One of the most important questions a storyteller, journalist, or filmmaker has to navigate is, on its surface, a simple one: Whose story gets told?
But it’s a deceptively simple question, because the implications cut across all kinds of issues, like who has power and privilege, who is seen onscreen and written into stories and how they’re portrayed, and what kind of context is best for different sorts of storytelling.
Those are matters that the Sundance Film Festival has been grappling with in its first post-Weinstein year. And on Monday afternoon, in a panel called “Race, Sex, Power: Who Controls the Story?” organized by the New York Times and hosted by the festival, several participants — which included Jodi Kantor, who along with Megan Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story in October, and opinion columnist Charles Blow — discussed those issues for an audience of journalists and filmmakers.
Here are some excerpts from their conversation, selected and edited for length and clarity.
Jodi Kantor on how the Bill O’Reilly story led to the Weinstein bombshell
I’d date the story to our colleagues Emily Steel and Mike Schmidt, who broke the story about the accumulation of allegations and settlements against Bill O’Reilly. They published that last spring, and the impact was really extraordinary. The idea that the most popular host in cable news could lose his job because of a settlement trail and because of sexual harassment allegations felt so new.
And it was also kind of a wakeup call inside the building. Of course we knew that sexual harassment happened. That wasn’t a surprise to us. But the editors asked a question that almost seems quaint now. They said, “Well, are there other powerful men in American life who have covered up trails of abuse? We better go and track down those stories.”
Harvey Weinstein was not that famous. You might even say he was kind of Sundance famous — that a lot of people in the United States didn’t know anything about who this guy was. He was a movie producer. Some people said things to Megan [Twohey] and I over the summer like, “Harvey Weinstein’s behavior is an open secret in Hollywood. Everybody knows about it. You’re not gonna get the story, and even if you do get the story, nobody’s gonna care because everybody already knows.”
... Megan and I had this weird period over the summer where almost nobody knew what we were working on, and almost nobody knew what we had. And, you know, I would ride the subway to and from work, and go home to the kids, and I would think, “What would happen when the world finds out that this defining figure in our culture, and the person who’s behind a fair amount of pop culture of the last 30 years, and somebody who has stood astride the Oscars stage again and again like a king, and someone who has on one hand nurtured the careers of an entire generation of actresses — what will happen when people find out that in fact there are 30 years’ worth of allegations against him by women?”
So that was the thing that made me think, Maybe this will be impactful. But Megan and I never dreamed of anything like the last 15 weeks.
Kantor on the power of accumulated stories
It was the accumulation of collected stories and patterns that was powerful for us. What’s changed in our country over the last 15 weeks is that we’ve gone from seeing what women face in the workplace — particularly with sexual harassment, but also assault and various forms of abuse — we’ve gone from seeing that as individual to seeing that as collective.
That is a really constructive change. Because everybody was silent, and because people didn’t share their stories, a lot of the women we’ve written about really had not discussed what had happened, on the one hand. The Harvey Weinstein problem was sort of known in Hollywood, but on the other hand, a lot of women went to those hotel rooms with no idea what to expect and had not been warned. After it happened, they would process it as their personal story and their private shame. They would question themselves and say, Why did I even go to that hotel room? They would blame themselves.
Now in many cases, they had very good reason: Their agent told them to, or [Weinstein] had promised them a part in a movie, or whatever. But what we found happening — first over the course of our reporting, and then faster and faster and faster once the stories were published — is that the accumulation of patterns was so significant. … We watched people (and hopefully we helped people) go from a place of those personal stories, which were very painful, and turn them into a pattern that had some collective strength to it.
Charles Blow on why a culture’s health depends on telling diverse stories
The people who control access to and distribution of the images that reflect us, define us. Every child looks up in the sky at night and sees the same set of stars, and they have the same sorts of dreams and the same sorts of words. If only certain portions of those children ever get to the place where they see themselves reaching those stars, fighting the alien, or being crowned the princess, or whatever it is, that means that all the other children go starving. That means that the children who are reflected do not get a full picture of the people around them. They quite literally don’t get to see them as fully human.
You see how that tumbles forward as we grow and age and mature and have to make our social constructs about how we view each other — whether we look at someone and we see them with compassion, because they are us, or whether we look at them and register some sort of threat, or fear, or anger.
All of that, to some degree, is defined by the stories that we tell ourselves. And if we are not telling all those stories, it cannot be done. No amount of protesting can remedy that. No amount of voting can remedy that, because that story lives in us. So I think writers, people in this room who tell stories on film, all have to say, “We bear some real responsibility for the way that story has been crafted.”
Blow on how the American story is shaped by who tells it
The American story has been basically made into a fiction, because it is only about a quarter of the story of America. And a lot of that story is a lie. Now we are in this incredible moment of a reclamation of memory.
It is always striking to me how quickly we can collectively forget. In just one generation, a whole set of facts will just disappear, because they are not being pushed forward in the arts, in education. They are allowed to disappear. And that is completely on our shoulders.
… Representation matters tremendously — tremendously. And not just among the storytellers but among the people who fund the storytellers, among the people who make the actual decisions about which stories get the green light. I’m a 47-year-old black man. Ninety percent of all the movies I see about black people are about historical figures or stories of some sort of oppression.
And that’s part of the black narrative in America — but it’s not the whole one. Somebody has to be able to say, these are full, well-rounded human beings who have whole stories, just like anybody else.
The myth of race is the biggest, most dangerous myth we have ever created. It basically assigns character and capacity to people based on skin color, which is a ridiculous thing. Once we do that, we then assign a narrative to them. But they are human beings, regardless of how they look, and they will behave like human beings. They bleed when they are cut, they cry when they are angry, when they are upset, and they laugh when they are happy. That is what human beings will do, and human beings will be aspirational, and human beings will be horrible. That’s just a human thing.
Kantor on how gender and race work as a “solvent and a decoder” in reporting on organizations and power
What I’ve discovered in my work is that gender — and I think this is true of race as well — is a subject, but it’s also a solvent and a decoder. A lot of stories I’ve done over the years are about women in some way. Obviously, I’m writing about gender and I care about big questions about women’s equality, but I’ve also found that because women and people of color are often the outsiders in an organization, if you follow their stories, you will discover the truth. They are the canaries in the coal mine.
A few years ago we wrote a big investigative story about Amazon, by me and David Streitfeld. We were looking at Amazon’s corporate culture. We found that Amazon’s culture is very, very hard on its employees, even white-collar employees who are relatively privileged. One of the things we found out is that there were women who had breast cancer, or who had miscarriages, or even, in one case, a stillbirth who felt they weren’t given time off by the organization to recover. The organization just kept pushing them and pushing them, even in moments of recovery or grief.
So was that a woman’s story? Was that a gender story? Perhaps. Amazon has an either all-male or almost entirely male leadership team, so you can certainly see it that way.
Or you could also say that by looking at Amazon through the eyes of these female employees, you were gonna see things about the organization that were not easily visible on the outside. As an investigative reporter, you’re always looking for your toeholds. You’re always looking for your ways in. And so I would say, look for the people who can teach you about the truth of a culture.
Blow on how storytellers can handle their own privilege
I think we start with this proposition first: Each of us is blind to our own privileges. Not only do we possess privileges, we literally can’t see them, and that prevents us from empathizing people who are oppressed by our position.
Second, we stop thinking of privilege and oppression as diametrically opposed and binary, that they are on a seesaw, that your privileges are built on my oppression and that’s the only way they can work. Understand that people who are oppressed can also have privileges. I can be a black man in America, and that comes with a certain set of oppressions, and I’m a man, which comes with a certain set of privileges. So I understand my own blindness to my male privilege when I’m reading about #MeToo — every time you guys publish another story, I’m still shocked!
Now, why is that? Because that is not my lived experience. I’ve never had to worry when I walked out of the door whether I would be assaulted, whether somebody would catcall me. I’ve never had that worry.
So you really have to take it on as a job, to find a way to empathy. I have to listen, because I just don’t know it. I have to sit with the person who is feeling the oppression and not center myself, as the person with the privilege …
The privileged person always wants to center themselves. They want to know how this phenomenon affects them, will alter their reality, whether or not it will impede their access and their success and their wealth and their privilege.
Once you stop that and start to listen, you’ll start to understand that there are so many stories that you do not know — human stories. Maya Angelou would say, “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.” These are human stories. They are not foreign. … America is just part of human history; it is all told through personal stories. Every religion is a collection of personal stories. The personal story is literally the most powerful thing that a human being has.