Harvey Weinstein, Fox News, and the Power of Self-Interest

Harvey Weinstein at the 2012 Academy Awards (Reuters phoot: Lucy Nicholson)
Many victims might have been able to expose him, but ambition held them back.

So it turns out that basically everyone in Hollywood knew that Harvey Weinstein sexually harasses women, abuses his employees, and has a violent streak. It was one of those things we call an “open secret,” a secret perhaps even more open than the persistent rumors about Roger Ailes’s or Bill O’Reilly’s toxic misconduct at Fox News.

Yet Weinstein continued to enjoy the staggering perks and privileges of a successful movie mogul. The most powerful politicians sought his favor. The best actors wanted to work in his films. He was feted around the world as the man who could bring home Oscar gold. And all the while, he wasn’t just a progressive in good standing, he was actively celebrated for his alleged commitment to social justice.

How does this happen? How does it happen that Ailes and O’Reilly could thrive for so long at a network that at least seemed to grant Christians and social conservatives their highest and most powerful media platforms? Aren’t prominent Christians concerned with family values? And how does Hollywood tolerate Weinstein? Isn’t Hollywood the cultural heart of progressive America?

The easy answer to “how” is one word — power. It’s certainly a word that applies to each man’s victims, the people who — typically behind closed doors — are subjected to intense pressures and confronted with grotesque advances, and then know that if they blow the whistle on the big man’s misconduct, they’ll immediately find themselves shamed and blamed by the big man’s legions of fans and supporters. They know the challenges of proving their case when it’s “he said, she said,” and so they remain silent, or (if they fight) they fight quietly and settle quietly, often completely oblivious to the reality that “he said, she said” is really “he said, she said, she said, she said, and she said” — that they have friends and allies who have endured the same nightmares, and they will not stand alone.

But there’s another word that answers how — one that applies not to the victims but to the constellation of co-workers, journalists, and peers who swim in the same corporate waters. That word is ambition. Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly weren’t powerful in the way that dictators are powerful. They had no ability to imprison or execute any person. They didn’t have the ability to deprive a person of their liberty or of the ability to earn a livelihood. What they could do was rob a person of her dreams.

For a generation Fox News has stood alone at the top of the conservative-media food chain. It’s the great validator. It grants a person access to power, recognition in Red America, and — most alluring to the idealistic — the opportunity to perhaps even make a difference. To become Fox News Famous is to be somebody in American politics.

When it comes to Harvey Weinstein, he could conceivably grant fame and influence far beyond the political subculture. Fox News Famous is nothing compared with Oscar Famous. To be Oscar Famous is to be world-famous. It’s to live beyond the span of your life. It’s to imprint upon the American culture an enduring work of art, one that your name is forever attached to, one that — again, this is most alluring to the idealistic — can actually change things.

And so, what happens? Ambitious people make easy choices. They see something wrong, but they say nothing. After all, why should they come forward? They’re not the victim. Why does it fall upon them to risk their careers? Let someone else tell the hard truth and accept the rage and scorn.

A powerful man is magnified by the collective choices of the desperately ambitious. He feeds on their self-interest, and they reap the considerable rewards of his favor.

The cascade of choices are made. Work with him. Work for him. Partner with him. Host him at events. Even celebrate him. It’s not that he has power over me. It’s that he has power to help me. By God I deserve my success, and I will not risk it or sacrifice it for the sake of stopping another man when I’m doing nothing wrong.

In that way a powerful man is magnified by the collective choices of the desperately ambitious. He feeds on their self-interest, and they reap the considerable rewards of his favor. They fear its loss.

At The Cut, writer Rebecca Traister tells a dreadful story about Weinstein. She was covering a book party he hosted, and she asked him some questions that made him angry. He called her a “c**t” and declared himself to be the “f***ing sheriff of this f***ing lawless piece-of-sh*t town.” When her boyfriend — another journalist — tried to intervene, Weinstein attacked. He threw her boyfriend down a set of steps, then dragged him outside in a headlock. All the while cameras flashed.

This was 17 years ago, in the year 2000.

Not one of the pictures saw the light of day. Here’s Traister:

Such was the power of Harvey Weinstein in 2000 that despite the dozens of camera flashes that went off on that sidewalk that night, capturing the sight of an enormously famous film executive trying to pound in the head of a young newspaper reporter, I have never once seen a photo. Back then, Harvey could spin — or suppress — anything; there were so many journalists on his payroll, working as consultants on movie projects, or as screenwriters, or for his magazine.

I’d modify that paragraph slightly. Such was the power of Weinstein, yes, but such was the ambition of so many around him that they would suppress themselves.

Thus the world we live in today. People who went on television night after night scorning Democratic and progressive misconduct knew full well that they were working with and for harassers and scoundrels. Progressives who launched full-frontal attacks on conservatives for their alleged “war on women” gladly basked in Weinstein’s glory, took the opportunities he offered, and spent the money he gave.

No, neither Harvey Weinstein nor Roger Ailes was really all that powerful. They were vulnerable. They were vulnerable to people who were willing to support victims and tell the truth. They were vulnerable to people who just might be willing to risk their personal ambition to seek justice. But because ambition is so overwhelming — because self-interest is so powerful — these paper tigers were allowed to prey on women year after year.

Why do men like Ailes and Weinstein get away with misconduct for so long? Because in certain sectors of American society, moral courage is in short supply.


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