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Ronan Farrow Talks Harvey Weinstein Investigation and #MeToo Movement
Ronan Farrow spent nearly a year investigating Harvey Weinstein, patiently gathering evidence of his innumerable abuses and eventually running afoul of the now-disgraced producer’s intimidation machine. But if you ask him, he’s just “a conduit.” The real heroes, the journalist says, are the silence breakers who spoke up at tremendous personal risk. “What I went through was nothing compared to the trauma that these women went through in reliving these experiences and speaking out. And I will forever be grateful to them.”
Will the #MeToo movement lead to lasting change? Farrow is optimistic. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but what I can say is that over the past year I’ve witnessed more bravery than I ever thought possible from accusers coming forward—women and now men, in some cases. I do ultimately come out of this in a place of optimism and a belief that we as a society are committed to getting this better, if not right.”
Here, in an extended version of the interview conducted for Esquire’s 2018 Mavericks of Hollywood, Farrow reveals his process behind the investigation into Weinstein and how he hopes the effect of the #MeToo movement will be broader than Hollywood.
How did your first Weinstein story come to pass? What was the germ of that?
The germ was that I had gotten the greenlight for an investigative series, which was a mini-series of investigations on the dark side of Hollywood. So, I initially was digging into pedophilia in Hollywood in the context of Corey Feldman’s claims and the allegations against Bryan Singer. I had spoken to Corey Feldman, and there were a number of other stories of that type. As often happens in television news, not all of those made the final cut. I fought to keep those and some of them were deemed too dark for that particular format.
But I did hold onto the greenlight on a story about sexual harassment and casting couch culture, which initially was going to be part of the focus. And in the context of developing that story, an executive I was working with had mentioned that Rose McGowan had recently tweeted an allegation of rape. That it appeared to be about Harvey Weinstein was how most people read it, but she hadn’t explicitly said that at that point. I got an interview with Rose McGowan very early on in this process, and she was incredibly brave and forthright. And that snowballed. She said there were others. And it became like a detective novel, piecing together one shred of information that led to another that led to another.
By April of 2017 I had that police recording from the sting operation in which Weinstein actually admitted to an incident of assault. So, fairly rapidly it became clear that this a very significant story backed by very significant evidence.
Suit, shirt, and tie by Dior Homme.
How did you find your sources and locate these women?
You know, it’s a testament to the fact that nothing stays secret forever if it’s of this level of significance. That there are no legal constraints, that there is no amount of threatening that can truly ensure perpetual silence. The sources in this story were by and large people who were ethically troubled by what they knew and wanted to make the culture better and create accountability. Without people who were willing to risk everything to speak the truth, this never would’ve happened.
It involved, as I said, a sort of detective work. Finding out who saw who walking out of what rooms years ago, who was working with whom, and all of these incidents that happened in the context of an industry where people are represented by other people. These were professional settings where things played out, and thankfully there were enough eye-witnesses and enough people who could lead me to other people that I was able to start piecing together the puzzle.
As we’ve learned in the wake of your reporting, there are other reporters who have tried to report this story and not been able to corroborate it. How did you convince these accusers to go on the record, and how did you gain their trust after so many others have been stonewalled in reporting this story?
I think I was fortunate to come at this story in a moment in which there was already frustration building about the culture of silence around this issue and in which, for the first time, there were the very first beginnings of precedents for women coming forward with these kinds of allegations. There were the allegations against Bill Cosby and the allegations against Roger Ailes. And I was able to say in my conversations with accusers, “Look, this is not going to be easy. Right now, I know it seems inconceivable that you would speak about this openly, but this has been done before. And there is a small chance that if you do this you will be heard, and there will be accountability.”
People were often skeptical of that initially, because there weren’t a ton of great examples and we didn’t yet have the sort of watershed moment that we’re experiencing now, but I do think that it was this steady progression of people being brave enough to speak in other previous cases that laid the foundation.
Why has this dam of anguish and empowerment broken open now? Do you think it has to do with Cosby and Ailes, or is it bigger than that?
I think that it’s both. I think that after decades of a conspiracy of silence around the most powerful people in America, people had had enough. I know that it was very clear to me in reporting on these issues—even before I reported on Weinstein—that there was a deep vein of anxiety about this issue and a deeply felt need to speak about it more. So, part of it was a long time coming. But also I do think that it was the last few years of people chipping away at that culture of silence.
“After decades of a conspiracy of silence around the most powerful people in America, people had had enough.”
What were the setbacks in your reporting process?
Every single reporter who banged their head against the wall trying to break this thing open—and that wasn’t just me, that was a community of reporters going back twenty years—encountered static and interference and pressure of a kind of that no reporter should face, but all too often we do. And this was a particularly acute example—I mean, you look at what Ben Wallace at New York Magazine went through when he was working on this story. He had undercover agents posing a sources trying to trip him up. He had his ex-wife profiled by private investigators to be used as leverage against him. His editors were profiled and followed. These are the pressures that we all face as an occupational hazard when we scrutinize the most powerful people in the country.
Without a doubt, the machine that mobilized to shut down the story was the hardest part of this. And I was just so grateful for the fact that I wasn’t alone in confronting that. That over the years, other reporters had come before me. I really stood on their shoulders.
Were you afraid of Harvey Weinstein and the very extreme resources at his disposal?
He did train his spies on me. For all of us, working on these stories is a challenge in not making a story about ourselves. What I went through was nothing compared to the trauma that women went through in reliving these experiences and speaking out. They really had the harder part of this on their shoulders. And I will forever be grateful to them. That said, it’s a highly pressurized undertaking to go after a story like this, and it was a long year working on it.
Do you think Harvey Weinstein is unique in his access to these extreme resources, or are other power brokers pulling these same tricks?
I think it was always clear to me that this was bigger than Harvey Weinstein, that this was bigger than the entertainment industry, and that, in fact, why this is an important story was not just because of the severity of Harvey Weinstein’s individual actions and the allegations against him, but also because this is a playbook. This is a system employed by the most powerful people in our country. And what the Weinstein story revealed about the tools at the disposal of those powerful people was, I think, chilling and important. And it was apparent to me at each turn that I was reporting not just on an individual, but on the abuse of power which happens in so many forms, in so many industries, in so many walks of life.
Farrow with actress and writer Rose McGowan at 92Y’s Kaufman Concert Hall.
Was there any point at which the challenges felt insurmountable? At which you felt you might have to stop?
You know, I never considered stopping. And I don’t think that was particularly out of any kind of moral courage. It was really as a practical matter, first of all. By the time I came to the point where the pressure to stop reached its peak, I was in too deep, and had really just given up too much of my own life and career to back down. So there was that. But also, I had spent the better part of a year talking to and getting to know women who did a historic, brave thing; who had put their trust in me to do right by them. And I honestly think I just wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had stopped.
Was it helpful that The New York Times broke their reporting so close to yours?
I was grateful every time there was a group of reporters working on this rather than me. For many months, it was a very lonely business working on this story, and I was battling not just to get the reporting done, but also to convince people of the importance of running the story. And so, knowing in those last months that the Times had joined the fray was incredibly important to me and gave me strength. The very powerful, meticulous work that Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey did (among others) was absolutely part of breaking this open, and it only helps to keep a fire under everybody.
Do you think that media outlets are at all responsible for how long it has taken for this dam to break open?
Yes. I think over the course of twenty years, if you look at how many reporters tried to pull this off, what you’d see is a cocktail of genuine journalistic obstacles—the difficulty of getting people on the record, for instance—and then also a culture of reporting on these issues in which media outlets did not show the bravery that they should’ve, going back many, many years. And both of those things had to change to have this see the light of day. And so as much as it was pivotal that I, starting in January 2017, had women on the record, and that was different than attempts that had come before, it was also a pivotal change that there were media outlets that were willing to speak truth to power. And, you know, what The New Yorker did on this story, and what David Remnick stood up and did, was as important as any other single factor in breaking this open.
It was immensely significant for history—for these allegations and the accusers making them—and for me on a personal level to have David Remnick get behind this story, champion it, and defend it after it was out. The New Yorker is the best example of what journalism can be, and I am so grateful that he and that outlet are in the world.
Speaking of the personal dimension, was your sister Dylan and your proximity to her experiences on your mind as you spoke to these women?
Only in an attenuated way. I would say it was significant that I had experienced the dynamics of this issue in my own family and understood some fraction of what women go through of when they confront this—women and men. In this case I was talking to women about Harvey Weinstein by and large, and having a woman in my circle of loved ones who had experienced not just sexual assault, but also the added layer of complexity that comes with facing a powerful person about sexual assault—that absolutely informed the nuance with which I understood the issue. There was no factual link between those two things.
I had only a cocktail party rapport with Harvey Weinstein going into this. The drive throughout the story was much more about being a reporter and realizing that this was something huge. But absolutely my view of how complex and important the underlying issue is was informed by my sister and her own brave saga.
How can we create a space where survivors feel encouraged and safe to come forward? Not just at the white collar and high profile level, but at the level of the harassment and persecution that waitresses and hotel maids experience? Women who don’t have all the resources of Gwyneth Paltrow.
I’m so glad that you raised that. My hope has always been that this reporting for me and for a broader group of reporters will have really picked up the baton and done incredible, powerful, careful work on this issue. My hope is that the effect of that will be broader than Hollywood. And that people will recognize this for what it is, which is a set of revelations about the abuse of power and about this issue broadly speaking, and also recognize that this does happen, like you say, for the women or men working on an assembly line, or in the backroom of a restaurant, or in the boardroom and out on the streets and in every possible permutation of American life. And it has to be broader than the wealthy and the powerful. This has to be a set of lessons that create accountability across our society, because it’s been overdue for too long, and there are too many vulnerable people that, as you point out, don’t have the benefit of the spotlight.
“This has to be a set of lessons that create accountability across our society… There are too many vulnerable people that don’t have the benefit of the spotlight.”
Should we be conscious of the risk of false accusations? Should we worry about casualties along the way?
I think the fundamental point here is that reporters everywhere need to stay vigilant and careful. Certainly in my own body of reporting I was very acutely aware of the risk of any mischaracterized journalism, and the need for anything I put out to be absolutely bulletproof. And that meant multiple sourcing, that meant documentation, that meant an extraordinarily sober and cautious tone. And by and large I think the broader community of reporters who have worked on this issue have done exactly the same thing, and much of the reporting that has led to changes in the lives of powerful men has been underpinned by that kind of caution. That said, of course there is the risk that there will be less cautious reporting, and any time that’s the case, there is a risk factor for claims to be scrutinized insufficiently, and for there to be miscarriages of justice as a result.
What tangible things do you think have to change Hollywood? Is it a matter of no non-disclosure agreements? Is it about more female representation in the director’s chair? What are the concrete steps we can take to ensure that these changes are lasting?
You know, we’re already seeing legislation being introduced at a state level in New York and California to try to reassess the use of these secret settlements in sexual assault and harassment cases. We’re seeing Congress look at its use of funds to silence people with allegations of misconduct. These are all healthy starts and important. But ultimately I think that the cultural reassessment needs to be broader than even that. This is about how mothers and fathers raise their children. It’s about how the next generation looks at issues of consent and how people respect each other within that generation. And it’s about all of us understanding the massive potential for the abuse of power when people are as wealthy and as influential as Harvey Weinstein was. The entertainment industry needs to be vigilant about guarding against those abuses of power, and so does every other industry in America.
Some suggest that this change might not last. Do you think it will last, and what will our culture look like when the moment cools down?
I don’t have a crystal ball. But what I can say is that, over the past year, I have witnessed more bravery than I ever thought possible from accusers coming forward—woman and now men, in some cases. From a community of reporters that inspired me in my own work, and from society at large in confronting this issue. So, as much as we still have a long way to go, and though the accountability so far has been selective and incomplete, I do ultimately come out of this year in a place of optimism and a belief that we, as a society, are committed to getting this better if not right.