Ben Smith’s takedown of Ronan Farrow: Fair or foul?

by 24USATVMay 18, 2020, 11 p.m. 25
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The big buzz in the media world today is a scathing column written by New York Times media columnist Ben Smith. What makes it such a big deal? It was about another journalist.

Actually, not just another journalist, but one of the hotshot journalists of the moment: Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker.

Already somewhat famous for being the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, Ronan Farrow, 32, has written high-profile, explosive stories, including those about Harvey Weinstein and Michael Cohen. In fact, his reporting on Weinstein and the claims that the Hollywood producer had sexually harassed and assaulted women won Farrow a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2018. Even Smith called Farrow a “celebrity journalist” and maybe “the most famous investigative reporter in America.”

Is Ronan Farrow too good to be true? That was actually the headline of Smith’s takedown of Farrow. And it was most definitely a takedown.

Smith stopped short of calling Farrow a fabulist, but he did question Farrow’s journalism and whether Farrow can actually back up everything he writes. He pokes holes in Farrow’s New Yorker stories, as well as Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill.”

Smith writes of Farrow, “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.”

Smith quotes one of Farrow’s mentors, The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, who managed to slam and yet defend Farrow with this quote: “Are all the Ts crossed and the Is dotted? No. You’re still left with the bottom line — he delivered the goods.”

Those are just the highlights. Read the piece for yourself as Smith lays out his arguments.

New Yorker editor David Remnick called Farrow’s work “scrupulous, tireless and, above all, fair.” You would expect that kind of reaction from Remnick because Smith’s claims about Farrow’s work also would call The New Yorker’s editing into question.

The other top editor at The New Yorker, Michael Luo, put out a 16-tweet Twitter thread defending Farrow, including the first tweet that said, “In his column on @ronanfarrow, @benyt, whom I have respect for, does the same thing he accuses Ronan of––sanding the inconvenient edges off of facts in order to suit the narrative he wants to deliver.”

And Farrow himself responded on Twitter, tweeting, “I stand by my reporting.” He also defended himself against some of Smith’s claims in detail.

What I’m writing here is a column. And the strength of any column is to give strong analysis and opinion in order to help readers make sense of an issue. No one wants to read a wishy-washy column that takes both sides or neither side.

But that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Sorry, but this topic is a conundrum. I’ve read Smith’s column 10 times, talked to colleagues in the media world and still don’t know what to make of it. You could argue, as Luo did, that Smith is doing the same thing that he accuses Farrow of doing: picking up certain details and ignoring others to fit them into an overall narrative.

Then again, Smith could claim the same thing Farrow does: that you might disagree with how he arrived at his conclusions, but at the end of the day, the piece is spot-on. Smith’s claims that Farrow practices “resistance journalism” are neither defined nor proven and really don’t fit. But the rest? I know the point Smith is trying to make. Sort of.

Again: It’s not an easy column to wrap your brain around.

It also has been interesting to see the reaction from media types. NBC News’ Dylan Byers in his “Byers Market” newsletter wrote, “Smith’s column is not just an indictment of Farrow, but an indictment of all journalism that eschews the messy complexity of truth in favor of dramatic and oversimplified narratives. It should be required reading for every aspiring journalist.”

Meanwhile, Slate’s Ashley Feinberg tweeted, “i dunno, there sure is a lot of throat-clearing and implication without actually saying the thing for someone who’s trying to ding farrow for doing just that”

That’s pretty much the reaction across the board. Some defend Farrow. Some understand the point that Smith is making. Some question if Farrow always has the receipts. Some make the same claim about Smith’s column. Some defend both and neither at the same time.

I see both sides. And neither side. Sometimes ambiguity is the only choice.

After all, when it comes to this particular topic, I don’t want to make a claim that I can’t honestly back up.

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.

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