Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?


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It was a wide ranging story, written by The New Yorker’s marquee reporter and printed with an attention-grabbing headline: “Missing Files Motivated the Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records.”

In it, the reporter, Ronan Farrow, suggests one thing suspicious unfolding contained in the Treasury Department: A civil servant had seen that data about Mr. Cohen, the private lawyer for President Trump, mysteriously vanished from a authorities database within the spring of 2018. Mr. Farrow quotes the nameless public servant as saying he was so involved in regards to the data’ disappearance that he leaked different monetary stories to the media to sound a public alarm about Mr. Cohen’s monetary actions.

The story set off a frenzied response, with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes calling it “an amazing shocking story about a whistle-blower” and his colleague Rachel Maddow describing it as “a meteor strike.” Congressional Democrats demanded solutions, and the Treasury Department promised to examine.

Two years after publication, little of Mr. Farrow’s article holds up, in accordance to prosecutors and court docket paperwork. The Treasury Department data on Michael Cohen by no means went “missing.” That was merely the story put ahead by the civil servant, an Internal Revenue Service analyst named John Fry, who later pleaded responsible to illegally leaking confidential info.

The data have been merely placed on restricted entry, a longstanding observe to stop leaks, a chance Mr. Farrow briefly permits for in his story, however minimizes. And Mr. Fry’s leaks had been inspired and circulated by a person who was barely talked about in Mr. Farrow’s article, the now-disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti, a passionate antagonist of Mr. Cohen.

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.

Mr. Farrow, 32, is not a fabulist. His reporting can be misleading but he does not make things up. 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.

That can be a dangerous approach, particularly in a moment when the idea of truth and a shared set of facts is under assault.

“Are all the Ts crossed and the Is dotted? No,” Mr. Auletta said of some of Mr. Farrow’s most sweeping claims of a conspiracy between Mr. Weinstein and NBC to suppress his work.

“You’re still left with the bottom line — he delivered the goods,” Mr. Auletta said.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, defended Mr. Farrow’s reporting, calling it “scrupulous, tireless, and, above all, fair.”

“Working alongside fact checkers, lawyers and other editorial staff members at The New Yorker, he achieved something remarkable, not least because he earned the trust of his sources, many of whom had to relive traumatic events when they talked to him,’’ Mr. Remnick said in a statement. “We stand by Ronan Farrow’s reporting. We’re proud to publish him.”

Mr. Farrow, in his own statement to The New York Times, said he brings “caution, rigor, and nuance” to each of his stories. “I’m proud of a body of reporting that has helped to expose wrongdoing and to bring important stories into public view.”

It’s impossible, however, to go back and answer the question of whether Mr. Farrow’s explosive early reporting would have carried such power if he’d been more rigorous and taken care to show what he knew and what he didn’t. Is the cost of a more dramatic story worth paying? Because this much is certain: There is a cost.

Mr. Farrow’s first big story on Mr. Weinstein offered readers little visibility into the question of whether Ms. Evans’s story could be corroborated. He could have indicated that he had, or hadn’t, been able to corroborate what Ms. Evans said, or reported what her friends from the time had told the magazine. He wrote instead: “Evans told friends some of what had happened, but felt largely unable to talk about it.”

It appears Mr. Farrow was making a narrative virtue of a reporting liability, and the results were ultimately damaging.

In his 2019 book, “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow dismisses the incident as an issue with a “peripheral witness” and attacks Mr. Weinstein’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman for “private espionage.”

A similar problem appears at the heart of “Catch and Kill,” in a section in which he describes Matt Lauer assaulting a junior employee at NBC. In Mr. Farrow’s telling, Mr. Lauer’s accuser leaves his dressing room after the assault. “Crying, she ran 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.” Mr. Farrow and the fact checker for his book, Sean Lavery, never called “the new guy” to corroborate the story, both Mr. Lavery and the man told me.

“I might look at something and say that’s good enough, there’s enough other evidence that something happened,” Mr. Lavery said, speaking hypothetically, when I asked why he and Mr. Farrow didn’t call a potentially corroborating witness.

But the “new guy” told me that, in fact, he doesn’t remember the scene that was portrayed in the book. He spoke on the condition he not be identified.

When I told Mr. Farrow that in an email last week, he wrote back: “I am confident that the conversation took place as described and it was verified in multiple ways.”

Mr. Farrow did not share his methods. But this much is clear: Mr. Farrow and the fact checker never called the producer. And if they had, that element of the story would have been much more complicated — or would never have appeared in print.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for a predator like Mr. Weinstein or to shed tears over Mr. Lauer’s firing. And readers may brush aside these reporting issues as the understandable desire of a zealous young reporter to tell his stories as dramatically as he can.

But Mr. Farrow brings that same inclination to the other big theme that shapes his work: conspiracy. His stories are built and sold on his belief — which he rarely proves — that powerful forces and people are conspiring against those trying to do good, especially Mr. Farrow himself.

At the heart of “Catch and Kill” is an electrifying suggestion: that Mr. Weinstein blackmailed NBC executives to kill Mr. Farrow’s story on his sexual misconduct with the threat that The National Enquirer would expose Mr. Lauer’s misconduct if they did not. This is the “conspiracy” in the book’s subtitle. And it is the thread that holds together its narrative.

In Mr. Farrow’s telling, by the end of July 2017, he had nailed down the story of Mr. Weinstein’s pattern of sexual predation, and the NBC brass had begun to shut him down. He has said repeatedly that he had at least two women on the record for his story at the time he left NBC for The New Yorker. He told NPR in an interview, “There is no draft of this story that NBC had that had fewer than two named women.” But NBC has disputed that claim, and an NBC employee showed me what he described as the final draft of Mr. Farrow’s script, as of Aug. 7. It had no on-the-record, on-camera interviews. (It did have one strong piece of reporting that Mr. Farrow took to The New Yorker: an audio recording of Mr. Weinstein appearing to confess to an Italian model that he had groped her. )

Nor does Mr. Farrow provide any proof that NBC executives were acting out of fear of blackmail when they refused to air his story, a central theme he promoted on his book tour. When the ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Farrow about “the suggestion that Mr. Weinstein was blackmailing NBC News,” Mr. Farrow replied, “Multiple sources do say that, and the way in which that’s framed is very careful.” Pressed on whether NBC had let the story go “because they were afraid information about Matt Lauer was going to get out,” Mr. Farrow replied, “That is what the extensive conversations, transcripts, and documents presented in this book suggest.”

“If the Lauer threat was indeed made, and taken seriously, then NBC’s killing of the story is not just a case of muddy corporate cowardice; it’s a case of abject journalistic malfeasance and moral failure,” Ms. Diebel wrote. “But in the absence of persuasive sourcing, Farrow’s exploration of the alternatives is insufficient.”

Even Mr. Auletta, a supporter and mentor to Mr. Farrow, told me that Mr. Farrow’s central conspiracy allegation was unproven.

In a curious passage in “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow writes that Mr. Arkin — an ally of his at the network — told him of two anonymous sources who made the charge. In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Arkin told me that his sources, only one of whom offered a firsthand account, had been unwilling to speak to Mr. Farrow for his book. Mr. Arkin said the firsthand source told him that Mr. Weinstein had made a threat to an NBC executive about exposing Mr. Lauer, but that he doesn’t know who told his source. And he said he had no knowledge of the other elements of Mr. Farrow’s shadowy suggestions — the involvement of The National Enquirer, or whether executives actually shut down Mr. Farrow’s story because of a threat. (NBC has denied that Mr. Weinstein threatened anyone and said most of the producer’s communication was with MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, who wasn’t directly involved in the reporting on Mr. Weinstein.)

Two other NBC journalists, neither of whom would speak for the record, expressed a different view, which is shared by network executives: That Mr. Farrow was a talented young reporter with big ambitions but little experience, who didn’t realize how high the standards of proof were, particularly at slow-moving, super-cautious news networks. A normal clash between a young reporter and experienced editors turned toxic.

Mr. Arkin said he agreed with NBC’s view that Mr. Farrow didn’t have the Weinstein story nailed by August 2017, when he took the story to The New Yorker. But Mr. Arkin said he also believed that NBC didn’t really want the story.

The right move would have been to “take a 29-year-old and you hold him by the hand and you walk him through the story,” Mr. Arkin said in a telephone interview. “Instead what they did was they took him out to the deep end and threw him in — and then they said ‘Oh my God, you can’t swim.’”

That’s an account less heroic than Mr. Farrow’s. It’s also hard to argue that NBC wouldn’t have been better off staying close to Mr. Farrow and getting the story.

Mr. Farrow’s other irresistible conspiracy has even less to support it: that Hillary Clinton, whom Mr. Farrow had once worked for at the State Department, also sought to kill his reporting and protect Mr. Weinstein. In “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow described receiving an “ominous” call from Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, in the summer of 2017 saying his Weinstein reporting was “a concern.” “It’s remarkable,” Mr. Farrow told The Financial Times about Mrs. Clinton during his book tour, “how quickly even people with a long relationship with you will turn if you threaten the centers of power or the sources of funding around them.”

But Mr. Farrow appears to have misinterpreted Mr. Merrill’s call. Mr. Merrill said at the time that Mrs. Clinton was preparing to do a documentary film with Mr. Weinstein, and the Clinton camp was trying to find out if damaging reporting was about to be published about the producer. He had no way of proving it, but another reporter he spoke to at the time about Mr. Weinstein shared with me text messages that back Mr. Merrill’s account, and contradict Mr. Farrow’s. “We’re about to do business with him unless this is real,” Mr. Merrill wrote the other reporter on July 6. In other words, Mr. Merrill was trying to protect his boss, not Mr. Weinstein.

Predictably, Mr. Farrow’s account was seized on by Mrs. Clinton’s detractors, both on the right and left, who saw it as vivid confirmation that Mrs. Clinton was a devious and manipulative character.

When I asked Mr. Farrow whether he has evidence for his conspiracies, he first referred the questions to his publisher, Little, Brown. Sabrina Callahan, the executive director of publicity for Little, Brown, said in an email: “The book is very careful about laying out the facts uncovered by Ronan around NBC’s contact with Weinstein and his associates — and only going as far as the facts support,” adding, “We would encourage people to read it and form their own conclusions.”

When I asked specifically about the Clinton conspiracy, she said, “Ronan’s book recounts his own experiences.”

The essence of those responses — the first legalistic in a misleading way, the second to suggest Mr. Farrow’s journalistic conclusions are based on his subjective experience — captures the deepest danger of Mr. Farrow’s approach. We are living in an era of conspiracies and dangerous untruths — many pushed by President Trump, but others hyped by his enemies — that have lured ordinary Americans into passionately believing wild and unfounded theories and fiercely rejecting evidence to the contrary. The best reporting tries to capture the most attainable version of the truth, with clarity and humility about what we don’t know. Instead, Mr. Farrow told us what we wanted to believe about the way power works, and now, it seems, he and his publicity team are not even pretending to know if it’s true.

On Sunday night, Mr. Farrow offered another defense of the word “conspiracy” in his book’s subtitle, saying it “accurately conveys the substance of the book and efforts by powerful men to evade accountability.” He added, “With respect to Weinstein, I carefully lay out the various levers of pressure exerted against my reporting — through personal relationships, private espionage, legal threats, etc.”

Mr. Fry, a longtime I.R.S. employee based in San Francisco, was one of the legions of followers of Mr. Avenatti’s Twitter account, and had frequently liked his posts. Hours after Mr. Avenatti’s tweet that day, Mr. Fry started searching for the documents on the government database, downloaded them, then immediately contacted Mr. Avenatti and later sent him Mr. Cohen’s confidential records, according to court documents. “John: I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate this. Thank you,’’ Mr. Avenatti wrote to Mr. Fry, according to the documents, then pressed him for more.

Mr. Fry ended up pleading guilty to a federal charge of unauthorized disclosure of confidential reports this January. In Mr. Fry’s defense, his lawyer said he had been watching “hours and hours” of television, and described him as “a victim of cable news.”

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.”



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