Monday evening, Emily Steel, a journalist at the New York Times, spoke at the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Journalism. Along with her reporting partner, Michael Schmidt, Steel was responsible for exposing the countless incidences of sexual harassment at Fox News and Vice Media. During the talk, Steel not only recounted her experience breaking the Bill O’Reilly story, but also shared some ethical insights concerning her work.
Although by age eight she knew that she wanted to one day become a journalist, Steel stated that she finds “holding people in positions of power accountable” and “using words to shape stories and shape lives” to be especially valuable aspects of her career. During the early stages of her investigation into O’Reilly, Steel discovered that several women had been paid more than $13 million in settlements and required to sign non-disclosure agreements; thus, making her search for a victim who would go “on the record” extremely difficult. Here, I thought about how this helped to answer the question many of the girls at Brogden, DSA, and the Boys and Girls Club expressed concerning the length of time it took for #MeToo participants to come forward. Finally finding a victim, Wendy Walsh, who had not signed a non-disclosure agreement, Steel traveled from New York to Los Angeles and even attended a Pilates class with Walsh just to convince her to go “on the record.” After conversing with Steel and learning that many of the women O’Reilly had abused could not come forward, Walsh agreed to share her story, claiming that she was also “doing this for her daughter.”
Since Steel was raised during an era she referred to as “journalistic slut-shaming”, she stated that her articles endeavor to contribute to this momentous cultural shift in which female victims are not as likely to be portrayed as “promiscuous” or blamed for their own harassment. For Steel, the reporting on the Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill scandals reified the potent ability for words to shape public opinion. Acknowledging the career-ending damage that an accusation, even a false accusation of sexual harassment carries, Steel stated that she took many measures to ensure that she was “reporting on the truth.” While I certainly agree with Steel regarding the verifiability of sources, I also wondered whether or not the deep-seeded tendency to second guess or mistrust women factored into her defense of careful evidence collection and corroboration.
I thought it was pretty incredible that this woman, not much older than myself, had been able to expose a much more well-established and powerful man at one of the nation’s most prominent news networks. Through her tireless efforts, I believe that Steel has had a profound impact in igniting the #MeToo movement, making the workplace a more hospitable environment, and propelling issues of women’s rights forward.