I 'm not the story," Emily Steel insists. It's Monday morning and the 33-year-old reporter is sitting near her desk at the New York Times, taking a break from her regular media-business writing to give an interview herself. She is petite, with a soft high-pitched voice, in pearl earrings and a pussy-bow blouse—exactly the kind of woman that a man like Bill O'Reilly might underestimate.
Three weeks ago, the Fox News figurehead was the most visible face of the President's favorite network. Until Steel and her Times colleague Michael S. Schmidt published an explosive investigation into repeated settlements involving allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior. They found that O'Reilly had settled with at least five accusers over the last 15 years, to the tune of $13 million. (O'Reilly denies any wrongdoing.) Within days of their report, over 50 advertisers publicly dropped his show. Now, of course, he's out of a job.
It was a full-circle moment for Steel, who was threatened by O'Reilly two years ago. She'd been reporting on his exaggerated claims about covering the Falklands War in the 1980s (he had actually covered protests more than 1,000 miles away, in Buenos Aires). "I am coming after you with everything I have," O'Reilly said in an on-the-record phone call to Steel. "You can take it as a threat."
That didn't stop her. And when Steel's editor at the Times urged her and her colleagues to keep looking into Fox News after the sexual-harassment scandal and resulting termination of CEO Roger Ailes last year, she didn't back down. "I'm not a vengeful person," she's careful to clarify. "We did not do this story to be vindictive, or even to take him down. That wasn't our purpose. Our purpose was to tell these women's stories, to expose his history, and to show how the company had protected him."
Steel and Schmidt had to put in six months of legwork in order to find those stories. "We made so many calls, trying to figure out everybody we could talk to at Fox News at the time," she says. The most high-profile of O'Reilly's alleged victims was Andrea Mackris, an associate producer at Fox News who filed suit against him in 2004 armed with recordings of the calls he'd made to her in which he discussed his sex life in lurid detail. O'Reilly settled with Mackris for $9 million. "We called everyone who worked on the show at the time, who knew her, who had gone to college with her, who might have been her friend," Steel says. The aim was to unpack the Mackris case, to see how much other employees knew and what the public never got to hear.
"We just kept digging and digging and digging," Steel says. The result? Those five now-famous settlements.
The reporting process underscored how difficult victims of sexual harassment still have it in this country—fears of legal retaliation, career suicide, and having to relive their experiences prevented many women from wanting to speak out. "The message I was trying to send was that we needed people to talk," Steel says. "This is an important story to tell, and in order to tell it we needed sources and we needed to see documents. We needed to be able to back it up. We knew that Fox and O'Reilly would really fight back, so it needed to be as strong and as solid as possible."
In her more defeated moments, Steel found inspiration—in an instance of life imitating art imitating life—in the movie Spotlight. "I would listen to what Rachel McAdams would say. She would say things like, 'The words are really important.' And when we're telling these stories, the details are really specific," she says. She tried mimicking McAdams' character, Sacha Pfeiffer of the Boston Globe. "I'd say to sources, 'I know it's hard and I know it's scary, but we need to know. We need to know.'"
Steel put in the time to get those sources to trust her. "I think my editors thought I was crazy because I would spend two or three hours on the phone at a time, just to make people feel comfortable and get them to talk. But that's what it took," she says. "When you're talking about something that's so sensitive like sexual harassment, you can't just call somebody up and say, 'What happened to you?' You need to make them feel comfortable."
Her biggest get was Wendy Walsh, a regular O'Reilly Factor guest who says she was propositioned by O'Reilly in 2013 and penalized when she rebuffed him. "I thought she was so important because she could go on the record, since she didn't have a settlement and wasn't silenced by it," Steel says. (Other women who had previously alleged abuse against O'Reilly were unable to share their stories as a condition of their settlements.)
"Walsh was like, 'No no no, I really don't want to.' Then, when I offered to come see her in person in Los Angeles, she said, 'I have a Pilates class that morning, I really won't be able to see you.' So I said, 'Okay, I'll come and take it!'" Steel flew across the country and plopped down on a Pilates reformer machine next to Walsh. "We got breakfast afterwards, and she decided to come forward and to go on the record."
Steel committed to this kind of intense, all-or-nothing career a long time ago. For years, her mother saved the ecstatic voicemail Steel left when she learned she'd landed a role at the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at her alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
All it took to set her on the path was one story. During her senior year of high school, Steel wrote a piece for the school's paper in the wake of 9/11 about things students could still feel happy about and grateful for. A janitor stopped her in the hall to comment on it. "He said, 'Are you the one who wrote this? It really brightened up my life and just made me so happy.' He put it on the wall in his office," Steel recalls. "I just realized there's so much power in the written word. All of those fundamentals of journalism—of holding people in power accountable, and giving a voice to people who need one, and shining light on the dark places—there's a real power in that. Ever since then, that's all I've wanted to do."
The media landscape has, of course, shifted drastically since then. A cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump rests against a window in the New York Times building, as if he didn't already loom large at the institution. But Steel finds the present a "really invigorating" time to work in journalism.
"It's given people a sense of purpose of why we're doing the work that we do," she says.
The relatively quick ousting of O'Reilly is an important sign of evolving attitudes, she thinks, reflecting back on his threatening phone call to her in 2015. "It does show how he treats people, and how he used his position of power, and maybe even how he treated young women," she says of their interaction. "I feel like when this story broke, and Trump defended him soon after, there were a lot of women, and men too, who said, 'No. This isn't how we treat women. And we're not going to stand for it.'"
Then Steel sits down at her desk, and gets back to work.
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