FAIRFAX, Va. — Inside Courtroom 5J here in Fairfax County Circuit Court, actress Amber Heard walked out of the courtroom alone last week, grim and stone-faced, after a jury delivered a stinging verdict. In a statement posted on Instagram, her ex-husband Johnny Depp wrote: “Veritas numquam perit. Truth never perishes.”
The verdict wasn’t just against Heard for defaming Depp. It was a searing indictment of a sorry chapter in American justice: the illogical, unjust “Believe Her” industry that made Heard a poster girl for a corrupt movement determined to crush men and stamp out a keystone of our civil liberties.
The movement has other names, such as “Me Too,” “Believe Women,” “Believe All Women,” “Believe Survivors,” and “Time’s Up.” The defamation verdict exposes this multimillion-dollar industry of nonprofits, lawyers, corporations, lobbyists, and publicists who have weaponized victimhood and pithy jingles to destroy the fundamental concept of due process and foment injustice by exploiting the noble cause of women’s rights.
This trampling of the rights of the accused has been carried out with the complicity of irresponsible media outlets that have included the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Glamour. They have littered their pages with lopsided narratives, character assassinations, and—now a jury confirms—lies.
In the third row of the spectator gallery last week, Italian-born producer Giuseppe Mercadante, a local father, said the principle of innocent until proven guilty won. “Over the past few years,” he told me, “Something else has prevailed that took us back to pre-Medieval times when the law was a mob chasing the accused.”
Media outlets, including NBC’s “Today” Show, CNN and CBS, continued their complicity in Me Too injustice, however, giving the microphone to Heard attorney Elaine Bredehoft as she did a shameless media tour, smearing Depp and the jurors. In addition, media outlets like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone pressed a narrative that the verdict is a “chilling” symbol of “misogyny” that “sickened” survivors of abuse. Heard’s publicity team didn’t return a request for comment.
In trying to understand how we got here as a society, I analyzed how the American Civil Liberties Union’s PR, legal, fundraising, and “artist engagement” staff and Washington Post editors functioned as co-conspirators with Heard, publishing the 2018 op-ed with Heard’s defamation. Then, after staying overnight to witness Day 20 of the courtroom dynamics and leaving convinced that Heard had defamed Depp, I followed the breadcrumbs that a Hollywood agent, Claire Best, tracked after she noticed an abuse of power by “Believe Her” advocates. “People are finally waking up to the victim entrepreneurship industry,” Best said after the jury verdict.
Here are four phases in the “Believe Her” industry that brought us to this point. You can see the phases in more detail on my Substack.
Phase 1: Exploit Good Intentions
In 1981, as women were dismantling barriers in the workplace, the National Women’s Law Center, started as an initiative a decade earlier, was reorganized as a 501(c)3 to fight sex discrimination and sexual harassment. Heard was born into this new era in 1986.
In 2012, the law center registered a political lobbying group and in 2018 it launched the “Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund” with a powerful Democratic public relations firm, SKDK, to offer “legal representation and public relations assistance” to “survivors of harassment and abuse.” It attracted big bucks: The law center and its affiliates had $64.7 million in revenues and $101.7 million in assets for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, according to its 2021 financial statement.
An SKDK official declined comment. The National Women’s Law Center didn’t provide comment.
In June 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, later described as a “landmark piece of legislation.” It may have been written with good intentions, but the legislation—and billions of dollars doled out in grants by the U.S. Justice Department—laid the groundwork for the fundamental flaw that led to the Depp v. Heard defamation: the false binary of women as victims and men as abusers.
In 1991, in my first years in the newsroom, Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, breaking new ground for accusing men without a legal finding.
While training in 2003 as a volunteer for a domestic violence shelter, I was shocked by the anti-male narrative of the work. As a feminist who has advocated for women’s rights in my Muslim community, I know – as a woman, a “survivor” of domestic violence, and mother of a son – that humanity is not served if defeating sexism hinges on demonizing men and boys.
Phase 2: Name and Shame
Influential people in powerful positions developed strong ideas about how women’s rights could be parlayed for votes. In 1993, while Heard was riding horses outside Austin, Texas, Democratic operatives including a future Biden consultant Anita Dunn cofounded SKDK. It became a PR machine for multimillion-dollar enterprises like “Time’s Up,” Black Lives Matter, and L’Oréal (which later made Heard an “ambassador”).
In 2009, when Heard met Depp filming “The Rum Diary,” NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit (where I worked at the time), started publishing investigative pieces on college sexual assault. The project included a package on allegations of rape from a woman, Laura Dunn, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In April 2011, as “The Rum Diary” was released, the Biden administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter with the support of the activists in the industry, including Dunn and Michele Dauber, a Stanford University law professor. The letter advocated for preferential treatment for women making accusations on campuses under Title IX of the national Education Amendments of 1972 law. Dauber didn’t return a request for comment.
New nonprofits emerged, like Know Your IX, in 2013. That year, a PhD student, Holly Jacobs, started Cyber Civil Rights Initiative to fight nonconsensual porn. That year another woman, Andrea Pino, alleged sexual assault at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her claims covered the airwaves yet were years later noted to have included “implausibilities and inconsistencies.” Pino couldn’t be reached for comment.
In 2014, the White House released a report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” with one mention of “men and boys” as victims. That year, Laura Dunn founded nonprofit SurvJustice Inc.
In an interview, Dunn, now an attorney, recognized, “The gender narrative is very harming. I feel deep pain for male survivors who feel like they have been ignored. I don’t gender survivors.” She noted: “I do believe in the public policy of believing survivors because we have to take it seriously when we have reports of domestic violence and rape. Our system is broken.”
She said: “I’m supportive of due process as an attorney. Sometimes, justice cannot be achieved through the legal process.”
In January 2015, a shocking case grabbed the headlines when Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner sexually assaulted a young woman, first called “Emily Doe,” then self-identifying as Chanel Miller, whose family friend was Dauber. Turner was convicted of felony sexual assault.
The next month, thousands of miles away, Depp married Heard.
By November 2015, the new mantra was becoming a political slogan, with Hillary Clinton posting a message on Twitter: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” The issue would become a galvanizing theme in Clinton’s race against Donald Trump in the next year.
In 2017, feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers wrote a seminal article, “The Media is Making College Rape Culture Worse,” chronicling the sloppy narrative of “serial predators roaming free on college campuses” and the policy changes that had enabled this hysteria.
It was into this backdrop that Heard’s marriage with Depp was falling apart. At one point in a recording played in court, Heard told Depp, “I did not deck you. I f-cking was hitting you.”
Phase 3: #BelieveHer
In May 2016, Heard filed for a temporary restraining order against Depp. She catapulted to a new role as a darling of the “Believe Her” industry. Depp’s lawyer, Camille Vasquez, said: “Amber Heard took on the role of a lifetime. That of a victim of domestic abuse.”
Heard landed on the June 2016 cover of People magazine with her eyes downcast and alleged injuries to her face, behind this headline: “INSIDE THEIR TOXIC MARRIAGE. Jealous fights & accusations of violence.”
In mid-November 2016, Heard read the victim statement from “Emily Doe” at the Glamour Women of the Year awards, posing for a selfie with honoree Dauber, the Stanford law professor, and actress Lena Dunham, another future lightning rod in the Me Too movement. Days later, Heard released a public-service announcement against domestic abuse, with ENews writing that Heard’s “abuse allegations against ex-husband Johnny Depp made headlines earlier this year.”
There were skeptics of this new justice, with Sommers taping a video about the “death of the due process.” A high-profile case also raised “Believe Her” doubts: a jury ruled that Rolling Stone engaged in defamation with a 2014 article on an alleged rape victim at the University of Virginia, who fabricated her story.
But now the “Believe Her” industry had a new political enemy: Donald Trump. Then, in October 2017, a culprit emerged: producer Harvey Weinstein. Me Too took off.
With the start of 2018, the “Time’s Up” movement launched, with none other than SKDK and its bevy of Obama and Biden administration supporters aiding its PR. The National Women’s Law Center Fund LLC announced it would run the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, with SKDK partner Hilary Rosen a cofounder.
In its 2020 IRS 990 filing, Time’s Up Foundation posted $18.4 million in revenue, spending $1.9 million on the legal defense fund. Former Obama staffer Valerie Jarrett served on its board and former Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen received $721,744 from the organization and related groups, according to the 990.
Phase 4: ‘Damn the Torpedoes’
In September 2018, the “Believe Her” juggernaut found momentum with rape accusations by Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh. Kendra Barkoff Lamy, a former Joe Biden press secretary working at SKDK, advised Ford.
Ironically, Heard shared a column on Biden’s “disastrous Anita Hill hearing” in 1991, with the message: “and we wonder why victims choose to remain silent….. #BelieveWomen… #BelieveSurvivors.” Who showed up in D.C. for Kavanaugh protests? Heard, who shared a photo with the hashtag #BelieveWomen.
On Nov. 6, 2018, ACLU communications staffer Gerry Johnson pitched an op-ed to Heard and her publicist, Gottleib, about what else? How “survivors of gender-based violence,” or “GBV,” were “less safe under the Trump administration.” Among the talking points: the alleged evil of Trump’s attacks on Ford, Trump’s Title IX policies, Congress’s failure to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and, of course, Heard’s “personal story, saying how painful it is as a GBV survivor to witness these setbacks.”
That month, Heard landed on the cover of Glamour, with the headline, “…Heard is Nobody’s Victim.” In one photo, Heard held the book “White Fragility.” Then, on Dec. 12, 2018, Heard PR man Sean Walsh wrote to her, clearing the op-ed: “I say send it off and damn the torpedoes ahead!”
Six days later, the Washington Post published the fateful op-ed, with comments on Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and, of course, Heard as a domestic violence survivor. The ACLU hyped the piece, “By Amber Heard, ACLU Ambassador for Women’s Rights.” In its 2020 IRS 990 filing, ACLU Inc. reported $170.9 million in revenues.
The narrative was set. One detail was missing: a conviction. This “Believe Her” industry could only come tumbling down if someone emerged to challenge it boldly. Depp became that person.
The hypocrisy of the “Believe Her” industry emerged in summer 2021, when Time’s Up chairwoman Roberta Kaplan – who had stepped down as Heard’s attorney in the Depp case – resigned after the New York attorney general alleged that she assisted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he faced sexual harassment charges. The National Women’s Law Center announced it wouldn’t be using SKDK any longer as its PR team.
‘Truth Never Perishes’
Back in Courtroom 5J, after the court clerk read the verdict, the spectator gallery broke into audible support for Depp. The ethnically diverse jury revealed that in the pursuit of justice, due process cannot be suspended.
The “Believe Her” industry won’t let go easily of its darling, however. After the verdict was announced, Stanford lawyer Dauber, who has mocked Depp as a “drunken, drugged fake pirate,” shared a photo from the 2016 Glamour awards that launched Heard in the #BelieveHer industry, writing: “#istandwithamberheard and with all survivors, without exception, period…@LeaveHeardAlone.”
Of course, to the “Believe Her” industry, there is an exception: Depp and any who defy their presumption of guilt. Fortunately, the verdict is in. “Believe Her” lost. Due process wins.