Reporting #MeToo: SJMC graduates on the frontlines of covering a history-making movement.
The year is 2009. Chris Gardner (BA ’99) had just moved home to Des Moines after working in Los Angeles for nearly ten years. Actress Rose McGowan had temporarily moved into a downtown loft where she would live while filming a lead role in the independent film Dead Awake.
The two crossed paths, bonded over their Hollywood connections, and McGowan agreed to let Gardner interview her for the Des Moines Register. It would not be the last time their names would meet in print but neither could’ve possibly imagined how their lives would intersect in the coming years.
Flash forward to 2017. Gardner, who relocated to Los Angeles in 2011, is now working as a staff writer for The Hollywood Reporter. He is assigned to write a story about an allegation McGowan made on Twitter: Harvey Weinstein raped her.
Following graduation from Iowa, Gardner worked at The Hollywood Reporter, People magazine, Variety, and as a freelance writer before ultimately returning to The Hollywood Reporter. He returned because it seemed the best fit for what he wanted to do.
In recent months, societal activism has fueled much of Gardner’s work. He has covered social media hashtag movements such as #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite, and, most recently, #MeToo. Gardner is one of several SJMC alumni who found themselves the record-keepers of these pivotal conversations in the country’s history. For some, they had experienced the devastation of sexual harassment and assault firsthand.
In the case of the #MeToo movement this past year, women have rallied on social media sites to share their painful and personal stories of sexual harassment. Actress Alyssa Milano brought the movement to the social media forefront in October 2017 by Tweeting: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ and reply to this tweet.”
She did so in response to the windfall of allegations made against powerful Hollywood men, a series of stories that followed the damning allegations made against mogul Harvey Weinstein. Through the hashtag #MeToo, women showed their solidarity with fellow survivors. Originally introduced by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to support black women who had been sexually abused, the movement exploded online after Milano’s tweet.
Some of Gardner’s most notable work on this topic include stories involving the allegations against Weinstein. He interviewed and wrote stories about celebrities speaking out, such as JJ Abrams, Marisa Coughlan, and Jessica Chastain. He’s collected many women’s thoughts during his reporting, and written about solutions for how to move forward. In some ways, he says it feels like he has an entirely new job.
One of the most vocal celebrities he has covered is the famous friend he made in Iowa, Rose McGowan. She was one of the first to accuse Weinstein of sexual assault, and she’s been vocal about standing up for herself and other women in the movement.
Brave, her book published in January, recounts her stories about Weinstein. “I think her journey has been really powerful to watch and she continues to chart her own path,” Gardner says. “She has continued to stand up for herself and what she believes in regardless of what people think. There’s a lot to be learned from that.”
Most recently, Gardner flew to New York in May to write his first Hollywood Reporter cover story on McGowan. He accompanied her on an Amtrak train from New York to Washington D.C., focusing the interview on the six months since Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations first surfaced in the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow. “It was a revelatory interview because Rose really reflected on where she’s been, how hard it has been to be a voice of this movement, and where she hopes her activism will take her now that she’s left Hollywood for good,” says Gardner.
Another SJMC graduate to earn a BA in journalism, Elizabeth Kuster, has written prolifically about sexual assault and harassment. She’s served as a freelance journalist and editor, a social media manager, a marketer, and has had many other jobs in the field. When she wrote for Glamour and Seventeen, she covered topics including the effect of war on women, self defense, and gun violence.
Stories that serve women’s causes are important to Kuster because she often felt she was expected to stay in the small Iowa town where she was born and raised, get married, and have children. Instead, she was the first woman on one side of her family to go to college. Her work is also important to her because she personally has experienced sexual assault, and has found it difficult to write her own experience.
“The ‘Me Too’ movement is a long time coming,” Kuster says. “I wish it would have happened when I was in college. It’s really hard to be coherent and put out something meaningful if you’ve been a victim.”
Kuster says she rarely used social media until the election of President Donald Trump. She wanted to be careful about what she posted because it represented her and where she worked. When Kuster wrote for Huffington Post, she witnessed fellow journalists get fired because of their Twitter feeds (even if those feeds were private).
Since the election, however, she’s changed her tune about social media. She turns to Twitter to challenge political leaders and the president. She Tweets him every day.
Kuster believes the current state of the country requires some writers to go beyond the standard idea of objective journalism. Writers and journalists who are also survivors must put themselves in the stories, Kuster says. In the case of the #MeToo movement, she says, the abuser is clearly in the wrong.
“We can’t try to get two sides when there’s really only one side,” Kuster says. “So many of the scary things that are happening, there is only one side. The other side is lying.”
Me Too movement creator Tarana Burke expressed a similar sentiment during a lecture she delivered this past spring at the University of Iowa. Burke originally launched the movement in 2006 on MySpace as part of a grassroots campaign. Herself a survivor of sexual abuse, Burke works closely with others who share similar experiences. Me Too intended to help sexually abused black women realize that they are not alone.
“This movement came out of necessity and filling in the gaps,” Burke said. During her lecture, Burke discussed how much of this movement has been about calling out abusers, when it should be about the victim’s healing process. Burke admitted she was surprised, shocked, and mostly scared when Me Too turned into #MeToo, going viral after Milano’s tweet. Burke was afraid white women were going to take away a project she had been working on for so long.
Gardner himself interviewed Burke and wrote a story about her meeting #OscarsSoWhite movement leader April Reign for the first time. He speaks highly of the two women, and describes how exciting it was to interview them. Burke was so friendly and cool, he recalls. Without the renewed interest of the movement, he may never have met her.
“To see her standing alongside Hollywood women as a leader is inspiring,” Gardner says. Still, even movement leaders like Burke and journalists like Kuster have an excruciating time recounting their own stories of sexual assault.
At her lecture, Burke confessed that she often heard stories of sexual assault before she started the Me Too movement, but still didn’t feel like she could share her own. The number of experiences she encountered overwhelmed her. She desperately wanted to let victims know they weren’t alone, but struggled sharing her own story. When the #MeToo movement surfaced, Kuster felt compelled to share her own stories, too. Both women worked to overcome their fears.
“I thought ‘Me Too’ is happening. Now is the time to unload everything that’s happened to me,” Kuster says, “I made a list of every time I had been sexually assaulted. There were 17 instances, ranging from a stranger literally grabbing [me] on the street to rape.”
Kuster says she couldn’t write about it. The numbers overwhelmed her and she shut down. Instead, she supported women who came forward. Journalists can help the #MeToo movement, Kuster says, by seeking out people who are ready to speak and simply listening. Let them tell their stories, as long as it takes. These individual stories can be reported and put in a larger perspective.
Gardner has his own approach to these stories, one that involves rigorous research and interviews, and staying up to date with how other outlets like The New York Times and The New Yorker are leading the way. By doing so, journalists can approach these stories with sensitivity. Gardner credits his ability to accurately cover #Me,Too and other social movements from his education at the SJMC and from his work at The Daily Iowan.
“It’s a delicate terrain and it should be treated with journalistic integrity,” Gardner says. “There’s no cutting corners in any of this, and I learned that when I was a student.”