Q&A: Journalist who broke Trump groping story on why others were slow to follow

Q&A: Journalist who broke Trump groping story on why others were slow to follow

By Pete Vernon, CJR

October 13, 2016 1483 words
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Revelations this week about Donald Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct shocked no one who had listened to him brag to Billy Bush about groping women in a 2005 Access Hollywood video that surfaced last week. But a parade of fresh testimonials from women who have crossed paths with the Republican nominee, published in The New York Times, People, and the Palm Beach Post, were not the first instance of on-the-record allegations this election cycle.

In July, Guardian reporter Lucia Graves interviewed Jill Harth, a makeup artist who accused Trump of groping her at his Mar-a-Lago resort in 1993. Harth’s case was mentioned in a May New York Times article detailing Trump’s past treatment of women. But her conversation with Graves was the first time she had spoken publicly since dropping her lawsuit against Trump in 1997.

Graves’ story, which ran in the midst of the Republican National Convention, received little attention at the time. She believes that at least part of the disinterest from both the press and public fits a pattern seen in many sexual assault cases: No one pays attention to accusers until a man speaks up. In this case, the recording of Trump bragging about grabbing women without their consent focused attention on his past treatment of women.

CJR spoke with Graves about her reporting, the difficulties of covering sexual assault, and why Harth’s story was overlooked by most of the media. (Trump has denied all of the allegations.) The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was the process you went about to get Jill Harth to speak with you?

It was old-fashioned reporting. I’m typically a columnist, and my stories had been focusing on women and Trump all election. I’d done some feature writing and, basically, the head of the news desk came to me and said they wanted me to bear down on this and write the comprehensive story of Trump’s life of misogyny.

I went through his biographies and the women in his life one at a time, and put out feelers with them. Jill Harth was one of the first that I reached out to because she has this sexual assault case testimony out there, and she has never disavowed it, although she did drop the charges.

What sort of considerations or concerns do you have going into reporting a story like this, both for the sake of the subject and the story?

I wanted to talk to women that wanted to talk to me. Reporting out sexual assault cases is difficult enough when you have a woman who wants to tell you everything. To tell it with credibility, I needed a woman who wanted to talk to me on the record, with her name.

Woman get to choose what to do with their story, and if you engage them in a way that is sensitive to their lived experience, I think you do better than if you come at it trying to pry information out of every crevice that you possibly can. If you’re oblivious to those concerns, you’re not going to write the story well, and women are not going to want to work with you.

Do you worry that when you report a story like this your subject’s life is going to be picked apart in an attempt to discredit her?

I think it is absolutely par for the course with Trump. That is systematically what happened for every single woman I spoke with. It is a courageous thing to do this because you know that there is so much attached to it. With Trump, it’s not just character assassination, it might also be lawsuits.

Were you frustrated your story didn’t receive more attention?

Extremely frustrated. I think that a lot of reporters, a lot of places in journalism, are maddeningly tone deaf on this issue. I think there’s a dismissiveness, generally, that is upsetting.

I was also upset that, when the story came out, I received zero media requests about it. Even the radio segment that I was booked on didn’t really want to spend too much with me on it because it “hadn’t gotten traction,” as the host put it.

Why do you think people are willing to listen now in a way that they weren’t during the summer?

Because a man said it. Because Trump came out in leaked video and said, in so many words, that sexual assault is something that he does regularly. He was bragging about it on the record. And that is what it took.

It wasn’t any woman saying it; it was a powerful man running for president saying it that got people to take it seriously, which is remarkable. It’s the same thing that happened with Bill Cosby. When you had not just one woman accusing him of rape, you had many, many accusations out there. But it took a male comedian standing up on stage, and joking about it with other men, for people to get mad and take it seriously.

So what do we, as the media, need to do better to address these issues when they come up?

The first step is an awareness about what we’re doing. I think we have a tendency to think of sexual assault as “he said, she said,” and we throw up our hands. But, in fact, many times it’s not “he said, she said,” it’s “he said, and she said, and she said, and she said,” and we don’t hear it until the formula is “he said, he said.”

So just being aware that that is the formula for what our society needs to hear these stories is a good first step. I don’t have a prescription.

Is there anything else about this story that sticks with you?

I feel like part of what happened—and the women who came forward with their stories should be commended for this—is that hearing Trump define a story they knew in terms that didn’t resonate with their understanding of their own personal histories is why so many women came out now. In that tape that was leaked and in the debates, he was saying something that they felt to be in violation of their lived experience. There is this sort of narrative correcting where this powerful man said, “This is what happened,” and there’s a dozen women around the country saying, “Oh no, that is not what happened.”

It is exactly what happened with Jill Harth. She came to me and said, “I’m here because I am not a liar.” She had 20 years of this complicated relationship with him, and she had more or less settled things in her own mind until she saw him using his national platform to essentially impugn her integrity. Ivanka Trump went on air and said, “My dad is not a groper.” That, also, I think, really upset her because Ivanka was 10 years old when Jill Harth’s alleged assault took place.

The other thing, that can sound almost like a conspiracy theory, is that there is this kind of inside-the-beltway feeling—or there was earlier in the campaign—that we didn’t need to look into Trump’s personal history because he said so many outrageous things about women out loud, on the record. Why go behind the closed door if we can see, out in the open, that he is a misogynist?

You have two presidential nominees who are varying degrees of vulnerable on this front. Hillary Clinton, in as much as she can be implicated by Bill Clinton’s behavior through marriage—which is not the same as doing the behavior yourself—but is something that I think a lot of Democratic operatives didn’t want to see raised in the campaign for strategic reasons. [So] you have a reticence, on both sides of the political aisle, to look into personal stories of assault. The people who lose in that situation are assault survivors and victims everywhere.

What should we learn from this?

I think we should be really clear that what it took for these stories to be heard was Trump, essentially, admitting to every single one of them. There are three main patterns that we see now. We have two accounts of sexual assault; both of them are very similar and involve a tour of Mar-a-Largo and pushing the woman involved up against a wall. We have the kissing women on the lips as a form of introduction, two different reports of that in The New York Times. We have the barging into beauty contestants when they’re naked, sometimes teens. Every single one of those things we now have audio of him admitting to doing. I think it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.

Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.

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