it was breathtaking history, written by The New Yorkers marquee reporter and published with an attention-grabbing headline: “Missing files motivated the loss of Michael Cohen’s financial records.”
In it, reporter Ronan Farrow suggests that something suspicious is happening in the Treasury: an official had noticed that records of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Ms. Cohen, had mysteriously disappeared from a government database in spring 2018.Farrow quotes the anonymous official saying that he was so concerned about the disappearance of the records that he passed other financial reports to the media to raise a public alarm about Mr. Cohen’s financial activities.
The story sparked a furious reaction. Chris Hayes of MSNBC called it “an amazingly shocking story about a whistleblower” and his colleague Rachel Maddow described it as a “meteor strike”. Congress Democrats demanded answers, and the Treasury promised to launch an investigation.
Two years after the release, prosecutors and court documents say little about Mr. Farrow’s article. The finance department’s records of Michael Cohen were never “missed.” This was just the story of the official, an Internal Revenue Service analyst named John Fry, who later pleaded guilty to disclosing confidential information.
The records were simply placed on restricted access, a long-standing practice to prevent leaks, a possibility that Mr. Farrow briefly permitted but minimized in his history. And Mr. Fry’s leaks had been encouraged and spread by a man barely mentioned in Mr. Farrow’s article, the now ashamed lawyer Michael Avenatti, a passionate antagonist to Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Farrow is now perhaps the most famous investigative reporter in America, a rare celebrity journalist who has taken the opposite path from most in this profession: he started out as a boy wonder Talkmaster and worked its way down to the coal face of harsh investigative reporting. As the child of actress Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen, he delivered stories of breathtaking and lasting impact, especially his revelations about powerful men who chased young women in the worlds of Hollywood, television and politics and awarded him a Pulitzer Prize .
I’ve watched Mr. Farrow’s amazing rise in recent years and was amazed at his ability to shed light on some of the defining stories of our time, especially the sexual misconduct of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which culminated with Mr. Weinstein’s conviction in January just before the pandemic. But some aspects of his work made me wonder if Mr. Farrow sometimes wasn’t flying a little too close to the sun.
Because if you scratch Mr. Farrow’s coverage in The New Yorker and in his 2019 best-seller, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” you will find that the foundation is somewhat shaky. He delivers irresistible cinematic narratives – with distinctive heroes and villains – and often omits the complicated facts and uncomfortable details that could make them less dramatic. Sometimes he does not always follow the typical journalistic requirements of confirmation and strict disclosure, or he suggests conspiracies that are tempting but that he cannot prove.
Mr. Farrow, 32, is not a fabulist. His reporting can be misleading, but he doesn’t invent anything. However, his work shows the weakness of some kind of resistance journalism that thrived in the Donald Trump era: when reporters skilfully swim with the tides of social media and produce harmful reports about public figures who are least liked by the loudest voices, Die old rules of fairness and openness can appear as obstacles rather than essential journalistic imperatives.
This can be a dangerous approach, especially at a moment when the idea of truth and a common set of facts are under attack.
The New Yorker has made Mr. Farrow a highly visible generation star for his brand. And Mr. Farrow’s supporters there point to the undeniable effects of his reporting – which ones ousted perpetrators like New York Attorney General Eric Schneidermanand helped rewrite the rules for sex and power in the workplace. Ken Auletta, the New York writer who helped Mr. Farrow bring his work from NBC to the magazine, said the most important thing was that Mr. Farrow had helped reveal and close Mr. Weinstein’s predatory behavior to the world Bring case.
“Are all the ts crossed and the is dotted? No, ”said Mr. Auletta of some of Mr. Farrow’s most extensive claims about a conspiracy between Mr. Weinstein and NBC to suppress his work.
“You still have the end result – he delivered the goods,” said Auletta.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, defended Mr. Farrow’s reporting and called it “conscientious, tireless and, above all, fair”.
“In collaboration with fact checkers, lawyers, and other editorial staff at The New Yorker, he has achieved something remarkable, not least because he has gained the trust of his sources, many of whom had to relive traumatic events when they spoke to him.” Remnick said in an explanation. “We stand by Ronan Farrow’s coverage. We are proud to publish it.”
Mr. Farrow said in his own statement to the New York Times that he puts “caution, accuracy, and nuance” in each of his stories. “I’m proud of a number of reports that have helped expose misconduct and bring important stories to the public.”
However, it is impossible to go back and answer the question of whether Mr. Farrow’s explosive early reporting would have had such power if he had been stricter and had taken care to show what he knew and what not. Is it worth paying for a more dramatic story? Because one thing is certain: there are costs.
This becomes clear when examining Mr. Farrow’s debut items Mr. Weinstein in October 2017, who made the first clear statement on file that Mr. Weinstein had gone beyond systematic sexual harassment and abuse Revealed days earlier from The Times into something that New York prosecutors could accuse of raping. The accuser was Lucia Evans, a student whom Mr. Weinstein approached in a private club and later lured into his office with the promise of acting opportunities. There, she said to Mr. Farrow, he forced her to have oral sex with him.
However, one basic principle of contemporary reporting of sexual assault is confirmation: the tedious task of tracking down friends and neighbors who may have been entrusted to a traumatized victim shortly after the attack to determine whether their reports match the victim’s story, and to give it more or less weight. In many of the strongest #metoo reports, from the stories about Mr. Weinstein in the New York Times to the Washington Post Exposé by Charlie Rose and even some of Mr. Farrow’s other articles, chunky paragraphs interrupt the narrative to explain what a prosecutor told friends and often to investigate conflicting reports. Americans are now watching this complicated form of reporting in the stories about Tara Readewho accused Joe Biden of attacking her.
Mr. Farrow’s first great story about Mr. Weinstein offered readers little insight into whether Ms. Evans’ story could be confirmed. He could have said that he could confirm or not have what Mrs Evans said, or could report what her friends had said from the period of the magazine. Instead, he wrote: “Evans told friends about what had happened, but for the most part felt unable to speak about it.”
It seems that Mr. Farrow has made a narrative virtue out of a reporting requirement, and the results were ultimately harmful.
An important witness, the friend who was with Ms. Evans when both women met Mr. Weinstein At the club, prosecutors later said they had not confirmed Ms. Evans’ rape report when a New Yorker fact checker called her about Mr. Farrow’s story. Instead, according to a letter From prosecutors to defense lawyers, the magazine’s witness said that “something inappropriate has happened”. and refused to go into detail.
The witness later told a New York police detective something more problematic: Ms. Evans told her the sexual encounter with Mr. Weinstein was consensual. The detective told the witness that her answer to the magazine’s fact-checker was “more consistent” with Ms. Evan’s claim against Mr. Weinstein and suggested that she stick to the New York version, prosecutors from the Manhattan Attorney General’s Office later confirmed. The detective denied the exchange, but when Mr. Weinstein’s lawyers exposed the witness’s contradicting reports, the judge dismissed the indictment. Mr. Weinstein’s lawyers were happy, although their client was of course ultimately convicted of something else.
In his 2019 book “Catch and Kill”, Mr. Farrow rejects the incident as a problem with a “peripheral witness” and attacks Mr. Weinstein’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman for “private espionage”.
A similar problem arises at the heart of Catch and Kill in a section describing how Matt Lauer attacks a junior at NBC. In Mr. Farrow’s story, Mr. Lauer’s prosecutor leaves his locker room after the attack. “She cried and ran to the new man she had seen, a producer who worked in the control room that morning, and told him what had happened.” Mr. Farrow and the factual reviewer for his book, Sean Lavery, never called “the new man” to confirm the story, both Mr. Lavery and the man told me.
“I could look at something and say that it is good enough, there is enough other evidence that something has happened,” said Mr. Lavery hypothetically when I asked why he and Mr. Farrow had not called a potentially affirmative witness .
But the “new guy” told me that he actually doesn’t remember the scene portrayed in the book. He spoke on the condition that he could not be identified.
When I emailed Mr. Farrow last week, he wrote back, “I am confident that the interview has taken place as described and has been reviewed in several ways.”
Mr. Farrow did not share his methods. But one thing 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.
Mr. Lauer was fired by NBCIn a series of reports and an internal investigation, he was portrayed as a star who abused his power at work for sex. He refused to speak for the recording during a phone call, except that he had had trouble confirming Mr. Farrow’s coverage of him.
It is hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a predator like Mr. Weinstein or to shed tears over Mr. Lauer’s dismissal. And readers may brush aside these reporting problems as the understandable desire of an eager young reporter to tell his stories as dramatically as possible.
But Mr. Farrow brings the same tendency to the other big issue that shapes his work: conspiracy. His stories are based on his belief – which he rarely proves – that powerful forces and people conspire against those who try to do good, especially against Mr. Farrow.
At the heart of “Catch and Kill” is an electrifying suggestion: Mr. Weinstein blackmailed NBC executives to kill Mr. Farrow’s story about his sexual misconduct with the threat that The National Enquirer would uncover Mr. Lauer’s misconduct if they would not do this. This is the “conspiracy” in the book’s subtitle. And it is the thread that holds his narrative together.
By the end of July 2017, he had recorded the story of Mr. Weinstein’s pattern of sexual predators in Mr. Farrow’s story and the NBC brass had started to shut him down. He has repeatedly said that he had at least two women on file for his story when he left NBC for The New Yorker. In an interview, he said to NPR, “There is no draft of this story that NBC had that had fewer than two named women.” But NBC contested this claim, and an NBC representative showed me what he called the final draft of Mr. Farrow’s screenplay on August 7th. There were no recorded interviews on camera. (There was strong coverage that Mr. Farrow brought to The New Yorker: an audio recording of Mr. Weinstein that seemed to admit to an Italian model that he had fondled her.)
Mr. Farrow also provides no evidence that NBC executives acted out of fear of extortion when they refused to broadcast his story, a key issue he promoted on his book tour. When ABC presenter George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Farrow “about the suggestion that Mr. Weinstein blackmail NBC News,” Mr. Farrow replied, “Several sources say this, and the way it is framed is very careful.” When asked whether NBC let go of the story, “because they feared information about Matt Lauer would come out,” Farrow replied, “The extensive discussions, transcripts, and documents in this book suggest this.”
However, the reporting in the book does not confirm this. And since there is no compelling evidence, Mr. Farrow relies on what critic and private investigator Anne Diebel described earlier this year The New York Review of Books as “New Journalism on the smart” – with novel technology to represent his case. For example, Mr. Farrow describes the facial expressions and physical gestures of NBC executives during his meetings with them and then derives dark motives.
“If the lurking threat has actually been made and taken seriously, NBC’s killing of history is not just a case of muddy cowardice of the company. It is a pitiful journalistic misconduct and moral failure,” Ms. Diebel wrote convincing procurement, Farrow’s search for alternatives is not enough. “
Even Mr. Auletta, a supporter and mentor of Mr. Farrow, told me that Mr. Farrow’s key conspiracy allegations were not proven.
The only source that supports the core conspiracy theory in “Catch and Kill” is William Arkin, a loner journalist and acolyte of Seymour Hersh, who left bitter from NBC shortly after Mr. Farrow.
In a strange passage in “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow writes that Mr. Arkin – an ally of his on the network – told him about two anonymous sources who filed the charges. In a phone interview last week, Mr. Arkin told me that his sources, only one of which offered a first-hand report, were unwilling to speak to Mr. Farrow about his book. Mr. Arkin said the source had told him that Mr. Weinstein had threatened an NBC executive for exposing Mr. Lauer, but that he did not know who informed his source. And he said he had no knowledge of the other elements of Mr. Farrow’s shady proposals – the involvement of The National Enquirer or whether executives actually closed Mr. Farrow’s story because of a threat. (NBC has denied that Mr. Weinstein has threatened anyone and has said that most of the producer’s communication has been with MSNBC President Phil Griffin, who was not directly involved in reporting on Mr. Weinstein.)
Two other NBC journalists, none of whom would speak for the recording, expressed a different view, shared by the network’s leaders: Mr. Farrow was a talented young reporter with great ambitions but little experience who didn’t know how high the standards of proof were particularly in slow, extremely cautious communication networks. A normal conflict between a young reporter and experienced editors became toxic.
Mr. Arkin said he agreed with NBC’s view that Mr. Farrow hadn’t pinned down the Weinstein story until August 2017 when he brought the story to The New Yorker. But Mr. Arkin said he also believed that NBC didn’t really want the story.
The correct move would have been to “take a 29 year old and hold him by the hand and guide him through history,” Mr. Arkin said in a phone interview. “Instead, they took it to the end and threw it in – and then they said,” Oh my god, you can’t swim. “
This is an account that is less heroic than that of Mr. Farrow. It’s also difficult to argue that NBC wouldn’t have been better off staying close to Mr. Farrow and learning the story.
Mr. Farrow’s other irresistible conspiracy has even less to back up: Hillary Clinton, for whom Mr. Farrow once worked at the State Department, also tried to kill his reporting and protect Mr. Weinstein. In “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow described how he received a “threatening” call from Nick Clinton, a spokesman for Ms. Clinton, in the summer of 2017, saying that his Weinstein reporting was “a problem.” “It is remarkable,” Farrow told the Financial Times during his book tour of Mrs. Clinton, “however quickly people with a long relationship will turn to you if you threaten the centers of power or the sources of funding in their area.”
But Mr. Farrow seems to have misinterpreted Mr. Merrill’s call. Mr. Merrill said at the time that Ms. Clinton was preparing to make a documentary with Mr. Weinstein, and the Clinton camp was trying to find out if harmful reports about the producer were going to be released. He had no way of proving this, but another reporter with whom he was talking about Mr. Weinstein at the time provided me with text messages that support Mr. Merrill’s report and contradict Mr. Farrows. “We are going to do business with him unless this is real,” Mr. Merrill wrote to the other reporter on July 6. In other words, Mr. Merrill tried to protect his boss, not Mr. Weinstein.
Mr. Farrow’s report was predictably seized by Mrs. Clinton’s right and left critics, who saw it as vivid confirmation that Mrs. Clinton was an underhand and manipulative character.
When I asked Mr. Farrow if he had any evidence of his conspiracies, he first referred the questions to his publisher Little, Brown. Sabrina Callahan, general manager for advertising at Little, Brown. In an email, she said, “The book is very careful about exposing the facts Ronan uncovered about NBC’s contact with Weinstein and his associates – and only going as far as the facts support” , he added. “We would encourage people to read it and draw their own conclusions. “
When I specifically asked about the Clinton conspiracy, she said, “Ronan’s book tells of his own experiences.”
The essence of these answers – the first is misleadingly legalistic, the second indicates that Mr. Farrow’s journalistic conclusions are based on his subjective experience – captures the deepest danger of Mr. Farrow’s approach. We live in a time of conspiracies and dangerous falsehoods – many hyped by President Trump, others by his enemies – that have caused ordinary Americans to passionately believe in wild and unfounded theories and to vehemently reject evidence to the contrary. The best reporting tries to capture the most achievable 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 how electricity works, and now, it seems, he and his advertising team don’t even pretend to know if it’s true.
On Sunday evening, Mr. Farrow offered another defense of the word “conspiracy” in the subtitle of his book, saying it “communicates exactly the substance of the book and the efforts of powerful men to avoid accountability.” He added: “With regard to Weinstein, I have carefully explained the various levers that are being used against my reporting – through personal relationships, private espionage, legal threats, etc.”
I am writing this for The Times, who has competed in many stories with Mr. Farrow and shared the Pulitzer Prize for reporting sexual harassment in 2018. I was not here during this reporting. What initially sparked my skepticism about Mr. Farrow’s work was reporting In 2018, from Jason Leopold at BuzzFeed News, when I was editor-in-chief, it made it clear that Mr. Farrow’s story about the Cohen documents was wrong – that they weren’t missing, but were only limited to leakage of sensitive materials.
And I recently found in the Cohen story that Mr. Farrow, despite his attraction to acting stories, missed one that was made for that moment. The true story of John Fry, the I.R.S. An employee who leaked Mr. Cohen’s files did the following: In the midst of the Stormy Daniels scandal, her lawyer went to Twitter one day in May 2018 required that the finance department publishes Mr. Cohen’s records.
Mr. Fry, a longtime I.R.S. The San Francisco-based employee was one of the legions of followers of Mr. Avenatti’s Twitter account and had often liked his posts. Less than three hours after Mr. Avenatti’s tweet that day, Mr. Fry began to search for the documents in the government database, downloaded them, then immediately contacted Mr. Avenatti and, according to court documents, sent him Mr. Cohen’s confidential records. “John: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Thank you, “Mr. Avenatti wrote to Mr. Fry, according to the records, and then urged him to do more.
In January, Mr. Fry pleaded guilty to being charged with unauthorized disclosure of confidential federal reports. In defense of Mr. Fry, his lawyer said he watched “hours and hours” and described him as “a victim of cable news”.
Mr. Farrow also has a large following on social media, and some of the same tendencies that undermine his reporting are evident there. When juries were selected for the Weinstein trial in January, 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 the Weinstein process tells me that almost 50 potential jurors were sent home saying they were reading Catch and Kill.”
Mr. Farrow was not in the courtroom that day and told me last week that his source was related to this number. But court reporter Randy Berkowitz told me that he remembered laughing with lawyers and court officials the day after about Mr. Farrow’s tweet, which he thought was “ridiculous.”
And Jan Ransom, a reporter who covered The process for the Times was there. The actual number of potential jurors who read the book, according to Ms. Ransom’s report? Two.