Jodi Kantor is a reporter at the New York Times. She and Megan Twohey broke the story about the sexual abuse allegations of Harvey Weinstein in 2017.
This story catalyzed the current use of the term “#MeToo” and ignited the #MeToo activist movement. She and the team, which includes Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow, won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018.
Kantor and Twohey went on to write the book She Said. It documented the process of investigating these allegations. She Said is considered one of the best books of 2019 by organizations such as New York Public Library, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time.
In her storied career, she has also investigated Amazon, Starbucks, and Harvard Business School. In 2018 Jodi, Megan, and Ronan Farrow were named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine.
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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with dragon slayer, Jodi Kantor.
Guy Kawasaki: I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. Today’s remarkable guest is Jodi Kantor. She is a reporter at the New York Times. She and Megan Twohey broke the story about the sexual abuse allegations of Harvey Weinstein. This story catalyzes the current use of the term “Me too,” and ignited the “Me Too” activist movement.
She and the team that produced this story won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018. Kantor and Twohey went on to write the book, She Said. It documented the process of investigating these allegations. She Said is considered one of the best books of 2019.
She Said is considered one of the best books of 2019 by organizations such as New York Public Library, NPR, Washington Post, New York Times. and Time. In her storied career, she has also investigated Amazon, Starbucks, and Harvard Business School. In 2018, Jodi, Megan, and Ronan Farrow were renamed one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine.
I’m Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now, here’s the remarkable Jodi Kantor.
Guy Kawasaki: Bill Cosby is released. How do you even interpret this?
Jodi Kantor: This is part of a real pattern we see where there’s a gap between the law and the reality that so many women feel. The number of women who have come forward about Cosby is just an overwhelming number. And also, there are details of the Cosby story that are uniquely disturbing. The use of Quaaludes given to women before he wanted to have sex is actually not something we hear in most Me Too stories. It gives a story of predatory edge, and obviously, it’s a detail that I think people look at and say, “In the criminal justice system, they should have real consequences.”
Giving people drugs and then having women walk out with these kinds of allegations is really, really serious, and it’s scary. It’s like the kind of thing you warn your daughter about, “Be careful who you take a drink from,” “Never give–never take a pill that some guy gives to you.” Look, it’s deeply, deeply, deeply upsetting to a lot of women.
I don’t think it means that like Me Too has failed, and I also don’t think that it means that Bill Cosby wasn’t held accountable for what happened because women did come forward and they used their truth to hold him accountable, and journalism held him accountable. And people have now heard these women’s accounts; Cosby’s reputation is irredeemably stained. It’s still a stunning downfall for this guy who was sort of America’s Dad for a long time.
And so I think it raises a lot of questions that we face as journalists about whether or not we look to the criminal justice system to be the ultimate arbiter of what happened. His conviction was overturned. You have to take that seriously, and in fairness, to Cosby, because the accused deserve fairness too. You have to take that seriously, but it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. It doesn’t wipe these women’s stories away.
Guy Kawasaki: Why would anyone cut a deal like that? What’s the rationale there?
Jodi Kantor: I think that’s the major question that’s emerging. There was a really powerful op-ed in the Times by I think a former prosecutor who essentially wrote that same question who said that an earlier prosecutor in the Cosby case had irretrievably messed up the case by promising not to prosecute him at a certain point and that it’s a kind of classic error and something that no prosecutor should ever really promise.
It was the same thing going into the Harvey Weinstein trial, to be honest, because, at that point, about a hundred women had made accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and yet there was a similar dynamic at that point, things have changed somewhat now, but at that point, the criminal charges rested on the stories of just a few women.
It felt very slender because the statute of limitations meant that so many of these women couldn’t participate in criminal trials. There were also women who had allegations that prosecutors were very interested in who didn’t want to be part of the process. Being a woman who’s made a rape charge or a sexual abuse charge in a criminal case is a hard role to play.
You are going to be scrutinized to death. You’re going to be cross-examined. You’re not going to get any money out of this. You are going to have to, like, endure what is often a long, drawn out, criminal trial, and some of those women didn’t want to be a part of the process.
And so it felt like going into the Harvey Weinstein story, like, “Oh my God. Even after all this journalism, all these brave women, this very clear pattern of stories, he still might not be convicted,” because ultimately what’s passing through the criminal justice system is like a pretty narrow set of charges. That’s often the case with these Me Too stories. I don’t want to discourage anyone from believing in the power of the law, but honestly, we often found that the law was being used to protect the accused and not the accusers.
Guy Kawasaki: If magically you were President of the Senate, or Speaker of the House, or President of the United States and you could change the laws, how would you change the laws to better serve both parties, really, both genders?
Jodi Kantor: Guy, I would never answer your question, and here’s why: I have to play my position in society. And my position in society is to be a journalist who uncovers things. What I want, especially if any potential sources are listening to this podcast, I want to take information that society needs to examine and put it out on the table.
There are all sorts of secrets out there. Secrets inside corporations; secrets inside legal files; secrets inside these painful histories that women have; secrets about powerful men like Harvey Weinstein who abused their positions.
And those secrets are hidden right now. The fact that those secrets are hidden impedes social progress because society can’t address a problem we can’t fully face. And so my job is to take information that’s hidden, and with a combination of a gentleness in some ways when dealing with a sexual assault victim, and then kind of aggressiveness and other ways with dealing with powerful actors who are impeding the flow of information, to get that stuff in public view so we can all see it, and so that all of society can have a discussion about what to do with that.
And if I take on the role of saying what the Senate should do or how I would change things if I were queen of the world, I can’t do that as effectively because then people see me as somebody with an agenda, and I want people to see me as somebody who’s only agenda is the truth because then I can be fair to everybody, and then also I can accept a very messy world.
There are times when I’m trying to reach a guy who’s been accused of something really bad, and I do want that guy to feel that I’m going to be fair to him, that I’m really going to listen and I’m really going to evaluate things with an open mind.
Not every journalist believes this, but my job involves really trying to be really disciplined about the role that I’m playing.
Guy Kawasaki: How do you “steel” yourself? You can’t let some of this stuff not bother you, or maybe you can. Can you be that objective in the face of really heinous acts?
Jodi Kantor: Yes because objectivity–well, there’s a lot of debate about the word “objectivity,” and whether it’s a goal or a state of being and how close you can get to get to it and, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I think that for me, how much I care about women and how much I care about these issues is totally clear.
I don’t think anyone who knows me and Megan’s work, or who’s read Megan Twohey is my partner in the Harvey Weinstein reporting, I don’t think anyone who knows our work could, like, fail to see how much we care about this.
But…being dispassionate truth-tellers is our superpower and how we are actually able to affect social change because part of what was really great to be honest about and really positive about the reception of the Harvey Weinstein story is that people believed it! They took it as the truth, right? At a time when it feels like the truth is falling apart, people felt like, “This is something we can trust. This is bedrock. We are getting to the bottom of this now.”
And I think that if it had come from more of an activist position, people might not have necessarily trusted it as much. And so I take–believe me, I feel the horror. I feel the outrage, I feel the distress that you’re describing, but the right way for me to channel it is into the work.
If a woman was hit brutally in an act of domestic violence and needed surgery, and if the surgeon was really, really upset by what she saw, the best way for her to channel that is into her job–into doing, like, the best, and to be the most scrupulous surgeon she can be. I think our work is a little bit like that. It requires like a kind of, above-it-all, discipline.
Guy Kawasaki: I’m going to back up here a little because we went deep very quickly, but can we go back in time, and I want to hear about you dropping out of Harvard after one semester.
Jodi Kantor: Okay. Well, sure. If there are any young people listening to this, maybe there’ll be interested. But basically, I grew up really inhaling publications. It was pre-Internet. I’m 46, which means that I am the last generation that really came of age before the Internet. I was twenty in 1996.
I grew up waiting by the mailbox, in the burbs. During that time when it felt like periodicals, newspapers and magazines were part of what connected you to the outside world. And I inhaled them, but I never thought that I could be a journalist. As much as I loved it, I never said to myself, “I could be the one reading, editing these stories.”
I think in part because I didn’t know any journalists or authors growing up. Also, obviously, most of them were male, so it was sort of harder to identify. But I went to law school, really thinking I wanted to be a lawyer, and I went to Harvard, which was a big deal for my family. And I just had this–not immediately–but just…I had the sort of creeping sense of wrongness and sense that I was doing the wrong thing and feeling like I was on a path to becoming an unhappy corporate lawyer.
And one night, I stayed up all night and looked through the lists of summer jobs available to sort of after your 1L year, after your first summer, and I just realized, “I don’t want–I don’t want any of these jobs,” and then I had a middle of the night epiphany that I wanted to be a journalist, and it was really hard to admit.
It can be hard to state your own secret ambitions especially because I didn’t have any good clips. Your clips are, like, your stories you’ve written. Mine were so bad that I kind of hesitated to show them to anybody.
So decided to drop out. I think HLS officially put me on medical leave or something–some concocted thing. And I went to work at Slate when it was really a startup. It was owned by Microsoft at that point. It was two years old. It was 1998. They wanted to experiment with publishing on the Internet.
And I became an editorial assistant at Slate Magazine, and within a week of getting there, I was like, “I’m home.” I think the tech industry in a way did give me a little courage because there were a lot of people who were shunning graduate degrees or even undergraduate degrees and the traditional path to take on a little bit more risk. And there was something culturally in the air about that.
Guy Kawasaki: How did you wrangle the Arts and Leisure Editor position at such a young age?
Jodi Kantor: So I was at Slate and I was kind of a culture editor, but a very intense, like, lifelong New Yorker and Times reader. And I was Frank Rich was doing about guest turn in Slate. He’s this monumental figure in the theater world because he had just been this unbelievably brilliant theater critic at the Times.
And he said that the Times wanted to remake its culture section. And I wrote what was, essentially, like an audition memo at Frank’s behest, and it was pretty critical of the Arts and Leisure Section. The first line of the memo was, “The Times is feeding its readers spinach for dessert,” and they liked–yeah, they liked my critique, and they invited me–they hired me to edit the Arts and Leisure Section.
I was twenty-eight. I had never worked at a print publication, which was a big deal back then. The divide between the print and digital walls was still very great, and it was an amazing experience, as I said, the theater and concerts several nights a week, having a section to fill every week is very much like, “Let’s put on a show.”
Guy Kawasaki: We’re talking the New York Times here. We’re not talking about the Brooklyn Express. You went straight to the top!
Jodi Kantor: Yes! And in fact, it’s one of the reasons I later became a reporter because I did actually feel like, “Wait a second. I have to back up here. I’m running a hospital without ever having practiced medicine,” but I had been reading the New York Times almost every day since I was 12 years old.
And I did feel that I had a sense of both what the paper was and what it could be. And I think my goals and values were ultimately aligned with what the organization wanted it to be because I wanted Arts and Leisure to reach a broader audience. I felt that at the time it had fenced itself off a little bit.
And also I was interested in making it more reportorial. The culture section at the Times is, with every other publication, is always going to cover what’s coming out. There’s always going to be attention to the release cycle because part of the service of the journalism is to say “Oh, this cool thing is coming out next week. You might want to catch it.”
But I thought that at that point, the coverage was too responsive to what was coming out and it, and the section wasn’t asking the big questions about the culture world. So we started doing a lot more of what we call “enterprise journalism,” which means it’s not necessarily in reaction to something that’s obviously happening, like a news event or a release, and it’s much more like us taking control of the narrative and saying, “Here are the important questions we think we have to ask.”
So for example–I’m just pulling something out of thin air…there was a writer named Chris Knox who did a story about a debate that was happening in comedy rooms of TV shows, which was about how much rein the writers should have to say whatever the hell they wanted. In these writers’ rooms, there was, like, a lawsuit about this.
I think maybe coming out of Friends in their writer’s room because on the one hand, comedy writers want complete creative freedom to say whatever they want behind closed doors, and many want the freedom to be offensive.
Like they say, “In order to truly be funny, you have to be willing to shatter norms. You have to be willing to offend people. You have to be willing say the impolitic thing, and we want complete creative freedom to say whatever we want.” But then on the other hand, these were writer’s rooms, mostly full of white men. And a lot of people began to feel that they were abusive working environments because the jokes really could be racist and sexist. And so there was a debate about what should be said and what shouldn’t be said and whether it was a legal issue or not.
So anyway, that’s an example of like the kind of story that’s not about, “This movie’s coming out next week.” It’s a bigger issue. So that was the stuff we most wanted to do.
Guy Kawasaki: In researching your past, basically, I learned that you changed breastfeeding stations. You changed the Harvard Business School curriculum. You changed the scheduling of Starbucks employees, and you recently took on Amazon, and of course, Harvey Weinstein. I’m getting a pattern here.
All right. Are you basically just a dragon slayer? You’re like a Marvel comic superhero of journalism. What drives you?
Jodi Kantor: Well, thank you for saying that. I think a couple of things. First of all, all of my journalism is done in partnership with other people. Megan Twohey is my partner and soul sister on the Harvey Weinstein staff. On this most recent Amazon story, I worked with two fantastic colleagues, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford.
I had the same editor for sixteen years, Rebecca Corbett, who is–people in the outside world don’t necessarily know who she is, but she is a real force within the journalism world and known for commandeering these very intricate, high-impact investigations.
So even though it’s me on the podcast, and then at the Times, it’s an entire team approach. Like you’re working with brilliant graphics people who are doing information analyses, and photo editors who are getting genius photographers to bring stories to life, et cetera, et cetera.
So that’s the first thing. Oh, and then you’ve got the power of the New York Times behind you because once you have the info, the Times has the power to slingshot your story to millions of people–tens of millions of people around the earth at once. So anyway, so all of that is a team approach.
Oh, and then by the way, it’s New York Times subscribers who are paying for this. If you’re a Time subscriber and you’re listening to this, thank you, because you’re funding this crazy project that my colleagues and I work on. Stories often you don’t even know we’re working on and yet you’re willing to pay for it and are sort of betting that this stuff will turn out to be important. So that’s sort of how the work gets done.
And also, the key is to find information that seems so surprising and urgent and powerful that it will somehow cause the kind of public debate you’re talking about. It also leads to, like, a fair amount of struggle on our end about what we should be covering. When you have licensed to essentially explore any of society’s problems, what do you decide to look into?
Guy Kawasaki: Have you ever decided to look into a problem and discovered that there was smoke but there was no fire or someone is exonerated?
Jodi Kantor: Completely, completely. Yeah. Part of the paper moves really, really fast, right? Like when Bill Cosby’s conviction was overturned the other day, that story was in the paper really, really fast. Our journalism moves kind of slowly in part for the reason you’re talking about because we might look into something that’s seems like a great–I can’t really mention any of them because they end up being, like, “off the record,” and you don’t want to impugn anybody, but there are all sorts of examples.
There are times when, you know, we’re given a tab and we look at or we think there may be an issue, and we look into it and it turns out that there’s really no issue. Or there are times when you just can’t prove it, Guy.
There are plenty of problems I’ve looked into where I thought something really bad was happening, but I think what outsiders sometimes don’t understand about our work is that the level of proof we have to get to is so high, legally and editorially, that we can’t publish unless what we have is very well-documented.
Guy Kawasaki: And can you be specific? What does it mean that you have enough quote, “proof” to go forward?
Jodi Kantor: Okay. I’m going to take an example and, like, genericize it for you. There are plenty of really powerful people who we’ve gotten tips about in terms of some sort of sexual misconduct. These tips poured in after the Harvey Weinstein story and they’ve never really stopped, and sometimes you’ll look into it and you’ll just say, “It may be that something really bad happened here, but these are serious allegations. They ruin people’s lives. They have legal consequences. They have reputation consequences.”
If A, I don’t feel like personal confidence but, like, we’ve really backed this up. And B, if we don’t have enough proof, then you just don’t go with it. And sometimes it’s the woman doesn’t want to speak.
It can be a variety of issues. If you look back to our first Harvey Weinstein story when Megan and I broke the story, you will see a variety of evidence in that story. You’ll see women firsthand interviews–Ashley Judd and Laura Madden were the first two women to go on the record about Harvey Weinstein.
You’ll see internal company memos. You will see a settlement trail, meaning money paid out to women to silence their allegations. You will see a twenty-five-year history of allegations that’s remarkably consistent, including allegations that over that period took place at the same hotel in LA, like, women from different backgrounds are telling us the same story set at the same hotel.
You’ll see quotes from former Weinstein executives saying, “Yes, we knew this was a problem.” So that’s how you build like a pretty airtight case. You’ve got different varieties of evidence that match, and so hopefully your reader is reading this story being like, “Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I see that. Okay. Got it. Got it. Got it.”
As they go down the paragraph they’re saying, “Yeah, that’s powerful. Okay. There’s another form of evidence right there. Okay. That next thing in paragraph five kind of supports the thing in paragraph three.”
Sometimes you’ve got to write them a much muddier–sometimes you’ve got to write a much muddier story. Like if an allegation is out there, you have to write, and the public wants to know whether it’s true or not and you can’t necessarily come to a perfect answer, sometimes you have to write a much more complicated kind of story saying, “Okay. Here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t know about this allegation.”
Guy Kawasaki: Having said all that, I doubt that getting a voicemail, “Hi, this is Jody Kantor from the New York Times. Will you call me back?” I can’t imagine that makes many publicists say, “Oh God, what a great opportunity!”
Jodi Kantor: Publicists are, like, very aggressive with their emails, and I’m constantly getting publicists–everybody in journalism gets from these, like, publicist tips for, “Write about my new–write about my client’s new bar of soap,” or whatever. And I’m always, “You don’t want me to be writing about your anything!”
It’s not true a hundred percent of the time, and I don’t want people to be scared to talk to me, but it’s true that it’s, like, generally our job to look into problems.
Guy Kawasaki: So wait, just back up for a second, you’re telling me that there are publicists who are so stupid that they are pitching you stories like that? New product stories?
Jodi Kantor: Oh my god. Totally! Like, “Jody, I am offering you a very special opportunity to write about our bath salts.” Everybody gets it! Not me! But because it’s indiscriminate across journalism. Seriously, ask any journalist, they get this stuff. Absolutely. And also, they’re billing their clients.
I think they’re billing their clients, potentially, a fair amount of money saying, “Oh, I pitched all these people in New York Times.”
Guy Kawasaki: I think that one of your superpowers is getting people to talk. I want two insights here. First of all, how do you get to some of these people? And secondly, how do you convince them to talk?
Jodi Kantor: Getting to people is just totally through the conventional means. The yellow phone book still exists and exists online, but these directories exist. Social media makes it much easier to get in touch with people than it used to be, actually.
There were times when I’ve shown up–if you read She Said, some of the most dramatic–so She Said is Megan and my behind-the-scenes account of the Harvey Weinstein investigation and were able in the book to keep most of the things that happened off the record in the course of the investigation and take them onto the record in this book.
We wanted to invite people into the detective story of how we learned all this stuff, and some of the most dramatic scenes in the book are about Megan and I showing up on people’s doorsteps unannounced to which you do have to do as a journalist, and it’s like a fundamentally awkward thing to do and yet it’s powerful and you have to learn to do it.
In terms of getting people to talk, you try to understand who they are and what their motivations may be. You generally try not to pressure people. I’m not sure that works. You just have to be pretty polite. Often you need to get, not always, but often you need to give people space to not be on the record immediately, to make it clear that it can really be a conversation and that you really want to listen.
The thing I try to get people often to relax about is that when people hear from a reporter, they often fear that the first thing out of their mouth is going to go down in my notebook and then be in a story two days later. And so I try to really put them at–I try to reassure them and say, “This is a relationship. It’s a conversation. I’m trying to understand you on a deep level,” and often people will need space to not talk on the record before they’re, they’re willing to go on the record.
I think the biggest thing, and the answer to your question is that I try to communicate that speaking to a journalist, under the right circumstances, is a good thing to do. I think there’s a cultural lesson and a fear for a lot of people that talking to a journalist is bad, that you’re a tattletale, or that you’re a traitor to your company, or that you’re a complainer. This was a big fear for, obviously, women who were Weinstein victims. There were, a lot of reasons not to talk.
There was just the pure fear of it, but I think also a lot of us are brought up not to complain. And it’s definitely a fear of the Amazon people, coming off of this big Amazon story. I think part of the power of our work is that a lot of the people who spoke actually loved the company. They’re not haters. They’re people who want Amazon–they want to uphold what they see, or hope will be, Amazon’s true ideals.
So I do a biotic reframing and I basically–I want to convince people that talking to a journalist can be a good thing to do. It can be a noble thing to do especially if you’ve experienced something bad. What you’re doing is, like, essentially donating that information back to society so that it can have some productive use.
And sometimes you’re doing that on the record, and sometimes you’re not. For people who, like, supply us documents, they’re showing us a company memo that reveals something complicated, or bad, or telling, or they’re showing us internal records that contain valuable information. Those people are–when they supply documents, they’re not necessarily going on the record, and we are keeping them protected as the silent suppliers of those documents.
Like in our Amazon story, my partner Karen Weise got a document showing that at JFK8, which is Amazon’s only fulfillment center in New York City, black employees were fifty percent more likely to be fired, including for a range of reasons, including things like job abandonment, but black employees were fifty percent more likely to be fired in 2019, and Karen will never say where she got that, and therefore that’s a very safe way, generally, of supplying us information.
Guy Kawasaki: Let’s say someone at Amazon where you learned that this investigation is now happening, what would be your advice to that person? As the optimal reaction, do you circle the wagons? Do you throw the corporate lawyers at them? What’s your advice if you were telling someone, “Listen, when Sixty Minutes calls, this is what you should do. This is how to play this.”
Jodi Kantor: Oh, but I would never give them that advice because I’m in the opposite role. Like you always, you play–in life, you play your side of the net. That is the one thing I’ve learned the hard way.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay.
Jodi Kantor: And my side of the net is to convince people to share information, especially when it’s important and to feel that they’re contributing to a public good by doing so. Sources have all sorts of complicated motivations but I will often say the people, “My goal is to create journalism that you can be proud of even if you’re the only one who ever knows that you’ve participated.”
Guy Kawasaki: So you’re basically saying that you don’t have advice. It’s not your problem. You’re the other side of the…
Jodi Kantor: …I’m the other side.
Guy Kawasaki: The other side of the equation.
Jodi Kantor: I’m the other side. There are plenty of people in the world who can talk to you about crisis PR or how…I guess the only advice I would have is be honest–don’t lie because that’s the base I can give in the name of truth. And also, obviously, lying makes you look much, much…it has a way of unraveling as we know, and it makes you look much worse in the end. And also, there are so many stories we cover where it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.
Our governor in New York is now in trouble for trying to minimize nursing home deaths in the COVID crisis. And I don’t know that anybody would have blamed him for those in the first place, right? Because it was a pandemic, but now he’s attracting a tremendous amount of criticism because of what looks like manipulation on his part.
Guy Kawasaki: So since you brought up Cuomo, and let’s also throw Franken in there, are these people supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and then journalism takes hold and finds the truth? For Cuomo or Franken, and let’s say all of it comes out, should they be forced to resign or should they face the next election and let the people choose. What happens in these kinds of cases?
Jodi Kantor: So what Megan and I often say is if there are three questions that are really unresolved about Me Too, one is: what’s the scope of behavior we’re looking at both in terms of going back in time and also in terms of the seriousness? For example, in the Franken story, some of those allegations are more serious than others. Some of them are pretty minor.
And so, like, what are we talking about here? Are we only talking about sexual assault and harassment, or are we talking about these sort of more gray-area allegations? If a drunk person at an office party puts an unwelcome hand on somebody’s back, is that a Me Too allegation? Is it not a Me Too allegation? I don’t think society has sorted out that question.
I would put time under that umbrella too, and the famous example is the Kavanaugh hearings and Christine Blasey Ford. That was an allegation that went back to high school.
And I think there were people who felt like this is too far back in the past. There are reasons why we have statutes of limitations. It can’t be investigated fairly. High school behavior doesn’t bear on whether he’s qualified for the Supreme Court or not.
And then there are other people who said, “This is powerful because it’s old! Because she was young and vulnerable. Because these experiences from long ago form a kind of cornerstone and foundation on which the rest of life is built.
It’s very important to scrutinize this, so question one is, what is the behavior under scrutiny? Question two is, how do we get to the bottom of that? How do we find out the truth? What’s the process?
And I know what the process is journalistic because TheNew York Times has always had, and in recent years, have had to kind of refine a way of finding out the truth about this stuff, or getting as close to the truth as we can. And in the areas where we can’t find the truth, we try to be honest about it and say, “Here’s what we don’t know.” But I think there are all sorts of HR departments and just everyday life situations in which finding the truth is really hard.
And the third question that’s sort of unresolved in society is, what should the consequences be? What does accountability look like? And what Megan and I have often seen is that in these news stories, those three questions will get mixed up. They won’t be treated as separate things.
For example, with Al Franken, people were debating whether or not he should resign his Senate seat before there was really full and clear knowledge of what these allegations were, how well they held up, where they were coming from, and I think people were talking punishment before they had a full set of facts, which isn’t to suggest that I have a position on what should or shouldn’t have happened with Franken, but we often see a muddying of the process where people are jumping to accountability before they have full information.
Guy Kawasaki: What about the people around the people who have done these acts? Are they complicit? Are they just doing their job? And what–how do you view them?
Jodi Kantor: They are a big part of the story. The moral horror of the Weinstein story is that for forty years, this guy racked up obligations and instead of stopping him, all of these powerful, well-known people rushed to Weinstein’s aid and not the women’s aid. The number of people who actually stood up to Harvey Weinstein on these issues over the years is very small.
And you see these powerful people like David Boies, the super lawyer who are just protecting Weinstein again and again and again. Over time, The Hollywood agencies would send women to auditions in Weinstein’s hotel room even though clients from the same agency had come back to the agency and said, “This is what happened after I went to Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room.” So it’s a huge part of the story.
There are clear cases like with David Boies where you really can pinpoint his actions and say, “This is exactly how he contributed,” I think with other people is much harder. For example, Weinstein had a huge array of twenty-five-year-old assistants who showed girls to hotel rooms and kept lists of their names and made appointments and whatnot.
And in the course of doing our journalism, we had a big debate about whether and how to write about the assistance, because on the one hand, they were, like, kind of integral to this machine that Weinstein had built, but then we looked at them and we said, “In terms of accountability targets, in terms of, ‘if our goal is in part to pay who should be accountable in society,’ are we really going to aim the big New York Times guns at a twenty-five-year-old who was doing their job and probably scared of Weinstein and under a lot of pressure?”
And so those are the kinds of debates we have internally to try to make sure that we’re using our power correctly. And sometimes they can be better, like a kind of honest conversation about, “Is it better to be too hard or too soft?” And in the case of the twenty-five-year-old, I think we often felt like if there’s a risk of being too harsh or letting somebody off the hook, sometimes you do choose the path of letting people off the hook if in your heart you’re not, like, totally comfortable coming at them with full force.
Guy Kawasaki: A few months ago, I interviewed someone who was a chief of staff to Jeff Bezos. And one statement he made, not that he was totally justified, but he said, “In a company of two million employees or whatever, you will find people who will say almost anything.” For every bad example, you could find someone who will say, “Amazon is the best place in the world to work.” So how do you deal with that? But how do you know if you’re taking a representative, statistically valid sample, or these are just pissed off employees?
Jodi Kantor: Okay. So let’s talk about the most recent story, which has–the story is sort of about two things. It’s, on the one hand, a narrative of a year in the pandemic year. At JFK8, which is the only Amazon fulfillment center in New York City.
It’s this massive facility, operating under incredible pressure because it’s trying to get stuff to home-bound customers during the pandemic, and yet of course its workers have concerns about coming to work. So it’s the story of all these twists and turns of what happens there during the pandemic, but the bigger thing is it becomes an examination of Amazon’s employment machine and what its management model is.
And I would say that part of the power of the story was in the fact that it was not an anecdotal because we were looking at Amazon’s whole model, and we were looking at things like, “Karen was able to confirm for the first time that the Amazon fulfillment centers has one hundred-fifty percent attrition a year,” meaning that it’s like the equivalent of having to replace their workforce once every eight months. It’s just pretty out of control attrition.
And why is that? And it’s especially interesting given that Amazon often boasts to job creation, “We’re creating all these jobs,” et cetera, et cetera. Well how much job creation are you really doing if people are washing out that quickly? And what we discovered was some of this is intentional, some of this is by design. It was designed to be short-term work.
Bezos had–this is according to David, the architect of the early HR systems in the warehouse–he believed that a standing, entrenched workforce was like a threat. That people were inherently lazy in terms of both how fast they wanted goods shipped to their home but also in terms of what happens to employees over time. His goal was not long tenure. He limited upward mobility.
It is possible but not easy to go from being a lower-level person in the warehouses to really progressing an Amazon, and also, tenure is kind of intentionally limited. They give people money to go away after a couple of years. They want constantly refreshing workforce, but the end result of that is that a lot of people who came to work at Amazon because it was “the dream” and because it’s so successful, don’t end up fully participating in the company’s Titanic success.
And so at that point, we’re not really looking–there are anecdotes that bring the story alive and there are anecdotes that make you feel like the people behind the story, but I don’t think that factual integrity of the story rests upon anecdotes.
The other thing that’s true of Amazon is that the frustrations of Amazon fulfillment center workers–It’s not that everybody feels them. Some people love the job. I think it is true and fair to say that at the fulfillment center, there’s a huge diversity of viewpoints inside the fulfillment centers in terms of how happy people are with those jobs.
But the complaints that people do have like about, for example, the second-to-second monitoring system which is called “Time Off Task,” or TOT. Pretty much every pause in your work is noted and can get you in trouble if you have too many of them. The complaints about that are incredibly consistent across the country. You are hearing the same thing, you know, over and over again.
Guy Kawasaki: I have to say, I admire the courage of your topics. My God. You truly–you truly are a dragon slayer.
Jodi Kantor: Thank you.
Guy Kawasaki: As a kid, was Upton Sinclair your hero? Where you trying to be a muckraker?
Jodi Kantor: No, but the atmosphere of my childhood was pretty heavy because my grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and my grandmother is still alive, and I was born at almost thirty years to the day after my grandparents were liberated and I was the first grandkid. So I do think that I had comfort, like, I was used to dealing with big, heavy stuff from an early age. I think a lot of us are, for one reason or another, through whatever adversity life throws our way, but I think these questions of, “What really happened,” and “Who’s going to tell the truth about it,” and “Who’s comfortable speaking about it,” and “How could something like this happen,” were very embedded in my childhood which is not to compare Amazon to the Holocaust at all, I would never want to do that, but more just the sense that there are these–they’re big things to grapple with, like, we’ve got to ask the hard questions is the way I would put it.
Guy Kawasaki: What do you want to be remembered for?
Jodi Kantor: Oh, that’s such a nice question. Megan and I wrote She Said because we want people to believe that stories matter. That telling the truth can really create compassion and action and social consensus. That words matter. That people from all sorts of different backgrounds and even political persuasions can find a common truth.
That through these stories we can connect to strangers’ experiences and that society can have the difficult family discussions that we need to have. I think we need to understand Amazon’s employment model. It’s going to become the second– it’s now the second– it’s going to become the largest employer in this country. It’s got about a million employees in the U.S. now.
The number of families and lives that this company affects is really great.
Guy Kawasaki: How do you, Jodi, do your best and deepest thinking?
Jodi Kantor: Such a good question! It’s hard in the swirl of things. I have mostly partnered with, like, other women who are other parents of kids, often young kids, and so it’s–even back when we had an office, which we don’t currently have, there was always a lot of life happening around reporting, and I wouldn’t say the time to myself is something I get a lot of, but I guess what your question made me think of is that sometimes after a really powerful day of reporting, I just have to sit and absorb it. So I’ll try to sit down with a buffer or something and I can’t because I just have all of this stuff rattling around in my brain.
I talk with my partners, I talk with my editor, but I just–I really think about, “What’s the meaning of this? What are we learning of other–what is the key discovery here that we want to share with other people?”
And that sometimes takes a little time to cohere, and sometimes I journal or write notes or whatever, but there’s the thinking stage that comes out of reporting where you’re taking what people have told you and you’re synthesizing it, and that’s a necessary step in writing the story.
Guy Kawasaki: Seeing everything you’ve seen, and you have raked a lot of muck, what’s your career advice to young women?
Jodi Kantor: Do work with meaning however you define that because that can be defined in many different ways, but take yourself seriously and don’t sell yourself short. I think, probably, in the cohort that listens to your podcast, there’s probably a fair amount of pressure to make money and some of it is self-imposed.
I get that, we’ve all felt that, but I think you need a certain amount of money to live like a stable life and be able to give to your kids what you want to give. To not have money is to really struggle, and I think past a certain point of economic security, I’m just not sure that personal wealth delivers. I feel a lot of diminishing returns in terms of how happy it makes you.
And I’d say, doing work of real meaning, and that can be in business back can involve making money, but I think asking the question of yourself, “How am I going to define work as meaning and how am I going to do it,” is really important because also, like, that’s what’s going to carry you through the bad days. That’s going to carry you through a Tuesday at four o’clock when you’re totally, stuck or in conflict with somebody. I would say, find work that means something to you and don’t let anybody tell you that you deserve less.
Guy Kawasaki: Probably the most relevant question I could ask you is, what’s your advice to a young woman who’s getting sexually harassed?
Jodi Kantor: Oh…find a trustworthy counselor who can tell you what to do,
Guy Kawasaki: Okay.
Jodi Kantor: I would say to probably tell somebody if you can, if you can, which not everybody can, but one thing I’ve learned through my time in the Me Too world is that there are a lot of people trying to help, and there are a lot of people with expertise in dealing with this stuff, and, obviously for us, our sphere is journalism, and many people come to us, but there are a lot of ways of getting help. The thing we’ve learned the hard way is that these women are not alone.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Jodi Kantor. The work she’s doing is making the world a better, safer place. She is a dragon slayer. A transcript of this episode is available on Remarkablepeople.com.
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. Mahalo to Lisen Stromberg for making this interview possible. Mahalo to Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick for another remarkable episode of Remarkable People. Until next time, Mahalo and aloha.
Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is also the author of The Art of Social Media, The Art of the Start, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.