Her work over the last year uncovering harassment earned her a Pulitzer.
On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, New York Times reporter Emily Steel talks about the stories she and her reporting partner Michael Schmidt wrote that brought down Fox News star Bill O’Reilly — part of a series of stories on sexual harassment that netted the Times and the New Yorker a Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network and I’m here at Vox Media headquarters in New York City. Before we get to talk to my Pulitzer Prize-winning guest, one quick ask from you: Tell someone about this show. You know how to tell people about this show because you know how to use Twitter and Facebook and email. That is the end of my pitch. Welcome, Emily Steel from the New York Times.
Emily Steel: Thank you.
Normally I ask my guests, “How do I pronounce your name?” I know how to pronounce your name, it’s pretty basic. I’ve known you for a while.
It’s pretty easy. Yeah.
Here’s my question. Am I pronouncing Pulitzer correct?
You know, my dad had the same question this week. He said, “Is it Pull-itzer or Pyoo-litzer?”
I used to go Pull-itzer.
I say Pull-itzer.
Well if you say Pull-itzer, you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner, you win.
Thank you. Thank you.
You’re one of the team at the New York Times who won for Public Service. That is the … there are many Pulitzer Prize awards, that’s the best one, right? You can say that. I can say that.
You can say that.
For the work you did focusing on sexual harassment at Fox News and later at Vice. Am I missing anything? Those are the big ones, right?
Yeah, those were the big ones, that’s what I did.
The Times in general, right? Obviously called out for the work, the Weinstein stuff and all the amazing work you guys did over the year. Sort of a group award, right?
Mm-hmm, it was the coverage of Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. and the auto workers in Ford and restaurants here in New York. It was pretty comprehensive.
There were many reporters and people who worked on this package.
Yeah, yeah. It was the whole of …
But you were one of the ones who got to give a speech, so you’re first among equals. Or one of the first among equals.
Well, so kind of the way this all got started was back in the summer of 2016, I don’t know if you remember, but there was this really big lawsuit where Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor, had filed suit against Roger Ailes.
Right. This led to Ailes leaving, right?
That led to his departure, I think it was like 12 days after she filed suit, but it was this huge media story of the summer. Everybody was chasing it, Gabe Sherman was coming up with scoop after scoop after scoop, and we were trying to figure out how can we get ahead of the story. So Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, called this meeting in August of 2016. He had remembered this case of this woman named Andrea Mackris, who had … who was a young producer, who had worked on Bill O’Reilly’s show and had sued him for sexual harassment in 2004.
Dean had worked at the Los Angeles Times when this whole story erupted. And he … I think he remembered seeing a video or just remembering this story and he had remembered that there had been tapes of some conversation and he had remembered that there had been a big settlement. So he said, “Why don’t you guys go and re-report what had happened then to see what this means in the context of what we have now?”
Something we don’t often do enough as journalists is go backwards.
Exactly, exactly. I was paired up with Michael Schmidt, who is a reporter, who’s based in D.C. He’s amazing, he’s the best reporter I’ve ever worked with.
Just curious. How does that work? Because you’re a media reporter.
I’m the media reporter, yeah.
You’re a business reporter, they sense that they’d task you with going after Fox News, right? That’s straightforward?
Right. I admit, I had been covering this story, I was all over, I’d been writing about the media for almost 12 years now, yeah.
Michael Schmidt, as anyone who reads the New York Times knows — or listens to The Daily podcast — is a D.C.-based reporter, is doing a ton of stuff on James Comey and all the Russian stuff.
How does that pairing work?
You know, I have no idea how we were paired up together or why we were paired up together. I think we should actually ask our editors this, because it was a really great pairing. My editor Bill Brink, in the speech in the newsroom earlier this week, he mentioned how we came from these different worlds where Mike was from the world of Washington, where there’s so much ambition and big personalities, and he was kind of making a joke. Like how these worlds are too different, but actually they’re pretty similar.
Yeah, sounds like New York.
Right. Right, and it’s interesting. We’re both pretty ambitious and really persistent reporters, and we take our approach and our strategy to stories a little bit different and I maybe have a softer approach. I have a higher-pitched voice and I’m pretty sweet, and he is very, very persistent and much more aggressive. I’m aggressive too, but in a sweeter way.
So they send you off on this mission.
Yeah, so they send us off on this story.
The summer of 2016.
Yup, the summer of 2016. And we’re reporting, reporting, reporting all about this one case from 2004.
Meanwhile, you’re doing your day job?
A little bit, but this was a top priority.
So the editors were like, “Focus on this.”
The question is this versus something else that’s breaking, do this?
Right. But then, when was the big story … the Time Warner-AT&T merger broke in the middle of this. So then I kind of left to cover that, and then the Viacom CEO is ousted in the middle of this, so then I left to cover that story. But I wasn’t writing those stories,
We were kind of reporting, reporting, reporting, making all these phone calls, knocking on doors, and we found that it wasn’t just this one woman. That the story was a much bigger and broader story and there had been many over the course of Bill O’Reilly’s tenure at Fox News. What we now know, there were six settlements that we know, totaled at least $45 million, involving allegations of sexual harassment.
Right. He paid out directly? Or Fox paid for him?
The company did. Yeah.
And the story comes out then in February.
The story came out actually in April of — yeah, it’s only been a year — of 2017, it was published on April 1st, it was in the paper on April 2nd, which is my birthday, so I remember it really well.
It really set off, I’m sure you remember, it set off this huge controversy where there was an advertising boycott, there was an airplane that flew across New York City that had this banner that said, “Drop O’Reilly the sexual predator.” There were people who were protesting outside of Fox News, and it was 18 days after our story published on April 19th — so actually this very same week — that O’Reilly was ousted.
It’s still sort of astonishing to think about this. But just for context, Bill O’Reilly was as powerful as he’d ever been and he had been one of the most powerful people in TV. He wasn’t on the wane, this wasn’t …
No. He was …
We’ll talk about Harvey Weinstein in a minute, but Harvey Weinstein had peaked many years ago. Bill O’Reilly was as powerful as he’d ever been, confidant of Donald Trump. So you were at …
Yeah, he had the top-rated show on all of cable news. His placement, he was at the eight o’clock hour on Fox News and that really kind of was the anchor of that whole prime-time lineup. He had just renewed his contract a couple of months earlier for $25 million dollars a year. His show pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. He was really at the peak of his career.
And his persona is that sort of, he’s a bully and everyone who talked to him off-air … I wrote a story about him years ago. He’s a difficult person to deal with. Even when he’s not … It’s not just his show. So what is it like reporting a story about someone like that, that is that important to a company as big and powerful as Fox was to the Times? How many roadblocks get thrown up in front of you?
Oh, it was hard. It was, there were a couple of things that were … The whole story was entirely difficult. It took us eight months to get this into the paper. One of the biggest roadblocks was that all of these women who had these settlements had been silenced. They were locked into these confidentiality agreements. The punishments for breaking those agreements were penalties where they would pay, they would have to pay millions and millions of dollars.
Pretty early into the reporting, Bill O’Reilly’s lawyer came and visited the New York Times and said that we were trying to create a story where there was none. They told us that there was no record of any woman at Fox News ever reporting any issues of sexual harassment to the Fox News legal department or the HR department. There was just … the company really, really fought back against us, O’Reilly really fought back against us. There were these settlements that made it so that people involved in those agreements were not able to talk.
Right, these NDAs, which again, we’re now sort of familiar with the … People didn’t realize how difficult these things were to get around.
And how much they prevented the kind of reporting you ended up doing.
And not only did they make it hard to report these stories, but what a lot of critics of NDAs say is that they make it possible for perpetrators to continue their behavior.
Because there’s no record.
Because nobody knows that it happened. Right. And the other huge thing that was really difficult about all of this reporting is that we were doing it a year before the MeToo movement really had kicked off, and so women did not wanna talk about these stories.
For a lot of people that we talked to, this was the first time that they had really articulated this. They hadn’t told their friends, they hadn’t told their family. People didn’t think that they would be believed if they told these stories. They thought it would jeopardize their career.
So in addition to all the standard reasons you wouldn’t wanna talk about a sexual harassment story that you were involved in — professionally its very damaging, it’s embarrassing to you personally — there’s real legal things and difficult financial penalties that prevent you from doing it.
So how did you get these women to talk to you on the record? You have photographs of some of them, in some cases.
You know, in the original O’Reilly story there was only one woman that we could get to talk on the record. It’s kind of a funny story, I’ve told it a bunch.
I know, I’m setting you up.
Everybody loves this one. So basically, Mike and I were trying to figure out what is the pattern, because we had met with a couple of lawyers just to try to understand sexual harassment law and kind of why people act like this. And what people told us is that it’s very rare that somebody gets to their 60s to the end of their career and then all of a sudden that they start acting like this. Usually there’s a pattern to this behavior.
So, we started to look at the cases that we knew about and see what the women had said. They had said that they usually had either worked with O’Reilly or appeared as a guest on his show and they would start to kind of develop this relationship with him where he would offer them career advice or offer to help them advance with their careers and then he would start making these unwanted advances toward them. They felt like if they said anything that their careers would be at jeopardy.
He’s kind of got them on the hook.
Then that’s what these women said. So we started to look and we saw that there were a couple of women who had appeared as regular guests on his show and then kind of disappeared and there were some stories of allegations around them.
So we pulled up the IMDb, that international movie database, and we printed out. There was this pretty big document of all of the people who had appeared as guests on his show. We just really started … I call it dialing for dollars. We just started going through the list and calling person after person, all of the men and all of the women.
What’s your line? “Hi, I’m Emily Steel from the New York Times, I wanted to know if Bill O’Reilly harassed you”?
You know, no. I said, “Hi, my name is Emily Steel, I’m a reporter at the New York Times, I’m looking into the experiences of women at Fox News. I would really love to talk to you, I can understand why you might be hesitant to talk to a reporter, but give me a call and I can explain more about what I’m working on.”
So you make dozens and dozens and dozens of those calls?
Exactly. Then I get a call from this woman named Wendy Walsh, and she is pretty breezy. She’s a former journalist turned psychology professor who had appeared as a regular guest on O’Reilly’s show and then kind of all of a sudden disappeared.
So we had called her as one of these groups of women just to see what her story was. So she called me back, she was walking out of a class that she teaches, and she thought that I wanted to interview her as an expert, kind of like a behavioral expert about why people do this sort of thing, why do people sexually harass other people. And then I said …
Did you know she had been harassed? Or you’re just guessing, she’s one of a gazillion women who’d been on the show?
She’s one of all these people, and we were just talking to as many people as we could who had been on the show or who were kind of around that world. Just to see, had they experienced anything, had they seen anything, did they know stories of other people who had seen anything.
So I said, “No, no, no, I don’t want to hear advice about this, but I’m actually kind of curious about what your experiences were like with Bill O’Reilly.” So she told me this whole story about how she had been on his show, she lives in LA, and so he was flying out to LA. His secretary asked if she wanted to get dinner, they went out to dinner, and during the dinner he told her that he was friends with Roger Ailes, who was then the chairman and very powerful head of Fox News, and that he would get her a job, he could get her a job as a contributor on the show, which can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She’s a single mom, she needs money, she’s very excited about this opportunity. They kind of continue with their dinner. At the end of the dinner, he asks her to go up to his hotel suite. She says, “No.” His behavior all of a sudden changes. One of the lines in the story was he told her that her purse was ugly.
Yeah, that’s great.
Then they kind of go their separate ways, and then pretty soon after that, she is not on the show anymore and she never really appears on the network again. So she tells me this whole story and then she says, “That’s off the record, I can’t deal.”
Was she bound to an NDA?
She was not bound to it. No. So she told me this whole story, but she said, “You know, I just don’t wanna talk about this, nothing good can come about talking of this.”
There’s a version in journalism where she tells you a story that says that was off the record, you can say no, no, I wanna run it, but generally …
She might have told me that. She probably said in the beginning, she said, “Let’s just talk off the record, I’ll tell you this thing.” But I didn’t wanna surprise anybody, I didn’t wanna talk to anybody, I wasn’t out to get them, I just wanted to know, kind of follow the facts and figure out how this story was.
So I said, “Okay, I get it. I get it, but is it okay if I give you a call back?” So I call her back, she still doesn’t wanna go on the record. I call her back, still doesn’t wanna go on the record. I call her back, she still doesn’t wanna go on the record. And at this point in our reporting, Mike and I thought that … We thought that there had been a number of settlements, but it’d really be better, be powerful to have somebody in the story to could talk about this.
So I tell her, I call her back again, and then I tell her, “I’m going to come out to LA,” and would she see me? And she says, “You know, I’m really busy, I teach this class, I have an advertising shoot” — because she appears in some commercials — “I’m doing this Pilates class.” And I said, “Oh, well I love Pilates. Can I come and take it with you?” And so then I show up. I think it was a Tuesday morning, and I am on the Pilates reformer machine next to her and then …
Are you a Pilates enthusiast?
You know, I like to run, and I do a lot of barre classes. And I do some Pilates classes.
So you weren’t entirely faking it?
No, no, no, not at all, not at all.
She knows you’re there, you’re not just showing up one day randomly next to her.
No, she knows that I’m coming, and I mean, she told me which class and what hour she’s going to take this Pilates class.
So then afterwards I ask if she wants to get coffee. We’re in Venice Beach, is where the studio was. We walked down the street and we go get coffee, and I just tell her a little bit about the reporting, about how we think that there have been a number of women who had allegations against O’Reilly, who made these allegations and then were silenced and locked into these confidentiality agreements.
And then I had told her, she still has a voice and that’s powerful, and she looks at me and she says that she’s going to talk about this on the record. She’s going to go on the record with her story, and she says that she wanted to do it for two reasons: One, because she wants men to know how to treat people in the workplace and how to treat people with respect; and two, she really wants to do this for her daughters, so that they don’t have to face the same sort of issues that she had to face.
So in the old days, we called this shoe-leather reporting.
And this is now reformer Pilates reporting.
Call it Pilates reporting. Yeah.
That is a great story. It’s worth retelling many times.
It was just one of those moments, too, because I can’t understate how hard this reporting was and how many people didn’t wanna talk. And so to get somebody who was willing to share their story, who was brave and willing to go on the record with this, I think I started crying. I ran back to the hotel room and I called Mike and then called the editors and really, it was thrilling.
How much of that story do you think is not just you being able to do Pilates, right? But you being Emily, who’s small and has a high-pitched voice and is super friendly and most importantly is a woman. Do you think … Michael is a very good reporter, do you think he could have gotten her to speak on the record? How much of this do you think sort of your personality matched with your gender allows you to do this kind of work?
That’s a really good question. You know, it was interesting because Mike and I talked. We did a lot of the reporting together, and a lot of times it would be me who would be the one to make the call or knock on the door, show up in front of people in their Pilates class. I think I’m a really good listener, and I am sweet and I am kind of unassuming and I think that that allowed people to trust us.
But one of the things that I think was really interesting is that Mike and I had this huge list of all of these people that we called and almost before every single call that we would make, we would talk and we would strategize and we would say, “Is it better for me to call? Or is it better for him to call? What can we say to try to get this person to talk?”
It’s very tactical.
It was very strategic, yeah. Before I called most people, I would go look at their Instagram, look at what videos they’d been on, just kind of get a sense of who they are and what motivation there might be to talk to us. Because as you know reporting on Fox News is very, very difficult, and a lot of people who are in that world really didn’t wanna talk to me or couldn’t talk to me or feared talking to me. So I really had to figure out why and how I could get them to talk. Or we could get them to talk.
I wanna talk so much more about this, first we have to take a quick break so we could hear from a fine advertiser.
We’re back here with Emily Steel from the New York Times, who just finished Pulitzer week. Which involved a trip to Cincinnati?
Yes, that was for the Scripts Howard Award.
Different award, but it’s still part of the …
It was a different award in the same week. Yeah.
The excitement. Do you get to … is there a physical award you get to touch? The Pulitzer? Is there a coin? Is there a sash? Is there …
I don’t know.
No, not that you’ve seen.
I think that there is, on the 15th floor of the New York Times, it’s really amazing. Have you ever been?
To the New York Times? Yes.
To the 15th floor, and if you walked down …
The double … oh no, no, no. You tell me what I’m supposed to see.
Okay, well, when you come up it gives you goosebumps when you see it because it’s really just a testament to all of the great journalism that this institution has supported over the years, and it’s this hall that has all of these pictures of every single Pulitzer winner, back to I think 1918, which was the first year that the Times …
And you get to be up on that wall.
Now I’ll be on that wall. Yeah.
That’s pretty cool.
So the announcement was Monday of this week.
On Monday, yeah.
When do they tell you? Because you flew up your parents, right?
Well my parents are just in Connecticut so they drove down. Yes, so it’s officially announced on Monday.
When do you find out? How far in advance?
I can’t say.
Days. I know you are too modest to say this, but did you have a good sense that you were gonna get an award for this work? You seem like a foregone conclusion the Times and the New Yorker were gonna win in some combination.
You know, it’s … I was gonna say I’ve thought a lot about this, but I actually haven’t. But one of the things that I have thought a lot about is just the impact of this reporting and like what I was thinking before, it was so hard to get these people to talk, and it’s been such a whirlwind year. Where there’s been so much incredible reporting at the Times and elsewhere about Silicon Valley and Hollywood and auto workers at a Ford plant in Chicago.
It’s just been so amazing to see women feeling like they can tell these stories and come forward with these stories. And so what I had been thinking a lot about all of this — because in the week before a lot of my friends were kind of asking like, “Do you think you’re gonna win? What do you think?” — I just thought, you know, what is so amazing and really incredible to me is the impact that this work has had, and that’s why I decided I wanted to become a journalist, and that’s what I always dreamed of being able to do. That to me was really the most important.
Because let’s be honest, a lot of the times really great work is awarded with the Pulitzer, but outside of the award world, it kinda doesn’t really have an impact. Some of the stuff is even sort of made for awards. A lot of people don’t even read it. But this stuff is different.
So the chronology was, Roger Ailes is booted out summer of 2016. You guys have your story.
Mike and I start reporting.
In April. And then …
Then there’s this pause, right, but …
So what happened was — and it’s really interesting when you go back and see, go back to April of last year — these women were going on social media and using the hashtag “drop O’Reilly” to tell their own stories of harassment. The story just kind of resonated in a way that I think might have even surprised a lot of people in the newsroom, and editors decided, you know, this is a huge topic. Let’s really pour on resources.
Could’ve gone the other way, because well of course Bill O’Reilly is a gross person at Fox News and he worked for Roger Ailes, and that’s just its own cesspool. Yes, it’s amazing reporting, but it’s kind of what we thought if we picked up the rock we’d find.
But I think part of the power of the reporting wasn’t just that it showed that there was a series of allegations against Bill O’Reilly and that there were $45 million in settlements, but it was that the company knew about this and that the company protected him. And at the same time that the Murdochs had said that they were creating an atmosphere or workplace based on trust and respect.
They made two settlements with women who had allegations against Bill O’Reilly, they knew about a third that they say they don’t know the price, that we know now is $32 million. And then they renewed his contract for $25 million a year.
So I think what was really powerful about that reporting is that it wasn’t just a person who was accused of bad behavior at the top who was getting away with it, but it was this entire system and this entire culture that was really corrupt.
Now there’s sort of another marching order, which is to Jodi Kanter and Megan Twohey.
Go after Weinstein.
Right, exactly. So, it was after the O’Reilly story the editor said, “Let’s start looking into powerful men who might have these …”
So it wasn’t Weinstein-specific? It was let’s go after a bunch of people we’ve heard of? “Go after,” it’s the wrong verb but it’s the right verb, right?
Start reporting on.
Start reporting on these stories we’ve heard.
Assembling the facts.
Harvey Weinstein famously was abusive to women, no one was ever able to report it on the record. People sort of flaked out, that they couldn’t land the story. David Carr, who we were talking about, tried to get it, couldn’t. Ken Auletta tried to get it, couldn’t. You guys, the Times says, “Let’s go after it again.”
Among other stories.
Right. So then at that point Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who are just incredible reporters, start looking at Harvey Weinstein. Other reporters start looking — Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn — start looking at Ford. I start reporting on Vice Media and then I continue reporting on …
So you all were going at the same time? It wasn’t Weinstein and then you picked up again? Okay.
No, and then one of the things … People think there is kind of this gap between April and October, but my colleague Katie Benner who was in Silicon Valley and was moved to D.C. to report on, I think, the Justice Department there. She did some really incredible reporting over the summer about issues about harassment in Silicon Valley. So it was interesting, it was like this chorus of voices of these stories that just got louder and louder and louder.
Because it seemed like, as a reader, like, oh, Harvey Weinstein — which was sort of the white whale of harassment and terrible behavior — breaks in the fall, early fall of 2017. Then there’s a deluge of stories to the point where if you weren’t really thinking about it, you might think, “Oh, it’s easier to write these now, because everyone wants to tell their story. Is there some element of truth to that, where it becomes much easier to report these out now that Bill O’Reilly has been taken down, now that Harvey Weinstein has been taken down?
You know, it’s interesting, because I was reporting on the O’Reilly story before and then I started reporting on Vice, in maybe May or June of last year, and it was really, it was still really difficult to do that story and to do the reporting. It was interesting because most of the women that I was talking to in that piece were in their 20s and in their 30s. I kind of had this idea, I thought it would be a lot easier, because I thought it would be young women who …
Who were woke and would be okay with talking about this.
Yeah, and a lot of the behavior was out there, right? Like everyone sort of knew that crazy stuff happened at Vice because that was part of their brand.
Right. And that was one of the things that was interesting, too, because a lot of people who worked there had to sign this nontraditional workplace agreement where they said that they would be exposed to pornography maybe on the wall, or they’re writing and reporting on this explicit material, but it didn’t say that they would be subject to harassment. And I think that there’s a difference between a wild and crazy place and a place where women say that they’re being harassed and abused.
So did the work get easier to do after Weinstein?
I think that in some ways it did get easier to do because what was so powerful about the Harvey Weinstein reporting was that at that point it was like we had created this foundation of evidence and really hardcore reporting that allowed women to stand on top of that and tell their stories, and not only be able to tell their stories but also people listened and believed them and I think that was really powerful.
Believe them and they had impact, you could see what happened.
They have impact, you could see what happened. But then in addition to that, I think in previous stories a lot of the people being accused were very powerful prominent men. But with the Harvey Weinstein story, he was a very powerful prominent man, but a lot of his accusers were famous, famous, famous, famous women.
So everybody knows Ashley Judd, everybody knows Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow. And having their face say and their name and those very strong powerful women saying “Me too, this also happened to me,” was huge to have celebrities kind of also say this had happened to them.
Yeah there was a period where some of us thought, “Well maybe this is only a story because it’s Ashley Judd.” Right? What happens when it’s not famous people? Now we’ve gone through enough of this that a lot of these stories are being taken seriously, but it could be cut both ways.
Then like you mentioned you went back to the Bill O’Reilly story that fall, where basically you uncover another giant settlement that you referenced before, that he had paid out himself.
That’s an enormous amount of money.
$32 million dollars, yeah.
And that Fox knew about the claim, they didn’t know about, and deliberately sort of averted their eyes to not know about it.
They said they knew that there was a settlement, they just didn’t know how much money it was for.
And in the process …
But they knew about the allegations.
Bill O’Reilly says, “I wanna talk to you guys.”
Did he say, “I wanna talk to both of you,” you and Mike Schmidt? Or does he differentiate who he wants to talk to? Because you had a history with him.
You reported on him before.
He threatened to come after you.
Right. So in a different era, before I was reporting about sexual harassment, it was the winter of 2015 and there had been this huge scandal of Brian Williams and questions about whether or not he had been accurate in saying that he had been on a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq. I don’t know if you remember this whole controversy, but it led him to go off the air.
Yeah. Three years ago seems like a lifetime.
It does. I aged a lot, I feel like, since then.
And in the wake of that story, Mother Jones did an investigation into Bill O’Reilly’s claims of war reporting and they said that he was not a war reporter. He had claimed that he had reported on the Falklands War, but was really reporting on protests about the Falklands War.
So anyway, there was this controversy. I had done a pretty straightforward piece about Mother Jones says this, Fox News says defending O’Reilly, he says this, put it in the paper. I think it was a Sunday night for a Monday.
And then on Monday it kind of had erupted into this big story and so I called Fox News and said, “We want to hear what your side of the story is,” and O’Reilly calls me a little bit later and before I say anything, he says that he thought that so far I had been fair, but if I did anything that he found untoward that he would come after me with everything he had and that I could take that as a threat.
Which, by the way, is not an unusual thing to hear from someone in Fox News to a reporter. Usually that stuff doesn’t get printed.
What was interesting, though, is it was the first thing that he said and he did not say it was off the record.
So I had my whole set-up, I was at my desk and I typed up what he had said, I had taken notes and I said “Okay Mr. O’Reilly, can I ask you some questions now?” And then I got off the phone and I told my editors about what had happened and they said, “Oh my God, we have to put that in the piece.”
Which is great.
So back to 2017, you’re gonna go meet Bill O’Reilly in person.
You won’t take credit for this, but your reporting led to him being fired. Now he wants to talk. What is your expectation of that conversation?
Right, so gosh, it was a crazy couple of days. So Mike and I had done all of this reporting that led to the story in April, but when that story came out we had heard that there was this other big settlement. And when I know about something and I can’t figure it out, it bothers me so much and there’s nothing that … nothing will stop me from figuring out what that thing is.
So I kind of … I moved on to other stories, but just kinda kept making calls and kinda kept reporting in my spare time. Then we found that there was this other settlement that had been for $32 million, and Mike and I kind of did a whole new round of reporting and then we went to everybody for comment. We went to Fox News for comment, we told them what we had found and wanted to hear what they had to say, and we did the same thing with Bill O’Reilly. We had sent him all of these questions and all of the information and we wanted to hear what he had to say.
With the first round of stories, we had talked with his lawyers and he had sent us a statement that we used. But we did not talk to him with that first story. With this story in October, he said he wanted to talk.
And I think we might have sent the questions maybe on a Thursday or a Friday. I remember Mike called me on Sunday and said, “They wanna talk, they wanna meet with us.”
So we told Dean Baquet and the editors at the Times, and Dean says, “You can talk to him but it has to be both of you” — because I think that they wanted to meet with just Mike and not me — “and it all needs to be on the record.”
Why do you think they wanted to meet just with Mike?
I mean, what my sources have told me is that they don’t like me and that they think that I’m out to get him.
So you knew that, you intuited that and the report of that.
You know you’re going into a hostile …
Right. So I am like, yeah, I was very nervous. I had no idea what the … well, I just thought that it was going to be a pretty hostile interview and that it was not going to be pleasant. I was really glad that Mike was there with me and we kind of had coordinated, Mike’s gonna lead a lot of the questions and do a lot of the opening and closing parts of the interview and I’ll step in and ask him questions as we need.
Mike was like — he came up because he’s in D.C., so he took the train up from D.C. I was so worried that his train was gonna be delayed and that I’d have to go by myself. Then he comes up and he’s just breezy, like, “This is gonna be a piece of cake, we’re just gonna sit down and have a nice conversation.” Meanwhile, I hadn’t eaten since we found out that we were gonna do this interview and I was just so nervous.
So you have your story reported, right?
So your expectation is you don’t want him to confirm it, you just want comment because that’s the journalistically appropriate thing to do is go talk to the person you’re gonna write about.
Yeah. You wanna hear what he has to say about this. I mean, these are really serious allegations that people are making against them.
For you it’s not a question of like, “Well, if he doesn’t give it up, we can’t run the story.” You’re running the story.
Right, exactly, but we wanna hear what he has to say.
Why do you think he wants to talk to you?
That is … I think he wanted us to hear more of his perspective, and he maybe thought that if he talked to us that maybe we wouldn’t run the story or that he would be able to give us a different point of view or a different perspective on why things had happened the way that they had.
So you guys record the interview, you play some of it on The Daily podcast, which you all should go listen to, it’s October 23, 2017. Well worth getting into the archives. This is the last bit of conversation that he has with you and we’re gonna play it for you.
Bill O’Reilly: This is crap and you know it. It’s politically and financially motivated, and we can prove it with shocking information. But I’m not gonna sit there in a courtroom for a year and half and let my kids get beating up every single day of their lives by a tabloid press who would sit there and you know it.
So that’s pretty much his last words to you, right?
And you could hear him thumping a table, and …
Yeah, we are sitting down during the interview as you do in a lawyer’s conference room and then we had stood up to leave and then he put his hand on the table and kind of leaned over.
He’s a tall person, who is a …
He’s a very tall person.
Who is a theatrical performer on camera.
He knows how to project.
He can project. So he’s doing this to you basically on your way out.
What are you thinking on the way out and those are his last words to you? You’re thinking, well obviously we’re gonna run the story, but is there any inkling of doubt in your mind? Does that have any effectiveness, that performance?
You know, I think that we thought, “We need to include this in this story, this is showing how he’s responding to these allegations in this situation.” And we also went back to the newsroom right away and we told the guys, Michael Barbaro at The Daily, “Guys, we got something really good, and you need to look at this.”
You have like that, “Oh well we’ve got something” voice.
It’s great, you should go reread all the stories, you should go listen to The Daily podcast, it’s great.
We’re gonna take a break, we’ll be back in one minute with Emily Steel.
And we’re back with Emily Steel. I still have the chills from that Daily Podcast clip we just played. I’ve been wanting to play that for months.
I’m glad you finally won the Pulitzer so that we can have you in to talk about it. I wanted to ask about the Vice story briefly.
So you said you were reporting on this last spring. This is like Harvey Weinstein, Vice was something sort of everyone knew about, or at least if you worked in New York media, digital media, you sort of knew there was weird stuff going on. Shane Smith would show up drunk at an advertiser’s conference. Not just tipsy, like on the ground rolling around drunk. They kind of reveled it. And after O’Reilly came out and then after Weinstein came out, everyone said, “Oh, well, there’s a list of obvious other stories we’re gonna read. Vice is obviously going to be one of them.”
So this is going on, everyone on the media is chatting about it. Eventually people start writing about the fact that you were writing about this. There’s a piece in The Awl, in the HuffPost. What’s it like to have people writing about the story that you’re writing but haven’t written yet?
You know, it was a little overwhelming. That story was interesting because everybody knew that it was an edgy culture and there was a lot of hard partying, but I think that there’s a huge difference between people being wild and crazy and people harassing women and abusing them. And I think that that was really what I was trying to show with the reporting, that it wasn’t … it’s not a story if there’s an edgy media company where also people party. But if there’s a line that’s crossed, if women say that they’re being subjected to harassment, that’s a big deal.
So I had been reporting the story and I had heard that there were a number of settlements and I was home at my fiance’s house over Thanksgiving and all of a sudden there’s all of these stories that start showing up saying, “Emily Steel is reporting on Vice.” I think the CNN story had talked to somebody I had talked to and they’re like, “Emily Steel is calling and she’s asking questions.”
Now you’re not just “Emily Steel from the New York Times,” you’re “Emily Steel who brought down Bill O’Reilly is going after Vice.” Oh man, are you gonna bring it.
But it is a little funny though, because it was like, “She’s asking questions like what was your experience like?” It’s just like a pretty basic question to ask.
Anyway, so the thing I was pretty upset that added a lot of pressure, I felt like, to my reporting, because what I was really trying to nail at that point was to make sure that I had these different settlements, that I was able to ultimately report. And I was trying to get people to go on the record, and I was trying with that story … What we were trying to show is that it wasn’t just one, it wasn’t just that they were accusations against one person, but that it was really kind of across this entire culture. And I thought it was a really powerful story because a lot of the other stories that we had done were about men that were of an older generation. This was about people who were millennials and younger people and so it’s just that it showed a lot about power and these systemic issues and issues with HR.
So anyway, we were really trying to make sure that this story was fair and it was accurate, I was trying to get all of this. And sometimes you can do these stories as fast as you can, but they can’t always be rushed.
Because there was this sort of thing, what’s going on, and for a while the longer it took for that story to show up, the more people thought, “Oh there must be something amazing going on here.”
I could imagine you could say to me, “Actually it was kind of helpful because there are people who wanted to talk but until they knew that I was doing it.” Or maybe they weren’t quite aware, not they felt more, they felt that they could talk to you.
Well that’s what was so interesting. So all of a sudden, we came back from Thanksgiving, and then it was like I didn’t leave my house, I’m not exaggerating, for days, it felt like, because it was like at seven o’clock in the morning somebody would call and then I would tell my editor, “You know, I’m gonna come into work in a minute.” And then it was like call after call after call after call from seven a.m. until midnight, I was just talking to people and I was trying to just hear their stories. And a lot of … it was just like these endless calls and they were all like an hour or two hours long and everybody was … Ultimately somebody cried with every single call and they all had these really hard stories that they wanted to share.
Most of those people that I talked to didn’t go on the record with their stories and they were really hesitant to do that. But they just wanted to call because they wanted me to know what their experiences had been to back up the other reporting that I had done.
So it did kick open a floodgate. It’s a very 2018 — or at least the last decade or so — of the idea of having someone’s story being written about, I guess you can go back to Monica Lewinsky was the first high-profile version, of someone was working on a story and that in itself was a story.
Would you write a story about someone writing a story that hadn’t been published? I thought about it a little bit last fall.
I don’t think that I would do that. Because I’m really focused on what I’m reporting, and …
There’s a version of this with CBS right now. There’s a CBS story supposedly in the works for a long time, the Washington Post has written about it, other folks have written about it. Everyone is sort of waiting for something.
Right. I mean, I’d be more inclined to go do the reporting and then see if I could scoop the story.
Yeah. And the story comes out late December, right before Christmas.
Yes. Right before Christmas.
There was an immediate reaction that I said, “That’s it? There’s not more, there’s not … So-and-so is not named? Only this happened?” It immediately became a Twitter meme where someone said … “Just tell me all the stuff you wanna say and I’ll just put it in my Twitter feed.” Some people will attach their name to it, some people didn’t. What was your reaction to that reaction?
It was just really fascinating to see with these stories, there’s just such a huge ripple effect, and especially the women at Vice were so — and the men, too — are so plugged into social media and the whole media world, that it really … there was a lot of criticism and it was like there were these three very contrasting points of view.
I felt like the reaction to the story, one was: That’s all that we expected, that’s all that you got, too. And the story was really strong, it had four settlements that involved some of the highest executives at the company, and it had a number of women who went on the record to talk about their allegations and we didn’t include any anonymous allegations in the story. Which was really strong. There was one set of people who thought: That’s all that she got. There was some people who are quoted saying that there was a lot of expectation about Shane and a story about Shane and that he was the white whale and we didn’t get him. But that’s not what we were trying to do with our reporting. We’re trying to follow the facts and write fair and accurate stories. We’re not out to get anybody.
The second point of view of the story was: Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s like that there, this is a terrible culture, these poor girls. What did they have to go through, why is so corrupt and terrible?
And then I felt like the third side was kinda like: Oh that’s what we expected.
It’s probably a burden of the reporting, expectations created by the reporting you guys had done earlier, right?
Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., incredible salacious detail. Worse than you imagined in a lot of cases, and then Vice is awful, but there’s not a Harvey Weinstein story, there’s not a Louis C.K. story in that.
One of the things that I thought was really interesting about that story was it’s not how … It wasn’t just about one powerful man, but it was about this entire culture and also some of these systemic issues that we’re really starting to explore, like what’s wrong with HR and why did HR protect the powerful men rather than the women who came to them with complaints? There were some really chilling stories about the HR person at Vice who women would go to with these complaints and she told one of them that — the woman told me — she said, “You know, you’re a really beautiful woman, this is just going to happen to you during your career.” And that HR woman previously had worked at Weinstein Company.
Some people who were referenced in your story ended up leaving the company.
A few months after you published it in March, Shane Smith, CEO, very high profile, steps down, and his replacement is a woman, Nancy Dubuc from A&E. Do you think those things are connected to your reporting? That one, Shane stepped down, and two, is replaced by a woman?
You know, I think nothing happens in a vacuum.
That is a politic answer. Speaking of politic, you have a very low profile on Twitter. You tweet, but you don’t mix it up. Some of your colleagues, Maggie Haberman, Rukmini, will fight with the people on Twitter and they’ll add a lot of reporting in their Twitter. Do you think consciously whether you do or don’t wanna do that? Mike Isaac, who I’ve worked with for a long time, uses Twitter as a reporting tool, “Please send me tips and stuff.” It seems like you don’t wanna use Twitter that way, or social media that way.
Yeah, you know, I feel like I’m kind of old school in that way. When I was at the Wall Street Journal, it was probably like 2008 or something, it was pretty early, and I was reporting on a story about Myspace because that was my beat at that the time, and I think maybe we were even like competitors and reporting about Myspace.
Yeah, makes both of us.
And the CEO was leaving and I think I had this as a scoop and I was really excited so then I had it, the story was in the system, was about to out, and then I tweeted it and I got in really big trouble at the Journal from editors who didn’t want me … Everybody was still trying to figure out social media policies and what’s right and not right. So they said that that was not appropriate and I’m like a very conscientious person and I don’t really like to break the rules, and ever since then I was like …
That’s enough for me.
Yeah, it’s kind of enough for me. I think that it is a very valuable tool for putting your stories out there and searching and seeing what other people say, and my DMs are open so people can contact me that way. I kinda tweet stories, but I also … with my journalism I’m really trying to follow the facts and let my stories speak for themselves. I don’t really know why anybody wants to know what I have to say about anything. I think my reporting is really strong.
Your reporting is prize-winning. What’s next for you? Do you follow this … is this now a beat for you? Or at some point do you go back to conventional media and business reporting?
I’m gonna keep reporting. There’re more stories.
There’re more stories to come out. I mean, it’s one of the questions I’ve been asking people, I’ve been asking since the first wave or since the Weinstein stories and then all the stories that preceded them was how long does this go on for? It seems like it slowed down a little bit, I asked this of Kara Swisher, she bit my head off.
What did she say?
I said it seems like the energy around this story has dissipated or is slowing down. She said, “No, no, no, this has now moved into politics.” And that’s where that’s gone.
Right. Well I think it’s interesting because the first wave of stories to really unleash this MeToo movement on social media, what I found so fascinating about that is like we’d always heard these statistics about the number of women who — and men, too — who had been victims of harassment or abuse, but we had never actually heard those stories. And I think as a culture that was just really … I was just heartsick listening and feeling a lot of this.
But I think to actually create change in a society, its more than people telling stories, it’s looking at the laws that have allowed this issue to perpetuate. It’s examining our HR systems, it’s looking at these NDAs that are used to silence victims but then allow the predators to continue their bad behavior. I think that there’s a lot of reporting and thinking about those issues that has yet to come.
Do you worry that without a Harvey Weinstein, without a Louis C.K., without a Shane Smith, very high-profile bad actors, that the people who are harassed by just random or just low-profile people who are their hotel manager … The stories have been written about, but they don’t seem to have the same impact. Do you worry that at some point you’ve gone after the biggest most obvious names that have been taken down? That’s the thing that makes this story’s energy dissipate.
That’s a good question. I think there’s still, if you do the reporting in a really great way and you are able to use those allegations in the stories to uncover a broader, systemic issue then I think … if it’s a great story, then you’ll be able to figure out a way to have it resonate.
I hope you’re right. That’s a great bit of optimistic, it’s a great optimistic note to go out on.
Should we leave it there?
Emily, this is great, thank you for your time. Congratulations.
Thank you. Thank you.
Thanks for coming in on a busy week. I appreciate it. Look forward to reading your stuff in the New York Times and not on Twitter.
Not on Twitter. Well, you can read my tweets, they’re not that exciting.
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