Ronan Farrow and Ken Auletta talk #MeToo, value of investigative journalism
Investigative journalist Ronan Farrow spoke with reporter Ken Auletta Tuesday night at Rackham Auditorium about the impact of the #MeToo movement and his role in exposing famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of predatory behavior and sexual assault. The lecture, entitled “The Weinstein Effect: Breaking the Stories That Spurred a Movement” focused on Farrow’s experience reporting on Weinstein’s misconduct and the challenges he faced in getting the story to print.
Wallace House at the University of Michigan hosted the lecture, which drew more than 600 students, faculty and Ann Arbor community members. Farrow, a contributing writer to The New Yorker, also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct against the former head of CBS Les Moonves, former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Farrow won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Weinstein, an award he shared with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times.
Farrow said while he had seen a shift in society and the way people responded to reports of sexual misconduct when he first wrote about Weinstein in October 2017, there were still power imbalances obstructing accountability.
“I think we have a long way to go,” Farrow said. “I don’t think we’ve achieved accountability, I don’t think we have in the media fully come to grips with the extent to which we were failing to the hold the powerful accountable and contributed to a cover-up culture. I don’t think we’ve extended the tentative steps towards accountability to all of the segments of society that desperately need it. It is still very much a set of stories that has been dominated by affluent people, white people, people with a public profile. All of that needs to change.”
Daily reporters Sammy Sussman, Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, and Nisa Khan, Information senior, introduced Farrow, discussing how his work influenced their own. Sussman documented 40 years of misconduct allegations against Music, Theatre & Dance professor Stephen Shipps. Khan and LSA junior Maya Goldman, The Daily’s editor in chief, followed a University student through the difficult process of reporting a sexual assault to the administration.
Farrow began the conversation by crediting the women willing to go on the record for the success of the story and the cultural reckoning that followed.
“It’s important to point out what the sources in those stories were living through was exponentially more difficult than anything I dealt with as a reporter,” Farrow said. “I wasn’t reliving the intense personal trauma. I didn’t have to grapple with the extra dimension of not only might my career fall apart, but also I’m going to be staring down this very specific kind of stigma that sexual violence carries.”
Auletta first tried to report on allegations against Weinstein in 2002 but struggled to get sources to go on the record. He was working on a profile of Weinstein for The New Yorker, and when he confronted him with allegations of rape, Auletta said Weinstein was enraged.
“I failed to get names,” Auletta said. “When I confronted Harvey Weinstein at the time, Harvey said they were consensual affairs. We had to decide at The New Yorker, are we the National Inquirer, are we going publish anonymous versus him publicly saying it didn’t happen? And we didn’t publish it.”
According to Auletta, Weinstein’s behavior was an open secret in the industry and for many years, rumors about him circulated. Auletta congratulated Farrow on being able to publish allegations against him. Farrow said previous survivors of sexual assault who had come forward with allegations against powerful men like Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes made his reporting possible and thanked the women who spoke to him for his article.
“Although I couldn’t tell those sources as they were doing this incredibly brave thing that they would be heard, that there would be a version of the universe that we would all live in a year later where people would care about their stories and the stories would matter and there would be accountability because of them,” Farrow said. “But I could say for the first time in recent history, hey, there are some slivers of precedent here that are promising.”
LSA sophomore Sophie Underwood said Farrow’s lecture interested her because she eventually wants to go into the film and TV industry.
“Media plays a big role in society and in uncovering these sorts of events that would have just remained hidden because of the major power that certain people have in the industry and how they abuse that power, and I think that journalism is one of those ways to check that abuse of power,” Underwood said.
During a Q&A session, American Culture lecturer Emily Lawsin asked Farrow about the University’s track record on handling sexual assault cases, citing a 2015 survey which found prevalent instances of misconduct among students. Farrow said college campuses were among the many segments of society that needed to confront the manner in which they responded to claims of sexual violence.
“There are a lot of spaces that need serious reforms to create a safe space for people who should never have to be survivors of sexual violence again but too often are,” Farrow said. “In terms of the specific intricacies of Title IX offices on this campus and others, those systems are broken. I have not reported on the University of Michigan specifically, but across the country, they are broken. The striking thing is that both accusers and accused often walk away from Title IX processes on campus feeling that the process was unjust, that there wasn’t a fair hearing of facts.”
One of the audience members criticized Farrow for encouraging “McCarthyesque” tactics and undermining due process. Farrow began to address the comment, but the audience member left immediately after voicing his complaint.
“You should see my Twitter mentions,” Farrow said. “That’s tame.”
Farrow also touched on the politicization of sexual misconduct claims, a criticism heavily associated with allegations made against Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate in the fall. Professor Christine Blasey Ford said Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were teenagers and Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale University with Kavanaugh, accused him of sexual misconduct. Farrow and his colleague at The New Yorker broke news of Ramirez’s allegations in September.
Whether or not someone thought the allegations were true depended largely on political affiliation, with a majority of Democrats believing Ford and a majority of Republicans believing Kavanaugh. Farrow said he approached allegations of sexual assault based on the merits of the claims, not who was making them.
“Everything gets thrust into this cauldron of partisan mistrust, and what’s saddening about that is it’s fundamentally antithetical to what we do as investigative reporters,” Farrow said. “If the evidence is there, I’ll do a body of reporting about anyone of any persuasion … There is such a shrinking space for that kind of approach and for any kind of understanding that anyone might genuinely have that approach. There’s this assumption that you just must be on our side or the other side and this crushing disappointment when it proves out that you’re not on anyone’s side.”
Farrow said he hoped the assumption of politically motivated journalism would abate.
“I hate partisanship, and I hope fact-based reporting is the antidote for it,” Farrow said.