Now this story really knocked me for a loop, largely because I previously had no doubts about the quality of Ronan Farrow’s reporting—except, perhaps, his excessive credulity about the supposed sexual predation of Woody Allen on Ronan’s sister Dylan Farrow. (Ronan think that Woody is guilty for sure.) But perhaps that credulity underlies my other surprise, for in this New York Times article by Ben Smith, Farrow is taken to the woodshed for sloppy reporting, reporting so flawed that in fact it actually got Harvey Weinstein off on one charge of rape. Smith also casts doubts on several of Farrow’s other claims—important ones.
Click to read the story.
Farrow, the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (some say his father was Frank Sinatra), became famous for his reporting on thee #MeToo movement, his book Catch and Kill, and his bringing down of two powerful figures as sexual predators: Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. Nobody, least of all Ben Smith, the Times‘s media columnist, is alleging that Farrow actually made up the facts he reports. And nobody is saying that, by casting doubt on Farrow’s reportorial tactics, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more likely to be innocent. The other evidence against them, including that adduced by Farrow, is too strong. What we have here is a journalistic spanking by Smith, calling Farrow out for being too eager to check his facts and, most important, to seek corroboration for his accusations. Also, Farrow seems to have a penchant for conspiracy theories. In short, Smith says this:
Mr. Farrow may now be the most famous investigative reporter in America, a rare celebrity-journalist who followed the opposite path of most in the profession: He began as a boy-wonder talk show host and worked his way downward to the coal face of hard investigative reporting. The child of the actress Mia Farrow and the director Woody Allen, he has delivered stories of stunning and lasting impact, especially his revelations about powerful men who preyed on young women in the worlds of Hollywood, television and politics, which won him a Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve been watching Mr. Farrow’s astonishing rise over the past few years, marveling at his ability to shine a light on some of the defining stories of our time, especially the sexual misconduct of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which culminated with Mr. Weinstein’s conviction in February just before the pandemic took hold. But some aspects of his work made me wonder if Mr. Farrow didn’t, at times, fly a little too close to the sun.
Because if you scratch at Mr. Farrow’s reporting in The New Yorker and in his 2019 best seller, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” you start to see some shakiness at its foundation. He delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic — with unmistakable heroes and villains — and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic. At times, he does not always follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure, or he suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but he cannot prove.
Here’s what Smith accuses Farrow of:
1.) The first Farrow-reported accusation against Weinstein was by Lucia Evans, a college student who claimed that Weinstein lured her to his room with promises of acting jobs, and then raped her. Although Evans said she told friends about the story, there was ultimately no corroboration of this. In fact, Evans told a police detective that her sexual encounter was consensual. The case went to trial, but when the judge learned about the contradictory accounts of the plaintiff, the judge dismissed the case. Weinstein could have in fact raped her, but Farrow didn’t mention the holes in Evans’s story; at any rate, we know that Weinstein was convicted on other charges.
2.) An accusation of sexual assault by Matt Lauer in Catch and Kill could not be corroborated. And Farrow doesn’t mention this absence, just asserting, without details, that “he was confident that the conversation took place as described.”
In fact, when asked about the holes in these and other accounts by Farrow, both his publishers and the New Yorker, which published early pieces that turned into Catch and Kill, don’t offer rebuttals, but merely assert that they consider Farrow’s reporting solid.
3.) Farrow, says Smith, has a weakness for conspiracy theories. One, in the subtitle of Catch and Kill (“Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators”), is that NBC News wouldn’t report on the allegations against Weinstein because Weinstein said that if they did, he’d get the National Enquirer to expose NBC star Matt Lauer’s own sexual predation. According to the Times report, this isn’t true.
4.) Farrow’s other “conspiracy” involves Hillary Clinton, whom Farrow accuses of trying to quash his reporting to protect Mr. Weinstein, with whom she had a professional relationship. In fact, at the time Clinton was about to start a documentary film with Weinstein, and her people wanted to know if damaging information was going to emerge about Weinstein. This was not a conspiracy, but the Clinton camp’s attempt to protect Hillary’s reputation from being sullied by collaboration with a sexual predator. (Indeed, Clinton was predictably excoriated after Farrow’s claim of conspiracy.)
The long article has other accusations as well, and several venues, including the New Yorker, famous for its fact checking, come off looking pretty lame for not checking Farrow’s reporting. The story was just too big and juicy to sully with niggling inconsistencies, I guess.
Smith ends his piece with another swipe at Farrow’s credibility, which may seem trivial but is nevertheless a bit distressing:
Mr. Farrow has a big following on social media, too, and some of the same tendencies that undermine his reporting show up there. In January, when jurors were being selected for the Weinstein trial, they were asked what they had read about Mr. Weinstein to see if they could serve impartially. Mr. Farrow tweeted that a “source involved in Weinstein trial tells me close to 50 potential jurors have been sent home because they said they’d read Catch and Kill.”
Mr. Farrow was not in the courtroom that day, and he told me last week that his source stands by that figure. But the court reporter, Randy Berkowitz, told me that he recalled laughing with lawyers and court staff the day after about Mr. Farrow’s tweet, which he said was seen as “ridiculous.”
And Jan Ransom, a reporter who covered the trial for the Times, was there. The actual number of potential jurors who read the book, according to Ms. Ransom’s reporting? Two.
I reiterate that this is not a demolition of Farrow’s reporting, but a pretty stringent critique of his failure to adhere to journalistic standards, particularly the importance of fact-checking and corroboration.