There’s a lot to be said about the New Yorker’s big, multi-sourced expose of how New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has abused four different women – as I have documented at length, Schneiderman is one of President Trump’s bitterest longtime antagonists and a self-styled leader of “The Resistance” – but one point that I keep thinking about is how Ronan Farrow, one of the piece’s authors and a key figure in the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, has truly found his calling as a print journalist exposing sexual abuse. What is particularly striking is the contrast with Farrow’s original, failed journalistic career as a MSNBC television personality.
Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow and (his own mother leaves doubt as to this) either Woody Allen or Frank Sinatra, initially had a too-easy path up the ladder: he got a UNICEF gig in his mother’s footsteps at 14, graduated college at 15, got a job in the Obama Administration out of law school at 22, and was on air on MSNBC at 27. He’s a smart guy, as his educational credentials (including Yale Law and a Rhodes Scholarship) attest, but came off on TV as shallow and callow, a guy who was handed things for his good looks and family name and connections.
As you can imagine, however, growing up in Woody Allen’s household left a lot of marks on his perspective about sexual predation, and as he recently discussed in a commencement speech, that ultimately led him to follow his true calling at some risk to his career:
The reality is, I was not celebrated when I set about breaking the stories I broke this past year…But the reality is my career was on the rocks. And as a result of my tackling this story as doggedly as it did, it fell apart almost completely.
There was a moment about a year ago when I didn’t have the institutional support of my news organization. My contract was ending. And after I refused to stop work on the story, I did not have a new one. My book publisher dropped me, refusing to look at a single page of a manuscript I’d labored over for years. I found out another news outlet was racing to scoop me on the Weinstein story, and I knew I was falling behind. I did not know if I’d ever be able to report that story, or if a year of work would amount to anything…I’m not being falsely humble. I was sincerely at a moment when I did not know if I would have a job in journalism a month or two months after, or ever again.
…There were so many people in my ear at that time making such good arguments that what I was doing was a mistake. Not because they were evil, but because they looked at the world as it was a year ago and concluded, “This isn’t worth it. You’ll tell one story at the expense of so many others.” They were being rational about what our culture would accept and what it would care about, based on the existing evidence. And these were people I trusted. My bosses saying “you have got to stop, let it go.” My agent saying “it’s causing too many speed bumps for your career, you have got to let it go.” Even loved ones, saying “is this really worth it?” Pointing out that I would risk my whole career for a story that might not even make a dent.
There’s an important lesson here, maybe more than one. When Farrow was given a platform without a cause, he was not that good at it. When he found his cause, he created a lasting platform for himself. And now that he’s proven that he can break stories like this, the women who can tell them know they can trust him.
It’s easy, and in some sense just, to needle and sometimes outright mock people who get handed opportunities they haven’t earned because of who they are. But it’s also not their fault, and brought along less rapidly, they can grow into it. I respected the self-awareness of Farrow’s erstwhile MSNBC colleague Luke Russert, when he stepped away from his platform at age 30 because he felt he needed to see more of the world outside political journalism. I’m also reminded of Meghan McCain, who was roundly derided by conservative writers (myself included) a decade back as vapid and uninformed, but who has emerged in recent years as a dogged and prepared interviewer at The View.
I’m always inclined to have more respect for people who have faced some adversity and worked for what they got. In a way, that can be a harder thing for people born with a lot of advantages and connections to accomplish, and they are sometimes done a disservice by being promoted before they are ready for prime time. But no matter where you start in life, sooner or later you have to be judged on your own merits. Farrow has found his investigative beat, and he’s making a difference doing something he believes in.