The New York Times Sunday Styles section published a piece last month depicting MSNBC host Ronan Farrow, the celebrity son of Mia Farrow and either Woody Allen or Frank Sinatra, being embraced by Manhattan’s moneyed, aging A-list. Another profile, this one in the New York Times Magazine, described the new host as a “reluctant” television star. Whether the irony was intended is unclear, but the piece quotes MSNBC president Phil Griffin recounting his first meeting with Farrow: “Within 20 minutes I wanted to hire him,” Griffin said. “He’s got it.”
Griffin rewarded Farrow with a contract rumored to be in the low millions.
Farrow was mentored since his mid-teens by the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke. After Holbrooke’s sudden death Farrow was appointed to a murky role as “special adviser” to Hillary Clinton during her tenure at the State Department. He certainly knows how to charm sexagenarian elites, but young people don’t seem to like him much. The New York Times has aptly labeled him “the youngest old guy in the room.” Griffin had hoped the 26-year-old would help draw younger viewers to MSNBC, but after his first week on the air, Farrow’s ratings in the 18–49 demographic fell far below those from the comparable week a year ago, when Andrea Mitchell Reports was running in the same time slot.
Farrow’s largest audience, according to Deadline Hollywood, was among adults 50 and older: that is, among the same demographic that groomed the precocious Farrow from childhood and taught him to meet their expectations. Griffin may have high hopes, but Farrow doesn’t look like the right pick to shake things up or shatter any preconceived notions. The Yale Law School graduate and Rhodes Scholar fits perfectly into the larger fabric of the network Griffin has shaped around 9 p.m. host Rachel Maddow, whose Stanford degree and Rhodes Scholarship make her the network’s preeminent wonk. Farrow will continue to do what he’s been doing for the past 26 years: striking a perfect pitch for the liberal elite. That’s probably not the missing ingredient at the network, whose increasingly preening tone hasn’t helped ratings.
“It is one of the big perks of this job that I get to follow you,” Farrow told Andrea Mitchell after her lead into his show last Monday. “And honestly, if I’m able to capture a fraction of the integrity that you keep in your reporting, I am A-okay on my show, so thank you for that intro.”
Throughout the week, he hauled out predictable C-list guests to discuss predictable matters. Clinton-era secretary of defense William Cohen and former Obama adviser David Axelrod, for example, took up the crisis in Ukraine, and NBC News White House correspondent Chuck Todd talked about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
The baby-faced Farrow, whose parentage has been the subject of much speculation, sometimes seems to be more fame and prestige than flesh and bone. From a young age, he’s had no problem attracting the sort of people who prize those qualities. They pop up throughout the many public accounts of his brief life.
There was Holbrooke, a loyal friend of Mia Farrow’s who hired Ronan as a speechwriter when he was 15. There is Holbrooke’s formidable widow, the journalist and socialite Kati Marton, the ex-wife of Peter Jennings. There is Diane Sawyer, Holbrooke’s ex-girlfriend, who is now advising Farrow. “I’ve told him, ‘If there is anything you want to do that I have a cautionary tale about, I’ll be there.’” Sawyer told the New York Times.
And there is Hillary Clinton, who, upon Holbrooke’s death, “took Ronan under her wing.”
Farrow has these people to thank for most of the jobs and awards that adorn his résumé. Marton last year presented him with the Richard C. Holbrooke Award for Social Justice. The New York Times’ profile featured Farrow receiving an award from a foundation that aids Holocaust survivors. Last week, after just three days on the air, Farrow picked up the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Exploration and Journalism at an event at the Princeton Club in midtown Manhattan.
Farrow’s credentials from Yale Law School and Oxford precisely match Bill Clinton’s, and that combination took on a special cachet when the Arkansas governor was elected president in 1992. The ambitious New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who runs in the same celebrity-political circles as Farrow, has the same résumé.
Clinton’s labor secretary, Robert Reich, another Yale Law graduate and Rhodes Scholar, once told the Boston Globe why he ended up at Yale Law School: a “lack of imagination.”
“Yale Law School was the place you went when you didn’t want to be a lawyer, but you wanted to be involved in public affairs,” Reich said, “and you didn’t know how to get your foot in.”
The last bit was never going to be a problem for Farrow, though. Holbrooke, who had employed him at 15 and was, according to Marton, so loyal to Mia Farrow that he forbade Marton from watching Woody Allen movies, created a position for him in Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
There, Farrow earned a six-figure salary serving as a liaison between Holbrooke and humanitarian non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Because of the importance of NGOs, Ambassador Holbrooke took the initiative,” Holbrooke’s deputy explained the job to an inquiring reporter. “Which is one of the first times if not the first time that we know about it in the history of the State Department — to hire a specific liaison for NGOs.” He continued, “I think it’s a very valuable role that I think would be a benefit in other offices as well. So considering that we’re doing it as among the first in the State Department, I think it will be a model that will be followed because of its utility.”
In fact, the position was eliminated when Farrow left. “We have several officers working on the topic of NGO engagement,” the deputy special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Jarrett Blanc, tells National Review Online.
Shortly after Holbrooke died in December 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton placed Farrow at the helm of the newly created Office of Global Youth Issues. There, “special adviser” Farrow was “responsible for implementing and amplifying youth policy and programming throughout the Department” and oversaw “an historic effort to empower young people as economic and civic actors through U.S. programs, encourage governments to respond to youth through U.S. diplomacy, and directly engage young people around the world.”
But for Farrow, diplomacy couldn’t compete with the allure of the cameras.
Farrow has learned from his mentors, and it is not just their worldview that he has absorbed. His ego has also been on public display.
“I’ve been on our air pretty much every day that I’ve been in town,” he told the New York Times before the launch of his show, when he was appearing on MSNBC as a contributor. “Which is probably less than the brass wanted.” Explaining the book he is writing, about the deleterious effects of America’s decision to arm “bad guys around the world,” he said, “I sold it in as unwonky a way as I could.”
His set designers didn’t seem to go to the same effort. Over his shoulder on the set of Ronan Farrow Daily, a world map appears with superimposed phrases like “Yale Law School,” “Rhodes Scholar,” “State Department,” “Diplomat,” “Published Author,” and “Lawyer.”
Farrow has also learned how to stoke a public spectacle. In a Vanity Fair interview published the same day that MSNBC announced Farrow would host a show on the network, Mia Farrow revealed that Frank Sinatra might actually be Farrow’s father. The younger Farrow expertly stoked the ensuing media frenzy.
“Look, we’re all *possibly* Frank Sinatra’s son,” he said on Twitter. As people have studied his facial features in an attempt to discern his paternity, Farrow has let the mystery, which could easily be resolved, dangle before the public. And he hasn’t let up on his persistent campaign against Woody Allen, sending out a tweet during the Golden Globe awards accusing his father of molesting his sister, Dylan, when she was seven.
The mandarins who groomed Farrow may be excited to watch their protégé on the air, but the initial ratings suggest the country’s young people aren’t. They weren’t exactly clamoring for one of America’s best imitations of China’s infamous princelings to get even more airtime.
Not that that was going to matter. This isn’t a democracy — this is cable news.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.