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The Harvey Weinstein scandal shows the power and the danger of gossip

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul and alleged serial sexual predator, was destroyed, at least in part, by gossip. But Harvey Weinstein also allegedly used gossip as a weapon.

In the wake of the allegations that Weinstein has sexually harassed and assaulted women throughout his career, a recurring theme in the story has been that we already knew about the allegations against him, because they were all over gossip websites and tabloids: Major producer demands sex in exchange for roles; major producer terrorizes young actresses. That’s how journalists knew there was a story to be had about Weinstein if they could just get someone to speak about it on the record, and how women in the industry knew to be careful around him. It was how women warned each other about Weinstein without attaching their names to the warning and risking retaliation from one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.

“The gossip percolating around [Weinstein] became another form of knowledge,” writes BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen, “of currency in the economy of how women protect ourselves and others.”

The lack of traditional accountability in the gossip press made it a place where the powerless could share their stories, arming themselves against the threats of a man as powerful as Weinstein.

But gossip is also how Weinstein is alleged to have smeared his enemies, by using it against those who rejected him or threatened to expose him.

The dual role of the gossip press in the Weinstein scandal — as a tool used by the women Weinstein allegedly harassed as well as by Weinstein himself — speaks to the Catch-22 nature of the gossip industry. It can be a place from which to speak truth to power, but it can also be a place where the powerful just get even more so.

Negative stories about people whom Weinstein considered opponents have often shown up in the gossip press

“An occupational hazard of editing Talk [the magazine Weinstein owned] was aborting the pieces Harvey assigned on his nightly trolling from reporters who had tried to get a bad rumor confirmed,” former Talk editor Tina Brown writes at the New York Times. “Another of his co-opting tactics was to offer a juicy negative nugget about one of the movie stars in his films or people in his media circle (fairly often, me) in a trade to quash a dangerous piece about himself.”

Weinstein traded gossip like currency (and still does, if the sound bites that “anonymous insider sources” are giving to Page Six are any indication). He also allegedly used gossip to discredit the women whom he wanted to punish.

In 2015, when Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez told the police that Weinstein groped her, he briefly faced criminal charges. There were articles about the encounter in major newspapers. It was a legitimate scandal, and Weinstein did not look good. But then, the New Yorker reports, negative stories about Gutierrez began to turn up in the gossip press:

In 2010, as a young contestant in a beauty pageant associated with the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Gutierrez had attended one of his infamous Bunga Bunga parties. She claimed that she had been unaware of the nature of the party before arriving, and eventually became a witness in a bribery case against Berlusconi, which is still ongoing. Gossip outlets also reported that Gutierrez, as a teenager, had made an allegation of sexual assault against an older Italian businessman but later declined to cooperate with prosecutors.

According to the narrative pushed by gossip outlets, Gutierrez was grasping and conniving, and Weinstein an innocent pawn caught up in her scheme. Weinstein continued doing business as usual while the charges against him were dropped. There’s no real evidence that the stories about Gutierrez came from Weinstein’s camp, but they certainly helped him when he was in a compromising situation.

Mira Sorvino told the New Yorker that Weinstein harassed her in 1995 when she was promoting the movie Mighty Aphrodite, for which she would win an Oscar. According to Sorvino, Weinstein chased her around a hotel room and showed up unannounced at her apartment, only to appear “dejected” when she responded with the politest possible refusals: It was against her religion to date married men, and she had a boyfriend. Sorvino’s star faded rapidly after her Oscar win, and while “there may have been other factors,” she said, “I definitely felt iced out and that my rejection of Harvey had something to do with it.”

On gossip sites, that “icing out” seems to have manifested itself as the persistent rumor that Sorvino was, to put it delicately, hard to work with. “Were the stories true that what ruined Mira's career was that she became a huge bitch after winning the Oscar and no one wanted to work with her?” asked one commenter on the Data Lounge.

“Her reputation among her peers is pretty poisonous,” another said.

In 2002, Movieline profiled Sorvino and broached “the question of the reputation she gained of being ‘difficult.’”

“It's getting a little tiresome,” Sorvino replied, “because every article I've read about myself in the past four years has a quote from some director saying, 'Yeah, I heard she was difficult, but I didn't find her that way.' When is that going to get retired?”

There’s no way to prove that Weinstein is responsible for Sorvino’s negative reputation. Maybe she really was difficult to work with, or maybe she wasn’t and someone else started the rumors. According to Sorvino, Weinstein was angry with her and wanted to punish her, and according to Brown, he liked to use the gossip press to settle his grudges — but that doesn’t prove he smeared Sorvino.

In either case, the story made an impact. Sorvino never became the superstar she seemed poised to become.

Gossip is a powerful and morally neutral tool

The nature of gossip is that its source is invisible and unverifiable, which is what makes it so effective and so dangerous. It’s an extremely powerful tool, and anyone can use it for any purpose.

And sources close to Weinstein told the New Yorker that gossip is a tool he likes to use. Former Weinstein Company front desk assistant Emily Nestor, who is among the women who’ve accused Weinstein of harassment, said he made a point of showing off his abilities to control the gossip press to her:

Throughout the breakfast, she said, Weinstein interrupted their conversation to yell into his cell phone, enraged over a spat that Amy Adams, a star in the Weinstein movie “Big Eyes,” was having in the press. Afterward, Weinstein told Nestor to keep an eye on the news cycle, which he promised would be spun in his favor. Later in the day, there were indeed negative news items about his opponents, and Weinstein stopped by Nestor’s desk to be sure that she’d seen them.

One of the most formidable weapons in Weinstein’s arsenal — one he seems to have deliberately displayed to a woman he was allegedly already trying to prey upon — appears to be his ability to weaponize the gossip press, by ensuring the publication of stories that agree with his preferred way of seeing the world. And in what may or may not be a coincidence, the gossip press has frequently seemed fairly eager to publish stories about how the women Weinstein does not like are mean and also can’t be trusted because they’ve slept with lots of other men.

The gossip press also published stories implying that Weinstein was a predator when no one else would touch them. Blind item sites and gossip blogs were what kept the Weinstein rumors circulating between the industry and the general public for years; they’re what helped keep the story alive while journalists looked for verified sources they could use to report on it.

But that does not make the gossip press an unalloyed good. Gossip is an influential and morally neutral tool with few checks on its power. It can offer the powerless a platform for making their voices heard — but it can also be a weapon for the powerful.

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