Harvey Weinstein, Taylor Swift, and Disney try to stop the presses

What lengths will the powerful go to silence reporters they don't like?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Art by Adam Peck
CREDIT: AP Photo/Art by Adam Peck

In a searing investigation for The New Yorker, published late Monday night, Ronan Farrow reveals the terrifying — though ultimately unsuccessful — tactics deployed by disgraced Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein to keep stories about his alleged sexual harassment and assault of women out of the media.

According to Farrow, Weinstein hired “Kroll, which is one of the world’s largest corporate-intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies… which offers its clients the skills of operatives ‘highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units,’ according to its literature.”

Two Black Cube investigators used fake identities to trick Rose McGowan, who says Weinstein raped her and is one of his most outspoken accusers, into divulging information. Farrow reports:

Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories. Weinstein monitored the progress of the investigations personally. He also enlisted former employees from his film enterprises to join in the effort, collecting names and placing calls that, according to some sources who received them, felt intimidating.

“The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July,” Farrow writes, “was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker.”

Weinstein isn’t the only major player of late in the entertainment industry to threaten, intimidate, withhold, or otherwise attempt to silence reporters he simply doesn’t like.

In September, after the L.A. Times ran a story on the Walt Disney Company’s financial dealings with the city of Anaheim — a relationship in which, the article demonstrates, Disney wields tremendous power and profits immensely while Anaheim taxpayers suffer — Disney responded with the kind of petty, vindictive retaliation that would surely be punished by the hero in any of its films: By barring L.A. Times reporters from advance screenings of its movies. First up: Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, which the Times didn’t review until Friday, after it opened to the general public.

Minnie Mouse entertains visitors at Disneyland, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Minnie Mouse entertains visitors at Disneyland, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

When a legitimate news outlet gets a story wrong, it issues a clarification, correction or, should circumstances call for one, a retraction. But Disney didn’t demand that the L.A. Times do any of those things, presumably because there were no grounds on which to do so. Apparently Disney’s definition of “a complete disregard for basic journalistic standards” is “publishing a story that contains no inaccuracies or errors.”

In response to Disney’s swipe at the Times, four film critic groups — The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics — banded together to announce that, so long as the L.A. Times was on a Disney blacklist, no Disney films would be considered for any of their awards.

As of press time, Disney has yet to comment or rescind its ban on the L.A. Times.

What a fun time for media! The President of the United States calls the press “the enemy of the American people.” Russian bots are getting all the good clicks. With a few glimmering exceptions, everybody’s hemorrhaging money and pivoting to video. Hyper-local outlets are folding faster than House of Cards. In some ways, the industry feels more fragile than ever.

And yet journalism still has the power, apparently, to strike fear in the hearts of the powerful. Even the smallest blogs can upset the biggest stars, princess-and-the-pea style.

Such is the case with Taylor Swift, who, though she would probably like to be excluded from this narrative, is threatening legal action against a small pop culture and politics blog in response to a piece of critical analysis which reported on and expressed some opinions about Swift’s status as a favored star of the so-called alt-right.

Taylor Swift performs at DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at Club Nomadic on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: John Salangsang/Invision/AP
Taylor Swift performs at DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at Club Nomadic on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: John Salangsang/Invision/AP

Swift — white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed — happens to represent the preferred aesthetic of white supremacists, and has (inadvertently) cultivated a dedicated fan base among them. In 2013, Pinterest user Emily Pattinson created satirical photo series that overlaid photos of Swift with quotes from Hitler. Swift wasn’t a fan, and her lawyers told Pinterest to remove the posts: “The association of Ms. Swift with Adolf Hitler undisputedly is ‘harmful,’ ‘abusive,’ ‘ethnically offensive,’ ‘humiliating to other people,’ ‘libelous,’ and no doubt ‘otherwise objectionable.’”

She took similar action when white supremacist site The Daily Stormer published posts about her, calling her the “Nazi avatar of the white European people.” (Considering the ethos of The Daily Stormer, one can assume this was intended as a compliment.) Swift’s attorney, again, demanded the posts be removed. (The Daily Stormer is no longer online.)

So the fact that neo-Nazis are holding a tiki torch for Swift is a fairly well-documented phenomenon. Stories in mainstream publications that point out this connection have also called for Swift to comment, publicly and definitively, on her stance on white supremacy. A story on The Daily Beast, published this August, announced in its headline, “It’s Time for Taylor Swift to Denounce Her Neo-Nazi Admirers.” A few weeks later, Meghan Herning, editor of the small site PopFront, wrote a piece of critical analysis titled “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation.”

Herning’s story explores the relationship that some white supremacists have with Swift’s imagery and her music. She calls on Swift to formally denounce the neo-Nazis who have lifted her up as their Aryan goddess of choice:

“It is hard to believe that Taylor had no idea that the lyrics of her latest single read like a defense of white privilege and white anger — specifically, white people who feel that they are being left behind as other races and groups start to receive dignity and legally recognized rights…

Taylor’s silence is not innocent, it is calculated. And if that is not true, she needs to state her beliefs out loud for the world — no matter what fan base she might lose, because in America 2017, silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor.”

It should be noted that not everything in Herning’s story is accurate: She writes that Swift “did not endorse Hillary Clinton until November 8th, 2016,” when in fact Swift never endorsed Clinton, or anyone else, in the 2016 election. But the crux of her piece is that Swift is associated with white supremacists and that her music winks at this association, rather than resisting or refuting it.

Two weeks ago, Herning received a letter from Swift’s attorney, threatening a lawsuit and demanding “that PopFront immediately issue a retraction of a provably false and defamatory story about Ms. Swift,” claiming that the piece “knowingly regurgitates, repeats, and attempts to expand on a malicious lie.”

Herning fought back by calling the ACLU, which took up her case and deemed Swift’s effort “a completely unsupported attempt to suppress constitutionally protected speech.” No word yet from Swift’s people on the ACLU’s announcement, released Tuesday, but her representative also sent a letter to Jezebel after the feminist site posted an interview with a writer who criticized Swift’s silence on this subject. Swift’s rep was “pointing out that she, via her attorneys, has denounced the white supremacist co-opting of her brand.”

One would think the wisest strategy here is to drop the action against Herning and move on as quickly as humanly possible. Swift’s new album, Reputation, is out Friday, and it seems fair to assume she would rather not make neo-Nazis, even the disavowal thereof, a central talking point on her promotional tour.

All of these responses, from Weinstein to Disney to Swift, are of a kind, even though they’d vary widely in a concern-sparking power ranking. (Chances are you’d rather get a strongly-worded statement from Swift’s lawyer than a stealth visit from a Black Cube investigator who is secretly recording everything you say.) All involve powerful parties trying to quell news reports that they consider unflattering or unwelcome. The subjects of the stories want control of the narrative and lash out when that control isn’t theirs to take.

There are similarities to be drawn, too, to the Country Music Association’s recent ruling (since retracted) that reporters covering this year’s CMA Awards could not ask questions about the “Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like” at the event. Journalists who didn’t abide by the edict would have their credentials “reviewed and potentially revoked” and be forced to leave the show “via a security escort.”

On Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, right, listens as then President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
On Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, right, listens as then President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

Maybe none of this should be surprising, considering how the year began. Back in February, the White House banned reporters for The New York Times, Politico, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and BuzzFeed from then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s press briefing. (Remember him?) During his campaign in 2016, Trump temporarily banned a number of news organizations, the Washington Post and Buzzfeed among them, from covering his rallies.

And all of these stories have echoes of Peter Thiel’s vendetta against, and destruction of, Gawker. Thiel, furious at Gawker for a 2007 post titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the website. Hogan didn’t just win; he awarded $115 million in damages — $15 million more than he asked for. The verdict came down in March 2016 and was essentially a death sentence for Gawker, which filed for bankruptcy in June and shut down shortly thereafter.

If Don Draper’s m.o. when he didn’t like what was being said was to change the conversation, the go-to tactic for individuals and corporations (who technically are also people) in 2017 is to make sure that the things you don’t like are never said in the first place.


UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times reported that Disney lifted its ban on the L. A. Times “amid a growing backlash” from other news organizations, the New York Times included. In a statement, Disney said, “We’ve had productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at The Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns, and as a result, we’ve agreed to restore access to advance screenings for their film critics.”