In the aftermath of the sexual harassment scandal that ousted Fox News executive Roger Ailes, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet remembered an old story: Fox star Bill O’Reilly had also settled a harassment claim in 2004. So Baquet assigned two reporters, Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt, to “re-report” what happened then and see if there was anything new.
What Steel and Schmidt found led to O’Reilly’s firing and, later, sparked a series of investigations by the Times and other media outlets into sexual harassment, abuse and rape at the highest levels of several industries. Once-untouchable celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. were booted off their perches and the everyday harassment of women in workplaces like Ford auto plants became public knowledge. Steel, Schmidt and their colleagues were recognized this month with a Pulitzer Prize for public service, which the NYT shared with the New Yorker.
On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Steel recalled how her investigations into O’Reilly and, later, the toxic culture at Vice Media, came together. It’s worth remembering that, when O’Reilly was fired in April 2017, he had never been more powerful.
“He had the top-rated show on all of cable news,” Steel said. “His placement, he was at the eight o’clock hour on Fox News, and that was the anchor of the prime-time lineup. He had just renewed his contract a couple months earlier for $25 million a year. His show pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in adverising. He was really at the peak of his career.”
O’Reilly opened the floodgates for the stories we’ve read over the past year. But Steel said exposing wrongdoing became easier after Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, a result of reporting by the NYT’s Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow.
“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 tell their stories, but people believed them,” Steel said. “In previous stories, a lot of the people being accused were very powerful, prominent men. But with the Harvey Weinstein story, he was a powerful, prominent man, but a lot of his accusers were famous, famous, famous, famous women.”
“Everybody knows Ashley Judd, everybody knows Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow,” she added. “Having their face and name saying ‘me too’ was huge.”
On the new podcast, Steel explained how she and Schmidt strategized before every phone call during their months of reporting on O’Reilly. They discussed who should make the call and exactly what to ask, to have the best chances of getting the true story.
“Before I called most people, I would look at their Instagram, look at what videos they’d been on, just get a sense of who they are and what motivation there might be to talk to us,” she said. “Reporting on Fox News is very, very difficult and a lot of people in that world really didn’t want to talk to me, or couldn’t talk to me, or feared talking to me.”
And she still remembers exactly what she would say when she’d cold-call someone for the first time. It was not “I want to know if Bill O’Reilly harassed you.”
“‘Hi, my name is Emily Steel, I’m a reporter at the New York Times,’” Steel would say. “‘I’m looking into the experiences of women at Fox News and 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.’”
The first woman who was willing to talk to Steel, Wendy Walsh, had a story to tell but initially asked to be kept off the record. Steel called back again and again and asked to meet in person; Walsh said she was too busy, with a schedule that included a Pilates class in Venice, Calif. So Steel, with Walsh’s agreement, flew out to LA to do Pilates in the same studio — and, afterwards, the two women went out for coffee.
“I told her, she still has a voice and that’s powerful,” Steel said. “She kind of looks at me and says she’s going to talk about this on the record. She says she wanted to do it for two reasons: One, 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 issues she had to.”
“I can’t understate how hard this reporting was and how many people didn’t want to talk,” she added. “To get somebody who was willing to share their story, who was brave and willing to go on the record, I think I started crying. I ran back to the hotel room and called Mike and called the editors. It was thrilling.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.