In the early 1980s, when I was a young reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, I was tempted by the offer of a new job at the Washington Monthly that would have taken me away from the daily news grind, which consisted of covering crimes, fires, and miscellaneous stories, as well as gossip about public figures. I was ambitious, and envisioned working somewhere more glamorous than the dusty police stations I frequented, as well as the possibility of writing for a publication that had more substance than my tabloid newspaper, with its bald appeals to sensationalism.
And, indeed, it seemed a good idea to take a position at the magazine: though very small and headquartered in Washington, D.C., most of its journalists, after two years of hard, badly paid work, had moved on to big-time, national magazines and newspapers in New York, Boston, or elsewhere in the capital. In fact, listing the Monthly on a résumé just about guaranteed a prestigious journalistic career. However, the young editor who had approached me explained that there was one thing I had to do before I could join the staff: I would have to complete a reporting assignment. I was told I would report on the public transportation workers’ union in Chicago, and that my report would demonstrate what a bad idea it was for government-employed workers to belong to a union. Surprised by the assignment, I replied that I usually investigated a story before I arrived at a conclusion. It wasn’t that I aspired to totally objective journalism; on the contrary, I favored work that was both socially committed and even opinionated. My starting point was always that every government lies (to paraphrase I. F. Stone) and that a good journalist has an obligation to attack the powerful and to defend ordinary people, like bus drivers. Moreover, as a member of my newsroom’s union, I felt obliged to support members of other unions, including those who worked for the Chicago Transit Authority.
Nevertheless, my dream of following Washington Monthly alumni to greatness and renown persisted. So I asked journalists familiar with the culture of the magazine about the assignment, and they told me that standing against public unions was part of the so-called gospel according to Charles Peters, the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief. The assistant editors functioned, in a way, as disciples of a religious sect, whose rules, while not necessarily ideological, were rigid all the same. I ultimately withdrew my candidacy for the job; in fact, I lied and said the reason was that I couldn’t accept a salary cut of more than fifty percent from what I was making at the newspaper as a union member. It turned out to be a wise move, as I still had plenty to learn and to describe in the tough, combative, and often violent world of Chicago politics.
This whole episode came back to me last month, when I read the excellent New York Times exposé by Ben Smith on the dilettantish reporting of Ronan Farrow, gravedigger of Harvey Weinstein and hero of the #MeToo movement. A journalistic prodigy at The New Yorker magazine, Farrow became a star because of a series of scoops, which detailed Weinstein’s sexual assault and intimidation tactics and revealed that the host of the television program Today had allegedly raped, not sexually harassed, a coworker. The young man’s ascent has been accelerated by his family ties—he’s the son of the actress Mia Farrow and the director Woody Allen, who has himself been accused of sexual misconduct within his family (Ronan Farrow has spoken out against Allen)—and by his extensive connections in the beau monde of politics and media. I’ll suggest that those interested read Smith’s devastating report. Admittedly, Smith could be accused of settling a score, because in 2018 the New York Times, which published its own article on Weinstein five days before Farrow’s piece appeared in The New Yorker, had to share the Pulitzer Prize for public service with its magazine rival. Nevertheless, one of Smith’s points, that Farrow hadn’t properly corroborated Lucia Evans’s claim of sexual assault—apparently with the aim of making the case against the predatory producer more damning—indicates a scandalous dereliction of duty. Smith shows that such negligence is common in Farrow’s work; exaggeration constitutes a large part of his style and his commercial success.
I was already disgusted by the excesses of #MeToo and wary of The New Yorker’s reputation (and that of its editor, David Remnick) for indispensable, clear-sighted investigative reporting. My doubts were based on the “liberal” weekly’s shameful support, in 2002 and 2003, of the fraudulent case against Saddam Hussein and of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the reports on Weinstein, the #MeToo movement took off like a rocket, and its arc didn’t always bend toward justice. At the height of the frenzy, some men who appear to have been innocent were thrown into the same basket as Weinstein, their careers likewise destroyed. For more information, read work by Katie Roiphe or Lionel Shriver in Harper’s Magazine, or listen to the heated exchange I had with Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC Radio about our publication of an essay by John Hockenberry.
But here I’m talking mainly about the disgraceful mendacity of Ronan Farrow, a celebrity who jumped the line without doing the apprentice journalistic work that requires more depth than a fixed idea and famous parents. I recognize, however, that this wasn’t entirely his fault: he succeeded in large measure because he adhered to the gospel—you must unhesitatingly “believe women”—of The New Yorker and #MeToo. Which is a bit like the gospel I rejected almost forty years ago in Chicago.