For journalist Irin Carmon, the only way to survive is to stay nimble

The journalist who helped to expose Charlie Rose's long history of sexual harassment discusses #MeToo and the future of investigative reporting in Document's Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

Read the entire Breaking Points portfolio here. 

She was a journalist with feminist credentials before the advent of Jezebel, Gawker Media’s female-focused blog, which recruited her to join its writing staff when she was in her early twenties. She was part of the reporting team that broke one of the first major stories of sexual misconduct in the media industry, which collectively launched an international reckoning. Irin Carmon has been ahead of the curve for a long time—since elementary school, it turns out.

“I would spend a lot of time in my elementary school library reading biographies,” she recalls. “There were never enough biographies of women—I remember there was one of Julia Ward Howe and maybe one of Mary Todd Lincoln. I thought, ‘I’m kind of bored by reading stories of men’s lives.’”

Carmon had already made a name for herself in media by the time she broke the story of Charlie Rose’s alleged sexual misconduct in The Washington Post last November. After she left Jezebel, she was a staff writer for Salon and a reporter for MSNBC and NBC News covering gender, politics, and the law. This August, she joined New York Magazine as a senior correspondent. Along the way, she found time to co-write the 2015 New York Times bestseller Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, based on the Tumblr created by her co-author, Shana Knizhnik. The explosive interest in Justice Ginsburg, culminating in the runaway success of this summer’s documentary RBG? Carmon, who was featured in the documentary, was ahead of that curve, as well.

It’s perhaps a bit of poetic justice that her publisher, HarperCollins, released a young readers’ edition of Notorious RBG last fall. Now Justice Ginsburg and Carmon sit among the growing collection of biographies of women, written by women, on the shelves of elementary school libraries around the country.

Dan Gilmore: You’ve been covering gender, politics, and the law throughout your career. That kind of consistency can be rare among star reporters, where opportunities often dictate areas of coverage. I wanted to see how far back these interests dated for you, so I went back to The Harvard Crimson, where you were a staff writer. And there it all was: a story about the Illinois Senate race between Barack Obama and Alan Keyes, an interview with the late radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and even a 5,000-word feature about the Miss America pageant—it was still a pageant then—for the paper’s lifestyle supplement, Fifteen Minutes. You were still a teenager when you were writing some of these stories. When and how did these interests first develop for you?

Irin Carmon: I was lucky that I knew pretty early on what I wanted to do and that there were avenues for me to do it. I didn’t really know any journalists, but I had the feeling that I liked to write and that if you were a novelist, you really wouldn’t leave your house.

When I was 16, I cold-emailed a bunch of people who worked in media and asked them if I could spend Career Day with them. ‘Career Day’ did not really exist. I went to a small, private high school on Long Island, and I created Career Day in order to do this, because I wanted a summer job at a publication in New York City. So Career Day came to exist…

Dan: Wait—so you made Career Day happen so that you could do this? [Laughs]

Irin: Yeah. I was a very careerist teen. [Laughs] I sent a bunch of emails to everyone who had an email address on their website. I sent one to Ms., and they were the first people to get back to me. I was like, ‘You guys started Take Our Daughters to Work Day. How about taking me to work?’ They called me on my parents’ landline and invited me to spend the day there, and by the end of the day someone in the marketing department took me under their wing and said, ‘You should come back here this summer as an intern.’

So I did. Every day, I would take the Long Island Rail Road from my parents’ house and go downtown to Wall Street, and it was a kind of more formal education in feminism. It was certainly a time when the women who worked there were really cognizant of the fact that they were being accused of being out of touch with young people, so they tried to include me in conversations. After I started my senior year, Ms. had these message boards, which were sort of cult message boards, in retrospect—they had nothing to do with the magazine except that they were hosted on the magazine’s website. But I soaked up so much from them about contemporary feminism—probably more there than at the magazine.

The summer after that, I interned at The Village Voice—I met my editor through someone who had interned at Ms.—so by the time I came to Harvard, I had the unusual experience of having a lot of professional journalism experience, specifically at progressive, feminist publications.

Dan: I want to read you a quote from the Crimson, from an item you wrote about visiting the Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam’s Red Light District during a summer you spent in Europe writing for the travel guide series Let’s Go. ‘At the end of six weeks in Amsterdam, I’d hoped nothing would shock me—in fact, it was something of a goal. I had a sense that there was something inherently judgmental in shock at the spectrum of humanity. I’d decided that interest was a more appropriate stance—one that didn’t moralize and didn’t pretend to a categorical normality. It was a difficult line to walk, since I still felt there were many things reserved for outrage.’ In the 15 years that have passed since you wrote that story, has the list of things reserved for outrage changed for you?

Irin: I actually have thought recently about the content of that article, but I also had not really read it closely. It’s funny to hear one’s college prose.

My good friend Rebecca Traister has a book out in October called Good and Mad, and it’s about women’s anger. She actually uses my college experience in it as an example. One of the things she talks about is how I arrive at Harvard as a baby feminist, and I’m kind of surprised, because I’ve been in this lefty, East Village circle, and announcing you’re a feminist at Harvard is sort of like becoming an auto-pariah.

Dan: You’re not getting invited to [all-male] Final Clubs.

Irin: I mean, my freshman year, I refused to set foot in a Final Club.

Dan: Did that change for you, or was that consistent through college?

Irin: It was not consistent. In fact, I became less angry and more complicit as college went on. There was so much reward with going along. For example, there were so few places to socialize. It felt like all socializing was extremely fraught, and the most fraught was Final Clubs. But after a little while at Harvard, it also felt like there were lots of things to be angry about, but it almost seemed like that wouldn’t change anything, and you would make yourself miserable. So even though I never stopped being a feminist, I wasn’t really active in the way that I am now.

You know, the first thing that happened when we got to campus was 9/11. There was this atmosphere of terror. I think that with the circumstances of 9/11, followed by the Bush Administration, we emerged as a more compliant and institutionalist and terrified cohort as a result of all of those traumatic events. And that included feminist activism sort of being out of place. I just wanted to have fun, I wanted to go to parties, I had crushes on boys. I didn’t want everything to be so hard. But what Rebecca writes about is that recently, when Harvard started making moves against Final Clubs, restricting access to leadership positions to people who join them, someone emailed me from the Crimson and asked me to comment on it.

Dan: What did you say?

Irin: Basically I wrote in a nicer way, ‘I can’t believe I put up with this shit.’ You know? Good for the young people for being activists. We really thought we couldn’t do anything. So what Rebecca quotes me as saying is something like, ‘I didn’t even know I was allowed to be angry about this.’

Dan: I want to talk more about anger. By now, everyone is aware of the stories you reported for The Washington Post with Amy Brittain about the allegations of Charlie Rose’s sexual misconduct and CBS’s knowledge of that misconduct. You won a Mirror Award for your reporting, and in your acceptance speech you noted that seven years elapsed between when you first heard some of these allegations and when your story was published.

These stories are sensitive and can be incredibly emotional to report. How do you sustain yourself over the months and years that process can take? What is driving you?

Irin: For journalists, there end up being a lot of cold cases. There’s a lot of things that journalists know that they can’t report, because reporting has all kinds of rules of epistemology and showing your work. The story that I had seven years ago bore substantial resemblance to the story that ran, but I also don’t think that I had the capacity as a journalist then to fully report it, and I know for sure that the women weren’t ready to talk, which is why it didn’t run.

Part of what sustains the work is that you learn from what other people are doing. By the time I returned to the Charlie Rose piece, I had more role models for how to report on these stories in ways that were both rigorous and sensitive. For example, the Harvey Weinstein stories had run, and the Roy Moore story ran in The Washington Post.

I never forgot about it. The truth is, I really thought that somebody else was going to do it first. When I realized that nobody was, I thought, ‘I’m going to drop everything and see if The Washington Post wants it.’

Dan: When you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re approaching this really draining and tough work, what is motivating you? Because I think some people have this idea that certain journalists are out to make their career or take the bad guy down, and I don’t believe that’s actually what’s getting you to pick up the phone and make the next call and stay after it.

Irin: I think the motive is a duty to people who tell us their stories, some of whom may not even want their stories published.

To be honest, sometimes journalists do make their careers doing these stories—they get to stand onstage and give a speech and have their name above the fold in The Washington Post. There is a sort of glory that comes from being the person who tells it. But in the end, oftentimes people are left with their lives transformed in a negative way, and they have to fend for themselves. They didn’t ask to be the victim of whatever famous person.

For the Charlie Rose story, I was on the phone and Amy was on the phone. We were sometimes waking up at five in the morning and staying up until two in the morning on the phone with people. And we met up with people for hours and hours and hours. The level of trust that you need to build with someone for them to put themselves on the line, especially if they’re going to use their name—it’s a real human relationship. I think keeping people’s secrets for them—or telling their secrets for them—is a really sacred duty. Once somebody puts their story in your hands, you have a duty to be responsible with it.

Dan: You’ve been very clear that your reporting is not about retributive justice. You said in your acceptance speech, ‘I think there’s a temptation to think that the last few months have been about individual men—that it’s about a handful of bad apples, and that if we get rid of them it will end the cycle of harassment and abuse. But it’s not true. The stories that we’ve been doing are actually about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation. It has publicists. It has a perfectly reasonable explanation about what happened. It has powerful friends.’ The system you’re describing is one of protection. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the system is the blackout shade that allows this behavior to happen, unchecked. Tell me about taking on the system.

Irin: If a news organization is going to devote resources to reporting these stories, it usually means that that person you’re writing about is in a position of power and influence. The system involves weighing that man’s reputation—the editors are weighing it, the people that you’re interviewing are weighing it—and deciding whether they want to go up against that person’s power and prestige and whether they want to mark themselves as someone who betrayed ‘the code.’ It involves them having lawyers and publicists. It involves them having all their friends call people to try to talk them out of talking to reporters, to try to bully them and make threats, and in particular to try to smear the victims, which I have seen again and again.

Dan: I guess the reason I found that quote so powerful is because it seemed to me that you were saying, ‘Look, this is not about individual men—this is about putting a system on notice. So we are going to do those follow-up stories, and we will let people know that you protected these people. Do so at your own peril.’ It’s not about Charlie Rose—it is, but it’s also about how we stop this from happening, how we dismantle the machine. Is that accurate?

Irin: I think the machine is one in which there is a very disempowered young person who credibly believes that their professional future lies in the hands of this very, very powerful person, and that that person has carte blanche to do anything that they want, and that that person is presumed to be a genius, while everyone else is still trying to prove themselves.

Dan: There’s still so much mythology around that in the media industry, that hand in hand with being a ‘genius’ comes this sort of intractable behavior.

“The level of trust that you need to build with someone for them to put themselves on the line, especially if they’re going to use their name—it’s a real human relationship. I think keeping people’s secrets for them—or telling their secrets for them—is a sacred duty.”

Irin: It almost makes you seem like more of a genius, right? If you can get away with being a huge asshole to everyone, it must mean that you’re really good at your job. Or it’s like this fetishization of the bad boss as a rite of passage.

The system is also just that, in many of these stories, there are red flag after red flag after red flag—people going to authorities, going through processes and realizing that it doesn’t matter. So somebody gets reassigned, you know? Every story I read is so strikingly similar. If somebody does report, then it ends up being managed around: ‘Oh, we just won’t have any female assistants,’ or ‘Just don’t have him around good-looking boys.’ The world is kind of like water sloshing around this person—like everyone has to move rather than this person changing or feeling any kind of consequence for their actions. Any time a system implicitly tells you that the work of largely men is far more valuable than women’s, or there aren’t many women in positions of authority, or there’s impunity for certain people and not others, those are all places where harassment festers.

Dan: What does it look like after the dust settles? If you could create a new system, what would it look like? You mentioned women in power. Is that high on the list?

Irin: Of course. Look, I think there are places where abuse persisted where there have been women in power, but I think that there needs to be a critical mass of women in power—not, like, one who owes her career to a man. There need to be several who can disagree with each other. And there certainly need to be people of color—multiple, a critical mass, and not in a tokenist way. And I think we need to have less hierarchical structures. We need to have power less concentrated, because concentrated power gets abused. It’s pretty simple.

We also need to have processes that are truly accountable, where people feel like there are actual consequences if something is adjudicated and it’s found to be credible, not just a slap on the wrist.

I’ve learned a lot from people who do restorative and transformative justice, and that’s not necessarily right for everyone, but it’s certainly worth considering. It’s not just about retribution, it’s about figuring out how to heal a community and how to keep someone accountable not just once, but to continue to have a conversation about how we reward toxic masculinity and police men who show anything other. A real systemic change would include people modeling ways to be a man in the world that does not involve dominating others. That gives men the freedom to express a fuller range of being.

Dan: What about your own professional experiences? Are you satisfied with the number of women in leadership positions, or have you noticed the same paucity of women or people of color?

Irin: Well, there’s definitely not enough people of color in the journalism industry. That’s the most glaring problem. There are some places where I’ve worked that have a lot of women, but they do not have racial diversity. I think every organization needs to look at itself and think who is not at the table, because it’s making the journalism worse.

“We also need to have processes that are truly accountable, where people feel like there are actual consequences if something is adjudicated and it’s found to be credible, not just a slap on the wrist.”

Dan: You thanked your fellow nominees at the Mirror Awards for, as you’ve just spoken about, all the ways they taught you and led the way in terms of how to report these kinds of stories. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is learning to report today. Young reporters are coming up in very different ways than historically was the case. With the closure of local newspapers, the farm-league model has changed a lot. What I’ve witnessed is a lot of young people who are very comfortable with speed, very comfortable with turning things around quickly, but not so comfortable with picking up the phone. And on the other end of things, we’re living through an era of buyouts and layoffs, when every week, decades and decades of wisdom and experience are being shown the door. In one day in February at Vanity Fair, six staff members were let go. I did the math today: They had roughly 150 years of experience at the magazine between them.

Irin: Wow.

Dan: Budgets are squeezed, and experience is expensive. How do young reporters coming up today learn how to do this job correctly?

Irin: It’s an enormous worry. I wonder about all the lost experience and institutional memory. I worry about it a lot. I worry about a long-term future in this industry.

Dan: For yourself or in general?

Irin: I have been lucky. I am somewhere between those experienced people and the people who are just getting started. So in reality, there has been a lot of opportunity for me.

I do think that journalism is continually reinventing itself. I think it’s very precarious, but I also think that each time it seems like we’re at the brink, something comes through, like Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post.

There are also amazing non-profit journalism operations happening, like ProPublica and Chalkbeat, and they’re hiring young people all the time. But I would have no idea how to advise a young person starting out right now, except to say that you have to be so versatile.

Dan: That’s exactly the thing. We’re expecting these kids to come in and do everything—like, everything. I think there’s been this slow death of specialization and it just becomes about, like, 9,000 generalists who are supremely versatile but lack expertise.

Irin: But then there’s also a lot of these specialized reporting outlets, like The Trace, which is just about gun violence, or The Marshall Project, which is just about criminal justice, or Chalkbeat, which is just about education.

Dan: Right.

Irin: In some ways, I think that there’s a lot of niche stuff happening right now. I feel my career has benefited from the fact that there’s a desire for stories about women’s lives and politics and the law. Fifty-one percent of the population is not necessarily a niche, but this didn’t used to be a job, and now a lot of people have a job like this. So from where I’m sitting, I’ve been really lucky. I have no idea where it’s going. But I think the only way to survive is to be nimble—and for people who care about journalism to pay for it.

This article originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

Hair Jimmy Paul at Susan Price Agency. Make Up Francelle Daly at Art+Commerce. Lighting Technician Romain Dubus. Digital Technician Henri Coutant. Photo Assistant Gaspar Dietrich. Make Up Assistant Jessica Lundgren. Production One Thirty-Eight Productions. Set Design Piers Hanmer at Art+Commerce.