Paul Farhi, a media reporter for the Washington Post, was one of thirteen journalists recognized by the Newseum’s Free Expression Awards for his work covering sexual harassment. TKNN caught up with him before the event and what follows is our conversation (lightly edited for clarity).
TKNN: Sexual harassment is not one of your main topics to cover. How did you come across this story?
FARHI: A good tip. Several good tips as a matter of fact. And once, you know, it’s sorta like lighting a fuse, once you have it you go to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing and sooner or later sort of natural generic reporting, as I was saying to this young lady over here, these people wanted to talk because they’d spent 20 years living with what they were living with. And they had actually gone to NPR and complained about this knowing that this guy was running the news department so NPR had looked into this– they didn’t tell anyone this– and they had recorded these complaints against this guy. As it turns out they not only had that, they had a whole dossier of other stuff that they weren’t talking about either so once I confronted them — confronted them, that’s a bit of a strong word — once I went to them they didn’t have any choice but to say “Yep, we know” and there wasn’t any attempt to hide or cover up. Well, I don’t know about cover up, but there wasn’t— the basic facts of the story were confirmed by them.
So once you got the tip, how long did it take to report this story out?
Went pretty fast. I would say, week and a half maybe? It wasn’t a big effort and in fact, you know what, I said this earlier — I’m not trying to be falsely modest — I’m a small fish compared to the Harvey Weinstein people, Ronan Farrow and Weinstein, Jodi Kantor, the people who broke the Larry Nassar story, that’s some unbelievable horror work. Week and a half — you know — that’s like, that’s a routine story, but you get lucky, you get the right people to talk to you, you put yourself in a position and then you go to the sources who confirm it, and you’re on your way.
So we have seen a dramatic decline in the number of stories like this being published, do you think there are still more newsworthy ones out there waiting to be reported?
Yeah, not as many but yes. We had this gigantic explosion of these stories — media, entertainment, government — those were your three big areas because, frankly, those are people that are newsworthy and in the news. You know, the average guy at an aircraft company nobody cares about and nobody knows about. But celebrities, media figures, government figures, those are all the people that people say, “My God, Charlie Rose.” So that’s why there was the big explosion. But yes, there are a few more there. I don’t think they’re the big names because you think that might have come out by now. I don’t think, but who knows?
So just from like a media observation angle, we had several weeks where these stories dominated headlines. Do you think we’ll see something like that again or has that kind of passed?
I think it’s passed for the most part. Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, all these big names. I suspect that there are people who have been harassed by other famous people but those — you know — at this point they are not coming forward for whatever reasons they have. So we’re probably not, we won’t know about it. It’s impossible to predict the future. Maybe we’re gonna have another big explosion of these, I don’t know. But you’re right, I mean the number has declined significantly.
So given that someone reached out to you with this, what was the hardest part of reporting this story?
Well I guess talking with the victims and hearing what they had to say and getting them to give more because it is slightly hard for them to re-live what they were. They did want to talk and they didn’t want to talk at the same time. You know, it was a difficult experience. They felt guilty about it for some reason, you know I don’t understand, and they felt bad about it. And it was traumatic and hurtful so getting them to talk really was something and I think that’s in a lot of cases. The weird part of this is they’re both eager to talk and reluctant to talk at the same time. I mean parallel to this NPR story I did the Halperin story and there was a sort of critical mass — I only had two sources on the NPR story — there was a critical mass on the Halperin thing and they all knew each other and had started to talk with one another and they all sort of talked each other into coming forward on that and so that was interesting. But I give all credit to the Times and New Yorker for Weinstein which brought this thing out. I mean, I wrote a story — which is sort of a story about the story — that Trump didn’t do it, you know Bill Clinton didn’t do it, you know there were a lot of famous harassment cases that did not create this explosion like Harvey Weinstein did. And you know what, most people don’t know who Harvey Weinstein was at that time, it was the victims who really made that story. You know, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow and famous victims really created the media firestorm around this story but they had to come forward so that was a brave act by them.
So in terms of, you said how they want to talk but they also didn’t want to talk, how were you able to walk that fine line, approach that as a reporter trying to do this?
You know it’s funny, I asked that exact same question to the reporter who won the Pulitzer for us, Stephanie McCrummen, on the Roy Moore stories and I asked her, “How did you go about getting these women on the record?” and she said I didn’t push, I didn’t press them. I said well you know you can do this if you want, we’re not going to tell you have to, we’re not going to force you to, you have to feel comfortable with this and I guess when I think back on it, I kinda did too. You tell this is a very, very sensitive thing, you’re talking about someone’s trauma, someone’s difficult experience, and you don’t want to say, “Give me that damn story!” You know, you can’t do that. A little bit of sensitivity helped a lot. But I mean, talk to Stephanie McCrummen, she really had to because my sources never were named — I know who they are— but they never gave their names for the record. All of her sources were on the record and those peoples’ lives were made hell. You know, you’re lying, you made this up, you were paid off. You know there was this whole witch hunt surrounding them to knock their stories and they stood up to it.
Just quick final question: in terms of the billion other things happening every hour does it seem like the news has moved on or are they still bubbling up every week?
Yeah, they’re bubbling up. I know of a couple more things that I want to check out. They’re not big names but they are from organizations you’ve heard of. I don’t think harassment is going to go away ever in anybody’s lifetime. It’d be nice to say that’s gonna happen but it happens and it will continue to happen. I can’t predict how many and who but I think this whole MeToo moment was very important to raise this into — you know — the level of intolerant and I think the press played an important part too by exposing it and saying what institutionally did these organizations and companies do about it and should there have been something differently or done something more.