In his latest column in The New York Times, Ben Smith has made a bold allegation against perhaps the most famous investigative journalist in America. Ronan Farrow’s reporting on sexual violence and related abuses of power, he writes, has sometimes failed to “follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure.” Smith raises questions about whether Farrow did the necessary legwork—“the painstaking task of tracking down friends and neighbors a traumatized victim may have confided in soon after the assault, to see if their accounts align with the victim’s story and to give it more—or less—weight”—to confirm two women’s allegations of sexual assault (one against Harvey Weinstein, the other against Matt Lauer). And he uses these examples—which Farrow has contested, and so have others involved in Farrow’s reporting at The New Yorker—to bolster his overarching allegation that Farrow writes to tell a convincing story, not necessarily to tell you what he knows with certainty.
“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,” Smith writes. But this lack of precision, at least in Smith’s view, is about more than just Farrow: “His work, though, reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.”
It’s true that Farrow’s reporting has landed so forcefully in part because the media is in the midst of renegotiating its relationship to movements like #MeToo. That also includes a sincere reevaluation of how we report on rape. What, for instance, constitutes enough “corroboration” to go to print? After all, Smith isn’t saying Farrow got the story wrong; he’s claiming that Farrow wasn’t forthcoming about his efforts to confirm what two people knew about two women’s allegations. How to fairly, thoroughly report on sexual assault is a live debate, and it extends beyond Farrow. That shouldn’t get lost in debating Farrow’s alleged sins of journalism.
Though Smith may have meant “the resistance” more broadly,
it is hard to characterize Farrow’s work as aligned with anti-Trumpism: Of the
investigations that produced the greatest impact, Farrow’s subjects were
liberal Democrats. In March, Weinstein was sentenced
to 23 years for committing
a first-degree criminal sex act and third-degree rape. Former New York Attorney
General Eric Schneiderman resigned
three hours after the publication of Farrow’s story with Jane Mayer, in which
four women said
he physically abused them. Weinstein and Schneiderman were supporters of
Trump’s former opponent, current resistance heroine Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It may feel now, nearly three years later, that Weinstein was a “public figure
most disliked by the loudest voices,” but at the time, he was still defended as
even if he had a bad “temper.”
Schneiderman’s reputation was built in part on his professed commitment
to challenging sexual violence. He had sued
the Weinstein Company for alleged complicity in Weinstein’s harassment and
abuse, and he called
the #MeToo movement a “critical national reckoning.”
Farrow’s “resistance journalism,” then, is not constrained by partisan politics; rather, as Smith sees it, it is journalism that seeks not the truth but to take down powerful people loathed by “the loudest voices,” and it does so with insufficient “fairness and open-mindedness.” Smith’s argument about Farrow’s alleged lack of rigor is boosted by the fact that the kinds of allegations of sexual violence Farrow investigates are still held to a unique standard of proof, whereas the allegations of journalistic impropriety Smith himself makes, by virtue of appearing in the Times, can take on the undeserved veneer of objectivity and authority.
Smith doesn’t address this directly, but what are currently regarded as the rules of reporting on rape can work against the person coming forward. As Vox reporter Laura McGann described it recently, the publication of such stories requires “extraordinary amounts of evidence,” and “not just consistent corroboration but oftentimes multiple stories, stacked on top of each other.” An allegation may be true, but that’s not enough to get to publication. And what’s regarded as corroboration can be subjective. Is there a specific number of people that someone should have shared their story with contemporaneously? How much of that story did someone have to reveal to them? How much can their story and their witnesses’ stories change over time? There is not—and it is difficult to imagine how there would be—an industry-wide standard for this. In fact, these kinds of rules for reporting on sexual violence have been the subject of much debate since the Weinstein stories in The New Yorker and The New York Times. There is a growing acceptance, among some journalists, that reporting on sexual violence means negotiating three sometimes competing things: the demands of rigorous investigative work, the difficulty of producing airtight accounts of trauma that subjects may have minimized at the time as a way to cope and move on, and the needs and realities of those subjects in the face of such a story being published.
Investigative journalism’s roots are partly in stories about
sex, the law, and abuses of power. Men collecting what they considered evidence
of sexual violence against women helped define muckraking, as Gretchen
Soderlund details in her book, Sex Trafficking, Scandal,
and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885–1917. These men, like George
Kibbe Turner at McClure’s, seized national attention and inspired
high-profile prosecutions with their exposés of the allegedly new phenomenon
that Progessive Era reformers called “white slavery”—prostitution. They were
“new journalism” when it actually was new, the first decade of the twentieth
century, the first time there was a national media in the United States. And
their work, far from being received by all as unadulterated journalistic truth,
kicked off intense debate, including in the pages of The New York Times.
At first, writes Soderlund, the paper shied away from following up on Turner’s popular stories of girls sold into brothels—muckraking was not their style—until a new district attorney launched an undercover investigation through which the paper could “discover” the story itself (“White Slave Traffic Shown to Be Real,” April 30, 1910). The Times faithfully covered the ensuing trial, but when it found that the women had largely sold sex of their own accord, the paper looked as untrustworthy as the muckrakers. “The public relations solution to this predicament,” Soderlund writes, “was to portray the Times as a detached observer and recorder of a story that was in the midst of unraveling, while projecting a retrospective delight that ‘reason’ had prevailed over anecdotal sensationalism.” The story was no longer about women who were or weren’t forced into brothels but about which reporters ought to be believed—the Timesman or those muckrakers who led their readers astray. The paper’s “detached observer” role was cemented.
There is nothing new, then, about this interplay of investigative reporting and reform movements, or debates about whose reporting is corrupted by the pursuit of a cause. As Soderland argues: “Rather than fostering social movements, muckraking relied on political and moral reform movements as preconstituted audiences.” Similarly, the reporting on Weinstein benefited from the increased attention drawn to sexual violence by activists like Tarana Burke, who coined #MeToo in 2006. Getting Farrow’s work in front of receptive readers in turn prompted prosecutors who had once passed on charging Weinstein to return to their investigations. But to have a strong movement expand around your reporting doesn’t mean the reporting is going to be determined by the movement.
Investigative journalists are expected to be objective and
agenda-free while also producing work that spurs profound political or social
change. The same reporters and editors who might applaud a story that results
in someone landing in jail for a sex offense, for example, may also insist that
the people who produced that story have no particular agenda—as if that itself
isn’t an agenda. News organizations like the Times will sometimes take
pains to appear neutral, and Smith seems to expect the same of Farrow, while sidestepping the fact that claiming neutrality is a position, too.
Smith’s complaint about “resistance journalism” comes at a moment when investigative reporters who are fortunate to have newsroom jobs see their peers losing jobs at a catastrophic rate. Newspapers have shed around one-quarter of their workforce since 2008. The pandemic is only deepening these cuts. In April, the Times reported that 36,000 media workers had been laid off, furloughed, or had their pay cut; last week alone, another 500 lost their jobs. Right now, we suffer from too little investigative journalism, and very few reporters still working have the kind of resources that Ronan Farrow (and Ben Smith) have. Farrow’s book Catch and Kill may chronicle the institutional barriers he faced reporting his stories at NBC News, but more common are all the stories that never get institutional backing to begin with.
Such storytelling can also come off as indulging in unseemly showboating: Megan Reynolds at Jezebel was correct when she described the book “as if John Grisham decided to take a stab at Spotlight.” In light of the subject matter, this narrative choice can also come off as pointed, aggressive allyship: the desire to be seen as the man who defied his superiors to do good on women’s behalf threatens to obscure the often invisible, lonely work of nailing down the kind of fearless investigative story Farrow wants to tell. This approach might be what most opens Farrow to criticism like Smith’s.
How does one become a marquee investigative reporter? It can come from solid reporting, or institutional backing, or prestige—even parentage and upbringing, another unseemly topic (media dynasticism) reporters who want the work to stand on its own also prefer not to air in public. Perhaps Farrow’s journalistic sins are more a matter of aesthetics and discretion: As long as a reporter isn’t too earnest and doesn’t seem like they actually want to change the world, then doing world-changing reporting, to their peers, remains dignified and laudable.
The Times backed its reporters on the Weinstein beat, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, as they made clear in their book, She Said. Yet Farrow, charmed though his path may be, had to defend his story from his own news organization, something he shares with decades of journalists whose reporting on sexual violence wasn’t then seen as exposing the kinds of abuse of power that investigative journalism dedicates itself to. Unlike most of those journalists, Farrow had the privilege to take his work to another respected news organization, and be supported there. Not unlike them, he is doing his work in a news economy that still sometimes treats reporting on rape as if, by definition, it has a point of view.
Smith’s critique doesn’t really seem to be about “resistance journalism” writ large. He doesn’t make it explicit, but given the real through line of Farrow’s work, Smith’s column instead reads like a referendum on #MeToo—and the movement’s supporters and antagonists alike have received it that way. Smith’s complaint lands in a receptive moment, too. After Joe Biden was accused of sexual assault by former staffer Tara Reade, conservatives who have long been predicting the demise of #MeToo redoubled their efforts at proving that “Believe All Women” is a liberal sham, not an exaggerated slogan of their own. Their notion of some alleged #MeToo overreach has also been boosted by some liberals seeking to preemptively exonerate the man they hope can defeat Donald Trump. Whether or not they agree with Smith’s critique of Farrow, Biden believers and detractors both see his Times column as proof that they are right. Their response isn’t partisan; it’s about rape and whom to believe.
The movement against sexual violence has prompted journalists to more thoroughly and fairly report on the subject. In turn, their reporting has drawn more people to the movement but also drawn severe scrutiny to these reporters, who will inevitably make mistakes. Yet Smith risks collapsing these important distinctions, as if Farrow’s alleged misdeeds of investigative journalism were driven by this movement. #MeToo may have found value in Farrow’s work, but only he is responsible for what, if Smith’s allegations are founded, would be age-old issues of journalistic ego leading to error.