Ronan Farrow opened a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter, “My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked,” with an anecdote concerning another powerful male celebrity accused of sexual assault. In 2014, while preparing to interview Mark Whitaker, author of a then-new biography of Bill Cosby, Farrow says a producer tried to dissuade him from asking Whitaker why he had omitted allegations of rape and sexual assault against the legendary comedian in his book.
“That producer was one of several industry veterans to warn me against it,” writes Farrow. “At the time, there was little more than a stalled lawsuit and several women with stories, all publicly discredited by Cosby's PR team. There was no criminal conviction. It was old news. It wasn't news.”
The producer used a standard old-school entertainment journalism party line — “They're accusations. They're not in the headlines. There's no obligation to mention them." — but the refusal to go there even second-hand with a biographer reveals the depths of the industry’ historical pathology regarding celebrity coverage. Farrow points out those standards have evolved quickly since, as the allegations against Cosby resurfaced late in 2014 and then gained steam, with now dozens of women making similar accusations, and even a criminal case.
Farrow, for his part, did compromise on his interview with Whitaker, raising it only once near the end. And he writes now of his regret: “[R]eporters covering Cosby have been forced to examine decades of omissions, of questions unasked, stories untold. I am one of those reporters — I'm ashamed of that interview.” (I feel Ronan's shame — I wrote about my own experience interviewing Bill Cosby, and the questions I didn't ask and why, too.)
But as the headline suggests, Farrow and many readers of The Hollywood Reporter know that the lessons of How To Talk About and To Bill Cosby have not been learned by all. A May 4 cover story on Allen, cheekily titled “The Woody Allen Interview (Which He Won’t Read),” dispenses with the allegations of assault that Farrow’s sister Dylan has levied against their father in one perfunctory parenthetical in the interview’s lionizing introduction:
"Productive is putting it mildly. Allen has churned out a movie a year — from classic New York comedies (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters) to Bergman-esque dramas (Interiors) to stylish London-set crime capers (Match Point) — since the 1980s, with combined grosses of nearly $600 million. He barely missed a beat even during the tumultuous 1990s, when his split from Mia Farrow threatened to blow up his reputation (accusations that Allen abused their then-7-year-old daughter Dylan were not pursued by police after an investigation, but the battle still rages, with a grown-up Dylan reasserting the claims two years ago in The New York Times)."
The interviewer never asks Allen about “a grown-up Dylan reasserting the claims,” and so the obligatory “here’s a thing that happened” note is tucked away, as the headline reassures us, where Allen will never see it.
The sentence itself is appalling — thank goodness Allen’s movie output “barely missed a beat” during that “tumultuous” decade, and whew, that raging domestic battle only “threatened to blow up" his professional reputation — bullet dodged, right? At the very least, this is a spectacularly tone-deaf approach, couching the controversy in terms of how it has not affected a man’s ability to continue to produce his middlebrow comedies on demand. But it is fair of Farrow to say also that this is “a sterling example of how not to talk about sexual assault”:
"Dylan's allegations are never raised in the interview and receive only a parenthetical mention — an inaccurate reference to charges being 'dropped.' THR later issued a correction: 'not pursued.'
"The correction points to what makes Allen, Cosby and other powerful men so difficult to cover. The allegations were never backed by a criminal conviction. This is important. It should always be noted. But it is not an excuse for the press to silence victims, to never interrogate allegations. Indeed, it makes our role more important when the legal system so often fails the vulnerable as they face off against the powerful."
It must be said that Farrow, journalist though he is, is not an objective witness to this story. He’s Dylan’s brother, Woody’s son. He defends Mia’s decision not to pursue criminal charges; he is close, emotionally, to her decision. He can’t not have a personal stake in this story. But that doesn’t make him wrong, either, when he points out that most women and girls face an uphill battle to pursue criminal charges for sexual assault, and that when women do come forward — especially when they are confronting a celebrity (see the recent Jian Ghomeshi trial, and how his accusers were treated in court), but this is by no means a phenomenon reserved for high-profile cases — they are often discredited, in court or outside of it, by, as Farrow writes, “a culture designed to take them to pieces.”
“A reporter's role isn't to carry water for those women,” Farrow writes. “But it is our obligation to include the facts, and to take them seriously. Sometimes, we're the only ones who can play that role.”
The Hollywood Reporter apparently asked Farrow to write this guest column, which he sees, along with an overall increase in reporting on celebrity sexual assault allegations, as progress. But, as he points out, profiles like THR’s that don’t seriously interrogate these topics contribute to “a culture of impunity and silence” in which the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful, no matter what.
In Allen’s case, it’s a lucrative Amazon deal and a new movie, premiering at Cannes, and, as Farrow suspects, more questions left un-asked:
"There will be press conferences and a red-carpet walk by my father and his wife (my sister). He'll have his stars at his side — Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg. They can trust that the press won't ask them the tough questions. It's not the time, it's not the place, it's just not done."
The reason for Farrow writing this column might be one THR interview, but Woody Allen is not the first, nor will he be the last, powerful man to be accused by a woman of sexual assault, and unless we make more progress as an industry pretty much overnight, THR won’t be the last publication to gloss over those accusations to get to the sanctioned stuff, like Allen’s marriage to Farrow’s other sister Soon-Yi, and his professional admiration of Miley Cyrus. And most importantly, it is highly likely that Dylan Farrow won’t be the last woman to be reduced to a parenthetical note. Kudos to THR for inviting Farrow to write this response, but a better response would have been to push harder on the Allen profile in the first place.