The revelation in Thursday’s New York Times that comedian Louis CK acted sexually inappropriate with women comedians was not a revelation to us here at Jezebel. In 2012, Jezebel’s sibling site, Gawker, ran a blind item about a “critically cherished sitcom auteur” who masturbated in front of “a female comedy duo” at the Aspen Comedy Festival. In May 2015, Gawker’s Jordan Sargent talked to a guy who’d had a baffling conversation with CK about the persistent rumor that CK masturbated in front of non-consenting women comedians. At the time, these were rumors, but rumors of great importance to Jezebel and Gawker. We did not view these rumors as smut, and we investigated them with the rigor we felt they demanded. Here’s the story of how that went for us.
The first time Jezebel published a negative story about CK was on June 3, 2015. A few months prior, comedian Jen Kirkman told a story on her podcast I Seem Fun about an unnamed comedian known in comedy circles for masturbating in front of non-consenting women. In response, the website Death & Taxes published a blog post speculating that the comedian was CK, the reasoning being that similar rumors had circulated about him before. Shortly after the Death & Taxes blog went up, Kirkman took the podcast down. This led to more speculation, which was then covered by Madeleine Davies at Jezebel in our regular DirtBag column.
The day we published that post, Davies reached out to Kirkman, asking if she wanted to talk or write about her experience. Here is the email that Davies sent, word for word:
I assume that you’re already getting a lot of pressure from other media outlets and probably don’t want to talk about your April 20 podcast episode that’s been making the rounds, but—in the event that you do want to talk about it—Jezebel would love to speak to you.
Regardless, I hope you’re well and am sorry to be another jerk in your inbox.
All the best,
Senior Writer, Jezebel
Kirkman’s first response was angry, and initially, Davies didn’t blame her. Since the Death & Taxes blog started making the rounds, Kirkman had been harassed by CK’s fans and said she felt annoyed that her words had been taken out of context by entertainment blogs. Still, she wrote, her anger wasn’t directed at Davies or Jezebel, though under no circumstances did she want to write or talk about it.
At that time, various staffers at Jezebel had been reporting on CK’s behavior for long enough that we’d had multiple sources come to us to call it an open secret CK had masturbated in front of several women comics—or say that they’d had friends tell them that he’d masturbated in front of them. No one wanted to go on the record. One of the problems surrounding the Weinstein-adjacent conversation about who knew what when is that journalists are often told things, but then the sources won’t let us print them. Fear of going on the record, in other words, helps powerful people retain their power. But we still wanted to find a way to follow this particular story, and hold him and the other powerful male comedians that support him accountable.
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This proved to be an enormous challenge. CK is beloved by men and women alike and no one wants to hear bad things about the people they enjoy or admire. That’s alright. It’s our job to do the digging and everyone else’s right (responsibility even) to doubt. But certain elements made the job harder, and we couldn’t quite figure out why. Jen Kirkman criticized Jezebel both on Twitter and to other outlets, implying that we had somehow spearheaded a campaign against her in order to perpetuate the CK rumor. On her own podcast, she denied that her original story was about CK.
Here’s what she had to say about Jezebel on The Nerdist a couple months later, in August 2015:
Jezebel does all this sh*t, guessing who it is, and I never said who. I started getting hate mail … and then I took the podcast down because [Jezebel] was directing people to it. And then it was, like “Jen Kirkman Mysteriously Takes Down [Podcast]!” And they were like, “He’s silencing her!” And then all of these people started emailing me, and I was like [to Jezebel]: “FUCK YOU!” And they were like, “We can print this, you know?” And I was like, “Print it you fucking cunts.”
Davies, the writer who’d been interacting with her, was bewildered. First of all, Jezebel only reported on the story after Kirkman took her podcast down. Secondly, nowhere in their emails did Madeleine threaten to print what Kirkman had written her, despite that fact that their communications confirmed the rumors that Jezebel originally reached out about.
Here is Davies’s reply, entirely unedited, to Kirkman’s demand that we stop reporting about her in relation to CK, also written on June 3, 2015:
Sorry, just saw your follow up. I got what you were saying and I’ve heard similar stories about Louis before. It didn’t come off like you were traumatized and I’m sorry if I implied that. Like you said, the topic has had increased interest around it in recent months and considering that Jezebel writes a lot about women in comedy and Louis, it would be neglectful or maybe even irresponsible for us not to talk about it. That said, throwing you into the line of fire was never my intent. We’re a fan of you around these parts and would never try to be intentionally harmful.
I look forward to listening to your podcast. I can’t guarantee that Jezebel won’t write about it (because I think what you’re saying is important and it’s sure to be an important follow up), but can promise that—if it gets covered—it will be covered in context. Please believe me when I say that I have no intention of misrepresenting you.
Jezebel did not end up reporting on Kirkman’s follow-up podcast, so why this public hostility and misrepresentation of our correspondence was being directed at us baffles us still.
Somewhat ironically, fans of both Kirkman and CK were now targeting Davies and Jezebel, claiming that we were rumor-mongering and unfairly pinning it on Kirkman.
Even after the publication of the Times investigation on Thursday, we heard from Kirkman again. She wrote, of Jezebel, on Twitter:
(Jezebel has never written anything to even remotely suggest that CK “paid [Kirkman] off.”)
To be perfectly clear, it is not, nor has it ever been, Jen Kirkman’s responsibility to “out” Louis CK. The only person responsible for correcting his behavior is CK himself. His actions are his own and he is the one who should own up to them, face the scrutiny and correct them. But the reactions of others to our attempts at reporting does shed a light on the difficulty of bringing stories like these out of so-called whisper networks and onto the record. Most of the people angrily commenting on our CK articles would likely describe themselves as people who believe women, and yet our attempts to out serial sexual harassers has repeatedly been called rumormongering and hateful—so much so that a recent call for tips about CK in the hopes of getting someone on the record was called journalistically irresponsible.
Our readers don’t have to and shouldn’t take our word on something just because we publish it, especially without hard proof. But here we were trying to find it, and getting heat for that effort. This baffled us too—we were being told to do some real journalism. “This is journalism!” we wanted to shout.
In 2017, after joining the Special Projects Desk, our parent company, Gizmodo Media’s new investigative unit, senior reporter Anna Merlan returned to the Louis CK story. She reached out to a Gawker reporter who’d previously gotten tips about it and learned the names of the two women who’d claimed that they’d experienced CK masturbate in front of them at the Aspen Comedy Festival in the mid 2000s.
The Gawker reporter had been forwarded an email that one of the women sent to a friend. In it, she wrote that neither of them would ever comment on the incident. “We don’t want to say anything because people won’t hire us,” the email read. “There was backlash back then and there will be now. He makes a lot of people a lot of money.”
When Merlan reached out to the women, one didn’t respond. The other answered, “I’m all about women helping women. But in this case I really don’t want to talk about it. I know [Redacted] feels the same way. Sorry I can’t help.”
Separately, Merlan got a tip about an even older incident, which allegedly happened when CK was a writer on a TV show around 1997. Merlan spoke to a woman who’d also worked on the show, who wanted her name and job title withheld to protect her privacy. The woman, whom we’ll call Grace, told Merlan that she’d gotten a call from CK one day. They didn’t work in the same department and weren’t particularly close friends.
“He ended up asking me if I would come to his office to watch him jerk off,” the woman told Merlan. “We worked together for a few years but we were not even –we were like casual work officemates. There was no sexual vibe between us, zero.”
The woman debated what to do, and even asked a friend if she should go. In the end, she went.
“I went to his office and sat on his couch,” she said. “He sat in his chair. He jerks off. He never touched me. I never touched him and then I left. I’ve always thought of it as something that was silly and stupid and not in the realm of sexual abuse. Nothing happened to me.”
Still, the woman said, the incident seemed less clear-cut as she got older. It seemed more obviously inappropriate—CK was in a position of greater power, and she wasn’t sure what might happen if she’d declined to go to his office.
“When things like the Harvey Weinstein stuff comes out it makes me think about it,” she told Merlan recently. “A man in a power position using power for inappropriate reasons.”
Recently, this source still sounded conflicted. “I don’t feel good about it when I think about it - i [sic] don’t feel necessarily bad either but it’s shadow stuff—like not stuff I’m just going to talk about over tea with a friend. Obviously it’s something that happened to me that was wrong.”
Between January and October of 2017, Merlan intermittently spoke to people about the CK story: a man who’d worked on the same show as CK and Grace confirmed that she’d told him about the incident at the time, and said it made him feel uncomfortable about CK.
Another famous male comedy writer confirmed he had been at a party with the comedy duo in Aspen immediately after CK masturbated at them. He described both women as laughing it off.
“It did not seem like an assault at the time,” he told Merlan. In retrospect, he says, he understands that they might have been more upset than they let on. “They were very young.”
There were close to two dozen other tips that came to Jezebel or the Special Projects Desk during that time period: multiple women wrote from anonymous addresses to say that the CK rumors were “an open secret” in comedy circles, and particularly in writer’s rooms. One woman, who coaches women comics, reportedly warned them not to be alone with him. She didn’t respond to requests for comment and neither did many, many other people named in the tips. Of the people claiming to know all about this “open secret,” none would let us use their names, and this kept the allegations against CK in the easy to dismiss world of “rumors,” and thereby protected him.
Two people who did respond could be accurately described as famous feminist women in the comedy world. Both of them claimed to have friends who’d confided that CK had masturbated in front of them. Both declined to go on the record, saying they didn’t think it was their place to tell someone else’s story.
“It’s been the same sitch for years,” one woman told Merlan. “The women who have directly experienced his form of harassment don’t want to go on the record. Everyone else has just heard about it second- and third-hand.”
After months of getting information that seemed to substantiate the rumors, but that she couldn’t use on the record, Merlan put out a call for tips on September 20. She tweeted about it again in October.
The post led to both a trickle of new information and a surge in angry commentary from people who saw it as defamatory to ask for information on allegations.
After publishing that post, Merlan started getting tips from younger writers, again alleging that CK’s behavior was an open secret. One wrote:
I work in TV in comedy writing, and have done so for many years now. I’ve been in plenty of writers’ rooms with dozens of well connected writers in the LA/NY community.
Every room I’ve been in has known someone who was subjected to inappropriate sexual behaviour by Louis CK.
The general gist is that Louis would prey on younger women — assistants, interns — trap them somewhere, and refuse to let them leave until he’d masturbated. He explicitly threatened to end careers if the women spoke out about this. I assume this is why Jen Kirkman reneged on everything she’s ever said on the subject. Everyone seemed to share a general sense of outrage and disgust about this but there was a lot of rope allowed to a man producing prestige comedy - and also understandably the women weren’t exactly going public, and those to whom they reported this behaviour were not meting out any punishment.
One writer who supposedly had direct knowledge of one such incident also declined to comment. “No comment on any of this,” she wrote.
There were also red herrings. Someone reached out with the name of a man CK had supposedly masturbated in front of; when Merlan contacted that man, he acted shocked, saying he’d never met CK and hadn’t been a victim of any harassment or abuse.
A woman wrote a lengthy email in which she accused CK of masturbating in front of her, in a hotel room during what she thought was a meeting to discuss her writing. But then she didn’t respond to Merlan’s follow-up emails asking for more information to substantiate what she’d written. Several tips followed, all of them obviously fake.
Jezebel is not cavalier about either accusers or the accused. Many of us on staff have been fans of CK’s comedy for years, and no one was eager to believe rumors that would ruin his work for us. A thing that’s certain about our line of work is that we often learn upsetting things about the people we’d prefer to go on liking, but that it’s our responsibility and technically our jobs to ignore that disappointment while getting to the truth.
Who gets the truth and the road to it is often a heartbreaking one. Indeed, one of the greatest difficulties of being a journalist is knowing something but being unable to tell anyone else about it. This trouble becomes excruciating when the subject is sexual harassment or sexual violence. Five women bravely told their stories about Louis CK to the New York Times on Thursday. In doing so, they have saved the ink and pixels that would otherwise have gone to the seemingly compulsory “persistent rumors” caveat that has, for years, preceded nearly any mention in print of CK’s relationship with women. Jezebel would never out a victim, and would never tell a story without consent of the person to whom this story belongs, even as it hurts to withhold information that we are convinced deserves a more serious label than “rumor.”
It takes a lot of bravery to come forward with sexual harassment allegations and when people do it, it’s rare that they find a sympathetic audience. Kirkman faced that when her comments were republished on websites like ours—a disappointment because our original intention was to shine light on CK, not her. And so will the other women (and men) who come forward about CK, or Harvey Weinstein, or any other popular man with a lot of power. We see it time and again and so we thank those with the courage to speak out and encourage those who aren’t ready to do what they need to do to. We’re ready to talk now, and we’ll be ready to talk then.
Correction: A previous version of this post said that Jordan Sargent spoke to Louis CK in his 2015 post. In that post, he spoke to a tipster about his baffling interactions with CK. Jezebel regrets the error.