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Why Bob Woodward was booed during his Q&A with reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Kantor and Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Woodward asked them if Weinstein was trying to do “a weird foreplay.”

Bob Woodward in conversation with Jodi Kantor (center) and Megan Twohey at the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, DC, on October 2, 2019.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox
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.

Legendary journalist Bob Woodward is coming under heavy fire for the questions he asked while interviewing the Pulitzer-winning investigative team of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at a Washington, DC, event on Wednesday night. After Woodward repeatedly interrupted Kantor and Twohey and posited that Harvey Weinstein’s behavior could have been “weird foreplay,” audience members booed Woodward, and some attendees even walked out of the event.

The event, a Q&A at the DC synagogue Sixth & I, was an opportunity for Kantor and Twohey to promote their new book, She Said, about the process of investigating and breaking the story of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. Kantor and Twohey were the ones who chose Woodward to interview them about their investigative process, and it’s easy to see why he would seem like a great fit. After all, Woodward broke the Watergate scandal, one of the biggest investigative news stories of his generation, and Kantor and Twohey won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the Weinstein story, one of the biggest investigative news stories of their generation.

The conversation didn’t get off to such a terrible start. “He did stand up and hail them as tremendous journalists and said how remarkable their work and the book is,” said Kainaz Amaria, Vox’s visuals editor, who attended the event. “And he asked them questions about the investigative process. However, he also interrupted them quite a few times.”

Some audience members began to yell back at Woodward as he repeatedly interrupted Kantor and Twohey, saying, “Let them finish!” and “Every woman deserves to be heard!”

And as the conversation veered away from investigative journalism and into sexual misconduct, Woodward’s questions apparently became less and less well-informed.

The most detailed account of what happened comes from Robyn Swirling, the founder of the anti-sexual-harassment organization Works in Progress, who wrote a long tweet thread describing Woodward’s questions. Swirling says that Woodward spent more than 10 minutes asking Kantor and Twohey why Weinstein harassed and assaulted women the way that he allegedly did. She also says that when Kantor and Twohey repeated that Weinstein’s actions were an abuse of power, enabled by a system that allowed him to silence women, Woodward accused them of dodging his question.

“So it’s about power? It’s about sex also, though, isn’t it?” Woodward reportedly said, asking whether Weinstein’s actions might have been “a weird foreplay.”

This question was the point at which Woodward lost the audience, because it so fundamentally misinterpreted both what researchers know about sexual violence and Kantor and Twohey’s book.

Current research agrees with Twohey and Kantor, not Woodward: Sexual assault isn’t really about sex at all, nor is it “a weird foreplay.” It’s about power.

“Work with sexual offenders has confirmed that the motivating factor for sexual violence is not sexual desire,” the World Health Organization states in its guidelines on sexual violence. “Although sexuality and aggression are involved in all forms of sexual violence, sex is merely the medium used to express various types of non-sexual feelings such as anger and hostility towards women, as well as a need to control, dominate and assert power over them.”

And the question of what might have been going on in Weinstein’s head is missing from the pointedly titled She Said for a reason: Kantor and Twohey didn’t set out to analyze Weinstein’s motivations, but to focus on the effects of his actions on the women he is accused of abusing, and to prove through reporting that there was a whole system covering up Weinstein’s misdeeds and silencing the women he targeted.

The tension in the room was only exacerbated by Woodward’s repeated claims that Kantor and Twohey were dodging his question. “You could just feel the whole audience going into a defensive posture,” Amaria, the Vox visuals editor, said.

As the conversation went on, Woodward continued to ask questions that audience members say betrayed his lack of knowledge about sexual violence. Statistically, sexual violence is underreported, and the rate of false reports is around 2 percent — the same as with other felonies — but Woodward seemed preoccupied with the issue of whether women who accused powerful men of sexual violence could be believed. He asked Kantor and Twohey whether any of the women they spoke to about Weinstein were lying, and whether they believed Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault accusation against Brett Kavanaugh, who is now a Supreme Court justice.

“Woodward’s follow-up was, ‘Well, there was a lot she didn’t remember,’” Amaria said. “So Megan had to circle back and argue, ‘If you look at the research on trauma victims, that tracks. Trauma leaves some gaps in the memory, while other moments are solidified forever.’”

In an emailed statement to Vox, Kantor and Twohey said, “We’re just starting our book tour, and we’re grateful to all the moderators — Bob Woodward, Katie Couric, America Ferrera and many others — who have agreed to join us onstage. We welcome all questions, from them and especially from the audience, because each one is an opportunity to relate the wrenching decisions that many of our sources had to make and grapple with #MeToo as an example and test of social change in our time.”

But Woodward’s refusal to accept Twohey and Kantor’s answers to his questions — and his repeated attempts to talk over them as they tried to respond — was a refusal to accept their expertise as journalists, and a decision to prioritize his own understanding of sexual violence over theirs without any apparent education in the field.

Ironically, the conversation ended up replicating the very power dynamics that Twohey and Kantor were trying to explain, the power dynamics that let Weinstein get away with what he did for so long: a man exerting his own institutional power over the women in the room with him, just because he could.