Chasing down the story

by Divya Murthy

May 10, 2018

The New York Times reporters who broke the Louis C.K. story discuss the process of uncovering allegations and creating an airtight article

image of panel discussion
Goldring Arts Journalism program director Eric Grode moderates a panel with Stephanie Goodman, Melena Ryzik and Cara Buckley Saniya More

“I’m just here to tell whatever story I am able to tell,” New York Times reporter Melena Ryzik said. Ryzik was part of a team of reporters who broke the story about comedian Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct.

Ryzik, fellow New York Times reporter Cara Buckley and editor Stephanie Goodman visited Newhouse April 10 to discuss the reporting, process and occasional backlash involved in investigative journalism in a conversation moderated by Eric Grode, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program.

After The New York Times broke the story about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, which caused the #MeToo movement to go viral last fall, comediennes Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov approached Ryzik, Buckley and fellow New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor with allegations against Louis C.K. Though the rumors about the comedian had been circulating for years, what turned this into a story for the Times was the willingness of the victims to go on the record, Buckley said.

“They felt that with all the #MeToo stuff happening, the story might come out regardless of whether they wanted it to or not and they trusted us with the story,” Buckley said. “We began, then, just mapping out everyone else we should possibly approach.”

These kinds of incidents are never isolated, according to Goodwin, so the reporters chased down every tip, asked their colleagues for suggestions and talked to C.K.’s comedian colleagues. It was a seven-day-a-week job, Ryzik said.

To keep the story indisputable, the team first spoke with their sources and then reached out to secondary sources to corroborate the details. They checked for emails, texts, Facebook exchanges and conversations with other people that supported the allegations.

“Certainly a few people were so impacted they told at least one person,” Buckley said. “We had to vet it with people who could say yes, this is correct, and have some written back up of communication.”

Corroboration is an important standard at the Times; Ryzik said a few stories about C.K. from other women didn’t meet that standard and were left out of the story. The reporters were also transparent with their sources and told them step-by-step what would occur in the publishing process.

“How to speak to the women is most important,” Buckley added. “How to give them assurance, space to back out if they want, but make sure they know it’s a process. These are vulnerable people who are victims.”

The reporters reached out to C.K., but his publicist declined to comment on the record, Buckley said, so in a strategy called a “tick tock” they sent their questions electronically and gave C.K., his manager and his lawyer 30 hours to respond.

“The reason we have that tick tock is that we tell the subject the names of the women,” Ryzik said. “We wanted to be very careful and protective of the people who are telling these stories.”

Waiting for the story to get published was agony for the victims, Buckley said, since they were “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“We spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to calm them down,” she said. “[We told them,] ‘We have to make this airtight, you’ve come to the best place for it, be patient.’ There had to be, by the nature of the story, some assurance that they were in good hands”.

Goodwin and Ryzik said the comedy community knew well ahead of publication that a story was in the works. There was a running Twitter commentary from people waiting for the story, and when C.K. cancelled an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” there was speculation that it was because of the allegations about to be published.

Buckley said they gave Wolov and Goodman advice and support in handling fallout from the story.

“We just gave them a playbook of what to do to: if anyone calls, you don’t have to take the call. We did all these things so they would feel protected,” Buckley said. “You’re very vulnerable when you put your name in The New York Times in a story like this.”

Once the story came out, all three said they were surprised by how much traction it got. Goodwin was told by her colleagues not to expect a “Weinstein reaction,” and she also told editors not to expect that people would care.

“Louis was loved... warts and all,” Buckley said.

Ryzik, who had heard many more allegations than those published, said she was frustrated by people coming to C.K.’s defense. But it was an important story that needed to be told, all three agreed.

“We did not take anyone down,” Ryzik said. “We simply told a story.”

Divya Murthy is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.