In future years, 2017 may become known for the following question: When did you know?
Did you learn about the allegations of sexual harassment and assault when the public did? Or were you closer to the prominent men in question — someone who heard talk about your acquaintances and friends, but never let it sour your view of them, never asked those acquaintances and friends whether the accusations were true?
If someone asked me when I learned about Louis C.K., my answer wouldn’t be “Nov. 9, 2017,” when the New York Times published accounts from some of C.K.’s accusers. I first heard about his sexual abuses on May 9, 2016 — and that’s still almost a full year after Gawker published the first allegations against C.K. in 2015.
On May 9, 2016, David Axelrod, the chief strategist of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, interviewed Jon Stewart at the University of Chicago, my college campus, for his CNN podcast The Axe Files. I was in an audience of students eager to see the former host of The Daily Show return to the public eye, and I’d wanted to ask him a question during the Q&A portion. I didn’t get to, but I am confident that even if I had, my question would not have been as important as Dan Ackerman’s.
Dan, a fellow student and a friend of mine, was a member of one of our school’s student sketch comedy groups, and I knew that getting a chance to speak face-to-face with the likes of Jon Stewart probably meant a lot to him.
“Jon Stewart was hugely influential for me,” Dan told me today when I talked to him over the phone. “But Louis was definitely up there. For a while, he was one of my favorite comics.”
That’s why the directness underlying Dan’s question stunned me: While booking Louis C.K. to be Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show interviewee, was Stewart and his team aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct brought against C.K.? When did they know?
By now, you may have watched footage of the moment I’m describing (embedded below). Stewart’s response was highlighted yesterday by Slate, and last year by Jezebel and other outlets. It’s a moment in which the former Daily Show host appears to make light of the allegations — because of their existence through Gawker and Twitter, and not a more “authoritative” location — before he apologizes, and states that he doesn’t know what allegations Dan is talking about.
It’s also a moment in which David Axelrod, who chuckles at one point during the exchange, shoos Dan away — “Sir, appreciate your question” — before calling a close to the event.
I hadn’t anticipated that Jon Stewart, perhaps the nation’s most popular critic of injustice, would initially respond to allegations of sexual misconduct with levity. Nor had I expected David Axelrod, the chief strategist behind arguably one of the most hopeful and historic presidential campaigns in U.S. history, to aid him in such an act. Yet this is exactly what happened.
“It did shock me, in the moment,” said Dan about Stewart, “that his reaction was, first, to make fun of the internet, to say, ‘No, I didn’t see the tweets,’ and then say, ‘Oh, [Louie C.K.] was a wonderful man.’ ... And I think people need to not respond that way.”
Months after Jon Stewart’s interview, the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump would surface and convince many to have disdain for the moral character of our future president. But sitting in that room at the University of Chicago, other audience members of the Stewart-Axelrod interview dispersing past me, I felt doubts about the moral character of David Axelrod and Jon Stewart. What was the difference, exactly, between being the perpetrator and being the perpetrator’s hood?
For Stewart and Axelrod became the hood in that moment, by publicly disregarding the allegations against C.K. as speech that couldn’t be anything but lies and helping to mask the alleged transgressions of the accused. Dan’s question and its aftermath was and is minuscule in the broader conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry and beyond, but it is a microcosm of how the allegations that have come to define 2017 remained a secret for so long. Like so many others who even raise the suggestion of sexual assault, Dan became a victim of internet bullying and hate speech for the question he asked.
And if serious accusations of assault are responded to with a mixture of disinterest and ridicule from even the industry names we respect and trust, why would anyone reveal them at all?
Since October, when the allegations against Harvey Weinstein went public, the trauma behind this question has become prominent in our collective consciousness. I hope Jon Stewart and David Axelrod are paying attention to it.
Dan mentioned seeing news that Louis C.K. was supposed to be in the HBO special Night of Too Many Stars — a Jon Stewart production. If Dan made Stewart aware of the allegations in May 2016, why wasn’t C.K. cut from the program until November 2017?
“[Stewart] doesn’t have the excuse anymore. He definitely knew about it, and I know because I told him,” said Dan.
If 2017 is the year of When did you know? it must also be the year of the follow-up question: And when you found out, what did you do about it?
If more people who have not experienced sexual harassment and assault begin to ask questions like this, of themselves and others — even others they admire and adore — perhaps one day, no one will have to say another word about sexual assault. The powerful will know where society stands on consent and abide by those tenets. Our years will be marked by different monikers entirely.