Rebecca Corbett, investigations editor at the New York Times and a longtime Baltimorean, has been at the center of some of the most consequential journalism of the last couple of decades. She is revered by colleagues for her standards, her work ethic and her intellectual rigor, but like many editors who never receive a byline, her name had long been hidden from view.
That first changed about a decade ago, when the New York Times named Corbett to the masthead, a recognition of her importance to the organization. Any remaining anonymity was shattered in 2019 with the publication of ‘She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement’ by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the Times reporters who were the writers on the powerful stories that exposed Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior and garnered a Pulitzer Prize. Corbett’s role as a collaborative and exacting editor was a key feature of the book, and also in the movie version that came out last year, with actor Patricia Clarkson cast as Corbett.
She joined the Times in 2004, after 25 years at the Baltimore Sun. She had rejected two previous job offers, but this time decided to move after deducing that a fourth chance was unlikely to materialize. She is part of a cadre of former Sun journalists who furthered their careers at the Times, including now-retired national security reporter Scott Shane, education reporter Erica Green, congressional reporter Luke Broadwater and congressional editor Julie Hirschfeld Davis.
Although she spends many working days in New York City, Corbett, 70, has never moved from the Roland Park home she shares with her husband. She recently spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl about how she and her staff approach stories, how she handles the spotlight that comes with being a Times editor, and how her signature chunky necklaces were replicated for Hollywood.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Back in the day there was a whole generation of journalists who saw or read All the President’s Men, and were inspired by Woodward and Bernstein and Ben Bradlee and said ‘I’m going to go into journalism because of this.’ Do you sense that the work you’ve done on the on Harvey Weinstein, with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, is inspiring a new generation of investigative journalists?
Rebecca Corbett: What I can say is that Jodi and Megan have done tons of speaking appearances to all sorts of groups, including groups of students. The ‘She Said’ book was intended to be a real explanatory book that would make people understand how investigative journalism is done and what it involves. And they then did another book for student journalists, which was very much intended to speak to young people who are interested in going into journalism. And from both the response that they’ve gotten in many appearances and meeting with groups of students, there very much is a spirit of how this investigation inspired me to think about journalism as a way to expose wrongdoing, to show that you can actually make change. And when you break it down into its component parts, it makes a lot of sense. And I did a number of appearances as well and have heard from a lot of younger people that this really made me want to go into journalism and do this sort of this kind of work.
BFB: How important is it that it was a female editor and female journalists leading this effort?
RC: Well there is no control group here, so it’s hard to say if it had been male reporters if the reaction would have been different. But I think that it was both reassuring and exciting to some younger people who talked about this all-female team, and it was about a subject that, of course, was very intimate. It required an extraordinary degree of sensitivity in order to persuade victims to talk to us and talk in a usable way. So I think that definitely, it made some young women think ‘Oh, this is something that I can do,’ and not see it as just a male pursuit.
BFB: What about your journalism inspiration?
RC: I was not one of those people who went into journalism because of ‘All the President’s Men.’ Not that I didn’t find it an inspiring story, but I had planned, when I went to college, to go to medical school, and I was a science major. But at that fateful moment, when you have to make a decision about your major, I also really loved writing, and so I went in in the other direction. And at some point, I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a documentary filmmaker.’ But I went to a small liberal arts college [Colby] with a tiny film department, and I did not have the wherewithal or the technical skills to figure out how to do this myself. And then during the summer after I graduated, I ended up getting a job at a little regional newspaper, and I fell in love with newsrooms and the fact that being a journalist — and I’m a fairly reserved person — gave you an excuse to stick your nose in anything that interested you, and gave you access to all sorts of real life in the real world. And that was it.
BFB: Newsrooms are special places, aren’t they?
RC: Yes, and I felt that everything came full circle because at the Times, we have a lot of people with extraordinary expertise. And at one point, I was managing two MDs and doing all sorts of medical things. I actually got to explore that.
BFB: This might be a bit of a silly question, but what is it like to see yourself portrayed on screen? What’s your reaction when that happens, and your character walks on the screen?
RC: Well, it’s all very surreal. We had seen various permutations of the scripts, and we’re permitted to make suggestions for accuracy about the journalism, and ‘Would reporters really do this? Would editors say that?’ that sort of thing. And we had an awareness because of Jodi and Megan’s book that a fair amount of the material was drawn from that, because it was explaining the backstory of everything. But it’s still very unusual to have that experience. And the whole thing was just a fascinating introduction to how films are made. We now know why they’re so expensive, and take so much time. The costume designer was amazing about really replicating Jodi and Megan’s wardrobe and look, and all of that. And I wear chunky necklaces, and she replicated a lot of those.
BFB: So did the costume designer come to your house and look through your closet?
RC: With Jodi and Megan she did. With me, she had seen a number of photographs of me from speaking gigs and other places. We had several very long calls where she would show me pictures and say ‘Is this what you were wearing?’ And of course, how do I remember what I was wearing and when? At one point, I did have to lay all my necklaces out and take a photograph of them. And I said, ‘Look, if you want to borrow them, that’s fine.’ But no, they don’t want to take possession of anyone’s property.
DN: Did Patricia Clarkson want to talk to you at all?
RC: It was very interesting. Zoe Kazan lives in Brooklyn, and before the filming, in the summer of 2021, Carey Mulligan came and lived in Brooklyn for a couple of months. And they met with Megan and Jody a number of times … and they had a lot of questions: ‘Would you do this? Would you do that? What’s this mean, this sort of language?’ They really wanted to understand sort of how journalism works. I think it’s possible that Clarkson was filming something else at the time. But I was told through the movie people that when she’s playing a real person…she does not like to meet with them before filming because it could be inhibiting. And I totally get that. And she also may have had far better things to do, which I also totally get.
So the first time I met her was on the red carpet (at the Los Angeles premier), which was very exciting. And I was being photographed with Jodi and Megan and some other people and then she entered from the far end and she saw me, and I assume she I had seen photographs….She says ‘Rebecca’ and puts her arms out, then I go over, we have a big hug. And then later that evening, there was a dinner. And so I went and chatted with her. And she told me, again, how her mission wasn’t to impersonate me, but to get to the essence of the character. In truth, it was a long film, and it was longer before it was cut, as these sorts of things work. And the sequences with the editors are a far smaller part of the film than the actual investigation, for all the right reasons.
BFB: I want to move on to your role as investigations editor. The New York Times is pretty much the pinnacle of American journalism. Anything that the Times does has an enormous audience, but there is also a target — and people want to find holes or question your judgment. And we went through a period of time, especially the prior presidential administration, where attacks were at unreal heights. How do you and your team handle that day in day out? What’s the effect of being such a huge target?
RC: A lot of the targeting – but not exclusively – was in the political realm. It was really our Washington bureau that was facing the barrage, particularly during the Trump administration, because there are people who cast us as the enemy. Over and over, we assert that we are an independent newspaper, and that there’s no administration that loves rigorous coverage. But it came at a time with a particularly combative type of presidency, and a particularly partisan time in the country. A lot of coverage was assailed by both by the right and the left. And if you’ve ever read the comments on our stories, you can see ‘Oh well this side objects that; Oh, this other side objects to that.’ In particular, the White House reporters, the political reporters, just took incoming all the time, which can be very weird thing. And for a while, it certainly extended to coverage of any topics that had a politicized aspect of them to them. There are all sorts of subject areas where there’s going to be criticism from both sides, like the transgender issue right now as an example, or curriculum issues.
We try to make our stories as bulletproof as possible and have a pretty impressive track record of not making mistakes and not getting the premise wrong. One of the scariest things about investigative reporting is, you know, the, the phenomenon of adding two and two and getting five. Throughout the whole process, we are constantly digging for more and trying to understand more, making sure we really understand the context, testing our assertions.
There was a scene in the movie where Jodi and Megan are laying out, ‘We have this, we have this, we have this, we have this.’ But my character says ‘You don’t have a publishable story.’ And at that point they did not. All that meant is that we do more, and we try to find where there’s some other avenues we hadn’t pursued.
But the thing about investigative journalism is that it has to be a persuasive story, you have to be able to make the case and make it in a way, which means, hopefully, not using anonymous sources or heavily relying on anonymous sources, being able to buttress things with documents, being able to have on-the-record interviews, being able to show whatever evidence it is…. I think one of the things that we really try to be mindful of is that readers don’t want to just believe us, we have to show them why we’re drawing these conclusions and what it is based on.
BFB: So when you say you your track record is solid, does that mean minimal or no corrections on stories?
RC: I’m talking about the investigations department in particular. I’m not saying there are never corrections. I’m sure there have been. But everyone in our department has unbelievably elaborate fact checking methods. And our second readers have unbelievably elaborate fact checking methods, and we try to be incredibly careful about it. But there is no story that I can think of that our department has done in recent years where the fundamental underpinnings have fallen apart under scrutiny after publication.
BFB: I saw a comment from you about how you were in the office overnight, into the morning, reading that story. I know how editors live and work and how during the day, it’s one meeting after another, sitting in rooms. How do you handle that type of life or lifestyle where it’s very cerebral all the time and you’re the editor, and you don’t have the luxury or the fun of being the reporter and having that interview or crafting and writing the story. How do you how do you approach those limitations or the reality of life as an editor, sitting in a conference room and these tough meetings?
RC: I got shunted into editing way earlier in my career than I otherwise would have imagined. You know, I think that temperamentally, I’m well suited to it. I’m a fairly low maintenance personality. It’s hard to have a high maintenance editor and a high maintenance reporter working together. That’s not always the best combo. And so I do have to live a bit vicariously through my reporters. There have certainly been occasions where I’ve gone to interviews, where I’ve gone to government agencies to hear their objections to things that we might be intending to report and listen to their case… I see myself very much in partnership with reporters, and that this is a very collaborative process.
I’m not doing their job, and they’re not doing my job. But there’s just so much back and forth. First of all, is this something that we want to pursue? Is this a story that has the potential to have impact, that affects a lot of people, that involves some sort of wrongdoing or accountability. Then during the reporting process, it’s a lot of Tell me what you’ve heard? Where does this take us? What do we think this story can be? Is there a whole other line of reporting here that we should be doing? Do we need to bring someone else in so that this can be done more efficiently?’
I think that the film and Jody and Megan’s book make a really good case of explaining how things unfold… We went into it with these rumors about Weinstein, but we don’t know whether they’re real, or whether it was all consensual. And, and that certainly was his argument, after the fact. We thought it involved actresses, and there was a real inflection point, weeks or months into the reporting, where suddenly Jodi learned and realized that it wasn’t just actresses, it was his own employees. And there was this whole group of people.
And in the film, they were almost the emotional core of it, those that representation of those young women, because there was a cluster of them. They were young women at the very beginning of what they had hoped would be a career in the industry, because they were so in love with the magic of films. So there were constant (developments) that change[d] our thinking…And that’s a really wonderful part of the process. We’re in this exercise about something that’s important, and how can we both get the story and make it the best it can be? … The joy of editing is being in partnership with these reporters who are doing this.
BFB: How closely do you pay attention these days to the media scene in Baltimore?
RC: I have paid a fair amount of attention to the Banner and its start; I read the Sun, though, I will admit, not every day, but my husband does every day and informs me of anything I really should know. And, you know, I’m aware of Baltimore Brew and fishbowl, which I sort of periodically pay attention to.
BFB: I think, as you know, as a mid-market suffering all the slings and arrows of the business, Baltimore, especially The Sun, has been in tough shape and the investigation side is a place where it’s hard to keep that commitment up and the resources. I know you saw last week when the Washington Post dived in and helped complete an investigation in Las Vegas, about a Ponzi scheme involving Mormons, after the local reporter had been killed. With all the resources at the Times, is there ever a discussion of a broader responsibility in journalism of partnering or helping support investigations in communities that might not get done otherwise?
RC: Early on, we had a partnership with The Texas Tribune, and we would publish some of their material in the Times….In the last year, the Times announced this fellowship program, which is intended to support investigative journalism at local news outlets across the country. And the Dean Baquet, who just stepped down as Executive Editor is heading this effort. They are in the process of selecting fellows at these news outlets across the country. And the whole premise of it is that that reporters apply with a project in mind, that’s a local project project…. And that the Times pays their salary for a year. And that the home news outlet, you know, is willing to free them up and is supportive of the project. And it’s a way of both, you know, helping that project get done providing a lot of editorial support and resources, you know, things that smaller papers or outlets don’t have data, you know, people graphics, but at most particularly a lot of editorial attention. And that, but also help, you know, inculcate some of those values and skills throughout the newsrooms there.
The Times has ambitions, not just to be a global newspaper, but newsroom, but to also be invested in every part of this country. ….So I think it will be a very exciting opportunity and if successful, and there are already some really talented people involved in it. If successful, you know, it can grow
BFB: What’s your favorite things to do in Baltimore? What do you love about Baltimore? And when you tell people in New York about Baltimore, what do you tell them they have to do?
RC: I usually say that there’s a lot of beautiful old buildings in Baltimore. And I’ll give you a more specific thing. My daughter got married in June 2021, and it was a COVID wedding in our backyard — a 20-person wedding that was just perfect and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Then that Labor Day weekend, there was a bigger party and it was down in Cosima, Mill No. 1. It is this very cool space and we could use this courtyard, and it’s right on the river. And so, in coming up with list of things for the guests to do, we talked about walking through Mount Vernon Square, and these beautiful old buildings, and then there’s these all these mill buildings. My husband knows Baltimore incredibly well….We had drinks one night on the harbor, and people were just amazed. They had never been to Baltimore before, and they said, ‘My God, this is so beautiful.’ You’re looking across at the Domino Sugar sign, and there’s all these ships going back and forth, and all these little boats. You can be a dark view person, where Baltimore has so many problems that you think ‘How is the city ever going to solve any of this?’ But there are so many wonderful things about the city and so many beautiful parts of it.
BFB: Last question: if you had not gone into journalism or become an editor, what do you see yourself doing are in the parallel universe where Rebecca Cobra has other choices to make?
RC: Oh, my: I’ve had a number of alternative fantasy careers. Not having done the whole science and medical school thing, at some point in later years, I decided I wanted to become a nurse or midwife or get a degree in Public Health from the (Bloomberg) School of Public Health. And so I went as far as getting the course catalog and realizing and I wanted to be like an epidemiologist because it’s like a detective, right? It’s like being a reporter. ….And then I realized, Wait, it’s all statistics. I don’t want to do statistics.
Then (I considered) being a cultural anthropologist, which is basically journalism as well, or a child development specialist. The truth is that I had a lot of interests, but I’ve always loved what I did. So I really had no incentive to leave. As a journalist who has a long, happy career, both at the sun, and at the Times, I’ve done a lot of medical coverage. During COVID, that’s all I did for like that first year and a half. And one of the reporters who I worked with, Sheri Fink is an MD, PhD, who was the lead reporter in the country of getting into hospitals to see what was happening and writing these very insightful stories about what happened during that first year of COVID. So there’s my vicarious medical career. And almost any story is cultural anthropology. And I edited the first documentary film made by the newsroom that the Times did about five years ago, …. I was called a producer, I believe, of this documentary film. So it’s sort of like I managed to work in my fantasy careers through my real career.