Why this Ben Smith and Ronan Farrow story matters

Your Thursday Poynter Report

May 21, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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The Ben Smith/Ronan Farrow aftershocks continue.

And, through all of this, you might be asking, “Why is this a story? Why should I care?” After all, besides the gawker aspect of watching two well-known media personalities from two media giants have a public feud, does any of it even matter?

Actually, yes. It does. There’s a reason why this is important.

But, first: a quick recap and some new information that you need to know.

It started with Smith, The New York Times media columnist, questioning Farrow’s journalism in a recent column. Farrow and his bosses at The New Yorker pushed back with a defense. Fired NBC “Today” show host Matt Lauer jumped in to rip Farrow with a column of his own (a column, by the way, in which Lauer denied raping a former NBC colleague).

Now, the latest? Scrutiny of comments Farrow made during an NPR interview that Smith referenced in his critical column.

In a 2019 interview with NPR’s David Folkenflik talking about his Harvey Weinstein story that NBC refused to run, Farrow said, “There was no draft of this story at NBC that had fewer than two named women, had a wide group of sources from Weinstein’s companies, had an audiotape of Harvey Weinstein admitting to a sexual assault — and you can be the judge of whether that should’ve been on air.”

In his column, however, Smith said he reviewed an NBC script that contained “no on-the-record, on-camera interviews.”

In defending that, Farrow tweeted, “Ben notes a Weinstein script from NBC and a radio interview I gave about it. The book discusses that draft and its account is accurate. In the interview, I misspoke. What I should have said was that there were at least two women named or willing to be named, as the book lays out.”

Misspoke. That’s the key here. The word “misspoke.”

Over the past few days, there has been plenty of scrutiny of Farrow’s NPR interview and his tweet admitting that he misspoke. After all, “willing to be named” is not the same as actually being named.

Closer inspection shows Farrow “misspoke” many more times than just the NPR interview while promoting his book “Catch and Kill.” Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple found that Farrow said eerily similar things in interviews with “The View,” Fox News’ Bret Baier, Katie Couric, NPR’s “On Point,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Fox News’ Shannon Bream and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

You can read Wemple’s piece for the exact quotes, but all were versions of “multiple women named” or “no fewer than two named women.”

Wemple wrote, “If Farrow concedes that he ‘misspoke’ in that NPR interview, he has a misspeaking problem.”

When asked by Wemple, Farrow gave a statement:

“The book’s reporting about my sourcing is accurate, and laid out in detail. That draft is discussed at length, along with the fact that there were two women who were willing to be named in the story at that point — Emily Nestor and Ambra Gutierrez — and NBC executives knew that. Both Nestor and Gutierrez have made public statements attesting to this fact. That draft had the stories of both women, and the only reason Nestor’s name wasn’t yet included was because NBC resisted it. In interviews summarizing those facts, I strived to be precise, but as I said yesterday, the most careful phrasing would be that, at all points while we were exchanging drafts, there were at least two women named or willing to be named.”

Here’s the heart of the matter for many: Farrow’s reporting and book helped bring down Harvey Weinstein, who has been sentenced to 23 years in prison for first-degree criminal sexual act and third-degree rape. So, do we care if Farrow might have cut some corners and embellished a few things?

“We do,” Wemple wrote. “By repeatedly exaggerating how he had buttoned down the Weinstein story at NBC News, Farrow casts his former bosses as incompetent and cowardly — or, better said, more incompetent and cowardly than they were. It’s a difference of degree, but properly conveying magnitude and paucity is a core journalistic responsibility. There was no need to stretch the case against NBC News when the underlying facts were sufficiently damning.”

As Wemple also points out, this also proves that the Ben Smith column that started this whole ball rolling was not out of line. Maybe Farrow’s work does deserve to be read, but with a magnifying glass.

What’s news?

Vice President Mike Pence, right, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing last month. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

You would think that the best place to get news is from … the news.

But there are people who get their coronavirus news from President Donald Trump and the White House coronavirus task force. They tend to think negatively about the media’s coverage. They also believe we’re making a bigger deal out of the pandemic than it really is.

These were the results of the latest Pew Research Center study. Here’s what Pew found:

Of those who rely on Trump and the task force, only 24% believe the media’s coverage is “largely accurate.” That’s — wow — less than one in four.

Compare that to the 67% who get their news from national news outlets. And of those who get their news from local news, state and local officials and public health organizations, more than half believe the media’s coverage is “largely accurate.”

But not those who get their information from Trump and his team.

Of those people, more than half (51%) think the media is making too big of a deal out of all of this. That’s almost unfathomable when you consider the death toll in the United States from coronavirus has surpassed 93,000.

Meanwhile, 80% who get their coronavirus information from national news and 68% who get it from local news believe the media coverage has either been just right or even underplayed.

One more set of numbers about this.

Overall, according to Pew, those who rely mostly on the White House for news make up 16% of all U.S. adults. And THAT group is almost entirely (92%) Republican or Republican-leaning. Pew estimates that number accounts for 32% of all Republicans and 82% of it is non-Hispanic white. Those who get their info from Trump also are more focused on the economy than those who get their news elsewhere.

The Pew survey has even more numbers that are separated by party lines. None of it is surprising. Yet, put together in one place like this it shows, again, how great the divide is between the left and right

‘Donald, you’re a sick person!’

Mika Brzezinski. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski finally had enough. The “Morning Joe” co-host went on an explosive rant after President Trump, again, attacked her husband and co-host Joe Scarborough.

Last week, Trump tweeted: “When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so. Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly? Isn’t it obvious? What’s happening now? A total nut job!”

Near the end of Wednesday’s “Morning Joe,” Brzezinski went off.

“He’s tweeting again all sorts of crazy things,” she said. “Once again tweeting conspiracy theories about Joe, falsely accusing him of murder, talking about a death of a young staffer in his congressional office years ago, and calling him dangerous to walk the streets.

“That’s sick. Donald, you’re a sick person! You’re a sick person! To put this family through this, to put her husband through this, to do this just ’cause you’re mad at Joe, because Joe got you again today.”

That’s only just a slice of what Brzezinski said.

She then took her complaints to Twitter with several tweets (here, here and here) asking why Trump has not been banned from the social media platform. Brzezinski later tweeted that a call was being set up between her and Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey.

Locally speaking

I’m going to brag about one of my colleagues. No one knows the local news industry better than Poynter’s Kristen Hare. And now she is the editor of something new called “Locally” — an information hub at Poynter designed specifically to help local journalists navigate this ever-changing industry.

And I do mean ever-changing, with dwindling resources, fewer staffers and yet the same commitment to tell local audiences about their communities. Local news has never been under more duress, yet is as important as ever. And it’s crucial for all of us to pay attention to what’s going on with it.

Hare told me, “News about the local news industry can easily get drowned out in the best of times or just reduced to a tragic tale told by national journalists no longer able to recognize its nuances. In the worst of times, so basically now, people are counting on local news to help save their lives while the industry itself is in critical condition — though newspapers certainly had a pre-existing condition. Local journalists are getting laid off, furloughed, their pay cut, and still finding ways to cover their communities. And newsrooms big and small, old and new, of all mediums, are testing new ways to survive using new tools and tactics. You’ll now find those stories, about the business and people of local news, all in one place with Poynter’s Locally.”

Rough times across the pond

American media isn’t alone in suffering major setbacks during the coronavirus. Despite drawing huge numbers in viewership, the BBC faces an estimated $153 million in lost income this year because of the coronavirus, according to Freddy Mayhew of Britain’s Press Gazette. Even before the coronavirus, BBC News was looking to cut more than $100 million by 2022.

BBC chairman David Clementi was quoted as saying, “Like many organizations, the BBC faces some very real financial challenges in the year ahead, but I am delighted that our services are performing strongly and making a real difference to the public during a challenging time.”

Media tidbits

  • Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate nominee Joe Biden will appear on CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” tonight at 11:35 p.m. Eastern. It will be Biden’s first appearance on the show since Sept. 10, 2015.
  • Speaking of talk shows, “The View’s” Meghan McCain warned conservative women about appearing on Seth Meyers’ late-night NBC show. In retweeting a tweet that criticized Meyers for “sucking up” to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, McCain wrote, “Caveat emptor for ANY conservative or right leaning woman naive enough to go on his show. Trust me on this one.” McCain was surely referring to her testy 2019 interview on Meyers’ show when the two sparred over comments made by Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
  • A day after technical issues knocked the “CBS Evening News” off the air in the east on Tuesday, the news program was up and running normally on Wednesday. Anchor Norah O’Donnell acknowledged the technical issues at the end of Wednesday news broadcast and thanked the CBS News staff and viewers.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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