawyer,” in part because of the sourcing issue and yes, because of the anticipated claim of actual malice.

A national magazine approached and drifted away without reading the piece. Finally, someone in Hollywood connected me with The Information. Jessica Lessin, the CEO, noted on Facebook that her site had “spent a very substantial amount of money” on legal vetting but said the story that was published “was entirely worth it.” I’m grateful to Lessin for withstanding great pressure and publishing key elements of my piece.

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I fear my difficult experience with this story is not unique. As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote in a piece about “the Gawker effect,” veteran rock critic Jim DeRogatis had great difficulty finding an outlet that would publish his explosive R. Kelly story. In August, Fox News host—now former Fox News host—Eric Bolling sued writer Yashar Ali personally for $50 million for reporting that Bolling allegedly sent lewd texts to colleagues. Harder has threatened to sue the Times on Weinstein’s behalf.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that the environment may have changed just a bit, at least for the moment. Emboldened by the women who have stepped forward to tell their stories about Weinstein, Isa Hackett in recent days agreed to go public with her full story about Roy Price, on the record with me.

The Hollywood Reporter, which had declined to run my earlier piece, didn’t hesitate in running that piece on Thursday—all 889 words. Hours after the piece was posted, Amazon suspended Price, effective immediately.

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Kim Masters is Editor at Large of The Hollywood Reporter and host of KCRW’s The Business.

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