He has delivered revelatory reporting on some of the defining stories of our time. But a close examination reveals the weaknesses in what may be called an era of resistance journalism.
It was a breathtaking story, written by The New Yorker's marquee reporter and published with an attention-grabbing headline: "Missing files motivated the leak of Michael Cohen's financial records."
In it, reporter Ronan Farrow suggests something suspicious unfolding inside the Treasury Department: A civil servant had noticed that records about Cohen, the personal lawyer for President Donald Trump, mysteriously vanished from a government database in the spring of 2018. Farrow quotes the anonymous public servant as saying he was so concerned about the records' disappearance that he leaked other financial reports to the media to sound a public alarm about Cohen's financial activities.
The story set off a rush of headlines in other publications, and the Treasury Department promised to investigate.
Two years after publication, little of Farrow's article holds up, according to prosecutors and court documents. The Treasury Department records on Cohen never went "missing." That was merely the story put forward by the civil servant, an Internal Revenue Service analyst named John Fry, who later pleaded guilty to illegally leaking confidential information.
The records were simply put on restricted access, a long-standing practice to prevent leaks, a possibility Farrow briefly allows for in his story, but minimises. And Fry's leaks had been encouraged and circulated by a man who was barely mentioned in Farrow's article, now-disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti, a passionate antagonist of Cohen.
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 actress Mia Farrow and 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 Farrow's astonishing rise over the past few years, marvelling at his ability to shine a light on some of the defining stories of our time, especially the sexual misconduct of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which culminated with Weinstein's conviction in January just before the pandemic took hold. But some aspects of his work made me wonder if Farrow didn't, at times, fly a little too close to the sun.
Because if you scratch at Farrow's reporting in The New Yorker and in his 2019 bestseller, 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 tantalising but he cannot proven.
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.
The New Yorker has made Farrow a highly visible, generational star for its brand. And Farrow's supporters there point out the undeniable impact of his reporting — which ousted abusers like New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and helped rewrite the rules of sex and power in the workplace. Ken Auletta, The New Yorker writer who helped Farrow take his work from NBC to the magazine, said that the important thing is that Farrow helped reveal Weinstein's predatory behaviour to the world and bring him down.
"Are all the Ts crossed and the Is dotted? No," Auletta said of some of Farrow's most sweeping claims of a conspiracy between Weinstein and NBC to suppress his work.
"You're still left with the bottom line — he delivered the goods," Auletta said.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, defended 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,'' Remnick said in a statement. "We stand by Ronan Farrow's reporting. We're proud to publish him."
Farrow, in his own statement to The New York Times, said he brings "caution, rigour, 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 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.
That becomes clear in an examination of Farrow's debut article on Weinstein, back in October 2017, which provided the first clear, on-the-record claim that Weinstein had gone beyond the systematic sexual harassment and abuse revealed days earlier by The Times into something that New York prosecutors could charge as rape. The accuser was Lucia Evans, a college student whom Weinstein had approached at a private club, and then later lured to his office with a promise of acting opportunities. There, she told Farrow, he forced her to perform oral sex on him.
But a fundamental principle of the contemporary craft of reporting on sexual assault is corroboration: the painstaking task of tracking down friends and neighbuors who a traumatised 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. In much of the strongest #metoo reporting, from the stories about Weinstein in The New York Times to the Washington Post's expose of Charlie Rose and even some of Farrow's other articles, clunky paragraphs interrupt the narrative to explain what an accuser told friends, and often, to explore any conflicting accounts. Americans are now watching this complicated form of reporting play out in the stories about Tara Reade, who has accused Joe Biden of assaulting her.
Farrow's first big story on Weinstein offered readers little visibility into the question of whether Evans' story could be corroborated. He could have indicated that he had, or hadn't, been able to corroborate what 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 Farrow was making a narrative virtue of a reporting liability, and the results were ultimately damaging.
A crucial witness, the friend who was with Evans when both women met Weinstein at the club, later told prosecutors that when a fact-checker for The New Yorker called her about Farrow's story, she hadn't confirmed Evans' account of rape. Instead, according to a letter from prosecutors to defence lawyers, the witness told the magazine that "something inappropriate happened," and refused to go into detail.
But the witness later told a New York Police Department detective something more problematic: That Evans had told her the sexual encounter with Weinstein was consensual. The detective told the witness that her response to the magazine's fact-checker "was more consistent" with Evans' allegation against Weinstein and suggested she stick to The New Yorker version, prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorneys office later acknowledged. The detective denied the exchange, but when Weinstein's lawyers unearthed the witness' contradictory accounts, the judge dismissed the charge. Weinstein's lawyers gloated, though, of course, their client was ultimately convicted on other counts.
In his 2019 book, Catch and Kill, Farrow dismisses the incident as an issue with a "peripheral witness" and attacks 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 Farrow's telling, 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." Farrow and the fact-checker for his book, Sean Lavery, never called "the new guy" to corroborate the story, both 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," Lavery said, speaking hypothetically, when I asked why he and 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 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."
Farrow did not share his methods. But this much is clear: 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.
Lauer was fired from NBC, and a series of reports and an internal investigation portrayed him as star who abused his power in the workplace for sex. He declined to speak for the record during a telephone conversation, except to say that he had found issues with the corroboration of Farrow's reporting on him.
It's hard to feel much sympathy for a predator like Weinstein or to shed tears over 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 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 Farrow himself.
At the heart of Catch and Kill is an electrifying suggestion: that Weinstein blackmailed NBC executives to kill Farrow's story on his sexual misconduct with the threat that the National Enquirer would expose 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 Farrow's telling, by the end of July 2017, he had nailed down the story of 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 Farrow's script, as of August 7. It had no on-the-record, on-camera interviews. (It did have one strong piece of reporting that Farrow took to The New Yorker: an audio recording of Weinstein appearing to confess to an Italian model that he had groped her.)
Nor does 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 ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked Farrow about "the suggestion that Weinstein was blackmailing NBC News," 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," Farrow replied, "That is what the extensive conversations, transcripts, and documents presented in this book suggest."
But the reporting in the book does not bear that out. And in the absence of compelling proof, Farrow relies on what the critic and private detective Anne Diebel earlier this year described in The New York Review of Books as "New Journalism on the sly" — using novelistic technique to make his case. Farrow, for example, describes the facial expressions and physical gestures of NBC executives during his meetings with them, and then deduces dark motives.
"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," Diebel wrote. "But in the absence of persuasive sourcing, Farrow's exploration of the alternatives is insufficient."
Even Auletta, a supporter and mentor to Farrow, told me that Farrow's central conspiracy allegation was unproven.
The one on-the-record source supporting the core conspiracy theory in "Catch and Kill" is William Arkin, a maverick journalist and acolyte of Seymour Hersh who departed bitterly from NBC soon after Farrow.
In a curious passage in Catch and Kill, Farrow writes that Arkin — an ally of his at the network — told him of two anonymous sources who made the charge. In a telephone interview last week, Arkin told me that his sources, only one of whom offered a firsthand account, had been unwilling to speak to Farrow for his book. Arkin said the firsthand source told him that Weinstein had made a threat to an NBC executive about exposing Lauer, but that he doesn't know who told his source. And he said he had no knowledge of the other elements of Farrow's shadowy suggestions — the involvement of the National Enquirer, or whether executives actually shut down Farrow' story because of a threat. (NBC has denied that 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 Weinstein.)
Two other NBC journalists, neither of whom would speak for the record, expressed a different view, which is shared by network executives: That Farrow was a talented young reporter with big ambitions but little experience, who didn't realise 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.
Arkin said he agreed with NBC's view that Farrow didn't have the Weinstein story nailed by August 2017, when he took the story to The New Yorker. But 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," 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 Farrow's. It's also hard to argue that NBC wouldn't have been better off staying close to Farrow and getting the story.
Farrow's other irresistible conspiracy has even less to support it: that Hillary Clinton, whom Farrow had once worked for at the State Department, also sought to kill his reporting and protect Weinstein. In Catch and Kill," Farrow described receiving an "ominous" call from Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, in the summer of 2017 saying his Weinstein reporting was "a concern."
"It's remarkable," Farrow told the Financial Times about Clinton during his book tour, "how quickly even people with a long relationship with you will turn if you threaten the centres of power or the sources of funding around them."
But Farrow appears to have misinterpreted Merrill's call. Merrill said at the time that Clinton was preparing to do a documentary film with 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 Weinstein shared with me text messages that back Merrill's account, and contradict Farrow's. "We're about to do business with him unless this is real," Merrill wrote the other reporter on July 6. In other words, Merrill was trying to protect his boss, not Weinstein.
Predictably, Farrow's account was seized on by Clinton's detractors, both on the right and left, who saw it as vivid confirmation that Clinton was a devious and manipulative character.
When I asked 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. She 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 Farrow's journalistic conclusions are based on his subjective experience — capture the deepest danger of Farrow's approach. We are living in an era of conspiracies and dangerous untruths — many pushed by 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, 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, Farrow offered another defence 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."
I'm writing this for the Times, which competed with Farrow on many stories and shared the Pulitzer Prize with him in 2018 for coverage of sexual harassment. I wasn't here during that coverage. What first set off my scepticism about Farrow's work was reporting in 2018 by Jason Leopold at BuzzFeed News, when I was editor-in-chief there, that made clear that Farrow's story on the Cohen documents was wrong — that they were not missing, merely restricted to avoid leaks of sensitive materials.
And I found more recently when I dug into the Cohen story that for all Farrow's attraction to screenplay-ready narratives, he missed one that was made for this moment. The real story of John Fry, the IRS employee who leaked Cohen's records, went like this: Amid the swirl of the scandal involving Stormy Daniels, Avenatti, her lawyer, took to Twitter one day in May 2018, and demanded that the Treasury Department release Cohen's records.
Fry, a longtime IRS employee based in San Francisco, was one of the legions of followers of Avenatti's Twitter account, and had frequently liked his posts. Less than three hours after Avenatti's tweet that day, Fry started searching for the documents on the government database, downloaded them, then immediately contacted Avenatti and sent him Cohen's confidential records, according to court documents. "John: I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate this. Thank you,'' Avenatti wrote to Fry, according to the documents, then pressed him for more.
Fry ended up pleading guilty to a federal charge of unauthorised disclosure of confidential reports this January. In Fry's defence, his lawyer said he had been watching "hours and hours" of television, and described him as "a victim of cable news."
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 Weinstein to see if they could serve impartially. 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."
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 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 Ransom's reporting? Two.
Written by: Ben Smith
Photographs by: Kasten Moran, Desiree Risos and Steven Hirsch
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES