Ronan Farrow: 'I Was Raised With An Extraordinary Sense Of Public Service'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Ronan Farrow, has had a remarkable year of reporting. He won a Pulitzer Prize last month, shared with The New York Times, for his articles in The New Yorker about allegations that Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted actresses. In another article, he reported on how Weinstein used an Israeli private intelligence firm to compile dossiers and track women and journalists to try to suppress or discredit the allegations. Farrow reported on how the same Israeli company that helped Weinstein also collected information on Obama administration officials who worked on the Iran nuclear agreement looking for ways to discredit them.
This month, Farrow broke a story about Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and his suspicious financial activity. Also this month, Farrow, along with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, broke the story of four women who accused New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of nonconsensual physical violence. Schneiderman resigned within three hours of the story's publication. Farrow also has just published a new book called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence."
Farrow has a remarkable personal story, too. He's the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. He grew up with 13 siblings. Many of them had disabilities and were adopted from other countries. He started college at the age of 11 and went to Yale Law School at 16. By the age of 20, he was working for Richard Holbrooke in the Obama State Department.
Ronan Farrow, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this remarkable year of reporting that you've had.
RONAN FARROW: Thank you so much, Terry. It's good to be here.
GROSS: What was happening in your life when you decided to write "War On Peace"?
FARROW: You know, this project gestated for a long time, and then with the advent of the Trump administration, the exact trend line I was talking about, decimating American diplomacy, reached this new nadir. And it was uncanny in a way I wish I could say I celebrated that it had suddenly become I think really the defining topic in American foreign policy. America's place in the world is being redefined in this massive way. And, yes, it's worth noting this new extreme under Trump, and I do at length. A lot of the book is set during this administration. But to answer your question, this was something I had been working on for something like five years, really showing that administration after administration of both parties had been guilty of some version of this, the politically expedient sidelining of the American diplomat.
GROSS: You started working at the State Department when you were 20 with Richard Holbrooke, who was then the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. What was your job description?
FARROW: I was the special adviser for humanitarian and NGO affairs, which, like everything in government, was an unwieldy and ridiculous title with too many acronyms in it. And we had this team of what one senior military official calls weirdos (laughter). So Richard Holbrooke, who was, you know, the embodiment of establishment foreign policy in a lot of ways, also had this very firm and I think very admirable commitment to bringing in new ideas and new blood. And I think he really embodies the idea that you can do both. You can respect expertise and also shake things up. He kind of did an "Ocean's Eleven"-style heist team for this. He brought in academics and business people and all sorts of people you wouldn't normally see on a State Department team. It rankled a lot of the bureaucracy. But he thought that was what it would take to break through decades of, you know, Afghanistan being the graveyard of the empires. And...
GROSS: So if it was "Ocean's Eleven," where did you fit in?
FARROW: (Laughter) I mean, I was like the intern of the "Ocean's Eleven" team. You know, I think I would have been cut for economy of characters in a movie script.
FARROW: But my job was to liaise with the human rights groups, the nongovernmental groups on the ground. And a big part of Richard Holbrooke's idea for Afghanistan and Pakistan was to stop this practice of putting all of our development work through Beltway bandits, these giant contractors who had tons of overhead and would subcontract out six times and then, you know, wind up with outsiders coming in who didn't really know the territory anyway. He wanted much more local implementation instead. You know, go to the mom-and-pop group that can build the well instead of the seven layers of contractors. So that was a big part of what I worked on and, you know, I can't say he succeeded in that, but I do think it was the right line of thinking.
GROSS: So you write about how diplomats are losing their importance in an era when foreign policy has been militarized. What's an example of that that you saw in the Obama administration when you were working in the administration?
FARROW: So Obama is often remembered by liberal commentators, I think, through rose-colored glasses in this particular respect because we think of him in Cairo sounding extremely inclusive in that famous speech, and many others, really talking about the importance of diplomacy and the United States having more than just war as an approach to different conflicts. But in practice, a lot of the trends that have kind of been set in stone across administration after administration continued unabated under Barack Obama. One of those trend lines was increases in arms sales, which really exploded under Obama. One of them was the White House filling with former generals.
When you look at the Afghanistan review during Obama's first term, there was sort of a collision of all of these trends in the militarization of foreign policy. And you had an environment where what Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's senior foreign policy voices, called celebrity general culture and what Richard Holbrooke called in some of his last-anguished memos that I release in this book mil-think - military thinking. And the end result is there was this torturous review of Afghanistan policy, Terry, where it became a cavalcade of military voices. And the few civilian voices in the room, I think partly for political reasons, were completely lockstep with the calls for escalation from the generals. And Richard Holbrooke, who felt there needed to be less escalation and that we needed to focus on a potential political settlement - an idea that is widely embraced now but at the time was totally verboten and controversial - didn't even get heard. He rarely made it into the room when most of the crucial decisions were made.
GROSS: So meanwhile, under the Trump administration, the president seems to be dismantling much of the State Department. What are some of the...
GROSS: ...Biggest ways you think that the Trump administration has been succeeding?
FARROW: You look at this dynamic under Barack Obama, especially in the first term where diplomats were frequently sidelined and left at the margins of the rooms where decisions were being made - they are no longer in the room, they are no longer in the building under Trump. The Trump administration has evinced a complete disregard for expertise, for history, for the kind of careful assessment of a region and the pressure points and the ways to avoid pitfalls that we so desperately need right now as we confront Iran, North Korea. That's all gone.
And even just in terms of the shape of the organization of the State Department, Terry, what we've seen is it's often described as unprecedented. I wouldn't say unprecedented because I think there are clear lessons we can pull out of recent history about this, but it is certainly a new extreme where embassies around the world are short-staffed and have no leadership where the regional offices that are supposed to be led by important officials who really know the regions are again empty and being led by acting officials. And in conflict after conflict - I chronicle this in "War On Peace" - you see us barreling headlong into situations, you know, with diplomacy by tweet as the apparent spearhead and no experts to counterbalance it because we're just not listening to them anymore.
GROSS: So there's a scene in the book - you're basically having your job interview with Richard Holbrooke, and you're following him around. You follow him home to his townhouse where he keeps asking you questions, really complicated questions. He goes into the shower, and with the shower running, he's still kind of interviewing you. And the thing about that scene is like if you were a woman, he shouldn't be doing that. If you were a woman, that could easily be interpreted as...
FARROW: Of course, of course.
GROSS: ...Sexual harassment. And the thing is, like, a lot of guys think, well, like, yeah, it's hard to hire a woman because you can't do what you usually do, right? And if what you usually do is talk to people while you're showering, then you have to change your behavior because, oh, I hired a woman. Do you know what I mean? And I was wondering if you were thinking about that because...
FARROW: Of course I thought about it and I...
GROSS: ...It's the kind of thing that stand in - it's the kind of thing that stands in the way of a lot of people hiring women, that they feel like I can't...
FARROW: Sure, and it's...
GROSS: They can't behave the way they do around the guys.
FARROW: I mean, there's really - there's two parts to that question. One is about Richard Holbrooke. And it's sort of an accident of fate that - between when I first drafted that scene and when this book came out - obviously, the world had changed in terms of our view of this issue. And, you know, I - obviously, I had hands on the text late enough in the game to be able to write it with a very particular eye towards delineating between this and, you know, actual examples of sexual harassment. You know, I was on the other side of a closed door. There was no kind of sexual component to this. It was embedded in, I think, a personality trait that Richard Holbrooke had, which was that he was oblivious to the sensitivities of others around him. And once, I describe him, you know, following Hillary Clinton into a women's room in Pakistan, which is also not great for (laughter), you know, office conduct. But really in his case - was born of, you know, this incredible intellectual energy and enthusiasm for keeping the briefing going (laughter), you know, and not even being aware of his surroundings.
I never in my time working with him knew him to be, you know, harassing or intimidating in any way. He was famously a bully and had a lot of bluster, but I never heard from anyone that he sort of made them uncomfortable in that respect. To your question about, you know, this argument that we hear now about it being harder to hire women or there being the fear of a chilling effect in terms of women's ascendancy in the workplace - I just have yet to see actual hard evidence that that is a meaningful trend line in American workplaces.
I spoke at a very large conference of human resources managers from big corporations recently. And, you know, a number of them talked about the specter of this. You know, oh, well, what if men are afraid to mentor women? But none of them could come up with any metrics from within their companies to suggest that this was actually happening or any anecdotes even that they had witnessed to suggest that this was happening. So I would just caution - you know, I see that argument kind of weaponized against activists working on this issue. And, you know, I think it's the wrong response to the problem. You know, it may be important for us to be conscious of that, that if - the moment it becomes a real phenomenon. But I don't think the answer is to somehow, you know, blame women for being too forthright about this problem.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ronan Farrow. And his new book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." And he shared a Pulitzer Prize this year with The New York Times for uncovering the story of Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment and assault of actresses. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ronan Farrow who's now a contributing writer for The New Yorker. He - when he was 20, he got a job working with the State Department on Richard Holbrooke's team. And his new book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence."
Well, Ronan, this year, you shared a Pulitzer Prize for your reporting on Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment and sexual assault of actresses. You share the prize with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the Times. How did you first get onto the story?
FARROW: I had been an investigative reporter and an anchor at MSNBC and NBC News for a number of years and had been trying to break stories that kind of spoke truth to power much in the way the Weinstein story ultimately did. You know, for my "Today" show series, which was called "Undercovered" - meaning, stories that don't get enough coverage - I would go after, you know, the Department of Energy for suppressing evidence of deaths and illnesses at a particular nuclear waste storage plant. You know, I'd look at miscarriages of justice in proceedings around sexual violence on campus or overprescription at VA hospitals - sort of classic investigative stories. And in the course of that series, I had fought for a greenlight on a series about the dark side of Hollywood. And there were a number of topics that kind of got the axe early on because they were deemed too dark. Things like, you know, pedophilia in Hollywood and race in Hollywood.
And that's - you know, I don't say that in an accusatory way. That's kind of the game when you are in network television. It's a very commercial setting, and you have to play ball. And there are these conversations all the time about what gets the greenlight and what doesn't. But I did retain a greenlight on a story about sexual harassment and casting couch culture and had done a number of interviews with actresses that were not about Harvey Weinstein. And, in the course of that reporting, then began hearing stories about Weinstein. And that story very quickly went from being a survey piece about the issue broadly to a realization that this was an incredibly important and long suppressed set of truths, and that there were potentially patterns of behavior that could endanger people in an ongoing way.
And so it went from, you know, an initial actress on the record talking about this to a group of women talking about this on the record to - very early on in the process, I got a recording of Harvey Weinstein admitting to an assault which had been made in the course of an NYPD sting operation. And the evidence became too great to stop reporting.
GROSS: Do you think that women were trusting of you in part because they knew about your sister Dylan who had written about being sexually abused by your father, Woody Allen? And you wrote about Dylan, too. So they had reason to believe that you would be sensitive to and understanding about the situation and also the risks of going public 'cause you knew firsthand how you could be attacked when you go public - how you could be disbelieved and the more powerful person wins.
FARROW: You'd have to ask those brave sources. You know, they had to relive what, for many of them, was the worst moment of a lifetime. You're exactly right. They had to stare down the prospect of career annihilation and terrible smears. And as it turns out, you know, physical intimidation because Weinstein was hiring some very unsavory characters, as I was able to reveal later in my series of stories on him. You'd have to get their rendering of how significant it was, but I can tell you that it did come up in some of the early conversations. And I don't think, you know, any biographical background would be a panacea in this case. You know, these are incredibly tough decisions. And no matter how sensitive a person is, it's a leap that not everyone is going to make. And after months of conversation, some of the sources I was working with didn't decide to make the leap. And I always respected that.
But for those who did this very brave thing - you know, for some of them anyway - I do think they were aware that I had a public track record of reporting on this issue and talking about the importance of hearing survivors and had seen my sister be smeared terribly for doing that but also had put myself in the line of fire after many years of reluctance to talk about it because I had, you know, reviewed the evidence in my sister's case and concluded that when I was asked about this, I didn't really have an ethical choice in the matter. I had to say that I found it credible. And, you know, that all went into sort of a soup of motivations for why I had spent several years banging my head against the wall reporting on this issue. And I can only hope that that created and continues to create a safe space for sources who have an important story to tell and need a reporter who's going to be careful in telling them.
GROSS: One of the stories you wrote was about how Harvey Weinstein hired an Israeli private intelligence firm called Black Cube to uncover information that would smear the women who are going forward about how Weinstein had sexually harassed or assaulted and therefore cast doubt on their accusations. And some people in this Israeli private intelligence firm are former Mossad agents, the Israeli intelligence agency. Was Black Cube trying to smear you as well?
FARROW: Yes, and that's something that I already, you know, reported when we went public with the Black Cube story. They were, through that firm and an array of other firms that Harvey Weinstein had retained, aggressively going after both women with allegations and also reporters working on the story, both in an effort to smear us and also in an effort apparently to uncover sources so that, presumably, they could in turn go after them. And, you know, these were elite, you know, operatives with combat experience in a number of cases using false identities and front companies. You know, this was a very, very elaborate almost cloak-and-dagger operation.
GROSS: And they had people posing as reporters going to the women.
FARROW: That was also a component of their work. And, you know, this continues to be a facet of the system employed by powerful people hoping to distort the news cycle. You know, I reported just in the last few weeks that Black Cube was also involved in an apparent effort to undermine the credibility of Obama-era officials who were involved in brokering the Iran deal, you know, these sort of mild-mannered foreign policy figures getting, you know, sexual blackmail material dug up on them and having people with false identities reach out under false pretenses to their family members even.
This is a system that is still very much intact and is very relevant not only to these important stories about sexual violence but also to our political future. You know, if you're wealthy enough and well-connected enough and you want to work in the shadows to either suppress the truth or manipulate events, you can still do that in this world today.
GROSS: My guest is Ronan Farrow. He won a Pulitzer Prize last month for his reporting on allegations that Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted actresses. Farrow is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. His new book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." We'll talk more about his reporting and his life after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ronan Farrow, who has a new book called "War And Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." It's based in part on what he observed when he worked with Richard Holbrooke in the Obama State Department. Farrow is a contributing writer at The New Yorker, where he's recently broken several major stories. Last month, he won a Pulitzer Prize, shared with The New York Times, for his reporting on allegations that Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted actresses. When we left off, we were talking about Farrow's reporting on Black Cube, a private intelligence agency that Weinstein hired to collect information on, intimidate and smear the reputations of the women and journalists trying to expose the allegations against him.
You know, you mentioned the similarity between how Black Cube tried to smear the reputation of women who were making charges about sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein and to try to get information from or smear reporters covering the story. And at the same time, political people, people who'd worked in the Obama administration, there was an attempt to smear them to undercut the Iran deal. A similar phenomenon happens with American Media Inc., the media company that owns the tabloid the National Enquirer, to affect both people in politics and women coming forward.
FARROW: Absolutely. And one of the things that's, you know, made numerous reporters in the mainstream media a target of some of these intermediaries like American Media and the National Enquirer is the exposure in recent months of just how regularly that company was being used as a sort of front for the interests of some of these powerful men seeking to suppress and manipulate the truth. So, you know, I've worked on stories about two so-called catch-and-kill operations where American Media and the National Enquirer acquired the rights to stories about Donald Trump in order to suppress those stories and not report on them in the months leading up to the election.
So one of those was the story of Karen McDougal, a Playboy playmate who claimed to have an affair with the president. And, you know, we released a detailed account of her story of that affair. And she has since gone public and threatened to sue American Media. You know, this is, I think, a heavy burden for people who sell their right to tell their stories. So, you know, all of these tactics to smear and intimidate and suppress show us a glimpse of a system that has been working on behalf of these very powerful people for a long time but which was in the shadows up until now. And I think one of the most important effects of not just my reporting but a whole lot of great investigative reporting over the past year is that the American public now knows that that's what's happening.
GROSS: How did Black Cube, the Israeli private intelligence company, or anyone else on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, target you and try to either smear you or suppress your reporting?
FARROW: I've talked a little bit about the broad strokes of that, Terry. And I think I'm going to leave it at the broad strokes for now, both because of ongoing potential legal proceedings and also because that's a subject for another book.
FARROW: But I will say, broadly speaking, this is something that should not happen, that reporters working on a story are threatened and intimidated and smeared. And it happens more than you would think. And in that sense, you know, you're not wrong to ask the question. And the public is right to want to know those details.
GROSS: And you're right to write a book about it. I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, did Harvey Weinstein threaten you personally?
GROSS: Can you tell us what he said?
GROSS: Will you tell us in the future?
FARROW: You in particular, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So you grew up in a family that was in the tabloids - or at least I'm sure the tabloids wanted your family to be in it because your mother, Mia Farrow, was famous. She was partners with Woody Allen. She had been married to Frank Sinatra. She adopted many people from - many children from African and Asian countries who had, you know, cognitive or physical disabilities. So tabloids love that kind of stuff. Did you have to defend yourselves against the tabloids when you were growing up? Did your family have to do that?
FARROW: Very much so. You know, the media was a very intrusive presence in my childhood. And there were periods where I would be, you know, rammed through crowds of paparazzi to get to school. And, you know, we had the media hovering - and literally hovering in helicopters sometimes but also, you know, as it turns out, private investigators hired by a wealthy guy, Woody Allen, you know, digging through our trash, trying to smear the family, call my mother crazy, call the kind of family that we had, you know, crazy or not a family, you know, defended the fact that he had had sexual relations with several of my sisters by saying, you know, it was a commune of adopted people and that doesn't really count. It was always the suggestion - continues to be his suggestion.
So yeah, you know, look, this was a painful and tumultuous childhood in many ways. But I also feel very fortunate. You know, I was raised with an extraordinary sense of public service by a strong, working single mom who withstood all of that and was incredibly principled about standing by her kids and defending them. And probably to the extent that I'm not totally insufferable, Terry, it's because I wasn't a New York or LA kid for most of my childhood. I was, you know, sort of sequestered in the Connecticut countryside on a farm with a lot of chickens, which helps keep perspective, I think.
GROSS: So when you were young, traveling with your mother to developing countries in Africa and going to villages where there was a lot of, like, illness and poverty, what was it like for you at a young age to be witnessing some of the worst hands that life could deal?
FARROW: In a sense, it started even earlier than that, Terry, because, as you mentioned before, many of my siblings, you know, the people I love and care about most in life were adopted from around the world with severe disabilities. And we're a living example of some of the worst hands you can be dealt in life. And I was tremendously inspired by just seeing some of my brothers and sisters get through the day.
And it also made it pretty difficult to ignore the world's problems or get too wrapped up in your own BS because you're always conscious of a bit of perspective - not as much as I should be but maybe more than I would have been otherwise. And then, of course, you know, being in places, you know, as I then started doing my own advocacy work and then subsequently when I was in government, where you'd be confronted with some of those incredibly difficult stories firsthand, it felt like the most natural response to try to tell those stories to the world.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ronan Farrow. And he's been doing some incredible reporting this year. He shared a Pulitzer Prize with The New York Times for uncovering Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment and assault of actresses. And he - Ronan Farrow writes for The New Yorker. And now he also has a new book, which is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Ronan Farrow, and his new book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." He worked in the State Department with Richard Holbrooke during the Obama administration. And this started when Ronan was, like - what? - 20.
FARROW: Yeah, about 20. I had this Doogie Howser trajectory in school, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
FARROW: And I was very nerdy and skipped a lot of grades.
GROSS: And you both did well. OK.
GROSS: So - and this year, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times for exposing Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment and sexual assault of actresses. And Ronan Farrow is a contributing writer to The New Yorker. You got a bone injury when you were in Sudan. Was this working with the State Department or was this traveling with your mother?
FARROW: This was earlier than that, and it went untreated for a while while I was traveling, and there were years and years of complications and being in and out of the hospital and...
GROSS: Why were you there?
FARROW: Why was I in Sudan?
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
FARROW: This was during the period where I was volunteering for UNICEF.
GROSS: I see, OK.
FARROW: But it extended over - these complications were something like four years where I was sort of in and out of crutches and wheelchairs and it extended right through portions of my time in law school. And then actually even my first months at the State Department, I was still on crutches.
GROSS: How did it affect you to be unable to walk for the better part of four years?
FARROW: It was a huge, formative influence, Terry. And, you know, I'm cautious not to overplay this because I'm also very fortunate to be, you know, not struggling with disability right now, but it did give me a very acute awareness of just how quickly one's passport into the world of the healthy and the living and the fully mobile can be revoked and how precious and tenuous this all is. And it makes me very grateful every day just to be able to get through the day.
GROSS: Doing the math, it seems it was around the year 16 to 20.
FARROW: Yeah, so, you know, right in the windows where what you want most desperately is just to fit in and, you know, date and dance and be human. And when one is grappling with severe illness, you know, life threatening at various points for me, the last thing you feel is fully human. And I drew strength from my siblings, who had more permanent disabilities than I, and from every person I have met since grappling with this sort of a situation.
GROSS: Did that lead you to spend more time than you otherwise might have doing things like reading and writing?
FARROW: That's really interesting. I don't know. I tried not to let it stop me. You know, there was a funny moment where I guess this would have been during law school I had, you know, like metal halos drilled into my bones, and I couldn't fit normal pants over them, so I was wearing, like, stretchy, like, Hammer pants, you know, from the MC Hammer music video.
FARROW: And I looked completely absurd, and I did all this stuff in the Hammer pants. Like, I testified before a congressional committee on human rights stuff. And I, you know, started doing my first kind of on-air appearances talking about these human rights stories. And I was very determined not to let it slow me down. Probably a more productive relationship with that illness would have been to read and write, as you suggest, and stay in a little more. But I was very bent on almost, you know, pretending that it wasn't a problem.
GROSS: Where did you buy Hammer pants?
FARROW: (Laughter) I wish they'd actually been, like, true, shiny Hammer pants. I think that they were stretchy pajama bottoms in plaid, if I recall, which really makes it all worse.
GROSS: Wow. What a great look.
FARROW: It's a look, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) So, you know, you talked about how when you had your bone infection and were - you were in a wheelchair and on crutches, you realized that the passport to health and to, you know, a, quote, "normal life" could be revoked at any moment. You also learned that a successful career could be revoked at any moment as well. You had been an anchor at MSNBC. You had your own afternoon show. That ended. And then you were continuing to report for NBC but maybe as a result - I think as a result of the Harvey Weinstein reporting you wanted to do - that they were not anxious to have you pursue - that job ended, but you were kind of out in the cold for a while.
FARROW: Yes, that's right. There was a low point last year where I did not know if I would have a job in journalism in a matter of weeks or indeed ever again and was being told by some very powerful people that I would never work again and, you know, also being told by some pretty sensible-sounding people around me you've got to just let this go. Just let it go, and your career will be fine. And if you don't, it's all over. And yeah, that the reality is...
GROSS: When you say let the story go, you mean the Harvey Weinstein story.
FARROW: The Harvey Weinstein reporting. I had been ordered to stop reporting and cancel interviews, and I didn't.
GROSS: And then you landed at The New Yorker.
FARROW: Yes. And it really felt like a miracle because I had spent a long time in rooms with executives being told that this wasn't a story. And then, as you pointed out, coming face to face with the very real possibility that it might be the end of my career that I continued to pursue the story, and then to have The New Yorker step in and, first of all, commit to reporting this and just seeing them have the reaction that every journalist who has looked at this body of evidence from the beginning had, which was this is an incredibly important, huge story, all hands on deck, let's get this publishable as quickly as possible, but then also on a personal level being yanked back from the jaws of career decimation, meant a lot to me personally.
And I'll forever be grateful to this incredible team at The New Yorker. I mean, The New Yorker is like a magical, fairy-tale place journalismwise (laughter). Every single person at every echelon of management there is a true journalist, and they stick up for dangerous and difficult stories. And, you know, after being completely exposed to legal and physical intimidation and threats to suddenly have a team around me saying, we'll stand by you, was really important. It restored my faith in our profession, honestly.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ronan Farrow who's now a contributing writer for The New Yorker. And his new book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ronan Farrow. And he shared a Pulitzer Prize with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times for exposing Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment and sexual assault of actresses. And his new book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence."
You know, there was a long period when your sister Dylan had made allegations against your father, Woody Allen, for sexually abusing her when she was a child. And a lot of people didn't believe it, and Woody Allen's career continued to thrive. Do you think that your reporting on Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood changed things in the dynamic between whether people would believe your sister or Woody Allen? And do you think it has changed his career status in Hollywood and people's willingness to work with him?
FARROW: I think we've witnessed a collision of different trends in the last year, and I can't take credit for that with my reporting alone. It's the work of a number of reporters. It's the work of brave sources in a number of different stories coming forward over the last decade. It's the resurgence of the allegations against Bill Cosby in a climate where those women were still smeared a lot in response to speaking out. And where I, as a reporter seeking to cover those allegations more, faced a lot of pushback from, you know, experienced people in my chain of command, saying this isn't news. This is salacious. And, you know, I think that was one big catalyst. I think my sister coming forward was absolutely a catalyst. You know, even peripheral factors like Hannibal Buress cracking that joke about Cosby. There was the Fox News story and what Gretchen Carlson did coming forward about that. There were these wheels kind of grinding into motion (laughter) very gradually.
And when you look at the reputation of any individual whose legacy has been clouded by a credible allegation of sexual assault and the way in which they're treated by the press, I think that changed necessarily as a result of all of those stories one after another. I mean, you're a great example. You did very tough interviews where, you know, people would come on not really expecting to get grilled about this sort of thing. And you asked, I think, the necessary inappropriate questions of people like Greta Gerwig, for instance. And I know that that was a catalyst in that particular artist then grappling with this and coming forward with a statement, saying, you know, I've actually reassessed this, and I think it's worthy of comment and of questioning. So I think it was incumbent on all of us in the press to ask more hard questions, and I think we are seeing that more. And I don't think that's just a result of my reporting. I think that's a result of a panoply of factors in recent history.
GROSS: So I want to ask you a question about when you were young. You went to college at - how old?
GROSS: And that wasn't just, like, a college course while you were in junior high or high school. That was like - you went to college.
FARROW: No, that was - that was college.
GROSS: How does that even happen?
FARROW: I had - I mean, this is where I really, like, ruin my reputation, Terry (laughter). Let me just descend deep into nerdiness (ph). I had been doing a program that Johns Hopkins offers, which is a wonderful program. It's embarrassingly called the Center for Talented Youth, but we'll move on from that quickly. And...
FARROW: ...It's sort of, you know, this "X-Men" style - you know, you get recruited. And you go take college courses in the summer. And I had just been bored with grade school work. And they had already kind of been skipping me grades. And I would do these programs over the summer. And the way you get into that program is you take the SAT as a kid. So I took the SAT at, you know, something like 8 or 9 and got the kind of score where people said, oh, you should just go to college, and I did. I remember having these very frank conversations with my closest friends at the time, where we all sort of sat around and had emotionally frank exchanges about whether it would ruin our friendships or not, you know? Would I just have no friends at the other end? And to their credit, I'm still friends with a lot of those people. They hung in there during my annoying grade skipping.
GROSS: It's interesting that you were so achievement-oriented, you know, in a family where so many of your siblings who were adopted had some kind of physical or developmental issue that they faced.
FARROW: Yes. I mean, I imagine there is a link between those two things, and probably a better psychologist than I could, you know, ferret that out. I did feel that there was very little space for me to act out in any way - right? - because my mom was shouldering such a huge burden, and she was a single mom, and it was so all-consuming taking care of my siblings. And I admired that so much that I just kind of wanted to lighten the load in any way that I could. And it therefore felt, A, I guess, very clear to me that if I had been dealt a hand where I could do these things in terms of academic achievement and maybe use that to engineer a set of skills that could be of some use to the world, that kind of - I had to act on that because not everyone had that opportunity - right? - in my own family. But then, also, I - you know, I probably wanted to lighten the burden for my mom, in some sense, you know? And I was one child out of many who could excel in those ways. And, you know, if I'm being totally honest and scrutinizing myself, I probably - I wanted to succeed more as a result.
GROSS: So one more question, and this might sound strange to you, but this is a Richard Holbrooke question. He died while he was working in the Obama administration, in the State Department, and it was a heart condition. It was a heart problem that killed him. And it was all - it seemed like it was very sudden. He was rushed to the emergency room and never made it out of the hospital. And I think some people were thinking, well, work kind of killed him, that he was working so hard and traveling so much that the stress just kind of, you know, ended it for him. You were, I think, pretty close to him.
GROSS: What impact did his death have on you and in seeing how stress and just, like, sheer overwork might - it might not have had to do with that, but it might have affected him, and you're certainly somebody who is - you know, who is hardworking.
FARROW: You know, if you ask his widow, the wonderful writer Kati Marton, about this, you know, she is very fairly defensive of his legacy and I think doesn't like the idea that he had a, you know, tragic end where he was running himself into the ground. But, you know, I was also with him a lot during those last months and weeks, and I think what you said is accurate, in my view. He did have escalating heart problems, and people did tell him to stop, and he refused to stop. And he did, in a sense, I think, break himself, struggling to end that war, to have one last success in a climate where people no longer wanted the kind of diplomacy that he was doing. And I don't know that I've fully internalized the lesson that seems obvious from that, which is, you know, give yourself space to heal and treat yourself well, you know?
I do think that I'm probably moving at a pace where I am - I don't mean this to be melodramatic or say it for sympathy, but where I'm a little bit, you know, breaking myself physically and emotionally over time. But I probably, not unlike Richard Holbrooke, in those moments feel like it's a rare opportunity to be able to do this important work. And, you know, if people are coming to me with stories that need telling and that can maybe make the world a better place in some small way if they are told, then I'm going to do everything in my power to expose those hard truths.
GROSS: Well, Ronan Farrow, thank you so much.
FARROW: Thank you, Terry. Great to be here.
GROSS: Ronan Farrow is a contributing writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we remember writer Philip Roth, who died yesterday at the age of 85. His New York Times obituary described him as exploring what it means to be an American, a Jew, a writer and a man. I did several interviews with him, so we'll do a two-day tribute in which we'll feature interviews about his books "Portnoy's Complaint," "The Plot Against America" and "Everyman," a novel about aging and mortality. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.