The journalist who took down Charlie Rose explains why it took seven years to expose his abuse

Journalist Irin Carmon
Journalist Irin Carmon
Image: Courtesy Irin Carmon
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

It’s a familiar story: Boss systematically harasses employees. Employees complain. Nothing changes. Shockingly few sexual harassers face professional consequences; the victims, on the other hand, have often suffered professional retaliation or lasting physical or mental effects.

The Me Too movement that emerged in the fall of 2017, exposing serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein and former CBS chief Les Moonves, has helped to break this pattern. But many people, even journalists, had heard about high-profile sexual harassers long before the movement erupted. The problem was that victims were rightfully worried about how going public could impact their own careers and personal lives. And so even as publications continue to release a steady stream of reports of professional wrongdoing, it’s worth wondering how many stories of sexual harassment went unwritten—and may still be untold today.

The tale of how journalist Irin Carmon came to expose Charlie Rose’s long history of sexual harassment is a case in point. It was 2010 when a tipster first told her that this pattern was afoot at the Charlie Rose show. It would be seven years before she could publish the story.

Back in 2010, Carmon was a reporter for the feminist news site Jezebel. Carmon started to dig into the story a little bit, getting in touch with people who “had things happen to them,” she recalled recently on the Longform podcast. But they balked at the prospect of recounting it all to a reporter—perhaps understandably, given the blowback they may have faced. That reticence, in addition to Carmon’s limited bandwidth—she was working at Gawker media, where she was expected to write a high volume of stories—meant she hit a wall in her reporting, and reluctantly dropped it.

That all changed in 2017. “It took the kind of reporting that was happening in the fall of 2017 in the New York Times, in the New Yorker, in the Washington Post, about Harvey Weinstein and then about Roy Moore—that was a piece that was really influential to our process—that actually showed how to frame a story as about an abuse of power as opposed to ‘look at this creepy old man,’” Carmon told Longform.

And so Carmon began reaching out to some of her old sources, and found that many were finally ready to talk to her on the record. “Immediately things just started tumbling out because everybody had been re-processing them in the context of what was happening nationally,” she said on Longform. When Carmon called her original tipster, she said, the person picked up the phone and said, “I’ve been waiting for you to call me.”

The resulting story, which Carmon wrote for the Washington Post with investigative reporter Amy Brittain, made huge waves. Eight women recounted incidents in which Rose had sexually harassed them between the late 1990s and 2011. CBS News, where he co-anchored its show CBS This Morning, suspended Rose and eventually fired him.

Carmon is now a senior correspondent at New York Magazine, where she covers gender and reproductive rights. Quartz caught up with her via email to ask about what changed in those seven years before the story was published, where the Me Too movement has been most successful (and where it hasn’t), and what she thinks of apologies from the accused.

Quartz: You first started speaking to sources about Charlie Rose in 2010, but they weren’t willing to go on the record until you got back in touch with them in 2017. What changed for them in those seven years?

Irin Carmon: Above all, safety in numbers. For a frantic and terrifying moment that lasted months, investigative reporting on sexual harassment was being widely read and women, rather than being blamed or second-guessed, were being believed. The revival of Tarana Burke’s Me Too created a mass outpouring with a scope and persistence that is still with us. I went back and saw that one of the women who had been reluctant to speak was posting about her experience on Facebook, without naming the perpetrator. Another one who had described herself as too traumatized to speak had spent years processing what had happened. It also helped that these women had a few more years of professional and personal distance from Rose. But I think the fact that they wouldn’t be alone meant everything.

QZ: What changed for you that made you ready to try to publish the story again?

IC: I had more experience as a reporter, and at that point I was a freelancer with some freedom in how I spent my time. And the important work being done by reporters at the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post had begun to sketch out a framework for how to sensitively and thoroughly use journalism to tell these stories.

QZ: Why has the Me Too movement been more successful for victims in certain industries (entertainment, politics) than in others (blue-collar workers)?

IC: Adjacency to reporters is a big part of it. Another is that editors are more interested in famous subjects, because they’ll draw more attention and traffic. But there has been some incredible organizing (and reporting) across sectors, like when the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance made a statement in solidarity with the women of Hollywood. The existence of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund shows at least the hope for victims in all industries benefiting from what’s happened.

QZ: For people accused of sexual misconduct, there’s been a whole range of responses—denials, apologies, resignations, refusals to resign. When you read about the allegations du jour, is there a kind of contrition that you find most believable or worthwhile?

IC: I think genuine contrition does not demand public attention, and can only be granted by the people who were directly harmed. No one has an absolute right to a public position or one of authority over others.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that CBS produced Charlie Rose’s talk show, not that he was a co-anchor on CBS This Morning