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The “Shitty Media Men” list, explained

How the argument over an anonymous spreadsheet encapsulates the debates of the post-Weinstein era.

Social Media Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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.

On Wednesday night, the creator of an anonymous document widely known as the “Shitty Media Men” list stepped forward.

Writing at the Cut, a young New York-based journalist named Moira Donegan revealed that last October, she created a Google spreadsheet that allowed users to anonymously collect rumors and warnings about sexual misconduct committed by the men with whom they worked.

In the final product, more than 70 men were named. Some of them were associated with beloved and prestigious outlets: the Paris Review, the New Republic, the New Yorker, the New York Times. Some of them were famous. And they were accused of everything from creepy direct messages to rape. (Disclosure: A former Vox employee was named on the list.)

The spreadsheet was intended for private consumption, but it rapidly became public. Hours after the list was created, BuzzFeed posted an article about it; after Donegan deleted the whole thing, copies floated across the internet.

Think pieces on the list abounded. To a media world still trying to wrap its mind around the post-Weinstein reckoning about sexual harassment and assault, the Shitty Media Men list became a potent symbol of all that could go wrong: Wasn’t it irresponsible to collect such serious unsourced rumors into a single document that could be sent anywhere and shared with anyone? Didn’t the list conflate violent rape, which everyone can agree is monstrous, with comparatively harmless acts like creepy texts? Couldn’t this document ruin lives?

In the months that followed, some of the men named on the spreadsheet were investigated. A few were suspended or fired. The women who created and contributed to the spreadsheet remained anonymous.

Earlier this week, news emerged that professional provocateur Katie Roiphe was working on an article on the list for the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, and that in this article she might be planning to name the creator of the list. It was apparently to head off Roiphe’s article that Donegan decided to step forward at last.

Over the past few months, the saga of the Shitty Media Men list has become a microcosm of the conversation around the current cultural reckoning: Women attempt to protect themselves from men they believe to be predators by organizing whisper networks and, in this case, updating them for the digital age.

When the whisper network emerges into the public’s awareness, it feels so disruptive to the status quo that a backlash rises on the seeming injustice of depriving men of the right to due process. Meanwhile, digital whisper networks replicate the problems of their analog counterparts: They are made available only to certain people, and disproportionately exclude women who are not plugged into the New York media social scene, especially women of color.

All the while, the women who created the network pay for it: with their reputations, their careers, and their bodily safety and security.

The original list was meant to be private. It didn’t stay that way.

When Donegan created the Shitty Media Men list, she says, the idea was that it would work in the same way women’s whisper networks have always worked.

Women have always pulled their friends aside and warned each other not to go to dinner alone with this guy or to be careful accepting mentorship help from that one, and the spreadsheet would do the same thing — only now the information would all be organized in a single, easily accessible place.

Potentially, it could be shared with women who might not otherwise be under the protection of a whisper network. It was meant to be a defensive tool, not an offensive one: Deliberately, it was not a call to go to the police or to contact the employers of the men named.

“The value of the spreadsheet was that it had no enforcement mechanisms,” Donegan writes at the Cut: “Without legal authority or professional power, it offered an impartial, rather than adversarial, tool to those who used it. It was intended specifically not to inflict consequences, not to be a weapon.”

The sheet was intended to serve as a master list of all the men in media whom women might want to be careful around, from the accused rapists to the milder creeps, but it was organized so that readers could distinguish between various offenses. All of the accusations were carefully detailed; multiple accusations of violent assault were highlighted in red.

“The spreadsheet only had the power to inform women of allegations that were being made and to trust them to judge the quality of that information for themselves and to make their own choices accordingly,” writes Donegan. “This, too, is still seen as radical: the idea that women are skeptical, that we can think and judge and choose for ourselves what to believe and what not to.”

This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors, read a note at the top of the spreadsheet. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.

Please never name an accuser, and never share this document with a man, it added in the next cell.

The list leaked almost immediately anyway.

As soon as the list became public, it was hotly debated

Donegan writes that she didn’t expect the list to spread as far or as rapidly as it did. “I realized that I had created something that had grown rapidly beyond my control,” she writes. “I was overwhelmed and scared.”

Within hours of its creation, the list was forwarded to some of the men it named. A number of them quietly deleted their social media accounts.

Shortly thereafter, BuzzFeed published an article by Doree Shafrir breaking the story. Donegan locked down access to the list and then deleted it, but by then it was too late. The whole thing had gone public. Screencaps abounded. And the reaction was not entirely positive.

“Finally, the grossest men in media will be exposed,” Shafrir wrote victoriously at the beginning of her BuzzFeed story. But she also expressed misgivings: “Things do get complicated when you start lumping all of this behavior together in a big anonymous spreadsheet of unsubstantiated allegations against dozens of named men — who were not given the chance to respond.”

Many shared Shafrir’s mixed feelings. What if someone acted on the accusations in the list — maybe a hiring manager or an editor who refused to work with those named — but didn’t give the listed men a chance to defend themselves? Didn’t the list deny those men their due process? Wouldn’t it lead to readers conflating accusations of rape with accusations of mild creepiness?

An entry that noted solely that one man was “creepy af in the dms” was widely mocked. Was a man’s life and reputation to be destroyed because of a few off-putting direct messages?

And it was an anonymous document. Those accusations could have come from anyone. They could be from alt-right trolls or vindictive enemies. Wasn’t the list irresponsible at best?

In an opinion piece for NBC News, Jill Filipovic called the list “a radical if enormously flawed feminist effort,” fretting that it would bring on an inevitable backlash. Deadline quoted Victor Navasky, former editor of the Nation, who mused, “I have double feelings. I believe it’s very good to raise people’s consciousness about how women have been abused in the marketplace. But from my study of the blacklist and the McCarthy hearings, I think lists are dangerous.”

“It makes sense not to hire rapists,” wrote Christina Cauterucci at Slate. “But should every man who’s ever verbally harassed a woman never work again? What about ‘creeps’? For those of us who believe that the prison system and sex offender registries do far more harm than good, what alternatives can we offer survivors and perpetrators? At what point could an industry consider a harasser reformed and hirable? How can women protect one another without trampling the rights of the accused?”

Still others condemned the list entirely. On the New Yorker’s website, Masha Gessen cited it as evidence that America’s “sex panic” had gone too far. The Forward declared it evidence of a witch hunt.

“What is the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list for?” asked Erin Gloria Ryan at the Daily Beast. “Is it for justice or for catharsis? As it stands, it provides neither.” She concluded that it was “a shitty way to change the media.”

And among conversations about the list’s dangers and responsibilities, another critique emerged: The list was too exclusive. It was distributed only to people already linked into the originator’s whisper network, which meant that certain groups had no idea the list existed until it was made public. Some women writers of color who had not received the list argued that it excluded them by its nature.

Others suggested that the list left out younger writers who weren’t in the originator’s network. “Many people who might benefit from it — for instance, those just starting out in media, who tend to be especially vulnerable — never got a look,” wrote Andi Zeisler for Bitch Media.

In the months after the list emerged, investigation after investigation was launched

While the list floated through back channels, few journalists were willing to publish its claims: That would mean publishing unverified, unsubstantiated, anonymous, and deeply serious accusations to be consumed and judged by a public audience. It would be irresponsible journalism and a defamation suit waiting to happen.

Notorious alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich (who has boasted in the past about being accused and cleared of a rape charge in college) put out a bounty for a copy of the list, declaring he would pay $10,000 for it. When he eventually got a copy — for which he says his source would not accept money — he briefly announced that he was committed to publishing the list in full, one name at a time. Instead, he stopped publication after only two names, telling Politico that he had to consult with his lawyer before going further.

But while few were willing to publish the names of the men accused on the list, some of the outlets employing the men in question began to launch internal investigations. (Those outlets do not, apparently, include the New York Times. According to Politico, the Times concluded that it needed an internal complaint to launch a formal investigation.) And following investigations, some of the men accused lost their jobs.

The first to go was former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, who appeared on the list with a terse note saying only “workplace harassment” next to his name. Wieseltier’s new project, a forthcoming arts and culture journal he was to set to edit, which was backed by the Emerson Collective, was canceled abruptly at the end of October; the Emerson Collective said in a statement that the project was ended “upon receiving information related to past inappropriate workplace conduct.”

It’s unclear whether Emerson’s statement refers to the list, to an email chain passed between women who used to work at the New Republic and recalled being subject to unwanted advances from Wieseltier, to both, or to something else entirely. As Sarah Wildman, a former New Republic staffer, pointed out for Vox, Wieseltier’s behavior was widely known among the women of the New Republic.

Shortly after Wieseltier’s magazine was canceled, the New Republic announced that its then-editor Hamilton Fish had been suspended pending an outside investigation of multiple complaints against him from current female employees. Not long after, Fish resigned.

There were more investigations, more shocked resignations: Lorin Stein of the Paris Review resigned following an internal investigation. Mother Jones opened an investigation against David Corn. GQ fired Rupert Myers. BuzzFeed News investigated and then fired Adrian Carrasquillo for violating the company’s code of conduct. Ryan Lizza — the object of the oft-mocked accusation “creepy af in the dms” — was investigated and then fired by the New Yorker following a complaint of sexual misconduct.

“Is it finally time to take the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list seriously?” asked Marie Solis at Newsweek as December drew to a close.

Dangerous threats to name the list’s creator brought everything to a boiling point

It was into this vexed and contentious atmosphere that the news dropped like a bomb on Wednesday: Culture critic Katie Roiphe was writing about the list for Harper’s Magazine, and she might be planning to name the list’s originator.

Onlookers were outraged: Releasing the name of the list’s originator would put her at risk of troll campaigns and serious real-world implications. She could receive rape and death threats; she might be in fear of her life. And as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out for the Washington Post, there were few circumstances under which her name could be considered newsworthy.

Adding to the sense of imminent danger was Roiphe’s reputation as a provocateur with little patience for anti-rape activism. In 1995, she kick-started her career at age 25 by publishing an op-ed in the New York Times proclaiming that the “rape crisis movement” sweeping college campuses was a bit of overblown hysteria from young women who regretted getting drunk and having sex. Later, she would go on to scold feminists for overusing the word vagina. If any self-described feminist writer would be willing to release the name of the writer of the list, the thinking went, it would be Roiphe.

Harper’s refused to comment on the piece prior to publication (which has yet to occur), but feminist Twitter mobilized anyway. Advertisers pulled ads. Nicole Cliffe, co-founder of the Toast, offered to reimburse writers who were willing to remove their pieces from Harper’s and ended up shelling out $19,000 for a reported five articles.

Multiple women decided to take credit for the list themselves in an “I am Spartacus”-style movement to protect the true originator; one of them, the filmmaker Lexi Alexander, was so convincing that multiple news sources reported she really was the source of the list.

Meanwhile, Roiphe herself led multiple sources to believe that she was not actually planning to name the originator of the list. “I am not naming anyone as participating in any way in the list,” she told the Washington Post.

“I am looking forward to talking about what is actually in the piece when it actually comes out,” she told the New York Times. “I am not ‘outing’ anyone. I have to say it’s a little disturbing that anyone besides Trump views Twitter as a reliable news source.”

But the New York Times found that a fact-checker for Harper’s had contacted Moira Donegan with the information that Roiphe named her as a figure “widely believed” to be behind the list, asking for her comment. (The Times did not name Donegan until after she came forward herself, via her essay for the Cut.)

Roiphe maintains that this does not mean Donegan’s name would have appeared in her final Harper’s piece. “I would not have mentioned it without her approval. I want to be clear on that,” she told the Times.

An unverified Twitter account purporting to belong to Roiphe added a comment: “Moira Donegan refused to speak to me so I involved a fact checker in the reporting process,” she said. “It seemed to me, for various reasons, that Moira might want to claim responsibility for the list, and I was testing that premise.”

According to Donegan, Roiphe contacted her in December for a comment on a story about the “feminist movement,” with no mention of the Shitty Media Men list. Donegan says she declined to comment and heard nothing more until the Harper’s fact-checker got in touch.

Regardless, Donegan seems to have decided to head off Roiphe and Harper’s by coming forward herself, before anyone else forced the issue. She published her first-person account of the list on the Cut late Wednesday night.

The lessons of the Shitty Media Men list apply equally to the reckoning

In her essay, Donegan writes that she thinks creating the list was both naive and cynical of her. Naively, she believed that it would remain a contained document, that it would not be sent to untrustworthy figures or go public. And cynically, she writes, she thought that no one in power would care about the spreadsheet:

Sexual harassment and assault, even when it was violent, had been tolerated for so long that it seemed like much of the world found it acceptable. I thought that women could create a document with the aim of helping one another in part because I assumed that people with authority didn’t care about what we had to say there. In this sense, at least, I am glad I was wrong.

Donegan says that since she created the list, she has lost friendships and her job. (She spent six months as an assistant editor for the New Republic, the site of the first two major public scandals to break after the list was leaked; a spokesperson for the magazine told both Vox and CNN that her departure had nothing to do with “the spreadsheet.”)

“The fear of being exposed, and of the harassment that will inevitably follow, has dominated my life since,” Donegan writes. “I’ve learned that protecting women is a position that comes with few protections itself.”

That’s the same lesson that’s begun to emerge over the course of our great reckoning with systemic, entrenched misogyny and sexual violence. Every new accusation against a powerful man feels like such a seismic and monumental shift in the status quo that critics cry out that we are denying these men their due process — even though the accused men tend to get much more than their due process.

For the most part, they fly under the radar so easily that, as Michelle Cottle wrote of Leon Wieseltier, their behavior is less an open secret than it is just open. If accusations become public, then the men might go through elaborate, involved investigations; after that, then maybe they lose their jobs.

But none of the men who appear on the Shitty Media Men list, even those who were accused of multiple counts of rape, have faced criminal charges. And any one of them can plausibly expect to land a new job, or to reemerge into the media limelight after a period in exile to soul-search.

Meanwhile, their accusers are frequently decried as puritanical sex panickers, as witch hunters, as ruiners of innocent men. They lose jobs and relationships, are blackballed, and live in fear — not because they committed horrible crimes, but because they tried to protect themselves and (some) other women. Because they spoke out.