Terry Prone: How a son of Hollywood reminded us that journalism can be great

Terry Prone: How a son of Hollywood reminded us that journalism can be great
Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow is pivotal to the pursuit of film producer Harvey Weinstein on sex allegations, writes Terry Prone.

It’s one of those instructions, like ‘Don’t panic’, that nobody ever obeys. It came from my son, as he was dropping me off at Heuston Station. “Don’t look now,” he told me, “but the woman who got out of the car behind us is Mia Farrow.”

So, of course, I turned around and it was definitely Mia Farrow, and my son got ratty. “I told you not to turn round,” he said. I thought of telling him that he had activated a primeval human instinct in me and that it was his fault that I had gawked, but I only thought of telling him that an hour later, when I was on the train and he wasn’t. Sort of l’esprit de l’escalier, only with trains thrown in.

The thing is that I had never seen any of her movies, not even Rosemary’s Baby or Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet I glanced around anyway. That’s fame for you.

Now, of course, Mia Farrow, to a great extent, chose her fame, not just by becoming a film star, which was something of a family tradition, but by marrying an old singer named Frank Sinatra when she had just turned 21, then divorcing him, but staying sufficiently close to him to make people, much later, assume thatone of her sons was his, rather than Woody Allen’s, her then partner.

Indeed, at 73, Farrow, in the middle of a TV interview, said she wasn’t that sure which of the two (Allen or Sinatra) had fathered the son.

Even though Ronan Farrow was born more than 20 years earlier, and despite the fact that the son was just one of eight children of differing races and health abilities/disabilities born to, or adopted by, Mia Farrow, the claim made headlines and turned heads.

The son being a handsomer version of Frank Sinatra ensured the pictures went global, which didn’t seem to bother him much.

But then, if your name was Satchel until you got old enough to change it to Ronan, and if you lived in a multi-racial household where some of your siblings had the ‘N’ word shouted at them in the street, you might be inured to the consequences of being born into a famous family.

Ronan Farrow had a couple of more complications thrown in: He was precociously smart, going to college at 11, graduating with a BA in philosophy at 15, before becoming a Rhodes Scholar. And he was gay, coming out at the end of his 20s.

While Time magazine picked Greta Thunberg as their person of the year for 2019, Ronan Farrow has made an impact that should earn him comparable plaudits.

His hardback book Catch and Kill is a wonderful reassertion of what great journalism is and what it means.

Farrow didn’t start out as a journalist. He worked for Unicef, advocating for women and children caught up in the violence in the Darfur area of Sudan.

Ten years ago, he was a special adviser for Humanitarian and NGO Affairs in the Obama administration. His interests were political in a global sense and his first book, War on Peace, was an authoritative examination of how, and why, America’s impact on the world is diminishing.

This was one serious scholar. It was, however, inevitable that a major media outlet would do the maths. The maths being famous, somewhat scandalous family+ looks+ intellectual heft = possibility of being a star onscreen commentator/reporter.

NBC employed him. The payoff was not precisely what they — or he — had hoped for. He did not attract massive viewership — although, to give him his due, his arrival coincided with a massive global shift in the media market, with people choosing, en masse, to consume unmediated instant news on social media, rather than relying on mainstream media.

Whatever the reason, his career seemed a couple of points less than stellar.

Not any more. Currently, his second book is a bestseller, he has won the Pulitzer Prize, and he is widely regarded as pivotal to the pursuit of film producer Harvey Weinstein, who will go on trial in January, accused of rape.

Harvey Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein

The book is extraordinary, and if you’re picking presents for people in the next 36 hours, you might put it top of your list. It tells the story of his investigation of Weinstein, spending day after day trying to contact women who claimed the movie producer had raped or sexually abused them. Farrow got some of the women to talk on camera.

But many others, while they would talk off the record, took months to come around to the idea of being filmed.

From early on, it was clear to Farrow that this story was going to be what he describes as “a booking challenge”. One actress after another backed out, some because they had accepted money from Weinstein, that money acting as a gag.

In other cases, women were advised by their agents or PR advisors that being associated with a story of this nature wasn’t going to do their careers any good.

One well-known journalist, Ken Auletta, more than 15 years earlier, encountering some of the same challenges on the same story, was forced to move on, but kept his notes and made them available to Farrow.

Farrow never lost patience with the women, not least because his adopted sister, Dylan, aged seven, in 1992, had accused Woody Allen of molesting her. She re- alleged these claims in 2013, when she was 28. That claim has garnered huge media interest.

Farrow kept going even when NBC, irrationally, lost interest in the Weinstein story, questioning its news value. He kept going even when celebrities associated with Weinstein, including Hillary Clinton, stopped returning his calls. He kept going despite knowing he was under sophisticated surveillance. He kept going even when NBC told him to stop.

He placed the story, instead, with The New Yorker magazine, which was, as it turned out, a much better outlet: NBC would have given him seven minutes. The magazine gave him page after page. It was a game-changer, a career-changer, a life-changer.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein scored their names into journalistic history with a book, All the President’s Men, based — let’s be honest — on their good luck in having the exclusive services of a great leaker who informed them about then US president, Richard Nixon, and the Watergate Scandal.

Ronan Farrow has scored his name into journalistic history with a book that covers almost every day of his exhaustive investigation and never forgets who the heroes of it were.

The heroes were the women who trusted him with the post-Weinstein wreckage of their lives.

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