Pultizer Prize-winner Kantor Discusses Using Journalism’s Power for the ‘Public Good’

Kantor Lecture

Reflecting on a career in which she spent years covering Barack and Michelle Obama and subsequently helped ignite the #MeToo movement, journalist Jodi Kantor is every bit as proud of a story she wrote that garnered little attention when it was first published in 2006.

“The article was about the two-class breastfeeding system,” she recalled. “New mothers who were white collar workers had lactation suites and quiet places and time off the job. But people who earn ten bucks an hour in coffee shops and restaurants and gas stations had neither the time nor the place to pump. The story had been published to a polite reception and kind of came and went. People reacted with concern but nothing much seemed to happen.”

Seven years later, Kantor received an email from a woman who had been moved by the story when it first came out and since that time had been working diligently to address the issue. She helped develop a free-standing lactation station for breast feeding and pumping, and was installing a prototype in the Burlington, Vermont, airport. Today, “those little lactation stations are spread across the country, over 400 of them at last count,” Kantor explained. “They’re giving women, especially hourly workers, privacy and dignity and a way to care for their babies.

“Compared to the glory and flash of the White House, it’s nothing,” she continued. “But it meant something to me and frankly it spoke to me in a way that nothing in political coverage had. It showed the magic of what readers can do. I got that first tiny glimpse that the audience can take our journalism and do things with it that we never dreamed.”

Kantor brought that message to campus during a public lecture in the Hollins Theatre on November 14. “An Evening with Jodi Kantor” was sponsored by the university’s Distinguished Speakers Fund, featuring the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and bestselling author who helped expose Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse allegations. Kantor and fellow reporter Megan Twohey broke the Weinstein story in October 2017 in The New York Times, and their work has played a significant role in shifting attitudes and spurring new laws, policies, and standards of accountability around the globe.

The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Kantor “grew up believing in the power of stories. I spent my childhood surrounded by people with numbers tattooed on their arms and steeped in questions like, ‘What really happened back then?’, ‘How could something like this possibly have occurred?’, ‘Why didn’t anyone stop it?’, and ‘Of the survivors, who is willing to tell their story, who is too traumatized to speak, and is it possible, even healing, to convince those people to trust you and open up?’ Even though I was far too young to think of it that way, [those are] some of the fundamental questions of investigative journalism.”

Kantor would draw heavily on that knowledge during her and Twohey’s months-long investigation of the Weinstein case. “Women would often say to us, ‘Why should I speak to you for a story? The risk is so high and I don’t want to be traumatized myself. Is there any gain for me, do you think any good will ever come of this?’ Megan and I always said the same thing: ‘We cannot change what happened to you in the past. But what we can do is help you convert the experience. We can take something very painful, something you really suffered over, and help you potentially feel very proud of how you handled it. We can’t say it will be easy, we know it can be difficult to tell the story to other people, but essentially you can take this pain and you can donate it to the public good. You can turn that private pain into some collective strength.’”

Throughout their investigation, Kantor said she and Twohey “had certainly felt the raw power of what we were going to report about Harvey Weinstein,” but were not sure whether their story would have much of an impact. “We knew that the history of this issue was a history of a lack of accountability. Some of our Hollywood sources had told us nothing would change. Whatever Weinstein did or did not do to women, that was how Hollywood worked, that was how men worked. One of our editors repeatedly pointed out, ‘Look, Harvey Weinstein is really not that famous.’”

Kantor remembered Twohey articulating their concerns during a late-night taxi ride just a few nights before their story was published. “After all this work we’ve done, after all the secrets we’ve discovered, what if nobody cares? What if nobody cares?”

At the same time, the two reporters and the Times faced a formidable challenge from Weinstein himself. “[He] was threatening to ruin us, we were writing under a legal threat,” Kantor explained. “He had even hired professional spies, Israeli ex-intelligence agents, to try and track and dupe us. Ashley Judd [one of several prominent actresses who was interviewed for the story] was putting her career on the line to tell the truth. Other women were waiting to come forward, hoping it would be safe. We really did not know what was going to happen.”

As it turned out, the Weinstein story had significant repercussions that persist more than a year after its publication. “It hasn’t stopped in New York, or Hollywood, or India, or here in Virginia,” Kantor said. “It’s been ricocheting in offices across the land and on campuses like this one. It has rewritten some of our personal and most intimate histories. What we’ve learned is that harassment and assault are not actually individual experiences, although it can certainly feel that way. The most powerful thing that you can see now is that it was a collective, shared experience. We know now that nobody who experiences it is truly alone.

“Many of us pride ourselves on knowing what’s going on with women and women in the workplace, but it turns out, we didn’t know the half of it. You can’t solve a problem unless you have correct information, and for a long time we have not had anything close to correct information about harassment or assault. Now, for the first time, while it is not fully complete, we have a more complete picture of what women – and by the way, trans people and men, too – have faced inside and outside the workplace.”

While Kantor believes “there are signs that very slowly and very messily, things are changing,” she emphasized that society must continue grappling with some difficult questions before a consensus can be reached on issues related to harassment and assault. Kantor and Twohey “are still investigating and we’re still writing. We are going to be focusing on documenting abuses for a very long time. We also want to use the tools of journalism – careful listening, fairness, nuance – to create the most productive social discussion we can and to move some of these issues forward.”

Kantor noted, “For many years as I practiced journalism, I became particularly excited about the potential for readers to act on our reporting, to take our work and use it in constructive and inspiring ways. That’s the real power of journalism. But, it’s not our power, it’s yours. It’s what you choose to do.”