On the night of Oct. 4, 2017, reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey huddled with their editor, Rebecca Corbett ’74. At 1 a.m., Kantor and Twohey finally went home, leaving Corbett in their nondescript corner of the Times’ third-floor newsroom.
Corbett stayed all night, her critical eye fixed yet again on the Times’ reporting of women saying publicly that movie producer Weinstein sexually harassed and intimidated them. The words scrolled past her on the computer screen as she parsed the story yet again. Corbett did not yet know, nor did she imagine in those pre-dawn hours, the tsunami the Weinstein stories would prompt, ultimately sparking a global movement of women who declared #MeToo.
At 7 a.m. Corbett returned to her room at a nearby Hampton Inn (she commutes to New York from her home in Baltimore), showered, and changed before heading back to the newsroom. With other editors and reporters, she continued to make adjustments to the story. At midday, the Weinstein team’s response to the allegations came in via email, just minutes after the deadline set by the Times. Activity in the newsroom kicked into overdrive.
“They were on the phone saying, ‘Okay, we’re sending it right now,’” Corbett said. “And so we’re all standing there speed-reading the multiple statements. I’m dictating to the copy editor, ‘Let’s put this in here. … We need to summarize this.’ And then we’re all collectively tweaking.”
And then, five months after the Weinstein investigation began, Corbett, her team, and the Times’ highest-ranking editors hunched over a computer screen as the button was pushed. The first Weinstein story was published.
Five months after the Weinstein investigation began, Corbett, her team, and the Times’ highest-ranking editors hunched over a computer screen as the button was pushed.
A Calling First Heard on Mayflower Hill
What followed was a culture-shaking cascade of new, on-the-record allegations from film stars and others that spread from industry to industry and around the world.
“The Weinstein story was a great investigative story that arrived at a moment when the country was anxious to have a certain kind of debate and discussion, and it kicked off that debate and discussion,” said Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “It helped that it was unassailable, completely accurate, and bulletproof.”
One of the key reasons for that was Corbett, assistant managing editor at the New York Times, who is charged with leading the paper’s investigations desk. Operating behind the scenes by choice, Corbett is lauded by loyal reporters and admiring editors for being thoughtful, demanding, meticulous, and tireless—and a critical figure at the highest level of journalism.
“If you look on the court and you’re down by a few points and Steph Curry has the ball, you feel a little better about things,” said Baquet, referring to the NBA superstar. “She’s my Steph Curry.”
Megan Twohey, reporter for the New York Times Harvey Weinstein investigations
Corbett’s behind-the-scenes role includes functioning as an in-house critic for Baquet, the top Times editor, who solicits her views on stories she isn’t editing, how other departments are working, and how the Times is faring overall as a news organization, he said.
Her guidance has shaped some of the most important stories of past decades. “If you stacked up all the big stories and big projects that she has sometimes conceived, but also nurtured and seen through to publication, it is a huge stack,” said New York Times investigative reporter Scott Shane. “And you can pull any story out of that stack and it will be an extremely impressive story.”
Said Twohey, “I’ve been a journalist for twenty years, and she is hands-down the most impressive, engaged editor I’ve ever worked with.”
The Times’ Weinstein investigation won journalism’s highest accolade, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, on April 16. But while it has gained the most widespread recognition, it’s not the first of Corbett’s projects that have won Pulitzers and other awards. With Corbett’s guidance, teams helped reveal secret surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency in 2005. A decade later, through documents leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the Times revealed that the NSA was monitoring Americans’ international Internet traffic without warrants or public notice.
This level of achievement has gone on for decades. At the Baltimore Sun, where she worked before moving to the Times, Corbett oversaw multiple award-winning projects, from investigation of what the secretive NSA actually does (1995), to a series about workers who dismember ships under dangerous conditions (1997), to stories about the death of a toddler from dehydration while she was being treated in a high-tech Baltimore hospital (2003).
But the nature of an editor’s work and Corbett’s personal humility mean that her name, while prominent on newspapers’ mastheads, has rarely been associated with the award-winning journalism she’s overseen—at least in public.
“Some TV network or NPR wants to interview you about the story,” Shane said, “and somewhere in the recesses of your tiny little reporter’s heart, you know that you wouldn’t be getting any of this attention if not for Rebecca Corbett’s work on the story.”
Leading investigations requires a special collection of skills, said Baquet, who worked with Corbett for several years when he was Times Washington bureau chief. Corbett, he said, must be “part editor, part journalist, part shrink,” he said, “a sympathetic figure but then also deadline enforcer. … She is particularly strong in all those areas.”
Long known in the business as one of the finest enterprise editors in the country, Corbett and her reporters are a reassuring presence when a news organization is about to embark on a dicey investigative story, Baquet said. “It automatically takes one issue off the table,” he said. “You know the story is going to be right. You know the story is going to be thoroughly reported and wonderfully edited.”
Despite this crucial role in some of the most important stories of our time, Corbett plies her craft hidden from public view. But that shunning of the spotlight doesn’t detract from her push for the highest journalism standards and her willingness to stand up with steely resolve to those who want to derail that work.
That dedication creates a special esprit de corps with her reporters, said Times Deputy Managing Editor Matthew Purdy. They know that whatever extra effort is asked of them, Corbett is working even harder.
“Because she’s a modest personality, it’s easy to miss the scale of her journalistic ambition,” Kantor said. “It’s not personal ambition for herself. Her true belief is that journalists can confront the powerful and can change society. That is at her core.”
That belief has been at her core for many years. Corbett arrived at Colby intending to study science, but fell into the sway of literature, captivated by what she refers to as “the power of words.”
As an editor for the Colby Echo, Corbett wrote about a variety of topics, from the cost of living off campus to the implementation of Title IX and college athletics directors’ resistance to government-dictated equality for women in sports.
Jodi Kantor, reporter on the New York Times Harvey Weinstein investigations
After graduation, Corbett was hired as assistant state editor at the Waterville Morning Sentinel. Part of her job was managing freelance correspondents who usually were responsible for news coverage in their rural hometowns. One of those correspondents was Stephen Collins ’74, who was recruited by his classmate to cover the town of Oakland.
Collins said his introduction to Rebecca Corbett’s journalism standards came after he filed what he thought was a routine story about a meeting of the town council.
“At eleven o’clock at night, I got a phone call from Rebecca, who says, ‘I have a question about your copy. I don’t understand this.’” Collins would need additional information to clarify. “I say, ‘Well, all those guys have gone to bed by now.’ She says, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter. Call up the chairman of the town council and wake him up and clarify this. We need to get it right.’”
Recalling those formative years in Waterville, Corbett said they taught her a valuable lesson—that stories have an impact on real people. “It’s more than being accurate,” Corbett said. “It’s understanding the big picture as well as the facts that you’re putting into stories.”
In her more than 20 years at the Baltimore Sun and her subsequent tenure at the Times, that need for perspective has been religiously passed on to reporters. Stories that are merely factual are not necessarily good stories, or certainly not as good as they can be. Reporters who have worked with Corbett at both newspapers say she consistently pushes for stories to probe deeper and wider, to convey the truth about the subject.
Times investigations reporter Catrin Einhorn recalls a story she wrote with Kantor about the experiences of Syrian refugee families in Canada. The pair were particularly pleased with one installment and expected straightforward approval from Corbett.
“She sent us right back into the copy. … She asked us for a whole other level of depth to the story,” Einhorn said.
Corbett’s reporters take a deep breath and go back to the story, revisit sources, and find new ones, because they know the story that emerges will be much stronger with each iteration.
Kudos for Rebecca Corbett from ex-reporter David Simon, creator of The Wire
Stretching David Simon
“If you’re going to work with Rebecca you just have to have a shared credo with her that you’re willing to rewrite a certain section of the story seventeen times, thirty-one times, thirty-nine times,” Kantor said. “You just have to have a real commitment to revision. If you’re not willing to do that, I don’t think the relationship would work out.”
It is a close relationship, reporters and editors say. Times Deputy Managing Editor Matthew Purdy said Corbett “is incredibly dedicated, sometimes to a fault, in terms of her work ethic.” That dedication creates a special esprit de corps with her reporters, he said. They know that whatever extra effort is asked of them, Corbett is working even harder.
Catrin Einhorn, New York Times investigations reporter
Reporters say they receive emails and edits from Corbett 24-7. (One member of the investigations team confided that Corbett is known for having story-related epiphanies in the shower.) She works with reporters as a project is conceptualized and explored, discusses sources and their motivations, even the best way to approach someone, from email to “door knock.”
“She’s an editor who becomes a partner on stories that she’s involved with, while also remaining this incredible critical eye on the story itself,” Purdy said, noting that even with a big-picture perspective, Corbett also scrutinizes the text closely, multiple times. “Every sentence matters, every fact matters,” Purdy said. “You’ve got to get it right.”
A former investigative reporter who also oversees Times‘ investigations, Purdy said Corbett’s skill and experience are what makes a story thorough and accurate enough to withstand pressure or blowback from subjects, balancing the need to be aggressive and accurate and fair.
That blowback can be considerable. Susan Chira, former deputy executive editor at the Times who now writes about gender issues for the newspaper, was foreign editor when she took part in discussions with Corbett and other editors about reporting based on material from WikiLeaks, stories that were strongly resisted by the U.S. government. “She just has an incredibly great backbone when it comes to what you need to do to pursue a story,” Chira said. “No one intimidates her.”
Not Harvey Weinstein or his lawyers. Not the National Security Agency.
In 2013 Shane’s reporting on the scope of the NSA’s surveillance operations and techniques, based on documents supplied by Edward Snowden, brought him—with Corbett, his editor—face to face with NSA officials at their Maryland headquarters.
In a draft of the story written in close collaboration with Corbett, Shane included 30 operational details. He informed the security agency, and they responded that the 30 items were taken from stolen classified documents and the Times should not include any of them. “We said, ‘If we were to use some of them or all of them, could you rank them in some way? Which are the ones you really don’t want us to use and explain why.’”
With Corbett involved in negotiations, the NSA ultimately selected seven that should be withheld and the Times ultimately struck only two from the story, agreeing that to publish them would not be in the national interest, Shane said. “In private, she’s very self-deprecating and quite funny,” he said, “In that kind of situation, she’s very professional. She doesn’t give any ground. But she can also be quite charming to these grizzled male national security bureaucrats. You get the feeling that they are the ones who are intimidated.”
Operating behind the scenes by choice, Corbett is lauded by loyal reporters and admiring editors for being thoughtful, demanding, meticulous, and tireless.
Dispatched to Kabul
Gabriel Dance, Times deputy investigations editor, was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize with the Guardian for its coverage of NSA surveillance, and has done extensive and impactful reporting on the criminal justice system. Even with that background, Dance said he watches Corbett at work and soaks up her wisdom.
“Rebecca has done extremely important stories, difficult stories—hard to report, hard to write, hard to tell—for years,” Dance said. “She’s faced down people in D.C. She’s faced down people in Hollywood. She’s faced down people in New York.”
Scott Shane, national security reporter for New York Times
Sexual harassment settlements by political commentator Bill O’Reilly, reported earlier by the Times, had prompted the investigations team to wonder where else these sorts of transactions had occurred. “Are there other powerful men who may have done analogous things and also had settlements with women or had a history that had not been exposed?” Corbett said.
Aware of previous attempts by journalists to look into Weinstein’s history, the investigations desk had been asking questions about the film producer since the previous spring, Corbett said.
“It takes an extraordinary amount of diligence and creativity to do it correctly,” said David Simon, who worked as a reporter for Corbett at the Baltimore Sun before going on to create the The Wire for HBO. (See sidebar) The Weinstein story, Simon said, “was tailor-made for Rebecca.”
Kantor and Twohey spent months reporting the Weinstein sexual harassment story full time, conferring with their editor about their findings as the story progressed. The challenge in complex stories like these, Corbett said, is not only to have sources speak on the record, but also for reporters to be able to buttress any allegation with corroboration.
“A lot of things happened in a room between just two people,” she said. “But often we found that in real time they had told someone—a manager, a spouse—and in every case we ran those down. There were some things that may have well been true, but where we could not corroborate any of it, we didn’t use them.”
Those corroborated allegations were presented to Weinstein’s representatives, along with a deadline for his response. On Oct. 5, that response was inserted in the story, including the blanket statement that Weinstein “denies many of the accusations as patently false.” The day the first story was published, Weinstein sent a statement apologizing for his behavior, which, he acknowledged, “has caused a lot of pain.” He was subsequently fired from the company he co-founded.
Corbett said Weinstein has threatened to sue the newspaper but has not done so, nor has the newspaper had to make any corrections relating to the allegations in the Weinstein stories. The product of months of painstaking reporting, writing, editing, rewriting, and careful deliberation, all with Corbett’s firm guidance, the stories have thus far proved to be, in newspaper parlance, “bulletproof.”
And incendiary, igniting what had been a simmering movement.
While the Weinstein investigation has gained the most widespread recognition, it’s not the first of Corbett projects that have won Pulitzers and other awards.
Less than two weeks after the first Weinstein story was published, there had been more than 12 million posts on Facebook referencing “Me Too,” the movement that had been simmering since it was started by activist Tarana Burke in 2007. After the Weinstein story broke, the hashtag was tweeted almost a million times in just 48 hours on Twitter, and the movement and conversation spread to 85 countries.
Corbett said she thought the Weinstein reporting would result in “a big Hollywood story.” She didn’t anticipate that it would trigger a worldwide wave of allegations, admissions, toppling of powerful men, and new and intense focus on an age-old societal problem. “People talk about this as a generational shifting, one of the biggest impact stories in a long time,” she said. “I think it clearly still is resonating.”
The resulting discussion has people asking how to appropriately deal with sexual harassment, with some calling for sweeping cultural change and others maintaining the #MeToo movement and its outing of alleged harassers has gone too far. “There’s clearly this incredible ferment,” Corbett said of the ongoing debate. “And I hardly think we’re at the end of it.” But she questions whether the culture actually has changed in regards to sexual harassment, even with the consciousness triggered by Weinstein’s downfall.
“There are a lot of systemic reasons that sexual harassment has persisted in the workplace as long as it has,” Corbett said. “That is one of the questions we intend to pursue. What really will be the consequence of this? Will change happen? How does it happen? How do you change attitudes? How do you transform a culture?”
Sitting in an empty space on an upper floor of the Times building, with Manhattan rooftops stretching into the distance, she spoke quietly and matter-of-factly about what many would say is the pinnacle, to date, of her career.
Her response to what has been seen as culture-shifting journalism was hardly lofty self-congratulation. “If something good comes out of this for ordinary people eventually, that would feel very rewarding,” she said.
Back in their third-floor alcove, investigative reporters were working, some on the phone, others conferring quietly. The search for answers continued. “The Weinstein story was just one stop along the way in working with Rebecca,” Twohey said. “We get to continue on this exciting and satisfying journalism ride with her. We’ll take it for however long it lasts.”