BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week, The New York Times published an explosive story detailing allegations against one of Hollywood's most Oscar-encrusted heavyweights, studio chief, now ex-studio chief, Harvey Weinstein. This week, a New Yorker exposé by Ronan Farrow, which NBC declined to run, revealed yet more victims and even worse behavior, including accusations of rape. Weinstein denies these claims but the procession of women coming forward with their own tales of sexual harassment and intimidation continues apace.
For some outside Hollywood, these revelations came as a shock but within the industry Weinstein's behavior has long been an open secret. Take Seth MacFarlane’s clip at an Oscar nomination ceremony in 2013.
SETH MacFARLANE: Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER][END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or this in-the-know joke on 30 Rock in 2012.
JANE KRAKOWSKI as JENNA MARONEY: I’m not afraid of anyone in show business. I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Buzzfeed Senior Culture Writer Anne Helen Petersen says that denizens of Tinseltown were apprised of his depredations, thanks, in part, to an oft-maligned news source, gossip blogs.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah, that’s how women outside of Hollywood, especially, learned this information. I've heard people tell me that they first heard the rumors when they were frequenting Usenet discussion boards in the late ‘90s before the Internet had taken the form that we now recognize it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that was at the apex of Weinstein's power.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yes, absolutely. And then some of them were really percolating around the height of gossip blogs, which was, I would date it to 2005 to 2008.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Things called The Defamer and Oh No They Didn’t and Celebitchy and Popbitch --
-- and Fametracker and Lainey Gossip and an infamous one titled “Casting Couch.”
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: The rise of digital photography and blogging technologies made these blogs very popular, you know, especially as an alternative voice to the mainstream gossip publications, like People magazine and Us magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, gossip is derided as a lesser media form. It’s prying, it’s prurient and it’s inconsequential. But you wrote that much of what it imparts is the means of survival, especially for women, and you wrote in BuzzFeed, “It's no wonder so many men deride and degrade gossip: it’s our most effective armor against their abuses.”
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: The way that gossip between people worked in Hollywood and then the way that celebrity gossip and consuming this information reinforces this idea that there are men out there who women should be wary of and that we rely on each other to inform ourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, the weapons or the shields that women can use to protect themselves are buried within the little items in the gossip columns.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Absolutely, and I want to be careful here because I think there is a tendency to look at this argument and say, well, are you saying that all gossip is feminist or progressive? And absolutely not. You know, Harvey Weinstein himself utilized gossip columns to plant counter items that would discredit people accusing him or trying to, you know, suggest that this was the sort of behavior that he engaged in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We know that he used Page Six to control starlets who dared to report on him. One of them is Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. She’s the model who had the audiotapes.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: I'm telling you right now, get in here.
AMBRA GUTIERREZ: What do we have to do here?
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Nothing. I'm going to take a shower, you sit there and have a drink, water.
AMBRA GUTIERREZ: I don't drink.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Then have a glass of water.
AMBRA GUTIERREZ: Can I stay on the bar?
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: No. You must come here now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He placed defamatory stories about her on Page Six to discredit her. And there’s also a quid pro quo, right? Tina Brown wrote about that at Talk magazine, I’ll give you this gossip if you’ll squash that story, that kind of thing?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah, and that’s an old, old Hollywood scandal technique of, you know, you have this bit of information on me that could be inflammatory, I’ll trade you some other piece of gossip that I have.
Harvey Weinstein has prided himself on being an old-school Hollywood producer exec type. And even in his apology after the initial story in The New York Times, he said, like, I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, this is the way of doing things, which, yeah, sure, that doesn’t mean it's okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if he’s old school, the school that he's part of [LAUGHS] changed substantially since the Internet. But tell me how easy it used to be to control the gossip.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: During classic Hollywood, you had these long-term contracts and the stars agreed to have every part of their image legislated, controlled by the studios. So if there was something that you did in public that was not okay, by normal standards, then the studio would have one of their fixers go and clean it up or maybe they would leak a little bit of that information as a way of being like, look, this is what will happen if you continue this behavior. You don't want to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've written about one famous example, right, Henry Wilson?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: So Henry Wilson was a producer in the 1950s who really recruited a certain type of male star who is robust and strapping and handsome and oftentimes gay. He would make a very heterosexual image for that star, give them a new name, so Rock Hudson is the most famous example. There was a scandal publication at the time in the 1950s called Confidential magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn’t that the publication that Danny DeVito worked for in L.A. Confidential?
DANNY DE VITO AS SID HUDGENS: Circulation 36,000 and climbing but there’s no telling where this is gonna go, radio, television. Once you whet the public’s appetite for the truth, the sky’s the limit.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah, it’s based on that. They had the information that Rock Hudson was gay and Henry Wilson, Rock Hudson’s agent and manager, traded gossip that another one of the stars in this stable of stars was a juvenile delinquent. So this juvenile delinquent shows up on the cover of the magazine, whereas, Rock Hudson’s secret stays safe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it's a lot harder to exert that kind of influence today because the Internet has decentralized the whole gossip racket.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: The history of Hollywood gossip is a history of who has control. And that happened with Confidential magazine in the 1950s and it's no accident that that corresponded with the decline of the studio and star system --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm!
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: -- that had previously essentially dictated to the fan magazines, print this story and this story, and this is what this person’s image is gonna be. That declined when the scandal magazine came in and said, no, we’re gonna tell you the truth about these stars, this darker, more salacious, seedier side. And then that was recovered over the course of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. If you look at fan magazines in the 1980s, they are very much towing the publicist’s line. That’s how Tom Cruise managed to have such an immaculate image for so long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] It was People, US Weekly, Entertainment Tonight. It was fairly tidy, right?
AANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then in the mid-2000s you had individual blogs, people like Perez Hilton.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah, who came in and said, like, well, I’m gonna be friends with the stars. I have a digital camera, I can take pictures when I go and hang out with them. The proliferation of paparazzos and the start of TMZ and streaming paparazzi video, all of that contributed to that. And that, again, wrested control of the narrative away from the publicists and the stars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you could argue that celebrity gossip, its obsessions and the revelations, holds up a mirror to the culture’s id, so to speak.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Oh, yes, totally. [LAUGHS] The real through line is women’s sexuality and anxiety over it. In the 1920s, the 1930s, a lot of the gossip was about who's doing drugs, are women having too much sex? In the 1950s, it was are women having too much sex and are people having sex with people who are a different race? Today, though, it’s which guys are abusing their power? Like that, that’s a real difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah!
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I know, that’s heartening. I think that we still have anxiety over, you know, women’s sexuality but if now the new truth that people are seeking is which men are abusive, that is a real change from the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But despite the alarm bells of the “whispering networks” and the gossip, ultimately, it took investigative journalism to take him down.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah, people on Twitter were saying, well, if you guys knew this, why didn't you do it? If anyone’s been observing journalism for the last two years and knows what happened to Gawker, which was a place where many of these items circulated, you need to have a legal department that is willing to take the risk to stand up to these sorts of threats of litigation. Harvey Weinstein, you know, immediately threatened to sue The New York Times, and I don't think that anything’s going to become of that, but you do need to have people at the top of your publication who are willing to move forward with something that will be risky.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think we’re in a climate where that's more likely to happen than in the past?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: NBC dumped Ronan Farrow’s reporting, and the reasons for that, as they’ve articulated, are that the reporting wasn't there. And Farrow has said the reporting was there. We’re going to have some publications that are very wary of this sort of story and then others that are defining their reputation on their willingness to take these risks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne, thank you very much.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News.