Published March 29, 2019
Ronan Farrow helped invigorate a national conversation on sexual abuse and assault when he wrote an article on allegations of sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein for The New Yorker. And during a stop at UB for the Distinguished Speakers Series last night, he told a sold-out crowd that the article was extremely close to never being published.
Farrow, whose reporting won a share of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, began the night by saying he was grateful that the investigative bombshell panned out, and that it’s creating an impact for the greater good, a theme he returned to throughout the evening.
“It was an honor in this grueling past year to crack into stories that, thanks to brave sources that risked a lot to talk to me, and brave activists who continue to keep this work alive and can turn the stories into social change, seem to have an impact,” he said.
He then turned his attention to the adversity he faced in publishing the allegations against Weinstein. After leaving a career in government and turning toward journalism, Farrow said his career was in shambles at the time — almost to the point of no return.
“The reality is that my career was on the rocks and as a result of my tackling the stories as dauntingly as I did, it fell apart almost completely,” he said. “There was a moment about a year ago when I didn’t have institutional support in my news organization. My contract was ending, and after I refused to stop working on the story, I didn’t have anyone. My book publisher dropped me, refusing to look at one page of a manuscript that I had been working on for years. I found out another outlet was racing to scoop me on this story that had taken over my life, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to report it, or that a year of work would amount to nothing.”
Those difficulties, with pressures of a lawsuit coming from Weinstein as well, left many close to Farrow doubting the journalist, saying he should give up and move on from the story.
“They looked at the world as it was at that time and concluded, ‘It’s not worth it. You’ll tell one story at the expense of so many others,’” Farrow said. “They were being rational about what our world would accept and what it would care about based on existing evidence. These were people I trusted; my bosses saying, ‘You’ve got to stop this. You have to let it go.’”
He also doubted himself as the situation became bleaker, going as far as saying he was wondering if the effort was worth the trouble.
“I didn’t know whether anyone would care because I had spent a year in rooms with executives telling me this just wasn’t a story,” he said. “This was before the extraordinary months of conversation, analysis and acknowledgment that the suffering of these women matter.
“I’m not being falsely humble; I was sincerely at a moment where I didn’t know if I’d have a job in journalism a month from then, two months or ever again. I wish I could stand here and tell you I was confident, that I didn’t care or that I said, ‘to hell with it.’”
After recounting the events that lead to The New Yorker publishing the Weinstein story, Farrow joined Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Edward H. Butler Professor of English, for a question-and-answer session. A wide variety of topics were covered, with questions coming from the audience and UB departments.
Farrow was asked how he convinced people early on to come forward and go on the record with sexual misconduct allegations. He responded that there wasn’t an easy answer, but building trust with people was key.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” Farrow said. “Empathy is incredibly important. Remembering that you’re dealing with another human being and not just a piece of the puzzle you’re putting together is really important.
“If you commit to honoring a person controlling their own destiny while still being a tough, adversarial, skeptical reporter, then there’s a level of trust that’s gained.”
He was also asked what his thoughts were regarding how polarized the media is on sexual assault. He responded that it’s something he doesn’t pay much attention to.
“All I can do is keep my head down and do fact-based, rigorous work. (My work) is really on issues that I don’t consider partisan. I think the issue of sexual harassment, rape and assault is not a partisan issue,” he said.
“Most of the stories I’ve done on (the issue) have been about Democrats, and I do get the occasional tweet howling at me — ‘you’re a plant of the right-wing; you took out the number one prosecutor that was going after Trump; you’re a political tool.’” Likewise, he added, “anytime I do a story that involves an unflattering portrayal of a Republican, I get an alt-right Twitter bot-farm spun up and it’s all of these identical profiles with one or two followers and bald eagles in their icons.”
As for parting advice to the audience, Farrow said that everyone should listen to their inner voice for the best course of action, as it’s typically the right advice to follow.
“No matter what you choose to do, no matter what direction you go in; whether you’re a doctor treating refugees or a financier making money off of foreclosures, you either have faced or will face a moment in your career where you just have no idea,” Farrow said. “I hope in that moment you’ll be generous with yourself. Trust that inner voice because we more than ever need people to be guided by that voice, by your sense of principle, public service and the greater good, and not by whims of a culture that prizes ambition too often, or sensationalism, celebrity or vulgarity.
“If enough of you listened to that voice, if enough of you proved that this generation isn’t going to make all of the same mistakes as the ones before, and that doing the right thing isn’t seen as rare, hard or special, then in our country, I genuinely believe, we have a chance for the kind of leadership that continues to make the world a safer place and a better one for all of us.”