MOLLY: From The Cut and Gimlet Media… This is the Cut on Tuesdays… I’m your host, Molly Fischer.
Today on the show we’re talking about a google spreadsheet that became a lightning rod for MeToo anxieties… the lawsuit that has people talking about that spreadsheet again… and the weaponization of whisper networks.
MOLLY: So first I want to take you back to a Wednesday afternoon last fall.
This was the Wednesday after the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke. At the time, everyone was was saying how his behavior had been an "open secret" in Hollywood. And that had gotten a group of friends and I talking about the "open secrets" in our own world: Who were the people we had all heard bad stories about? Who were the guys where... if someone took the time to start reporting out the things we had heard... We would be the ones left saying, "yeah, I guess everybody knew, it was hiding in plain sight"?
So, we were all comparing notes… And there were a handful of names that we all came up with pretty quickly.
Less than 24 hours after that, I got an email that I'm still thinking about a year later.
It had a link to a Google spreadsheet called SHITTY MEDIA MEN. And when you opened it up, what you saw was a list of men’s names, with anonymous accusations entered next to them. The accusations ranged from things like sending creepy messages to sexual assault -- so, it was a pretty wide range. At first, there weren't that many names. A lot of them were the same ones my friends and I had come up with right away.
But by that night, it included dozens of men -- and all the women I worked with were talking about it.
STELLA: I remember texting with Rebecca Traister at the time who was not even in the country. I think I woke her up.... It was like the middle of night...
MOLLY: That’s Stella Bugbee… editor in chief of the Cut. She was texting Rebecca Traister, a writer at large.
STELLA: I texted Traister at 10:10 PM, sorry to bug you. There's a breaking story I think we need to address and she writes, hi, I'm in London, and I write, oh fuck. There's a list being generated of men in media who have done shitty things to women. And Rebecca said, I'm looking now. I said...do you think we should cover this? She says, I don't know, it's such a weird mix of I had shitty lunch date with this dude to man hits a woman. Um, I think you should cover that. It's a thing. And I said, right
RUTH: Yeah. I remember looking at it and feeling like I shouldn't even be. I shouldn't even be looking at this.
MOLLY: That’s Ruth Spencer… another editor at the Cut.
MOLLY: Why not?
RUTH: Because it felt like it felt like watching whispers happening live in real time. And also it was a story that was as live as it gets, like watching a spreadsheet get filled in. Like that was like really unbelievable. All the different cells lighting up with different colors, you know, just seeing the different avatars on the top right hand corner,
MOLLY: Anonymous marmoset... anonymous aardvark, they got the really…obscure animals because so many people were looking at it
RUTH: Were looking at, Yeah, them and just watching it happen. It was, it was totally overwhelming. It was like, I don't even know what this is yet.
RUTH: You know this is like, Like thinking about it as a story, but also what are we even talking about? What is this document?
RUTH: I remember I saw on the list the name of somebody who had sexually harassed me at a previous job, but I didn't put him on the list, but the allegation that was next to him was what had happened to me. And I remember thinking like, you know, I knew people were sort of aware, but like wow, the whisper network really is alive. It's alive enough so that, you know, women are actually adding allegations that have happened to me you know, we're all really aware of what has happened to each other.
STELLA: But had you ever talked to anyone about it before? Had you ever warned anyone?
RUTH: Just sort of people that I used to work with who all, who all knew but I hadn't, I hadn't been like advertising it by any means.
MOLLY: The actual google spreadsheet was live for less than a day. But the list itself lived on in -- in screenshots and conversations… and of course.. Memories… We still didn’t know who created it. But Stella remembers that she and Traister were immediately worried for whoever that person might be. Here’s Stella reading one of the texts she got that night.
STELLA: My main worry is that this will be used against women and feminism in ways that young women who put this together cannot fathom. We just had this dark feeling that the instinct to make the list however true was going to backfire against the people...
MOLLY: Like what do you mean? How? The instincts?
STELLA: Well, like the sort of desire to protect each other. Right? That was behind that list however pure and true it was, it was going to be used against the women in some way that they couldn't predict.
MOLLY: But what I also remember and I don’t know if this is going to make me sound naive or dumb in comparison…
STELLA: Does this make me sound dumb?
MOLLY: Maybe I’m dumb…you guys it’s not I’m being self deprecating, though. It’s that at any given moment I think I could be being dumb so…
STELLA: It’s a good question to ask. Am I dumb?
MOLLY: Everyone should worry more often that they might be being dumb…
RUTH: Am I dumb orrrrr is this very true?
MOLLY: Yeah. But, Stella, you were saying like you immediately were like this is the most radical thing I've ever seen. I remember, I don't know if this is the opposite reaction, but kind of having this feeling of like like, oh, is this going to matter at all?
STELLA: All I could think about where the retaliatory possibilities of the angry men and frankly like, I can't believe it took this long.
MOLLY: In January, a 28-year-old freelance writer named Moira Donegan identified herself as the creator of the list in an essay she wrote for the Cut. And she described having wondered sort of the same thing I did… Would anyone even care about the kinds of behavior women were describing in the spreadsheet? As Stella predicted, though, they did--or at least, they cared about the fact of the spreadsheet.
Right after Moira’s essay came out, a lot of people were scared for her. They offered help with legal protection she might need, or with securing her data -- everyone was just immediately bracing for retaliation. But it didn’t come… months passed...and it still didn’t come… and then, a couple weeks ago...on October 11th -- it happened.
Stephen Elliot is a writer whose name was on the list. He’s suing Moira for 1.5 million dollars in damages. And he's also suing to reveal the names of any person who might have contributed to the spreadsheet at all. He’d filed the previous day, just before the statute of limitations ran out.
Meanwhile... at the office, Ruth was getting ready to run a big essay about the one-year anniversary of the list.
MOLLY: Going up, but had not yet gone up.
STELLA: No, but was like five minutes.(laughing)
RUTH : Even less
MOLLY: Itchy trigger finger, Ruth Spencer.
RUTH: I was right there with the go button (laughing) and, and then um, uh,
when sort of the initial shock of the lawsuit as a fact kind of wore off and I was reading through it, you know, getting to the section in which he describes, you know, not only intending to sue Moira but also you know the Jane Does like all of the women who potentially, and this is where it gets really vague you know, contributed to shared it, opened it. You know had a link you know, dropped down from the ceiling onto their desk. Like literally anyone.
MOLLY: All of the anonymous marmosets.
RUTH: Yeah, like yeah. Our little avatars.
RUTH: He's coming after us, you know.
STELLA: Just suddenly like… everybody we know um might be involved in this lawsuit…
MOLLY: What did you think when you heard about the shitty media men list?
TOBY: My first thought was uh, I think we did this at Brown in 1990.
MOLLY: This is Toby Simon. In the 80s and 90’s, she was a health educator and assistant dean at Brown University… which, in the fall of 1990, experienced an explosion of controversy over its own anonymous list…
ARCHIVAL: Here at Brown University, names of men accused of rape appeared on bathroom walls all over the campus, put there by women who felt they had no choice.
JENN: It was a bathroom like any other bathroom in a student library.
MOLLY: Jenn David-Lang was a senior at Brown and a member of student council at the time...
JENN: The Rockefeller library, second floor bathroom. But it was in the stall so you could look at it privately.
MOLLY: That’s where, for a while, there was a list of men’s names under the words “these men won’t take no for an answer...”
JENN: In the bathroom a lot of what was written on the wall - it wasn’t just about men’s names. It was really a way of disseminating information. One person wrote on the wall, if we don’t start taking care of each other, no one will. Some of the women urged others to, quote unquote, take action… One person wrote the phone number of the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center… One person help to really define what acquaintance rape was… and she wrote, even if you know your assaulter, it was rape if you didn’t want it. Another person wrote, rich white boys can do whatever they want on this campus… So, obviously there were men’s names and it became known as the rape list, but it really was much more of a conversation on the wall.
MOLLY: Jenn had been trying to have this conversation with the actual administration at Brown. She was on the student council’s disciplinary committee, and women on campus had started coming to her with their stories.
JENN: There was a history of people trying to bring it through the university channels and having those channels closed to them as an option.
REICHLEY: We come back to the same issue again and again… one person’s word against another… how can we as an institution pierce that invisible protective shield… and find a culpable person…I don’t know how you do that
MOLLY: That’s Robert Reichley, a spokesman for Brown university, when he was asked about the college’s role in handling sexual assault complaints…
REICHLEY: One might even ask whether a university has any business at all trying to deal with sexual assault or sexual harassment...
MOLLY: At the time, the student handbook didn’t have real guidelines for how the school would handle sexual assault. It wasn’t even clear that the university would recognize sexual assault as a major offense.
And when women did try to bring stories to the administration… the response was less than helpful…
JENN: They were counseled out of it. They were told this is just a case of you know a love story gone sour.
JENN: Then they were given other alternatives for resolutions like why don't we just have the young man write you an apology letter or let's sit down with the young-- so there wasn't a very clear path here for them through the university.
It wasn’t like a woman got sexually assaulted and the first thing she did was run to the bathroom.
MOLLY: To the list!
JENN: I really saw the wall as a symbol that things were broken.
MOLLY: Yeah, yeah.
TOBY: The bathroom walls in general at Brown were - because we didn’t have the internet - we couldn’t tweet things,we didn’t have cells phones - people used the bathroom walls to write all sorts of information
MOLLY: That’s Toby Simon again… the assistant dean. She says long before the so-called rape list, the bathrooms were already being used as unofficial notice boards..
TOBY: So, I used to get referrals as a health educator - eating disorder - how did you get my name? Saw it on a bathroom wall. The gay students at Brown also used bathroom walls to communicate with other gay men on campus because it was anonymous, because they were so much in the closet in the '80s, AIDS was just coming apparent.
So that's why the bathroom wall was not a surprise to me but what was surprising was the men that I worked with who wanted to figure out a way to get the names off and then wanted to talk about what do we do about the guys who are listed? Do we have a duty to warn them? Should we send them a letter or call them in and say, "Your name is on a wall. We just want you to know and you might be upset by that and we're here to help you." And I said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa!"
MOLLY: Toby would sit in these meetings of 20 or so deans and administrators--pretty much all of them men, maybe one other woman, and most of them older than her. And the men, for the most part, had a very different reaction from Toby’s:
TOBY: "This would really be hard for a man" and "This could be really damaging and we really feel badly for these guys." They didn't get the fact that it was out of some desperation that women really took to the walls.
ARCHIVAL: The administration called the tactic vigilantism. One student had a word for the women who did it: “idiots. I have a lot of friends on the list and by no means are they rapists. They might be aggressive at parties, flirtatious, and if girls hold a grudge they are called rapists”.
TOBY: The public relations person for the university, a man of course, called the students magic marker terrorists
MOLLY: Oh god
JENN: One person wrote an editorial in the paper that was titled “I am not a rapist” and it was you know it was pretty strong and angry.
MOLLY: Someone who was named on the list?
JENN: Someone who was named the list.
MOLLY: Oh wow.
JENN: Um… you know and it was a strong defense. Like a recent defense we may have heard that was angry.
Coming up, the University finally decides to take action... And the results… are not what they hoped.
MOLLY: Welcome back to the Cut on Tuesdays…
So, to recap, Brown University clearly has a problem. Women are using a bathroom wall as a place to deal with that problem…
And finally, the University decides to take action.. They decide…. to paint over the wall.
TOBY: Someone would say, "Oh, it's now in another bathroom." So it was like, "Duh!"
MOLLY: So it was different bathrooms?
TOBY: Yeah. Then it started to spread.
MOLLY: Painting over the names, somehow, did not make the problem go away!
Instead, it attracted more attention to the problem--and got more women involved. Here’s Jenn David Lang again…
JENN: It brought a lot of them into the conversation, because I think they felt doubly assaulted that this was happening to women and then it was being painted over, it was like being silenced a second time. So I think it made the movement grow. I don’t know that you could have been a student and not known about the wall because it is obviously something flashier than ‘hey I am trying to help the university rewrite the discipline code! That’s not sexy…
MOLLY: We’re at a party, let’s talk about the student disciplinary code!
JENN: Right, whereas everyone was talking about the wall.
MOLLY: The administration realized they weren’t going to be able solve this in the bathroom. They were going to have to address it publicly...
TOBY: There was a lot of hand wringing going on. And then finally, I think the head Dean said, "Well, we ought to call... Let's gather all the students. Let's talk about this."
TOBY: The meeting started and the dean stood up, it was packed, there was standing room only.
TOBY: So I look out and I see 300 men and women wearing red shirts. So the dean starts talking, and three minutes into his remarks, a female student in the audience stood up. She didn't say anything, didn't disrupt; she just stood up out of her seat. And he looked at her and he thought, "Okay, well, I'll just keep on talking." So he kept on talking, and three minutes later, another woman stood up. I think he eventually said, "I see that students are standing; would somebody like to tell me what's going on?" And one of them said, "Every three minutes, a woman gets raped."
JENN: And the thing that changed a bit of the course of history was that there was a New York Times reporter in the audience.
MOLLY: The next week, there was an article in the Sunday paper: “Date Rape and a List at Brown.”
JENN: And you know you don't want that kind of publicity when you're a college or university. And so that's when you know the phones start ringing off the hook. Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue
DONAHUE: Is there a hotter school in America today than Brown University?
MOLLY: A couple weeks after that meeting, a group of students went on the Phil Donahue Show. Jenn was one of them…
JENN: We arrive there. And there was a backdrop behind us. There was this wall with fake graffiti on it.
DONAHUE: Here is our recreation of what you might find on the wall of the women's rooms of Brown University. Actual name of the guy written on the stall wall...is...a...rapist.
JENN: Yeah it became a bit sensationalized. And you know, unfortunately, sometimes things have to be sensationalized before change happens, you know?
Those of us involved kept in mind that you know we wanted these changes. So if you have to go on Phil Donahue say you know so that they can be taken seriously.
MOLLY: It's worth doing.
JENN: It's worth doing.
MOLLY: Here’s another one of the students on Donahue...
STUDENT: Brown University has in the past trivialized the issue to an incredible degree. If people think writing on the wall is ludicrous I think it's ludicrous that when a man pleads guilty to rape the only punishment for him is that he has to write the victim. I prefer to say survivor an apology than a note is sent to his football coach.
MOLLY: After all the publicity that the bathrooms ultimately stirred up, Brown made some changes to how it handled sexual assault. They introduced training for administrators and first year students. They created a process for actually reporting complaints.
So, it was a start.
TOBY: You know if somebody whose name were on a list who didn't deserve to be on there, obviously that's certainly difficult for that individual. But the end did justify the means - if they hadn't done that the university would have dragged their feet for another five years or 10 years.
You know, if there were men whose names were on that list, who were totally innocent, I'm sorry that happened to them, but I think, again, if you look at the big picture, it was very successful.
MOLLY: Looking back, Jenn talked about how when something like the bathroom wall goes public, often the loudest response is concern for what will happen to the people named-- as opposed to what happened to the people doing the naming...
There’s talk about whether things have gone too far... worries about vigilante justice and mob rule...magic marker terrorists, etcetera
JENN: You know I think that there's a lot of questions--from this wall years ago from the shitty media men list. You know look what happens when men are named; it ruins their lives. And you know we just had a very powerful counter example of that. We just had Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault live in front of over 10 million people. And what was the outcome? Did his did his career get derailed? No, he was confirmed to the highest one of the highest positions in this country, Supreme Court justice.
MOLLY: Last week, Stephen Elliott’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, gave an interview to Gaby Paiella at The Cut.
He told her that, quote, “It’s a very slippery slope for all of us if you can be assassinated completely on the internet.”
He also sent Gabby a portion of the World War 2 poem by Martin Niemoller that starts “First They Came” …the one about Nazis coming for everyone.
He quickly clarified that he was not trying to suggest that the shitty media men list was AS BAD as Nazis.
Anyway, we also talked with the lawyer representing Moira Donegan. Her name is Roberta Kaplan -- she argued the Supreme Court case that made gay marriage legal… She’s also a founder of the Times Up legal defense fund, which helps pay the legal fees for victims of sexual harassment assault…
She’s spent her career on cases like this one… so we wanted to ask her… what comes next?
ROBERTA: I don’t think anyone is going to be held liable in this case, I think the case is going to get dismissed before we even get into discovery, so I think the chance of anyone being held liable is very, very low.
ROBERTA: It looked to me, immediately, like another one of these instances where the goal of the case was to silence women, to stop them from speaking out. I drew that conclusion for a number of reasons. First of all, the merits of the case both factually and legally are, are very weak. New York has some of the strongest protections for free speech of any state in the country and so to bring a defamation case in New York is exceedingly hard and particularly hard under these circumstances. you have a very, very high burden of bringing a case against someone like Mr. Elliot who for legal purposes is what's known as "at least a limited public figure" which means that in order to succeed in a defamation claim, you have to prove that the person being sued said whatever they said with what's called "malice." That they made the speech intending to cause harm and knowing that it was false.
ROBERTA: Number two, it's clear that the goal here was not to get money. Moira Donegan is a freelance writer and does not make a huge salary, so obviously the goal, it had nothing to do with money, it had to do with something else.
Three, it, it seems to be a pattern of these cases that we're seeing now where men who feel they've been wronged by #MeToo or #Times Up feel that the way to deal with that is to file defamation claims against women with the obviously hope that those women and other women in the future stop speaking this way.
F`6dwq3rcfqac I know that the women who are involved in #Times Up and #MeToo feel very, very strongly that the strength and power of our movement comes from women for the first time, in part aided by technology, speaking out about their truths. And speaking out about what happened to them and eradicating shame by virtue of that speech.
And so we understand the power of speech here. The proverbial power of coming out of the closet, which this is very similar to in many ways.
MOLLY: We've been hearing all along for the last year since, since #Times Up, since #MeToo, since the first Harvey Weinstein allegations emerged about the possibility of an impending backlash or the idea that women had gone too far somehow. Does the Stephen Elliott lawsuit seem like it's the backlash that people were anticipating?
ROBERTA: I have a couple reactions to that. So, first of all, if I have anything to do with it, and I do- I don't think it's going to be a very effective backlash, number one. Number two, I think I would say, I don't mean to be a Pollyanna here. No one who knows me would every accuse me of being a Pollyanna but the very fact that we're talking about backlash is itself, I think, a tribute to how incredibly powerful, uh, this movement is and how much progress we've achieved.
History does not progress in linear lines, as Martin Luther King said so many years ago. It happens in waves or arcs and so there's always backlash, particularly when a fundamental progress or change is made. We saw that with respect to gay rights, another movement that I was very involved in.
Um, here's the best example. After the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a case mandating marriage equality in 2003, you know, a bunch of states passed mini-DoMAs and laws prohibiting marriage equality and then we won the case at the Supreme Court ten years later.
So, this kind of reaction is inevitable but I think what it means kind of more fundamentally is how powerful this is and how much, uh, change we've already made and will continue to make in the lives of women who for eons have pushed this stuff in the back of the closet and been ashamed to speak and not told each other and then as a result, more and more women got victimized.
MOLLY: That’s it for this week’s show. We’ll see you next Tuesday.
The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh.
Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler.
We’re edited by Stella Bugbee, Nazanin Rafsanjani, and Alex Blumberg, who graduated from Oberlin 19 years before Lena Dunham.
Music, sound design, and mixing by Haley Shaw. Our theme song is PLAY IT RIGHT by Amelia Meath, Nick Sanborn, Molly Sarle, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig
Special thanks to Cindy Coen from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jessica Ladd from Callisto, and Gaby Paiella.
The Cut on Tuesdays is a production of Gimlet Media and the Cut.