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Ronan Farrow’s Botched Journalism is Troubling. The Response to It Has Been Worse

The #MeToo era has been a time for all journalists to re-examine their professional standards.

· 14 min read
Ronan Farrow’s Botched Journalism is Troubling. The Response to It Has Been Worse
Ronan Farrow speaking in Toronto in 2019.

On January 9th, during jury selection for the sex-assault trial of Harvey Weinstein, Ronan Farrow tweeted that a “source” with knowledge of the proceedings had told him that “close to 50 potential jurors have been sent home” because they’d read his book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators. In fact, the number of jurors sent home for that reason was two, as a New York Times reporter had already noted.

Twitter typically isn’t journalism, and Farrow wasn’t tweeting in his capacity as a reporter. But the fact that he believed the vastly inflated figure to be accurate, saw fit to boast to his followers about it, and even stood by the number when later challenged on it, is indicative of his robust sense of self-regard and the ease with which he is seduced by dramatic but dubious narratives. As New York Times media columnist Ben Smith wrote in a May 17th feature entitled “Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?,” the disgruntled-NBC-staffer-turned-New Yorker reporter has, for his young age, a surprisingly extensive record of botched stories:

  • In 2018, Farrow prominently reported a source’s sensational claim that records pertaining to Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer, had vanished from a government database under suspicious circumstances. But as Smith notes, it turns out the circumstances weren’t suspicious, and the documents hadn’t even vanished. Farrow’s source was later discovered to have been a mentally fragile IRS employee and TV addict who’d illegally leaked Cohen’s records to a lawyer representing porn actress Stormy Daniels. (In response to Smith’s article, a New Yorker editor emphasized that Farrow had relied on information that was available at the time, and asserted that Smith hadn’t included the “detailed responses” that had been provided by the New Yorker in regard to his inquiries.)
  • In a long article for the New Yorker in October 2017, Farrow reported allegations by a college student, Lucia Evans, who claimed that Harvey Weinstein had forced her to perform oral sex on him in his office. However, Farrow did not disclose that a friend who was with Evans when she’d first encountered Weinstein at a club had refused to corroborate Evans’ allegation of assault, volunteering only that “something inappropriate happened.” The same friend later told police that Evans’ encounter with Weinstein was actually consensual, a report that a detective then tried to obscure. (When this was discovered, the assault charge related to Evans was dismissed.)
  • Catch and Kill related a stunning tale, in which then-news anchor Matt Lauer was said to have assaulted a junior employee named Brooke Nevils, with whom he had previously had an affair, in an NBC dressing room. Nevils then fled in tears, Farrow wrote, “to the new guy she’d started seeing, a producer who was working in the control room that morning, and told him what had happened.” But, as Smith reports, neither Farrow nor his fact-checker bothered to speak with this “new guy.” And when Smith did contact him, he said he has no memory of the scene Farrow described. It is exceedingly unlikely that this witness completely forgot that his tearful girlfriend had told him that she had just been sexually assaulted by one of America’s most famous newscasters.
  • Weinstein has been sentenced to 23 years in jail for his sex crimes. Since he’d been able to prey on women with impunity for years, the inclusion of the word “conspiracy” in the subtitle of Farrow’s bestseller is arguably apt—at least on the level of loose metaphor. But Farrow isn’t dealing in metaphors: He actually suggests that forces within NBC and even Hillary Clinton’s political team sought to prevent the disclosure of Weinstein’s behavior—a scandalous claim that undoubtedly helped sell the book. But Farrow’s evidence turned out to be thin to non-existent. And even the evidence that did exist seems to have been garbled by the author. In regard to NBC, Farrow’s proof of conspiracy amounted to such vagaries as suspicious glances exchanged during editorial meetings; and second-hand accounts delivered by an ex-NBC staffer named William Arkin, who failed to substantially back up the most dramatic aspects of Farrow’s narrative when Smith spoke to him. Where Clinton is concerned, Farrow focused closely on a phone call from a Clinton spokesman, Nick Merrill, which Farrow suggested might be part of an “ominous” pro-Weinstein, anti-Farrow agenda. But as Smith notes, the far more likely motivation for the call, as indicated by preserved third-party text messages, was closer to the opposite: Clinton was (justly) hesitant to get involved in a documentary project with Weinstein, and was seeking Farrow’s input.

As Smith is careful to note, Farrow doesn’t appear to be an outright fabulist. The Pulitzer Prize winner simply comes off as a young and callow reporter seduced by monochromatic moral narratives, and impatient with the journalistic spadework and rigorous vetting needed to support breathless claims about the misuses of power that he sees everywhere. He is, after all, only 32 years old—much younger than most high-profile investigative journalists—and these flaws in his reporting style may well diminish with greater age, experience, and maturity.

Nevertheless, it is unsettling to observe Farrow’s reluctance to take ownership of his mistakes, even those that are set plainly before him. When Smith approached Farrow for comment, he retreated behind self-serving generalizations. On the specifics of the Lauer blunder, Farrow replied vaguely that “I am confident that the conversation took place as described and it was verified in multiple ways.” But he didn’t tell Smith what those “ways” were. Farrow reported a conversation between two people, but spoke to only one of them, and the other party has no memory of it.

Lauer was fired from NBC, with cause, in November 2017, due to what network chairman Andrew Lack called “inappropriate sexual behavior,” most notably with Nevils. Lauer later released a statement in which he said, “some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.” But Nevils told Farrow an altogether more lurid and harrowing story about Lauer that allegedly occurred when they were in Sochi covering the 2014 Winter Olympics. In his Times essay, Smith detailed one serious error in Farrow’s reporting of Nevils’ claims. In a follow-up article of his own for Mediaite, Lauer detailed others.

It was in October 2019 that, as part of the promotional campaign for Catch and Kill, Farrow insisted that Lauer had not only carried on an inappropriate affair with Nevils, but that he had anally raped her. Lauer has always vehemently denied this accusation, and, in his Mediaite essay, points out that Nevils had never made any claim of sexual abuse when she’d filed her complaint with NBC (as the network had confirmed).

This did not dissuade Farrow, who assured readers in Catch and Kill that “Nevils told ‘like a million people’ about Lauer. She told her inner circle of friends. She told colleagues and superiors at NBC. She was never inconsistent and she made the seriousness of what happened clear.” Specifically, Farrow asserted, “when [Nevils] moved to a new job within the company, working as a producer for Peacock Productions, she reported it to one of her new bosses there. She felt they should know, in case it became public and she became a liability.” Astonishingly, Farrow seems to have made no effort at all to speak with these “new bosses.”

But Lauer did. And it turns out that both Nevils’ boss and that person’s boss (both of whom are described as women, for what that’s worth) report that Nevils had never told them anything remotely close to what Farrow had reported. To the contrary: Nevils told her new supervisor, in the spirit of office gossip, that she’d had an affair with Lauer.

Obviously, no one should take Lauer’s self-exculpatory account on trust. But Mediaite prefaced Lauer’s piece with a note indicating that editors had independently fact-checked the accounts of the individuals referenced in the article, all of whom “confirmed in early February that Lauer’s account of their conversations was accurate.”

Lauer also supplies details about the story that Farrow related of a tearful and traumatized Nevils running through the hallways of NBC to the comfort of her “new guy.” Like Smith, Lauer called this witness to see if he would corroborate the account she gave Farrow. Here is Lauer’s description of that phone call:

We spoke by phone for the better part of two hours. He was very upset at being referenced, even indirectly, in the book but he was worried that he would face criticism if he spoke out. But he told me that Brooke did not come crying to see him in the control room to discuss any story of an assault involving me. It didn’t happen. In fact, that “new guy” in Brooke’s life told me that he wouldn’t have even been in the control room, at the time of day Ronan writes she, ran crying to see him. The ‘control room incident’ simply never happened, because the episode, as Ronan describes it in his book, never did. That “new guy” also told me, as I expected, that Ronan Farrow never reached out to him to fact check the story that referenced him in the book.

In constructing an image of Lauer as a sort of scheming Heathcliff presiding over a terrified NBC staff, Farrow was required to explain why Nevils continued to initiate romantic encounters with Lauer on her own initiative. By way of explanation, Farrow presents Nevils as being fearful that if she didn’t initiate such liaisons, Lauer might retaliate against either her or her regular boyfriend—a man over whom Lauer held, as Farrow put it, “a position of authority.” But, as Lauer reports, he had no workplace authority over Nevils’ boyfriend.

Nor, apparently, did Farrow bother checking Nevils’ emotive claim that the shame of her affair with Lauer had caused her to break up with this boyfriend. But Lauer checked that too, and ended up talking with this (now former) boyfriend for three hours. Lauer’s summary of their conversation is delicately rendered, but the tenor is well-summarized by his description of the ex-boyfriend going “out of his way to express his concern for Brooke and how she might react to having her allegations challenged.”

Even where Farrow’s reporting on Nevils seems nominally accurate, his prose reads more like a lawyer’s letter on behalf of a client than a work of investigative journalism. In regard to Nevils’ repeated messages to Lauer, this is cast as the behavior of a wronged woman trying to “convince” herself of a false narrative. At another point in the book, Farrow writes that “Over the course of 2018, I’d learn of seven claims of sexual misconduct raised by women who worked with Lauer”—the implication, surely intended, being that Lauer himself was the subject of these accusations. But as Farrow subsequently acknowledged in an interview with George Stephanopoulos for ABC, that was not in fact the case. Whatever one may think of Lauer, the disclosures contained in his article—to repeat, independently fact-checked by his Mediaite editors—make it difficult to reject his thesis that “from start to finish, Ronan is acting as [Nevils’] advocate, not as a journalist investigating her claims. He is breaking a cardinal rule of journalism: he has come to a self-serving conclusion first, and then he sees everything through the prism of that assumption.”

#MeToo and Journalism: An Interview with Daphne Merkin
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Farrow was not reporting allegations of shoplifting or petty fraud. The most serious accusation against Lauer was rape—anal rape, no less, that was apparently so violent that when Nevils awoke in her own hotel room the following morning, “blood was everywhere.” Not so long ago, this was a capital crime, and it is still punishable by life in prison in many jurisdictions. Given the seriousness of such an accusation, any fair-minded reporter would have made sure it was true before publishing it. Farrow’s failure to consult with even obvious sources resulted in him tarring Lauer with claims that will forever be believed by millions. “Brooke Nevils attempted suicide after alleged rape by Matt Lauer, book says,” cried a New York Post headline in late 2019. Only those few bothering to scroll down to the very final sentence will find any mention of Lauer’s protestations of innocence.

When these lapses were reported last week, Farrow seemed unconcerned, blithely tweeting that “Matt Lauer is just wrong.” This arrogant posture is ironic given that Farrow himself casts his mission as exposing the manner by which fame and wealth allow cynical actors to evade accountability. Could any other mainstream journalist get away with publishing blunders like these, and then, when called upon to address them, be rewarded with more than 70,000 likes for a dashed off two-sentence response that begins with the words, “All I’ll say on this…”?

It is instructive to compare Farrow’s pursuit of a #MeToo exclusive with the case of Laura McGann, a Vox journalist who, like Farrow, combines strong advocacy with her day-to-day work in a newsroom. In a recent essay, she explained how wrenching it was to cover Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden. “I wanted to break this story. Badly,” she wrote. But McGann just didn’t have enough to stand the story up before others decided to report it:

If I were an old friend of Reade’s and she told me this same story privately over the course of a year, I doubt I would question her account. But I’m not an old friend. I’m a journalist. Reade came to me because she wanted to share her story with the world, not just with me. It was clear in our conversations that she understood the difference. I listened to her, I interviewed relevant sources, and I returned to her many times in an attempt to get more information to help me find more corroboration… I wanted to believe Reade when she first came to me, and I worked hard to find the evidence to make certain others would believe her, too. I couldn’t find it.

As McGann argues, her circumspection does much to advance #MeToo: “The rallying cry has been to ‘believe women,’” she writes. “But the acts of journalism that have driven the movement forward have been built on extraordinary amounts of evidence: They usually include not just consistent corroboration but oftentimes multiple stories, stacked on top of each other.”

Unlike Farrow, McGann is not a celebrity. So if she’d been tasked with investigating Nevils’ claims and had done so without double-checking them with the most obvious sources, she’d likely have been escorted out of her office at Vox with her personal effects in a file box.

* * *

It is perhaps not surprising that Farrow sees a world of dark plots and sinister villains, as his personal life has been steeped in false conspiracist lore. He was only a young child when his mother Mia Farrow began a relentless campaign to convince the world that her estranged partner Woody Allen (Ronan’s father) had molested Ronan’s sister Dylan in an attic crawl space at their Connecticut home. As brother Moses Farrow has recounted in detail, this story was always preposterous, and Farrow’s accusations have been rejected by multiple authorities—including the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of the Yale/New Haven Hospital, following a six-month investigation. Yet Ronan Farrow has continued to denounce Allen in public, and has used his celebrity to try to kill a magazine profile of Allen’s wife, Soon-Yi Previn, and prevent publication of Allen’s new memoir.

This obsession with demonizing Allen may help explain Farrow’s manner of casting the real world as one of movie heroes and villains. And his breathless prose often resembles the kind of writing one might find in an old-fashioned potboiler, complete with two-dimensional characters, maudlin dialogue and gumshoe atmospherics—as with the scene from Catch and Kill where Merrill delivers his “ominous” warnings, and we are told that Farrow “felt a rivulet of rain run down [his] neck.” And Farrow is not beneath including asides from witnesses who testify to his own courage and virtue, such as this purportedly spontaneous declaration from Nevils: “If the Weinstein accusers hadn’t talked to you, I never would have said a word… I saw myself in those stories. And when you see the worst part of your life in the pages of the New Yorker, it changes your life.”

Of course, great reporting doesn’t require great writing. And Farrow would hardly be the first celebrity journalist whose vanity exceeded his talents. But this does not explain why others are so eager to give his professional methods a pass. Even Ben Smith’s editors at the New York Times seemed uneasy about his exposé, running it below the fold in the business section of the print edition, and vaguely headlining the essay “Is Reporter Too Good To Be True?” (The online version also omitted Farrow’s name until this peculiarity was pointed out, whereupon it was changed.) Over at Slate, meanwhile, Farrow’s defenders were so outraged that they ran a rejoinder pointedly entitled “Is Ben Smith’s Column about Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?” Of particular concern to author Ashley Feinberg: “[Smith] opened the door for Matt Lauer to build on Smith’s own debatable representations, granting Lauer the legitimacy bestowed by the Times in the process.”

Linger on that sentence for a moment. We are being asked to indict one journalist for providing the public with fresh information because, in doing so, that journalist opened the door for another writer to provide additional fresh information. The most storied journalists of yore often had to fight tooth and nail—including in court—to get the information they needed. But in 2020, their heirs lambast one another for abetting the disclosure of impolitic truths. And Slate is hardly alone. Numerous public figures attacked Lauer’s article, some of them announcing proudly that they had not even bothered to read it before doing so.

The journalists and writers collected here include an editor at the Daily Beast, a contributor to the BBC and Independent, an NBC writer, and a New York Magazine and HuffPost contributor with over 600,000 followers. To this, one of Canada’s most prominent investigative reporters added that “the world does not need to hear from Matt Lauer on this.”

To announce that the world does not “need” new information about an important story is a strange posture for any journalist, but all the more so in the case of one who makes her living in the investigative sphere. This is the reporter who famously broke the story of then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s crack-smoking habit, after she was approached by two alleged members of a gang known for weapons and drug trafficking. Did the world “need” to hear from members of a criminal gang at that moment? Why yes, the world did. Much in the same way that the world needs to hear from all of the assorted crooks, scoundrels, and worse whose accounts often prove essential as witness testimony in criminal prosecutions. Journalism is a trade, not a priesthood. And every journalist, like every prosecutor, should know that important information often comes to us through unsavory characters.

The most likely explanation for these blithe dismissals of Lauer’s article is that many public figures, including journalists, now feel obligated to behave (or at least posture) as activists. This is especially true on Twitter, which often serves as an unholy mash-up of professional content and personal political signaling. Even the aforementioned McGann, whose Vox essay provided such a detailed moral roadmap for reporters seeking to navigate the conflicting demands of #MeToo and due process, felt the need to tweet: “I got as far as the byline [of Lauer’s article] and passed out.” Social media users’ need to display the dismissive shrug, the world-weary eye-roll, the correctly targeted sneer, is a common reflex, but also a bad look to those who do take the time to acquaint themselves with the facts at issue.

The #MeToo era has been a time for all journalists to re-examine their professional standards. And one of the reasons why passions were, and remain, so inflamed in regard to famous male authority figures who’ve been caught acting improperly is that they serve as a stand-in for the many other, lesser-known, men who act in the same way. It is understandable—perhaps even laudable—that journalists should want to publicly signal their allegiance to the cause of correcting such misbehavior. But when that allegiance blurs into willful blindness, it permits fame to trump integrity, and political fashion to trump truth-seeking.

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