It’s Been an Open Secret All Along

The scandal of Michael Wolff’s new book isn’t its salacious details-it’s that everyone in Washington has known its key themes, and refused to act.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Three months ago, when Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times unloaded their first big report about Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of sexual aggressiveness and abuse, the depth of detail made the story unforgettable-and as it turned out, historic. Real women went on the record, using their real names, giving specific dates and times and circumstances of what Weinstein had said or done to them.

Of the reactions that flowed from this and parallel revelations-about Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly in the Fox empire, or Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose in mainstream TV, or Kevin Spacey and Louis CK in the film world, or Michael Oreskes and John Hockenberry in public radio, or Mark Halperin and Leon Weiseltier in print and political media, and down the rest of the list-one response was particularly revealing. It was that the behavior in question had been an ” open secret.”

In the very short term, a few people reflexively offered “open secret” as an explanation, even a rationalization. Of course everybody knew that Harvey/Roger/Kevin was this way (the reasoning went). If you were smart, you kept your distance, and you’d never take the bait of going for “a meeting” up in the hotel room. Want to give, or get, a “massage”? No way!

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In the Valley of the Open Secret

But you rarely hear rationalizations of that sort any more. Now the open-secret premise usually leads to a follow up question. If “everyone” knew what was going on, why didn’t anyone do more to stop it? And this in turn has led to institutional and personal self-examinations.

In the best circumstances, organizations have asked: How could we have failed that badly? What should we do differently? Individuals have asked: What should I have known, that I merely suspected (or willfully ignored)? What more could I have done, based on what I actually knew? For powerful illustrations in this last category from members of the Atlantic family, involving episodes at The New Republic, see this by Michelle Cottle, this by Peter Beinart, and this by Franklin Foer.

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