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I’m a journalist covering the Weinstein trial, and I need you to know that believing women doesn't count as bias

Having empathy doesn’t make someone a bad journalist. Empathy, in fact, is one of the most fundamental prerequisites in our profession. You can believe in a fair trial and still believe the women

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 24 January 2020 18:40 GMT
Weinstein's celebrity accusers hold a rally outside court

On Wednesday 22nd January, my alarm rang at 4am. I got up, put on tights and trousers, a T-shirt and two warm sweaters, and meticulously placed hand and toe warmers in my gloves and boots. Then, I took a car to 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan, where I arrived around 5:50am – approximately three hours before Harvey Weinstein was scheduled to arrive on the official first day of his criminal trial.

I waited, along with other journalists, for about three hours before I was granted a seat inside. Weinstein stepped inside around 9:15am, hobbling down the central aisle without the walking frame he’s used during previous court appearances. That morning, assistant district attorney Meghan Hast delivered a ferocious opening statement. At one point, she pointed to Weinstein and told the jury: “The man seated right there was not just a titan in Hollywood — he was a rapist.”

Weinstein is facing accusations in New York that he raped a woman in 2013 and performed a forcible sex act on another woman in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty and denied all allegations of non-consensual sex, as well as allegations that he retaliated against women.

The day before the opening statements, I interviewed Rosanna Arquette, one of the first women to speak out against Weinstein in October 2017. I have heard the testimonies of several women, including Arquette, as part of my coverage of the trial. Each time, I have done so with sympathy.

Whenever a journalist lends a sympathetic ear to someone who says they’ve been a victim of sexual assault, they run the risk of being confronted by a furious mob. "What about due process?" they cry. "Innocent until proven guilty!" The fury increases if the person accused of those crimes is especially beloved or famous (or both.)

It happened to me when the documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men make detailed allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson, was released a year ago. I believed these two men – and still do – and made that clear in my writing. It didn’t take long for messages to show up (in my inbox and on social media) questioning my work methods, my ethics, and my abilities as a reporter. A “real journalist” would have checked the FBI case file, my new penpals claimed, under the apparent assumption that I hadn’t. A “real journalist” would have obsessed over the alleged discrepancy in one man’s testimony. A “real journalist” wouldn’t believe them.

Well, I think it’s time to call bulls**t on this rhetoric. Having empathy doesn’t make someone a bad journalist. Empathy, in fact, is one of the most fundamental prerequisites in our profession. You can’t write about people if you can’t put yourself in their shoes. You can’t ask them to recount the most traumatizing moments of their lives if you’re not prepared to be confronted to the reality of that trauma.

Of course there’s always some level of fact-checking involved whenever accusations are made public. This has been the case for the allegations against Weinstein, which have been cross-referenced many times.

During the opening court session on Wednesday, Judge James Burke gave the jury a basic explainer on the judicial process, reminding them of the presumption of innocence and of how the burden of proof works (simply put: Weinstein is presumed innocent and must be found so, unless the prosecution proves the allegations against him beyond a reasonable doubt).

You can acknowledge that and still believe the women. You can believe in a fair trial and still believe the women. If you’re going to write about the courts, then part of your duty as a journalist is also to understand how the judicial process works and how it often fails people who are victims of sexual misconduct and abuse. It's no secret that rape conviction rates are extremely low, and that some people never face the justice they should.

Even Weinstein’s defense has so far focused its efforts not so much the facts, but on their characterization. On Wednesday, the producer’s lawyer Damon Cheronis questioned allegations made by actress Annabella Sciorra, who alleges that Weinstein raped her in the early Nineties. Cheronis alleged that Sciorra once told a friend that she “did a crazy thing and had sex with Harvey Weinstein”, adding: “She didn’t describe it as rape because it wasn’t.” The prosecution has announced plans to rely on the expert witness of Dr Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychiatrist, to explore the complexities of how people react after an alleged assault.

It’s interesting to note that journalists are not explicitly expected to doubt people who say they’ve been victims of other types of crimes. The word “accuser” symbolizes how fraught the situation is: it’s almost exclusively used in the context of sexual misconduct allegations. Someone says they’ve been robbed? The default mode is to believe them, unless specific elements suggest they might be lying. They’re not "an accuser", they’re the "alleged victim of a crime". Things tend to work out differently for sex crimes, for no good reason.

Accusations of impartiality are weaponized against journalists, but treating survivors with respect isn’t bias. It’s basic human decency. Not to be too controversial, but I think that should be a prerequisite in any job.

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