How a Crowdsourced List Set Off a #MeToo Debate
Posted February 2, 2018 11:21 p.m. EST
On the morning of Oct. 11, a week after The New York Times exposed Harvey Weinstein’s systematic harassment and assault of women in Hollywood, a 28-year-old writer, Moira Donegan, created a Google spreadsheet before heading to her job as an assistant editor at The New Republic. The purpose of the anonymous document was to name names, specifically, the names of men in the media industry described by female colleagues as sexists, sexual harassers and rapists.
The spreadsheet, which captured the ideals of what would soon grow into the #MeToo movement, had almost immediate real-world effects. It caused prominent men to lose their jobs and disrupted the lives of lesser-known journalists. Four months after it was created, it remains a subject of intense debate.
“When I made the document, I really wanted it to be accessible to women who would otherwise not be a part of whisper networks,” Donegan said in an interview. “So, women who don’t happen to have the friends who know about their new boss, or the woman who doesn’t have the professional cache to have been told already, ‘Oh, that editor — don’t work with him.'”
Donegan gave the spreadsheet the title Shitty Media Men and added a disclaimer, in bold red letters: “This document is only a collection of misconduct rumors and allegations. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.” Nearby, in green lettering, was a note that read, in part: “Please never name an accuser, and please never share this document with a man.”
Women in the industry started to share the link to the document, which allowed them to view and edit it anonymously. That day, while Donegan was at work, she noticed flurries of activity. By the time she arrived at a friend’s apartment that night for a planned dinner, she was in a panic.
“I was a wreck,” she said.
Still, she hesitated when her friend suggested she take the document down.
“I felt really conflicted, because I could see what was going on that spreadsheet was incredibly valuable to the people who were using it,” Donegan said.
She finally decided to take the document down about 12 hours after she had created it but only after getting a text message that BuzzFeed was planning to post an article about it.
By then, the list had grown to include the names of more than 70 men, along with thumbnail descriptions of their alleged misconduct. The names of 14 men accused of “physical sexual violence by multiple women” were highlighted in red, to distinguish them from men who were said to have committed lesser offenses like flirting aggressively or sending inappropriate direct messages to women on Twitter.
Although the spreadsheet was no longer live, it was not gone. Recipients had downloaded it in the form of PDFs or had taken screenshots of it, and it lived on through forwarded emails.
The BuzzFeed article, which did not identify Donegan as the document’s creator, was posted the morning after she made the list inactive. The article, written by Doree Shafrir, explained how the spreadsheet worked, described the range of claims it included and noted the potential pitfalls of “lumping all of this behavior together in a big anonymous spreadsheet of unsubstantiated allegations against dozens of named men — who were not given the chance to respond.”
Believers in the spreadsheet’s mission kicked off months of “media men"-related debate on social media by attacking Shafrir for writing an article that, in their view, was not sufficiently supportive of women working in journalism. She countered with a message on Twitter that accused the list’s makers of having deleted the name of someone who had behaved inappropriately toward her. “How is that solidarity?” Shafrir wrote.
In The Washington Post on Oct. 12, opinion columnist Molly Roberts argued that BuzzFeed had been irresponsible in publishing the article, partly because the spreadsheet “was not supposed to be distributed to employers so they could summarily fire anyone who appeared on it. No such thing would ever happen anyway.”
But media organizations like BuzzFeed, Mother Jones, The New York Times and Riverhead Books — each of which had more than one current or former employee named on the list — started investigations soon after becoming aware of it.
Of the men named on the list, seven ended up losing their jobs or having significant professional setbacks before the year was out. (Others who lost jobs after complaints of inappropriate workplace behavior — including Michael Oreskes of National Public Radio, a former reporter and editor at The Times, and Mike Germano of Vice Media, to name two — were not named on the list and became subjects of company investigations after allegations against them appeared in The Times, The Post and other publications.) GQ political correspondent Rupert Myers was the first man identified on the list to lose his job, about a week after the spreadsheet went live. Five days later, Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor at The New Republic, apologized for his “offenses against some of my colleagues in the past,” and a new magazine he was editing under the auspices of the Emerson Collective, an organization run by Laurene Powell Jobs, was canceled. Soon afterward, the list claimed another New Republic figure, the magazine’s president and publisher, Hamilton Fish, who resigned Nov. 3.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, informed the magazine’s board that he had been named. After an investigation conducted by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, he resigned Dec. 6. The next week, The New Yorker said it had parted ways with its Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza. (CNN put Lizza on leave from his job there as a commentator, reinstating him the next month, after a company investigation “found no reason” to keep him off the air.)
The list was still having an impact in late December, when BuzzFeed fired Adrian Carrasquillo, a White House correspondent, and the National Geographic did the same with photojournalist Patrick Witty (who has also worked for The Times).
Witty, in a written statement, denied the accusations against him, although he acknowledged that he might have acted inappropriately. “I am saddened to think that I in any way have contributed to or reinforced the imbalance of power between men and women in my industry,” he said.
The rest of those named on the list who lost jobs declined to comment.
Some of the men whose names appeared on the document but did not end up suspended or fired said the list had less affected their professional and personal lives.
“It’s so naive to think that just because no one has spoken out, that means that there aren’t any false accusations,” said a man who agreed to discuss the document only if his name was not used, because he did not want to draw further attention to his appearance on the list. “It just means that the men that have been falsely accused are petrified.”
Donegan said she was not aware of any false accusations and believed that the document’s disclaimer was sufficient in expressing reasonable doubt.
On the surface, the list did not to raise any legal issues, according to David A. Schulz, a First Amendment lawyer who is a lecturer at Yale Law School and has represented The Times. Donegan, he said, “has a right to collect information and organize it in a useful way.” Those who contributed to the document would be at risk only if someone named on the list sued for libel, he added.
“The question is if there is specific information that shouldn’t be in there and is false, in which case there may be liability against certain people for certain things,” Schulz said.
As the list gave rise to a steady stream of essays and social-media arguments, Donegan was lying low, worried, she said, that she would be identified as the document’s creator on someone else’s terms. She tried to distract herself by working on writing projects, including an essay detailing why she had started the list in the first place.
Early in January, a fact checker at Harper’s Magazine contacted Donegan by email, saying that journalist Katie Roiphe was interested in naming her “as a woman widely believed” to be a creator of the spreadsheet in an upcoming article. Word spread about the fact checker’s inquiry when Dayna Tortorici, editor of the Brooklyn literary magazine n+1, wrote on Twitter that “a legacy print magazine is planning to publish a piece ‘outing’ the woman.” As part of a pre-emptive Twitter campaign against the Harper’s article, writer Roxane Gay argued that the public identification of those behind the list “would risk these women’s lives.” Others expressed a fear that the list’s creator could be a target for “doxxing”: having her personal information, like her address, maliciously publicized online without her consent.
Donegan kept working on the essay in which she would reveal herself as the document’s creator.
“All of this attention being paid to the question of my identity made it seem inevitable that my identity was going to be revealed, maybe even sooner than when the Harper’s piece was published,” she said. “So I was really racing against the clock to get a lot of factors in place.”
New York magazine’s The Cut published Donegan’s essay Jan. 10. In it, she wrote that she was proud of her work, while acknowledging the flaws pointed out by critics of the list.
“I can’t pretend that the spreadsheet didn’t frighten me,” she wrote. “As the stories accumulated and it became clear that many, many more women were using the document than I had ever imagined, I realized that I had created something that had grown rapidly beyond my control.”
Donegan said that before going public, she had taken steps to protect her own digital security as well her family’s. She declined to comment on whether any of the men on the list had contacted her. The debate flared up again after her essay was published, with New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan likening the spreadsheet’s creation to an act of McCarthyism. In a piece for Shondaland.com, a website founded by television producer Shonda Rhimes, Glynnis MacNicol wrote that the list had forced her to reconsider uncomfortable experiences with men that she had endured almost unthinkingly throughout her media career. “By tolerating and surviving and succeeding, had I also been complicit?” she wrote. “I felt like I’d woken up and found myself on the wrong team. It was not pleasant.”
Author and former Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum called the list “an ethical and legal morass” in a Twitter post Jan. 10, but she said in a more recent interview that a generational divide might figure in perceptions of Donegan’s work. “I was opposed to it and appalled,” said Daum, 47. “But at the same time, I think there’s a level where it’s none of my business. Maybe it’s time for Gen-Xers and baby boomers to step aside and let the younger generation sort out their own rules.”
After months of debate, Donegan has not wavered. “What it was motivated by was a desire to make the world a little more fair and to even the playing field for women who are especially vulnerable,” she said.
Like so many big ideas, Donegan’s spreadsheet has given way to sequels. An anonymously created email list called CanLit Janitors started circulating in October to alert women in the Canadian literary community to male writers and editors who were said to have behaved inappropriately. And an anonymous spreadsheet called TV Writers Salary began making the online rounds in January with the aim of exposing the differences in pay between men and women in the television business.