Insiders Say #MeToo Powerhouse Time’s Up Has Lost Its Way
“We have always been an organization of wealthy and powerful people,” the CEO told staffers.
In June 2020, Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen circled her staff for a virtual meeting on a magazine story that described an alleged whisper campaign the anti-harassment organization had launched against On The Record. a documentary about women who were abused by record executive Russell Simmons.
In the meeting, Tchen denied doing anything to undercut the film’s success and said Time’s Up knew nothing about co-founder Oprah’s Winfrey’s last-minute decision to pull out as executive producer.
But, she told the assembled staffers, according to a source with direct knowledge, the producers of the movie were “not good people. They have not treated the subject of their documentaries well, including this one.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast this week, Tchen said she had never trashed the filmmakers in public; in the internal meeting, she asked staff to keep her comments private.
But one of the survivors featured in the documentary told The Daily Beast that Tchen denigrated the filmmakers in a phone call with her the night Winfrey pulled out of the project. (The survivor spoke to The Daily Beast on the record, but later asked for her name to be withheld after a founding member of Time’s Up sent an email lashing out at her for participating in this story.)
“Tina Tchen said to me on the phone the night Oprah backed out of the film, ‘The filmmakers are bad people’ and when I disagreed with her she said, ‘You have to trust me on this,’” the survivor said. “She implied that Time’s Up would support me as a survivor, but only if I backed away from the film.”
A Time’s Up spokesperson said this was “just not true,” and said the organization continues to support several survivors from the film.
The saga did not end there. In a statement issued that day, Time’s Up said it stood with the Simmons survivors, but also that it “supported” Winfrey in her decision to back out of the film. (Winfrey, following a weeks-long pressure campaign by Simmons and his allies, had cited “creative differences” with the producers in backing down.)
Less than two weeks later—and two days before the film was set to premiere at Sundance—Time’s Up received a $500,000 donation from none other than Winfrey herself.
Tchen told The Daily Beast that Time’s Up’s decisions around the film were made “completely independent from any donation from Oprah.” A spokesperson for Winfrey noted that she was one of the co-founders of the fund, and that she “has remained involved with the organization, donating from her foundation in early 2020 to continue supporting survivors.”
The incident, and Time’s Up’s response, was among the complaints leveled at the powerful anti-harassment group in interviews conducted by The Daily Beast over the last month. Former staffers claimed they had to show deference to the founders and their powerful allies; members of subsidiaries claimed leadership brushed off their input. Meanwhile, internal documents reveal plans to start a for-profit consulting group that could result in Time’s Up taking money from companies with sexual harassment problems.
The diverse group of survivors, activists, and former employees who spoke to The Daily Beast painted a picture of an organization that did meaningful work, but was often hamstrung by its allegiances to powerful people, and its desire to keep them.
Tchen actually addressed some of these allegations in the internal meeting last year. Asked by a staff member whether the group would respond to criticism that it was too allied with the rich and famous, the CEO said, in short, no.
“I think that we have always been an organization of wealthy and powerful people,” Tchen said, according to the source. “That is what Time’s Up is. That is what distinguishes Time’s Up from a lot of organizations.”
“It’s why we got the attention we did,” she added. “It’s why we have the power and influence that we do.”
Time’s Up was born in the optimistic early days of the MeToo movement, when abusers were being exposed on a seemingly daily basis and men hadn’t started filing defamation suits against their accusers. In response to reporting about Harvey Weinstein’s rampant predation, a group of more than 300 actresses, directors, and other Hollywood creatives banded together to form an organization that would fight sexual harassment in their industry and beyond. “No one wants to look back and say they stood at the sidelines,” actress Lena Waithe told The New York Times at the time.
The launch of the new group made a glittering splash. The full-page ad it took out in The New York Times in January 2018 was hardly necessary; every major national publication covered its debut. At the Golden Globes that year, almost every celebrity on the red carpet wore black in solidarity with survivors (and some men implicated by the MeToo movement skipped it entirely). There were speeches about it at the Globes, and montages at the Oscars, and shout-outs at the SAG awards. The group’s first initiative, its “Legal Defense Fund” connecting survivors with attorneys and funding to pursue their claims, raised $22 million on GoFundMe in its first year.
In the last three years, the organization has undoubtedly helped shift the tides in sexual harassment cases. According to a report issued this year, the Legal Defense Fund has connected 4,800 individuals facing workplace sexual harassment to legal assistance, about one-third of whom are people of color and three quarters of whom are low-paid workers. SKDKnickerbocker, the group’s PR firm, provided pro bono public relations support to Weinstein survivors during his trial, helping them navigate an international media circus. Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation, the group’s advocacy and policy arms, have launched campaigns on issues from women affected by COVID to the gender pay gap.
But by early 2020, some staffers were beginning to feel uneasy about what they saw as their bosses’ deference to powerful political allies. At a meeting in April of last year, staffers proposed expanding their messaging around paid sick leave and other issues confronting women during the pandemic. The organization had pressed Congress on paid leave the month before, but staffers wanted to intensify the campaign and pitch lawmakers on five specific new proposals.
According to multiple people present, however, the staffers were shot down by higher-ups who said they feared the campaign might offend Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. The organization did eventually roll out a campaign about the issues a month or so later, but the employees said it left them wondering why a supposed advocacy organization was so afraid of pressuring politicians. (A spokesperson for Time’s Up said this “just didn’t happen,” and that Time’s Up was very vocal and involved in support for frontline working women during the pandemic.”)
Several former employees also said they were dismayed by the lack of action around the female primary candidates in the 2020 election, and were rebuffed when they pitched projects in support of them. The organization’s We Have Her Back campaign, for example—which defended female candidates across party lines from sexist attacks—was not launched until Biden was declared the nominee. (In defense of this, Tchen said the “level of racist and misogynistic vitriol in mainstream media'' against bipartisan candidates was not as pronounced in the primaries as the general election.)
In one incident, staffers said they were told not to tweet in support of Elizabeth Warren after she attacked presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg for his use of NDAs. The use of NDAs to silence survivors is a major Time’s Up talking point, but staffers were told that tweeting about Warren would show bias toward the candidate. They were surprised, then, when the organization issued a glowing statement after Bloomberg released some employees from their NDAs—the only complimentary statement they issued about any candidate during the primary.
In multiple calls and conversations, representatives for Time’s Up maintained that they could not show favoritism toward any specific candidate as a nonprofit organization. They pointed to critical interviews Tchen gave about Bloomberg’s use of NDAs, and said they approached the discussion as a “as a policy issue, not a candidate one.”
But the allegations of political favoritism continued this spring, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment by a string of women. At the time, most advocacy organizations were calling for an outside, independent investigation by New York Attorney General Tish James, and some were even calling on the governor to resign. But Time’s Up, which worked closely with Cuomo on state anti-harassment legislation in 2019, instead called on the administration itself to conduct an “independent investigation”—which many activists found oxymoronic.
“The Cuomo admin conducting an investigation into itself is NOT independent,” tweeted the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an Albany-based group of harassment and assault survivors. “Please do better, @TIMESUPNOW. Victims trust you.”
Time’s Up's response did not strike some staffers as surprising, given leadership’s cozy relationship with the governor. Multiple employees said staffers were chastised for posting on social media about Alessandra Biaggi, a New York State senator who shepherded the anti-harassment legislation through the Senate but who has also been a vocal critic of Cuomo. The Time’s Up website once featured a full-bleed image of Biaggi, but employees said the organization removed it when the governor’s office called to complain. (A Time’s Up spokesperson said the group never received any complaints from Cuomo.)
In an email to The Daily Beast. Biaggi called the organization's statement on the Cuomo allegations “inadequate,” adding: “An investigation into yourself is not an independent investigation by any means.”
This feeling of favoritism extended to the high-ranking members of Time’s Up, too. One employee recalled Tchen frequently telling staffers that their job was to work in service of the powerful founders and board members of the organization, who “put their names and reputations on the line in order to create Time’s Up.” (Tchen told The Daily Beast: "I needed the staff to understand that this is not a staff-driven organization.”)
That feeling played out this spring, when one of the most prominent members of Time’s Up Healthcare—a spinoff group addressing harassment in the medical field—was accused in a lawsuit of brushing off a sexual harassment report at her workplace. Instead of suspending the member, Esther Choo, the organization released a statement emphasizing that she was not a defendant nor a party to the case, and later released a second statement defending her as a champion for women’s rights.
At an internal meeting about the lawsuit, members were surprised to see Time’s Up Board Chair Roberta Kaplan acting as Choo’s attorney, and vigorously defending her from any suggestion that she step aside. Several former members told The Daily Beast that Kaplan said Time’s Up was a “sisterhood,” and that they needed to protect their sisters. Members said Tchen also told them that if everyone who was accused of something sinister stepped down from the organization, “we wouldn’t have anyone left.”
The language struck some members as evidence that Time’s Up only wanted to protect its own.
"Once we had that meeting and I saw the way that [Tchen] and [Kaplan] were saying, ‘We have to protect this sisterhood,’ I was like, I'm done here,” former member Dr. Kali Cyrus told The Daily Beast at the time. “Because I'm not in the sisterhood. They're not going to protect me. They're protecting the people who are in their inner circle.”
Even as these internal tensions brewed, Time’s Up leadership was laying the groundwork for a new for-profit entity. A 2020 “strategic plan” obtained by The Daily Beast proposes the creation of a for-profit group called “Time’s Forward,” which it describes as a “subsidiary, for-profit C Corporation wholly owned by TIME’S UP Now that can offer customized services.” Among those offerings are a “light-touch speaking model” and “specific coaching services for a select group of companies and leaders committed to building healthy workplaces.”
The Time’s Forward website is currently password-protected, and the only mention of it on the Time’s Up website is in an outdated job listing. But Tchen discussed the creation of the entity in the internal meeting last year, describing it as “a for-profit, separately branded vehicle” that would allow several of its members—herself included—to “start providing the help that we've been giving for free to companies when they've asked us for change in a compensated way.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Tchen emphasized that the entity was not meant to be a profit generator, but part of their “theory of change”—a way to incentivize companies to make tangible, lasting shifts. She said neither she nor anyone else at Time’s Up would earn a profit from the business, but that proceeds would instead “flow upwards” into the Time’s Up Foundation and Time’s Up Now. (These claims will be hard to verify, tax attorneys pointed out, because for-profit businesses are not required to disclose their financials with the same level of detail as non-profits.)
In the internal meeting last year, Tchen also admitted that the model poses thorny ethical issues: What would happen, for instance, if Time’s Forward was contracting with a company that Time’s Up wanted to call out for its terrible sexual harassment policies? In an interview, she said the company would state in any contracts that working with Time’s Forward would not insulate companies from being called to task by the Foundation or sued by the Legal Defense Fund. She said they were still considering whether Time’s Forward would release its client list publicly.
Tchen was already familiar with at least some of these issues, having already founded a for-profit sexual harassment training business with Kaplan in 2019. The business, H.A.B.I.T., offers anti-sexual-assault, diversity and inclusion, and bystander intervention training to companies that “want to do better in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up,” according to its website.
Apparently, those companies include Time’s Up itself. According to multiple former employees, Time’s Up staffers were required to take a sexual harassment training from their bosses’ side business at an all-company retreat in the winter of 2019. (Tchen said she did not know whether H.A.B.I.T. was compensated for the training, and a spokesperson did not answer questions on the issue.)
Tchen, in her interview with The Daily Beast, did not shy away from her group’s proximity to power—in fact, she insisted that it is what makes the group special. Time’s Up was lucky, she said, to have rich and famous founders who stuck with them—and used their massive platforms for change—instead of walking away after the publicity died down. That, she said, was what she wanted to communicate to staff when she told them to work in service of founders and the board.
“This is an organization where we as the staff are working to realize the goals that our broader community shares,” she said. “And we owe that to our community, [to] folks who are working in service of this broader community of women—some powerful, some not."
“The fact that we have powerful women who are willing to lend their voices and their energy to helping more broadly combat gender inequity and racial inequity, [to] create safe and fair workplaces for everyone, is key and we should not deny that,” she added. “Quite frankly, that is a page out of the oppressor’s play book... to try to walk away when we have power.”
The achievements that Time’s Up—particularly the Legal Defense Fund—has been able to rack up using its access to power are undeniable. With tens of millions of dollars donated by the likes of Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, and Ava DuVernay (and even Mark Wahlberg, after he was caught making 10 times the salary of his female co-star) the defense fund has helped victims from car detailers to medical assistants win cases that likely would have never stood a chance.
But just as men in power can use their positions to intimidate, powerful organizations can also use their sway to silence. In the days following the Time’s Up Healthcare dust-up, the group asked members of its entertainment safety working group to sign on to non-disparagement agreements barring them from criticizing the group publicly. (At the time, a spokesperson said the agreements could have been written clearer and were not mandatory.)
Some activists, survivors, and former staffers contacted by The Daily Beast declined to speak freely for this article for fear of upsetting the organization. Multiple former staffers were required to sign non-disparagement agreements upon their departure, sources with knowledge of the situation said.
Even the survivors who questioned some of Time’s Up’s decisions were emphatic that they still wanted the organization to survive. They knew of no other organization with the power, connections, and money needed to support the surging numbers of survivors coming forward.
Louise Godbold, a Weinstein accuser who also runs her own survivors’ charity, said she referred survivors to the defense fund on a near-weekly basis. She has personally seen the way fund can reverse the course of a legal case and its funding can liberate women who face crushing attorneys’ fees.
“When you're looking at the $20,000 to $50,000 needed to fight a defamation suit, who’s got that kind of money?” she said. “We need the Legal Defense Fund.”
One Weinstein survivor said she was immensely grateful for the assistance Time’s Up had given her during the trial. Despite disappointing her at several turns, it had also stepped in with crucial resources in a time of need.
“I think the hard part for all of us is that we really want Time’s Up,” she said. “This is exactly what we fight hard for, is to have a 501c3 who does support women with harassment issues.”
“I hate the infighting because I don't ever want to make us look like we're being petty, because we're not,” she added. “We're just saying: What happened? And: Can we right the ship?"