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Journalism, Still Our Best Public Watchdog

Photo: / Denis Makarenko

“Looking for something?” the middle-aged man asked me.

It was late September 2017, and I was circling the buffet table—on the hunt for a spoon—at an information security conference in the San Francisco Bay Area. I told the man about my utensil quest, he confirmed the absence of spoons (thanks, dude), and introduced himself.

“So your hair, when you let it down, is it an afro?” he asked me.

“Uh… ” I stuttered. “No… it’s just curly.”

I wanted to leave so I could eat my yogurt (with a fork) in peace, but he then started telling me about his young daughter and her curly hair struggles. I softened. This guy was somewhat offensive, but maybe he was just trying to connect. We chatted for a couple more minutes before I tired of his increasingly tone-deaf blathering. He handed me his card, joking that he wanted to “get inside my skirt,” meaning he wanted me to put it in my skirt pocket.

I took the card silently. Then I mumbled a perfunctory goodbye.  

I’ve had encounters like this one before—many much worse. But I’ve discovered it never gets easier to respond to that behavior in the moment; I’m as surprised by my objectification today as I was when I was sexually harassed by my boss in my early 20s.

In the aftermath of the conference kerfuffle, I wondered what I should do. I posted about the incident on social media and was flooded with comments encouraging me to write to the conference organizers, or to the guy’s boss.  I waffled:  Maybe it wasn’t that bad, I thought. Plus, what if it got back to him that it was me who had snitched on his inappropriate behavior? Would he go after me?

A few days later, on Oct. 5, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published an investigation documenting sexual harassment allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. That story motivated dozens of other women across industries to share their stories of sexual assault—and it pushed me, in turn, to get in touch with the organizers of the information security conference. It spurred more investigations into and allegations against many other prominent men in politics, national security, media, and tech. It reincarnated the decade-old Me Too movement into a social media hashtag campaign—#metoo—which quickly went viral. And, it inspired TIME magazine to name the #metoo silence-breakers as its “person of the year.”

It’s a story that has given me hope because of what it has revealed about the many people in power who are not among the accused. Based on the swift consequences these leaders levied on their star performers, it seems many of them do care about sexual harassment, or at least care about how it looks for their brand to employ or promote a predator.

It’s given me hope, too, because of the conversations it has started—not just online, but in-person. When my dad and I wrote in the Chicago Tribune about the many men who came forward to claim their innocence—or interest—in the issue of harassment because “I have a daughter,” we heard from many women who said they used the piece as a way to start a discussion with their dads about what the movement has meant to them.

And finally, it’s given me hope because it’s a reminder that journalism—and facts—are powerful. Language matters. Storytelling matters. It’s notoriously hard to measure the impact of a single story, in part because the effect can range from changing one person’s mindset, to a shift in policy, to the indictment of a public official, to challenging cultural assumptions. Today, journalism—and journalists—are often excoriated for sensationalizing, for producing more noise and less signal—for bending the facts to fit ideological narratives.

The Times and subsequent New Yorker investigations exemplify what journalism should be and the impact it can have. Whether at a conference or in Congress, it is one of the best ways to foment cultural change. It is, despite all the noise, our most important public watchdog.


Elizabeth Weingarten is the director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative, a project of the Better Life Lab where she is a senior fellow.