It was a classic social media firestorm. On the afternoon of Jan. 9, Dayna Tortorici, the editor of n+1 magazine, tweeted: “It’s come to my attention that a legacy print magazine is planning to publish a piece ‘outing’ the woman who started” a list of prominent men in media and allegations of sexual misconduct against them. “All I can say is: don’t. The risk of doxxing is high. It’s not the right thing to do.” Shortly thereafter it was confirmed that Harper’s was planning on running a piece on the subject by the writer Katie Roiphe, most famous for her 1994 book on campus sexual culture, “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism.” As protests about Roiphe’s piece escalated, Nicole Cliffe, the co-founder of the Toast, quickly offered to compensate writers with pieces pending at Harper’s who pulled their submissions.
The cycle moved so fast that I felt behind the times when, on the morning of Jan. 10, I emailed Giulia Melucci, Harper’s vice president for media relations, to try to confirm whether or not the piece contains the details that so many people find so objectionable. Melucci wrote back that the piece “is not even through the editing process.” And shortly thereafter, Roiphe emailed me to say “I am not ‘outing’ anyone.” When I asked whether that meant she was not naming anyone or whether she had talked to any of the women involved on the record, she clarified, “I am not naming anyone as participating in any way in the list.” (I asked Roiphe if she had intended to name women involved in the list at any earlier point in working on the piece; at this point, I haven’t gotten a response.)
As a feminist and a journalist, I think it’s worth taking a moment to soberly consider two ideas that the initial round of discussion took for granted and to separate them from the context of Roiphe’s past work. The first assumption is that that there are no circumstances in which the identity of the woman who started the list, or of the women who contributed to it, could be newsworthy. And second, that the risk inherent in publishing the names of anyone involved with the list definitely outweighs any potential news value.
As Clio Chang put it in a piece for Splinter titled “I Can’t Believe This Needs Saying but Doxxing the Woman Behind the [S—–] Media Men List Is Wrong,” “It’s not in the public interest and it would only put the creator in danger in an environment rife with alt-right trolls and sexist men.”
But is this really the case? I can immediately think of two scenarios in which it might be highly newsworthy to report on the identity of the person who started the list.
The first is if the person who began it is an exceptionally prominent member of the media, someone such as former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who was making an allegation anonymously. That revelation would speak profoundly to the culture of harassment in mainstream media. It could also potentially reveal important information about how a leader of a news organization had handled being the target of sexual harassment or how that executive had handled (or failed to handle) an allegation of misconduct that was circulating in their whisper network.
The second is whether the person who started the list, and the people who contributed to it, are actually who they appear to be. A Google spreadsheet to which people can contribute anonymously, and that can circulate freely, is precisely the sort of document that is open to manipulation. Given recent efforts by alt-right provocateurs to, among other things, manipulate the Rotten Tomatoes audience ratings for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and to sell my colleagues at The Post a false story about an Alabama Senate candidate, it’s not unreasonable to consider whether conservative digital activists might be looking for creative ways to weaponize #MeToo. Certainly, the women who contributed to the spreadsheet might be very interested to know if their sincere desire to warn other women had been hijacked to very different ends.
In both cases, pursuing these stories would require smart, sensitive, diligent reporters with expertise in handling technically complex questions. But debating who is best equipped to write such a story is different from implying that there are no circumstances in which such a story should be written. I would be fascinated to read a reporter like the New Yorker’s Adrian Chen, who unmasked a prominent Reddit moderator and troll in a terrific 2012 piece for Gawker, on the way something like this spreadsheet travels through the Internet and how it’s at risk of distortion.
If, by contrast, the person who started the list and the people who contributed to it are neither in positions of power nor hoping to exploit a feminist moment to take down male journalists and provoke a backlash, then it’s certainly reasonable to argue that the risk of placing those people in danger by exposing them might be more substantial than the news value in naming them.
But if the person who started the list is newsworthy because of their power or influence in the industry, or because they were acting out of bad faith, then there is real weight on the other side of the scale. Jaime T. Phillips, the woman who appears to have worked with Project Veritas to try to deceive Post reporters Beth Reinhard and Stephanie McCrummen with a false story about Republican Roy Moore, is not famous or influential. It’s possible that she has suffered consequences because The Post revealed her deception. The details of how Phillips came to be working for Project Veritas, how she attempted to carry out the sting and how The Post confirmed what she was up to were a vital part of the story.
It’s probably true that the list contributors are all relatively low-level women acting sincerely. But it’s not good journalism to suggest that it’s wrong to try to confirm that. Better to dig and confirm the truth rather than to reject the very idea of digging.