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Ronan Farrow and the revival of investigative journalism

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10/3 Ronan Farrow

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow packed Kane Hall for a conversation on investigative journalism and current affairs.

“Ronan Farrow” is a growing household name, word of legend in newsrooms, and fear-inducing in board meetings.

It is also, evidently, attractive enough to the greater UW community that his appearance on campus led to a quickly sold out lecture in the largest hall on campus.

Journalist, Rhodes scholar, and former State Department official Ronan Farrow sat down Tuesday evening with Megan Ming Francis, an associate professor of political science at the UW.

The two met to kick off the graduate school’s annual lecture series and to talk Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Farrow’s New York Times best-selling book on the end of diplomacy, “War on Peace,” the reporting on Harvey Weinstein that won Farrow a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, and to give their best Spider Man and Rex Tillerson impressions.

The chemistry between Francis and Farrow was apparent from the moment they walked on stage. The two shared a light-hearted-in-dark-times demeanor through the conversation with an audience that echoed their laughs and sighs about the news.

Ronan Farrow’s reporting has swept the nation and disrupted Hollywood and whole industries dominated by male executives. Most notably, Farrow’s reporting has brought down producer Harvey Weinstein, reviving and breathing new life into the #MeToo movement; New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman; and CBS chairman Les Moonves, the first CEO of a Fortune-500 company to be brought down in the #MeToo era.

“And that one took two articles from me,” Farrow quipped, highlighting the correlation between the end of careers for several serial abusers and an article with his name in the byline –– a journalistic kiss of death.

The conversation began with Francis asking about the process of reporting on Weinstein and similar stories, and the moment it created. Farrow admitted it was a “harrowing” experience but early on in his life, “I knew I wanted to tell stories that make the world a better place.”

“Talking about sexual violence is really hard,” Farrow said. “For every survivor who was courageous enough to speak, they deserve the credit … For each of those people, they had to grapple with the very real possibility that this would be the biggest and most important fact that people know about them.”

One major reason for this, Farrow discussed, was the structure and “machine” that has been built to protect these men, including threats and the investigators hired against him, which he detailed in reporting Francis called “chilling.”

“There are problems in the media that create a veil of silence around these things,” Farrow said.

When conversation moved to Farrow’s book, Francis thought the conversation would be lighter –– the topic proved no brighter. Farrow dove into explaining the topic he explored in the book, the dangers he saw of a shrinking State Department and the growing influence of the Department of Defense.

“Shoot first, ask questions maybe never,” was his summation of this shift.

The last topic of the evening was the pending nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Farrow’s contributed reporting on the accusations of sexual assault by multiple women, and the news-cycle-encompassing hearing last week.

“He’s a smart guy, we went to the same law school,” the Yale Law educated Farrow said to laughter. The audience of admirers was in on the joke, while the two attended the same law school, Farrow was accepted to Yale Law much younger, at age 16.

Farrow attributed the excitement in the auditorium, and his personal tiredness, in part to this reporting –– “a small political story you might have noticed I’m reporting on” –– which he co-bylined with Jane Mayer, who he called a personal hero of his. Francis told the story of hearing the news these two reported on Kavanaugh together, too excited to wait till she was home, she shouted to her partner in the car with her to read it aloud.

“I’ve seldom been so dispirited than watching the course of reaction to these moments play out,” Farrow said. “The story was consumed by two publics that just weren’t talking to each other.”

On a closing note, Francis saved the final question for herself, on behalf of students inspired and interested in investigative journalism: “Is journalism, for you, a form of activism?”

“I absolutely think it’s important to distinguish between activism and journalism,” Farrow said, “that doesn’t mean a completely bright line.”

Reach News Editor Devon McBride at Twitter: @DevonM98


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