The Media Today

Ronan Farrow, Ben Smith, and the problem of the superstar journalist

May 19, 2020

“Is Ronan Farrow too good to be true?” With that question—which, let’s be honest, we’ve all thought at one point or another—Ben Smith, the New York Times media columnist, made the case that the answer is “yes,” and launched a New York media spat for the ages. In an article that appeared late Sunday, Smith allowed that he’d long “marveled” over Farrow’s ability “to shine a light on some of the defining stories of our time,” but that “some aspects of his work made me wonder if Mr. Farrow didn’t, at times, fly a little too close to the sun.” He then proceeded to comb through Farrow’s back catalogue at the New Yorker, as well as his recent book, Catch and Kill, and subject various explosive claims therein—about the jailed former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, the movie mogul and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, and NBC News, which Farrow says nixed his Weinstein reporting—to vigorous vetting. Farrow, Smith concludes, is “not a fabulist”; rather, “he delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic… and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic.” At times, Smith argues, Farrow “suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but he cannot prove.”

Twitter exploded. (No, you’ve stayed indoors too long!) Some journalists lauded Smith’s column. NBC’s Dylan Byers called it “may[be] the most important media column I’ve ever read”; Jonathan Martin, a reporter at the Times, urged “every reporter—and aspiring reporter” to read it. Some were more qualified in their praise; Erik Wemple, a media writer at the Washington Post, praised Smith’s “muscular debunking work,” but noted, too, that the column “falls short of excusing NBC News’s fumbling of Farrow’s Weinstein reporting.” Others defended Farrow and the New Yorker, and/or dinged Smith, charging, variously, that his column did the things it accused Farrow of doing, that the Times has done plenty of questionable journalism of its own, and that Smith himself is not one to talk, given his track record. Prior to joining the Times this year, Smith was editor in chief at BuzzFeed News, where he published the infamous, unverified Steele dossier (yes, the pee-tape one) and an explosive—yet highly contested—story about Trump and Cohen. (John Carreyrou, scourge of Theranos, noted these controversies; Smith responded that BuzzFeed had been clear that it didn’t know if the dossier was reliable.) Almost every opinion that one could tweet about the column was tweeted by someone. “You can take a bro out of Buzzfeed,” the investigative reporter Carole Cadwalladr asked, of Smith, “but can you ever take Buzzfeed out of the bro?” There were comparisons to Succession. Even Billy Eichner got involved.

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Some of the tweets were more consequential than others. In a 16-part thread, Michael Luo, a top editor at the New Yorker, said Smith had done “the same thing he accuses Ronan of––sanding the inconvenient edges off of facts in order to suit the narrative he wants to deliver.” Luo added that the New Yorker had provided Smith with “detailed responses” that Smith did not include. “We take corrections seriously and would be happy to correct something if it were shown to be wrong,” Luo tweeted. “But Ben has not done that here.” Later, Farrow himself weighed in; jumping off of Luo’s thread, he said Smith had misinterpreted the central thrust of Catch and Kill, and that he stood by his reporting. Rich McHugh, who worked with Farrow on his Weinstein story at NBC, confirmed that the network “personally ordered” him to stop reporting, and called Farrow a “completely fair and meticulous reporter.” McHugh said he, too, had offered a comment that Smith left out.

I won’t dwell further on the weeds here—because Smith’s claims, and the rebuttals to them, are so detailed that litigating them all would require its own Smith-length analysis, but also because the weeds don’t reveal much about the central flaw in the column. To justify his nitpicking, Smith not only asserts that details matter, but that Farrow’s alleged carelessness is a pernicious example of a wider problem: “resistance journalism,” or the idea that too often, in the age of Trump, “the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness” have been jettisoned when they’ve impeded “damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices.” Farrow, Smith continues, “told us what we wanted to believe about the way power works.”

Details, of course, matter enormously. But “resistance journalism,” here, is an ill-defined cliché. As the journalist Emily Birnbaum noted on Twitter, many targets of Farrow’s work—Matt Lauer, the Democratic attorney general of New York, the head of CBS—are hardly the “public figures most disliked by the loudest voices.” (Before Farrow—and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, of the Times—came along, nor was Weinstein.) And one observer’s “resistance journalism” is another’s timely, aggressive probing of powerful interests that demand to be probed. (“Ronan Farrow should dot his i’s and cross his t’s…well done, Ben,” the media columnist Will Bunch wrote yesterday. “But let’s not allow a story like this distract us from the fearless, risk-taking take-no-prisoners journalism we need in 2020. If ‘resistance journalism’ exists, then let’s have more of it, not less.”) Even if you accept Smith’s nitpicking as fair, all he has proven is shoddy reporting—a timeless problem that doesn’t, in itself, support the broader, Trump-era charge.

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The irony here is that Smith didn’t need to frame his column around Trump to make it more than just a fact-checking dossier. The problem Smith identifies isn’t “resistance journalism,” but rather “superstar journalism”—the notion that some reporters, Farrow definitely among them, enjoy such glowing reputations that their output can’t possibly always match up. The superstar journalist may well be extremely talented, but that doesn’t make them an infallible prodigy—everyone has biases, and everyone makes mistakes. The cult of journalistic celebrity tends to ignore context—in Farrow’s case, the editorial and social capital to which he has access—and the crucial fact that high-level journalism is a team sport. That’s not to say that journalists can’t have personalities (I’ve argued, in this newsletter, that they should be allowed to); it’s to remember that the quality and truthfulness of the work are always the most important thing, no matter who produced it. As Hamilton Nolan wrote for Splinter last year, “Journalism is not an identity. Journalism is an action. It is something you do.” (Nolan was writing in the context of right-wing operatives scouring reporters’ social-media accounts for dodgy old posts, but his analysis also applies well to this situation.) Farrow’s work has often been outstanding. To the extent that it isn’t, it invites scrutiny. As readers, it’s on us to bring a skeptical eye, not a fawning one.

In fairness to Smith, his column shines a light on this problem, even if he misdiagnoses it; in fairness to Farrow, his superstar status is not his fault (at least not entirely). The way the pair’s “beef” was received on Twitter—which is the fault of neither man—merely drove home our problems of perception.

To answer Smith’s question: Yes, Ronan Farrow, the superstar journalist, is too good to be true. How could he not be? That insight alone isn’t enough to damn Farrow; you can read into the weeds yourself to decide if Smith prosecuted his case successfully. But it might be enough to damn us.

Below, more on Smith and Farrow:

  • Allies or antagonists?: For Vanity Fair, Joe Pompeo rounded up reactions to Smith’s column, and assessed its institutional context. “A relative Times outsider has targeted one of journalism’s sacred cows, and, in so doing, created a sort of institutional face-off between two of the industry’s most venerable news organizations,” Pompeo writes. “The Times and the New Yorker compete robustly with one another—as they did on the Weinstein story, which the Times broke first—but they would typically be seen more as allies than antagonists.” (If you still need more good tweets on the episode, Delia Cai’s media newsletter, Deez Links, has you covered.)
  • Unwelcome to the resistance: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, a persistent critic of mainstream reporting on Trump and Russia, argues that Smith was right to criticize “resistance journalism.” Greenwald allows that the specifics of Smith’s case are complicated, but hails its “perfect description of a media sickness borne of the Trump era that is rapidly corroding journalistic integrity and justifiably destroying trust in news outlets.”
  • A poor review: After Catch and Kill came out, it garnered much positive coverage, but not everyone was complimentary. In the New York Review of Books, Anne Diebel, a writer and private investigator, called the book “a mythic narrative and moral allegory in the form of a thriller,” and argued that Farrow, in part, “relies on improbably detailed contemporaneous notes or engages in New Journalism on the sly.”

Other notable stories:

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Update: The bullet point on SmileDirectClub’s lawsuit against NBC News has been updated to include a rebuttal from NBC News.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.