Emily Yoffe, a current contributing editor at the Atlantic and Slate’s former advice columnist, has a specialty, of sorts: as I wrote in the prehistoric days of 2015, she has a tendency to write pieces about sexual assault that “tend to conclude that the accuser was wrong, lying, or drunk.” But she’s updated the formula somewhat: in a recent piece for Reason, Yoffe instead concludes that two women who accused the former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times of assault were still wrong, but splits the blame evenly between their behavior and the excesses of the MeToo movement. The piece, as you might expect, has garnered a ferocious reaction—which, since it’s about journalists, is playing out in a highly public way.
But several people connected to the story, as well as those familiar with the community of foreign journalists in China, tell Jezebel that the story has identifiable, material omissions. What’s more, they told me that the piece missed the larger context altogether: the culture of impunity for some foreign correspondents in China and Asia, whose sexual misconduct is often brushed off or minimized, despite the fact that the perpetrators (ironically) often cover human rights abuses and the mistreatment of women. It’s a phenomenon journalist Joanna Chiu dubbed “sexpat journalists” in a Foreign Policy piece last year; she called “newsroom predators” a threat to both their colleagues and well-balanced, non-distorted coverage of Asia. Reason and Yoffe, meanwhile, stand by the story; the magazine’s editor in chief Katherine Mangu-Ward called it “meticulously reported and researched.”
The facts, briefly, are that Jonathan Kaiman, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, was first reported to have resigned in September 2018 after he was publicly accused of sexual misconduct some months earlier by two women: Laura Tucker, a law student and former housemate of Kaiman’s, and Felicia Sonmez, now a journalist at the Washington Post, who’d previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and had been partially based in China at the time. (Kaiman did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent through his website.)
Yoffe positions Kaiman as “one of the least famous, least powerful men to be brought down by the #MeToo movement,” adding that his story is indicative of the excesses of the movement as a whole. She writes, “[W]e are now in a time when the uncertain circumstances surrounding one regretted sexual encounter and another hazily remembered (and fiercely disputed) intimate encounter are sufficient to destroy the accused’s life.”
But hazy accusations or a “trial by Twitter” or a “messy, drunken hookup”—phrases used in the story—aren’t what “brought down” Kaiman: a lengthy personnel investigation at the Los Angeles Times did that. Yoffe blurs the details of that investigation into a hysterical vendetta deprived of any sense of proportion or due process. It’s a cookie-cutter Emily Yoffe story in that way. But it also comes at a time when stories about the “MeToo movement going too far” are thick on the ground, a point at which we seem to be having a referendum on the type of sexual misconduct that is worthy of scrutiny or even warrants a conversation. In the end, for people like Yoffe, only the darkest, most malevolent stories—ripped from fairy tales, enacted by and upon famous people—merit being deemed “real” stories. (She wrote at length for HuffPo last year about those exact stories, and did not dismiss them in the way she’s tended to do with other cases.) But it’s also clear that these pernicious, smaller instances combine to create an untenable culture, and one that, by their own telling, is precisely what motivated Kaiman’s accusers to start talking.
The first allegations came in 2018, when Tucker wrote in a Medium post that she and Kaiman had a sexual encounter in 2013, five years before, where she felt pressured, coerced and ultimately “gross.” The two were old friends and former roommates, she wrote, and one night they began making out consensually in her apartment after a night out with others. Fairly quickly, she decided she wanted to stop. She stood up and told him so, she wrote, at which point he “didn’t move” from her bed and “began to whine.” She added that the two had a “back and forth” for several long minutes, after which she concluded there was no way to get Kaiman out of her apartment without escalating. And so, she said: “I concluded the least confrontational way forward was to place male satisfaction above my own desires and go back to bed.” The two had sex.
Tucker wrote that when she woke up the next day, she felt “very angry,”and emailed Kaiman, telling him, “I am your friend and feel like you treated me badly.” Kaiman apologized, she wrote, but when the two met for coffee to further talk things out, the conversation “turned into a debate about how much I shared the blame.”
It’s pretty clear throughout Tucker’s account that she’s not calling for criminal sanctions against Kaiman, or labeling him as a “monster”—something she said he accused her of doing in their coffee conversation—and even tried to remain friends with him long after they’d talked. In the end, she wrote, she chose to write about the experience of being “pressured into sex by an opportunistic friend” because of the larger issues at play, even though she acknowledges that “Jon is not famous and we never worked together”:
I believe sexual misconduct by expats warrants a discussion. Many expats in Beijing move away with a couple of years, and I suspect the high turnover in social groups combined with the distance from familiar systems can result in less accountability and more entitlement.
It was the first time—but not the last—that Kaiman’s behavior would be positioned as sexually aggressive and ultimately harmful—not an egregious, violent attack, but part of a pattern of mistreating women through “entitlement,” as Tucker put it. And it was behavior that both she and later Sonmez have written that they believed they could correct through a frank conversation with him about boundaries.
After Tucker made her allegation, Kaiman resigned as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a club that serves as both a social avenue and an advocacy group, one that often criticizes the Chinese government for human rights abuses. The resignation was criticized by some—mostly male—journalists who didn’t see what Kaiman’s private behavior had to do with his standing as president. But one member, journalist Emily Rauhala, then the China correspondent for the Washington Post, tweeted, “This is absolutely a matter for the FCCC. It’s about the FCCC’s standing to raise human rights issues with the Chinese government.”
Yoffe, meanwhile, depicts the annual FCCC meeting of the full membership, and its aftermath, as people “jostling” to denounce Kaiman. She also manages to dismiss another accuser, writing, “A female reporter announced she wanted to be included as one of Kaiman’s victims.” The woman explained she’d reconsidered her own experience after reading Sonmez’s account and now claimed she’d had too much to drink to give “‘proper consent,’” Yoffe writes, in sarcastic scare quotes.
That does seem to have been an experience more than one woman had with Kaiman. James Palmer, now an editor at Foreign Policy, lived in Beijing for 15 years and was part of the close-knit world of foreign correspondents in the city. He tells Jezebel that after Kaiman resigned from the FCCC board and he tweeted about the situation, he began hearing stories from other journalists that, among women, Kaiman was subject to whisper-network warnings that he was sexually aggressive when drunk. That said, he notes, “He was certainly not the only guy we’d heard this about.” (A woman in the Beijing journalism community at the time says the whisper network extended beyond just journalists and into the broader expat world. They even had a nickname for Kaiman, she says:“It was Guan-men. Because Kaiman sounds like ‘kaimen’ in Chinese, which means ‘open the door.’ Guan-men is ‘close the door.’”)
In the meantime, as the Hong Kong Free Press reported, a mostly-male group chat among foreign correspondents on the widely-used service WeChat, had begun to fill with misogynist abuse towards Tucker. “This is one of the lamest things I’ve ever read,” one comment read. “What a fucking bitch.” Another read, “Welcome to the era of victimhood.”
After Kaiman’s resignation from the FCCC, Felicia Sonmez wrote that she heard from a friend who sits on the FCCC board that the board voted to ask him to step down—that he did not resign of his own volition. (The FCCC said in a tweet outlining the meeting that they didn’t have the power to remove him, and that voting to ask him to resign was the strongest action they could take.) She became concerned that the full details of what happened at the meeting where that vote occurred weren’t being conveyed to FCCC members, accounting, at least in part, for some of the vitriol towards Tucker — including that other allegations against Kaiman had been discussed at that meeting. That was part of what triggered her decision to come forward publicly, she later wrote in an open letter to the FCCC board. (Sonmez shared a copy of the letter with Jezebel recently.) She also shared that just before the meeting where Kaiman was asked to resign, she’d disclosed her own experience with Kaiman to a friend who was also an FCCC board member.
That experience, Sonmez wrote, took place in September 2017, after a night of drinking with friends and some consensual making out, similar to Tucker’s account. She wrote that she gave Kaiman a ride home on her scooter despite being highly intoxicated, something she is “deeply ashamed of,” and added, “Even though parts of the evening were consensual, while on the way, Jon escalated things in a way that crossed the line.” At one point, she wrote, “Jon lifted my up my dress and began digitally penetrating me without my consent.” She adds:
I told him no but he forcefully continued until I was able to physically pull him away. He then began unbuckling his belt and pulling down his shorts. We were on a public street, it was dark and no one was around. Jon is much bigger than me, and it took me repeatedly telling him no and pushing him away for him to finally stop. Whenever I think about that night, it gives me chills to think of that moment and imagine what he would have done if I hadn’t been able to get him to stop.
When they arrived at his apartment, she writes, Kaiman continued kissing her and trying to unbuckle his own belt and take off his shorts as she repeatedly told him no. But then—in a detail that Yoffe later made much of in her story—she walked upstairs to his apartment. In her letter, she writes:
I was so drunk that I definitely should not have been driving, and many parts of the night remain hazy in my memory. I don’t remember what was going through my head as I went upstairs, whether I wanted to take a nap or get some water or maybe make out. I am certain I did not go up there to have unprotected sex with Jon.
I remember that we climbed the stairs up to his apartment, and that I ended up naked on the couch in Jon’s room with Jon on top of me. (When I later asked him his recollections of this part of the night, he said that things were hazy but he acknowledged that he had been “brutish” with me.) He briefly performed oral sex on me and then he had unprotected sex with me. I am devastated by the fact that I was not more sober so that I could say with absolute certainty whether what happened that night was rape. I remember that he was already inside me before I had the wherewithal to ask him whether he had a condom; he said no. He continued for what I imagine was a few more minutes. I put on my clothes and unsteadily drove off home soon after.
Sonmez, too, believed after the fact that she could handle the situation by simply giving Kaiman a good talking-to. She wrote in her letter that she “partly blamed” herself, adding that she called Kaiman a few nights after “to confirm what each of us remembered of that night and to have a talk about things like sexually-transmitted diseases. I also told him that it is never okay to try to have sex in a public place with anyone who is as drunk as I was that night; he acknowledged that and apologized. But the more I thought of the whole night, the more unsettled I began to feel.”
In her story, Yoffe writes that Kaiman told her the two had consensual sex, but that Sonmez was, mysteriously, displeased afterwards, while he meanwhile merely felt bad for cheating on his girlfriend, who’d been out of town. Yoffe also suggests that Sonmez was mainly angry he didn’t text her after they parted ways, writing, “She contacted him shortly afterward to discuss what had happened. He says she rebuked him for failing to check in with her, and in her letter she wrote that she also told him at the time that ‘it is never okay to try to have sex in a public place with anyone who is as drunk as I was.’ He offered his apologies.”
Though Yoffe clearly had access to the same FCCC letter Sonmez wrote that I read, she omits and distorts what Sonmez clearly says was the purpose of the call: to piece together the night, and to talk about STIs.
Learning of Tucker’s allegation, Sonmez writes in the FCCC letter, “crystallized things for me” and made her realize that Kaiman’s conduct was “part of a pattern of serious misbehavior,” she writes. She disclosed her own experience to the friend on the FCCC board; afterwards, she says, he asked for her permission to tell the board “that he had heard of a recent, substantive allegation similar to the incident that Laura experienced,” without using her name. Sonmez agreed, writing that she worried if she didn’t say something “Laura’s experience would just be dismissed as an isolated incident that happened years ago.”
Sonmez’s allegation is what apparently triggered the Los Angeles Times to begin investigating Kaiman’s alleged misconduct. Sonmez tells Jezebel she is aware of five people who made firsthand allegations of sexual misconduct or inappropriate sexual behavior at Kaiman’s hands during that investigation, and three people who spoke to the investigator to share concerns about alleged behavior they had witnessed by Kaiman or allegations that had been shared with them by others. (That is, again, not quite the same as two malicious women taking down Kaiman doublehandedly, as Yoffe frames it.) At the end of the three-month investigation, in August 2018, Kaiman resigned from his job at the Times and has not worked in journalism since. A book contract he’d secured was also cancelled, though it’s unclear if he kept his advance. (“I can confirm that the Los Angeles Times completed an investigation into the matter and that Jonathan Kaiman resigned,” a spokesperson for the paper wrote, in response to a question about how many people participated in the inquiry. “We are not able to provide additional details.”)
In Yoffe’s telling, though, that three-month investigation is limited to Kaiman being “subjected to three H.R. interviews.” She notes that, “At one, the female investigator had a sticker on her computer that read, “The future is female,” which apparently strikes both Kaiman and Yoffe as a worrying display of potential bias. Sonmez told Jezebel that that there was, in fact, a second investigation too, after the Los Angeles Times was sold in July of 2018, this one conducted by an independent law firm, and that she spoke to an investigator for that one too. (Yoffe doesn’t directly acknowledge that Sonmez was part of the investigation, but does accuse the FCCC of working to denounce Kaiman during it, writing “Although the FCCC members were not interested in evaluating the claims made by Sonmez, they were encouraged to report any ‘evidence’ they had against Kaiman to the H.R. investigator at the Los Angeles Times.”)
By September, a month after Kaiman resigned, he’d begun telling his side of the story, first on a podcast hosted, in a surprising twist, by one of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. (He also gave a brief statement to the South China Morning Post.) The podcast, though, didn’t receive much attention, and he appears to not have spoken to anyone else publicly until Yoffe. The second time, it stuck.
Most stories positing the dangers of the MeToo movement begin, as Yoffe does, by acknowledging the movement as “necessary” before alleging that it has begun to creep outward, an expanse that is ruining the lives of innocent men. Yoffe is among the people suggesting there are, perhaps, dual MeToo movements: one urgent, necessary, and morally important—against the Weinsteins of the world, perhaps, the grotesque monsters of men who have accumulated such a preponderance of evidence that they must be removed—and a second, much more hysterical and vengeful movement, sweeping blameless and promising men away in its indiscriminate undertow.
Yoffe goes further too, likening MeToo at various points to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and McCarthyism, among other moral panics. She also mentions a Jezebel story about former Mic journalist Jack Smith IV, who publicly championed social justice causes in public while being allegedly abusive to his partners in private. Yoffe sees it differently, calling Smith one of a number of men who “have seen their lives damaged after unfair, even questionable allegations—with some accusers expressing the goal of pushing the boundaries of #MeToo.”
Yoffe seems to believe that many such MeToo stories seem to be a kind of deranged bonding experience for people who achieve a kind of vengeful unity in collectively going after their enemies. “Such search and destroy missions can be ecstatic experiences,” she writes. She also claims, bafflingly, that “A common feminist dictum holds there are no innocent men, as per the slogans #YesAllMen and #KillAllMen,” neither of which are actually slogans that were central to the MeToo movement, or even particularly popular online. (#YesAllWomen certainly was, a hashtag which arose to make the point that most, if not all, women have experienced harassment or abuse. It shouldn’t really require saying that MeToo was not about killing men, even some of them, let alone “all.”)
Yoffe’s apparent idea that women enjoy making accusations of abuse — that it’s an “ecstatic experience”—is also reflected in a mistaken email that she sent during the reporting process to Joanna Chiu, the author of the Foreign Policy piece on the danger of “sexpat” journalist predators. Chiu tweeted a screenshot of that email, writing that it reflected Yoffe’s “lack of professionalism.”
In the email, Yoffe writes, “The most important points about the section about her is to show how people review their past and convince themselves they are victims, and that there is a thrill in publicly denouncing someone.” She added, “Of course I love the detail of their encounters,” a strangely gleeful thing to put in writing regarding a sexual assault story.
(Chiu told Jezebel in a statement, “Emily had gotten hold of internal FCCC minutes. She wanted me to talk about what was discussed at the members-only meeting and after I refused and asked her to respect my privacy, she mistakenly sent me that email.”)
In an email to Jezebel, Katherine Mangu-Ward, the Reason editor, writes, “In the misdirected email from Yoffe, you will note that we are agreeing to remove details from the passage about the unnamed accuser. We deferred to her wishes rather than take even a small risk of exposing of an accuser who had not previously outed herself. We felt the story was strong even without those details.”
Mangu-Ward adds that, more broadly, “the virulent reaction online [to Yoffe’s story] is a perfect demonstration of the phenomenon Yoffe is describing in her piece.” She adds:
The goals of the #MeToo movement are laudable and it has provided an important corrective to many, many years of male misconduct—a point Yoffe makes in the piece. But in the events described in this piece, as well as in reaction to the piece itself, a consensus quickly formed and was brutally enforced in the public square. The enforcers of that consensus rejected the idea that any other narrative should receive a hearing, and personally attacked those who held a different view about the fairness or accuracy of the dominant account.
We felt there was significant value in documenting that phenomenon as well as offering readers the other side of this particular story and a portrait of the consequences for the accused. The piece is not an attack on Kaiman’s accusers, but an attempt to look at an important story from another perspective—a vital function of journalism.
James Palmer, the Foreign Policy editor, is among those who had, by his own admission, a strong reaction. “It made me rage-filled,” he says. He and his wife became close to Sonmez after she made her public allegation about Kaiman’s behavior, and he says it was evident to him when he would see her that she was not sleeping and was immensely distressed.
“The implication,” Palmer told Jezebel, “is that these women professionally benefitted from this, rather than it not only being a traumatic and a horrible experience,” but also a professionally damaging one. Sonmez was job-hunting when she disclosed her experience with Kaiman and says in her letter to the FCCC that she worried it would discourage employers from hiring her.
It’s not an unfounded fear, Palmer says, nor is the concern that some of what happens among foreign correspondents isn’t handled well; he points out that it’d be virtually impossible for a Western journalist to report an attack to the police, for instance: “Western reporters exist in a very contentious relationship with the authorities anyway, and Chinese police regularly protect and cover up rapists.” Closer to home, he says, large institutions often have a “reluctance to get involved” in allegations of misconduct that happen in their foreign bureaus.
“That contributes to the culture of impunity among Western journalists,” he says, “this idea that the home offices of foreign bureaus in China and other Asian countries were always very reluctant to take any responsibility for what their correspondents do there, especially the intersection of their personal and professional lives.” He also points out that younger and non-white women often have even worse experiences. “In China, young women are often hired as news assistants and are subject to harassment, or more commonly, just a kind of professional abuse.”
Lisa Movius is an arts journalist who’s been based in Shanghai for years, and agrees with Palmer’s read; she says Beijing seems to be a magnet for “ambitious young men, with little experience and less humility, looking to bolster their careers with “the China story,” while enjoying the sexual opportunities that Asia offers white men.”
Media circles in China, both Chinese and international, have a high turnover, she adds. “Offenders can repeat and repeat without their reputation getting known... I can hear almost identical complaints about the same man over and over again, by women (or men) spaced out several years who never heard of each other. There is no accountability: not 20 years ago, not today.”
None of this broader context is reflected in Yoffe’s 8,000-word piece, though she finds time, again, to discuss McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, the Cultural Revolution, and even for some reason, national policy on campus sexual assault in the United States, a subject dear to her heart but not particularly germane to this particular piece.
Yoffe writes that Kaiman has suffered from suicidal thoughts since his resignation and lives with his parents under what he describes as “a form of psychological house arrest,” as she puts it. At the end of her piece, she adds, “We need to recognize that a misunderstanding, even one about sex, is not a sufficient cause to result in the obliteration of someone’s psyche and desire to live.” (After the story ran, Sonmez tweeted about the after-effects she herself had experienced as a result of what Yoffe calls a “misunderstanding,” and the stresses of going public, and the subsequent Los Angeles Times investigation: She lost weight from being unable to eat, and became afraid to bike or drive because she feared she’d be hit by a car.)
It’s certainly true that suicidal thoughts and “psychological,” but not literal, house arrest sound very distressing. Yet neither woman described a “misunderstanding,” but instead violations of their trust and consent that they did their best to address with him directly. Like most of Yoffe’s story, her overflowing concern and empathy for the accused perpetrator is matched only by her utter lack of interest in the experiences of alleged victims, except, in this case, to speculate that they got a “thrill” out of denouncing a man they say harmed them.
It was for that reason, Sonmez tweeted, that she declined to talk to Yoffe for her story—and also because she remembered a 2013 story in which Yoffe baldly argued that college women should “stop getting drunk” to solve the problem of campus sexual assault. After the Reason story came out, Sonmez wrote a six-page letter to its editors requesting a voluminous set of factual corrections, that she also posted on Twitter. (To date, Reason has corrected three minor factual errors. Both Yoffe and Katherine Mangu-Ward have tweeted defenses of the story, with Mangu-Ward adding, of the the mistaken email Joanna Chiu received, “There is nothing in the email that is not reflected in more professional tones in the published piece.”)
In her email to Jezebel, Mangu-Ward also said she defends the piece in “the strongest possible terms,” writing:
Journalistically, this story was put through its paces. As a working journalist yourself, I’m sure you know that for a story like this one the author speaks with many people familiar with the events. In this case, that included many sources knowledgeable about the events in Beijing and the aftermath who asked to remain on background.
We were also careful to reach out to all the subjects of the piece for comment, which we noted throughout. The piece was fact-checked and put through additional levels of scrutiny beyond our normal editorial process. We understood the story would be controversial and it was important to us to publish an accurate version.
While we were disappointed that neither Sonmez nor Tucker agreed to speak with us, we quoted voluminously from their public accounts of the incident and were careful not to decontextualize their remarks.
I also asked Mangu-Ward if she’d had any concerns about getting Yoffe to report a sexual misconduct story, given the near-identical conclusions she reaches about every single sexual misconduct case she’s ever written about. Mangu-Ward responded, “It is not disqualifying for a journalist to have an opinion about a story she is reporting. I’m sure you’ll agree, since as you note in your email to me, you have strong preexisting negative opinions about both Reason and Yoffe, yet you are covering this story.” (It’s not true I have preexisting negative opinions about Reason as a whole.)
In a brief conversation with Jezebel, it was evident that Sonmez—a reporter who’s always written about politics for mainstream, centrist publications—was trying to stay as even-handed and dispassionate as possible about the Reason story. She declined, several times, to talk in detail about how it made her feel or whether she was concerned it would impact her job opportunities in the future. When I asked about all the mainstream journalists who’d tweeted admiringly about the piece, including Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens of the New York Times, she chose to focus on something else entirely: the amount of support she got for telling her story, and for requesting corrections to the piece.
“When you speak out about something like this, the scariest thing is just the thought that nobody’s going to care or nobody’s going to listen,” she told me. “And to see that people actually do care, it’s just meant a lot, and it gives me hope.”
This piece has been updated to clarify the details of what several people allegedly shared with investigators at the Los Angeles Times — according to Sonmez, several were reporting alleged inappropriate behavior they had witnessed firsthand, or stories that had been directly shared with them by others. We’ve also corrected the timeline of when Kaiman made his podcast appearance after his resignation, which was one month later, not four. We have also clarified that Sonmez was tweeting not just about the stress of the alleged assault itself, but about coming forward and the subsequent Times investigation.