One of my favorite journalists covering Hollywood is Richard Rushfield, whose work covering American Idol for the Los Angeles Times and other outlets in the 2000s was essential, and led to his similarly essential book American Idol: The Untold Story, published in 2011 and (for me) one of the best texts on how reality television works behind the scenes.
Rushfield’s newest venture is the newsletter The Ankler, which comes out three or four times per week and is crammed full of great reporting on the film and TV industries, alongside gossip, commentary, and a healthy dose of snark. Rushfield couldn’t have picked a bigger year to launch his newsletter, as 2017 has been one of the biggest ever for major news out of Hollywood.
The Ankler was born in the buildup to an eventually thwarted Writers Guild of America strike, and has since gone on to cover everything from major studios being bought by other companies (or other major studios) to what Rushfield calls the biggest story in Hollywood history: the ongoing reckoning with the many, many, many (mostly) men accused of sexual misconduct, and the seeming inability of the industry, for decades, to hold those men accountable.
So when Rushfield joined me for my “2017 in review” edition of my podcast I Think You’re Interesting, we spent a good deal of time talking about Hollywood sexual harassment and assault (or, as I like to call it, “Two men discuss the problem of sexual misconduct in Hollywood”).
Why did this story break now, after decades of being swept under the rug? What is the path forward for Hollywood? And what does the world look like in a few years, when the constant stream of revelations has died down, but those accused of misconduct are trying to re-enter the public eye?
Here’s an excerpt from my discussion with Rushfield, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
You mentioned the idea of 50-50 gender parity within the industry, and when I’ve talked to people at other companies that have dealt with major sexual harassment scandals, there’s often that suggestion of hiring more women helped create ... a support network where they felt comfortable sharing complaints, which gradually cut down on harassment.
That seems to be one way to start making a solution, yet Hollywood has traditionally not been great at hiring people outside of straight white men, especially at the highest levels of power. It’s easy [for them] to put on a TV show with a female lead; [it seems to be much harder for Hollywood] to hire a bunch of female executives to run your television production company.
Do you see that as a way that Hollywood will adapt to move forward?
I think a lot of the problem, frankly, is generational. It’s not just one gender, but it is one generation of people that have run movies and TV since the ’90s, essentially. The baby boom generation — they all constantly switch around jobs and trade them back and forth and whenever there’s a network presidency or a studio head is up, it’s the same six people who at that moment are without a chair that are put in contention for it.
That generation, the baby boomers, I think tends to be much more heavily white male, and I think if you look at Generation X and Generation Y, for people in the industry, I think it’s a much more integrated group, and I think when that generation, when we finally pry the studio chairmanships out of [the baby boomers’] cold, dead hands, a lot of that will be solved.
When the Louis C.K. story broke, it was right as we were building up to Daddy’s Home 2 starring Mel Gibson. Obviously, Harvey Weinstein’s career is done. I feel like Kevin Spacey’s is probably done.
But there are a lot of people in a grayer area, where someone like Matt Weiner can be, like, “It’s one person who said this. I disagree with what happened. I’m sorry she feels that way,” and still continue to make his TV show.
What is the world like two years from now when, say, Louis C.K. is releasing a new standup special, which we all know is going to happen? How much does this change how we view these people culturally — because individually, obviously, it’s different for everybody?
If you look at Matt Weiner, two years from now, when, let’s say there’s been another 100 people who’ve been accused between now and then, are we even going to be able to sort it out? We’ll remember Matt Weiner was one of the people named back in that time, but will we be able to sort out what he did? ... And on that, are we going to be able to say, “Oh, he’s never allowed to work again”?
The easy solution would be to say, “You can work, but you shouldn’t be managing people.” But with stars and with these head writers, if they’re in a room, they’re in charge of it, no matter what the title or flowchart says. So I don’t know how that’s going to [sort out].
With Louis C.K., he’ll spend a year or two in purgatory, and then, as you say, come out with a standup special about his journey and how he’s seen everything. Louis C.K., of all of these people, is probably the least dependent on any Hollywood machinery. If he books the theaters, who’s going to stop individuals from buying tickets?
Are people going to picket outside and name and shame the people who spend $10 on a ticket, or $6 to download [a special] directly from him? There’s no way to stop them, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how we sort all this out. There will be some people who will be in jail, so their careers will be at an end, but others, how we decide we can police the ban and where the line is, these are the questions of the years ahead.
The thing I always think about is at the height of the Bill Cosby story, he was still doing a standup tour, and people were still buying tickets, and saying, “I don’t believe [his accusers].” I never underestimate the capacity of people to put things aside in the name of what they enjoy. We all do it! I do it.
Look at our presidency right now. Culturally, we tried to say, “You’re not allowed to vote for him. He’s off limits.” And 46 percent of the people said, “To hell with you.” Probably a good percentage of them were saying, “Just because you told me that, I’m going to vote for him.” They can download a comedy special as easily as they can cast a vote.
For much, much more with Rushfield on this topic and others (including lighter moments like the Great Oscars Mixup of 2017), listen to the full podcast.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.