Liberal-media dogfight: The New York Times vs. the New Yorker
Politico’s press critic, Jack Shafer, pithily punctuates every major media donnybrook, and so it was on Monday, when he tweeted: “There is something wonderfully cleansing about a full-bore New York Times vs. New Yorker fight.”
The Times’ new media columnist, Ben Smith, had just published a 4,000-word takedown of The New Yorker’s seemingly sacrosanct Ronan Farrow — the whiz-kid investigative journalist whose pathbreaking work on Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes helped launch #MeToo, won him a Pulitzer in 2018 and led to the publication of the best-selling “Catch and Kill” last year.
There are those of us who view such a fight as the cultural, though certainly not the moral, equivalent of the Iran-Iraq War: Too bad they can’t both lose.
The Times is an important paper, and The New Yorker is still a serious magazine. But they are the foremost exemplars in our time of the chokingly self-congratulatory left-liberal attitudes George Orwell once referred to in another context as the “smelly little orthodoxies.”
And Smith as much as Farrow is guilty of that tendency.
Indeed, the conventional opinion at both institutions is so uniform that it seems extraordinary there should be any contention between them at all. And yet there is Smith’s piece, “Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?” — a cold-eyed cross-examination of Farrow’s occasionally slippery reporting and writing techniques.
Farrow, Smith says, “does not always follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure or . . . suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but [which] he cannot prove.”
Two key examples involve Farrow’s apparent slipperiness when it came to corroborating certain accusations against Weinstein and NBC’s Matt Lauer.
In one of his New Yorker pieces in 2017, Farrow made it seem as though the allegation that Weinstein had raped one of his victims was stronger than it might have been. In fact, the witness he and his fact-checker had relied upon told an NYPD detective to dismiss that charge (Weinstein was convicted on others).
In a section of his utterly riveting book, Farrow writes that a woman Lauer had supposedly assaulted ran to “a new guy she’d been seeing” at NBC to tell him about it. The “new guy” told Smith he didn’t remember that happening — and that neither Farrow nor his fact-checker had ever called him for corroboration, which the fact-checker confirmed to Smith.
Smith’s larger point is that Farrow suborned the journalistic requirement of exposing all the messy and tangled elements of the story to the drive to provide a strong and clear narrative that served his larger purposes.
Farrow, Smith charges, is one of too many reporters who have been willing to treat “the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness” more as “impediments than essential journalistic imperatives” when targeting unpopular subjects — like members of President Trump’s circle.
It’s well put. But Smith — whom I consider a friendly acquaintance, though maybe he won’t be after this column — should have looked in a mirror when he was writing that sentence.
Smith himself was guilty of exactly this offense three years ago, when, as editor of BuzzFeed, he published the “Steele dossier,” the entirely unsupported series of lurid allegations about the Russians and Trump.
The ripple effects from that disgraceful decision have distorted our national politics from that day to this, in a manner far worse for the country and for journalism than anything Farrow might have done.
Second, Smith leaves oddly undiscussed the story that was inarguably Farrow’s most egregious journalistic lapse — an article he co-wrote in September 2018 about a charge of sexual misconduct against the then-18-year-old Brett Kavanaugh at a Yale party.
Farrow’s and co-author Jane Mayer’s reporting confirmed exactly nothing about the charge in question. And that should have been enough to ensure the story would never run. But run it did — because the goal wasn’t to get at the truth, but to destroy Kavanaugh’s chances of getting on the Supreme Court.
Why, one must ask, would Smith have left this story out of his critical examination of Farrow’s work?
You and I know the answer: Because a belief in Kavanaugh’s supposed personal malfeasance remains one of the smelly little orthodoxies shared by the Times and The New Yorker. It can’t be challenged. And so the “wonderfully cleansing” fight Jack Shafer touted between these two journalistic giants turned out not to be quite so purgative, after all.
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