THR Talks: Ronan Farrow and Kim Masters on #MeToo, Five Years Later

For nearly two decades, Harvey Weinstein’s predatory tendencies were legend in Hollywood. And until a news organization could gather the sourcing and the courage to take on the mogul, that’s what they would remain. In 2017, 29-year-old NBC reporter Ronan Farrow was convinced he had the goods, with several of Weinstein’s victims willing to go on the record. Then his higher-ups held up the story. Undaunted, Farrow turned to The New Yorker. His feature for the magazine, along with an investigation by The New York Times, turned the whispers into fact and kicked off the #MeToo reckoning in October 2017. Farrow followed with exposés on Brett Kavanaugh, Leslie Moonves and Andrew Cuomo. Today, Weinstein is behind bars and many of Hollywood’s most powerful men have been held to account, several by THR’s Kim Masters, who has reported on allegations of misconduct levied at former Amazon executive Roy Price, Warner Bros. boss Kevin Tsujihara and John Lasseter, then at Disney — all of whom left their posts after the allegations were revealed. In the following conversation, the two journalists reveal how they assess and investigate allegations, their differing views on what constitutes a worthy story and how their outlook on the movement has changed over the past five years.

Could you just start off by explaining how you know each other?

RONAN FARROW I think the first significant conversation around this stuff was just learning that you had pursued the Weinstein story. The Hollywood Reporter had asked me to write an op-ed [“My Father, Woody Allen, and the Dangers of Questions Unasked,” May 11, 2016] about my family’s personal experience and balancing that against my journalistic feelings about these issues. It was an important turning point for me because it took an issue from which I had fled — people whose families are touched by this kind of violence often want to go nowhere near it professionally — and opened my eyes to just how much of a nerve this touched. That op-ed set off a larger media cycle than I anticipated and clearly was scratching at the surface of something that deserved more journalism. In the wake of that, I was pursuing these stories about the dark underbelly of Hollywood and trying to get at some of those same issues more deeply and hence wound up looking at Weinstein. And when I [visited] The Hollywood Reporter, I believe that might have been the moment at which I was alerted to how long and concerted your effort on [the Weinstein story] had been.

KIM MASTERS Yeah. Intermittent but definitely going back many years. I had heard about Harvey assaulting women. I didn’t realize then how prolific he was, that it was like his second job. I only came later to understand that it’s always a pattern. But I had heard about Rosanna Arquette and Gwyneth Paltrow as victims. And then you called me. You were still struggling with [interference from] NBC News, and I think my biggest contribution to what you were doing was just to say, “You’re absolutely on the right track.”

FARROW It was very helpful to hear. I think for all of us who have worked on stories where we’ve gotten internal interference, you can sometimes feel a little gaslit, like, “Oh, am I being told the truth? Is there any sincerity in the idea that there’s no story here, that it’ll never be crackable?” And so talking to people like you and to [fellow New Yorker writer] Ken Auletta, who had circled the story and come to believe that it could be done, was quite significant. If nothing else, emotionally, just to know that colleagues I respected thought that I was on to something.

MASTERS I have to say that when you and The New York Times both got the story, I was so upset with myself: “Why didn’t we get it? We tried so many different ways, maybe we gave up too soon.” But speaking with you and listening to Ken on your podcast — we were on the same episode talking about our efforts — I just realized, “You know what? It wasn’t gettable until it was gettable.” It wasn’t gettable when Harvey was at the height of his power. It’s only when his power diminished because he wasn’t doing as well in business and there was, I think, discontent inside of his own company, that the cracks that led to this happened. That made me feel better.

FARROW It definitely was a confluence of circumstances. It was what was happening in the broader historical context, I think, around Donald Trump and his rhetoric. There was a lot of frustration in the national conversation about gender and sexual violence. And then, as you point out, Harvey’s place in Hollywood changed, and maybe in some subtle ways Hollywood started to change. This is not to suggest that the problems are gone or necessarily even diminished, but I do think that there was a moment of, “We have to confront something,” that was just kind of bubbling in the background culturally.

MASTERS Yeah, and that was validated by the explosion [of victims coming forward] after the story broke — an onslaught of people with a built-up rage and desire for justice who were just waiting for a spark to ignite it. Our phones were falling off the desks from just ringing, call after call. We were almost operating like a triage system, trying to figure out who would handle which tips.

FARROW I had that same feeling of a deluge, but in a sense you were even more centrally positioned to see the Hollywood-specific dimension. I wound up, actually, if I recall, calling you a number of times when something would come in, and I’d just say, “Hey, this is industry-specific and you would do it justice and I am elsewhere doing some other thing and can’t, but it deserves to be told.” It was a nice moment. And more than that, I think an important moment in terms of the fellowship of journalists.

MASTERS I mean, I think we are competitive, but we are also rooting for each other to get to the story. Especially these hard ones, these really hard ones.

FARROW Yeah, I mean I’m always rooting for you. I know you hate my guts.

MASTERS Absolutely. (Laughter.)

Since you’ve both been flooded with tips, how did you decide which ones to put your energy and your news organization’s resources behind?

MASTERS Well, for me, the threshold question is, how credible does this person sound and what ways would we have of verifying the allegation? Have we heard from more than one source? To take the example of John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney: I got a call, and I didn’t know John Lasseter, and I’ll be honest, I sort of thought, “Really? The Toy Story guy? I gotta do this?” And I probably sat on my butt too long on that one. Then there was another call, another call, another call, and at a certain point I just thought, “I’m really being derelict in my duty if I don’t pursue this.” I feel like if somebody has a credible allegation and we don’t make an effort, we are leaving the [bad actor] to go on their merry way and find more victims. [Lasseter took leave from Disney in 2017, acknowledging “missteps,” which, according to Masters’ reporting, allegedly included unwanted hugging, kissing and touching.]

FARROW Yeah, there’s this matrix of qualities that any reporter looks at when a tip comes in. It’s the credibility first and foremost. You’ve got to assess the people involved, the fact pattern, what’s the documentation? And then in determining whether to even do that first round of searching and due diligence, I think most of us are looking at a story’s consequence to the wider culture, the kind of cost-benefit analysis of: What’s it going to take to try to nail it versus what’s the upshot? How can this inform us about something that is structurally important? And then there’s something all of us, as news consumers, just know in our bones: Does it have a kind of shape and arc to it that you can latch on to? So I think all of those things come into play.

MASTERS I think we differ a little on this, maybe because I work for The Hollywood Reporter. I feel like we are the last recourse for [industry] people, unfortunately. There is no other place to go. I mean, you could try complaining to HR, you could try complaining to the guilds, but sadly it hasn’t proved effective. I just feel like if you’re coming to me and you have a real story to tell, I have to pursue it. I’m less interested in the macro implication and more about, “So this person is doing this behavior and if we don’t do something, they’ll do it again and again.”

FARROW Yes. Especially if it’s an acute example of some kind of serial wrongdoing, you do start to feel, as much as one might want to be an impartial observer, it is morally incumbent upon us to play whatever small role we can in stopping people from getting hurt. I think that’s a balancing act because you don’t want to get so in that mindset that you’re approaching it from a standpoint of activism. What we’re doing has to be almost clinical and have a certain remove. At least that’s my approach. So, yeah, of course in the case of the Weinstein story, there was a feeling similar to what you’re describing of, “Well, I have to just put it all on the line because people are getting hurt otherwise, and I’m going to feel shitty about myself if I just try to move on with my life.” But I also encounter a lot of stories where I know on a micro level that justice probably needs to be done, but I don’t think The New Yorker is the right forum or that I’m the right person. So for a lot of those stories that matter to the people involved and may even matter more broadly but not be right for me, I do end up passing a lot of tips to reporters I respect.

How do you handle the emotional toll of reporting these types of stories?

FARROW Just a lifetime of therapy. That’s not even really a joke. I think that the toll that confronting stories can take on reporters is real. It’s a tough topic for us to discuss because I — and I think most of the reporters I know — don’t want to be the story. And that’s especially true if you’re working on stories where sources are dealing with really acute trauma. You don’t want to compare yourself as an observer looking in. But we do get drawn into the emotional and practical blast radius. And we do become targets. I just put out a film for HBO called Endangered with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, two wonderful filmmakers. And we followed around a number of reporters facing threats to their safety, or to their journalism, or both. And over the years since some of these stories that got me followed around and legally threatened and so forth, I’ve gone from being really reticent to talk about that, to feeling it’s actually important for us all to talk about that, to keep perspective, to appreciate that in the United States we have the protections and privileges of a pretty robust free press, the First Amendment, basic rule of law. We’re not like so many reporters in Russia or Pakistan or any number of other places where you might just wind up dead the next day with very little accountability.

MASTERS I have listened to very tearful people describing horrible events. And I have no training for that. I just deal with it instinctively. I think being a woman — every woman I know who’s honest, I think, has been harassed and maybe worse, myself included — so I try to just be authentic and relate. It does bring back some memories of things that happened in my life, and I guess I just feel that, well, if I can get this story to jell, then this will be one less person doing this. And that’s the satisfaction of the work. It’s not like I’m rejoicing when somebody is taken out of a career. And it has certainly happened that someone who is about to be written about says to me, “I have children,” and I’m not a heartless person. But I’m not the parent of those children, and my job is to help the people who have been hurt.

Do you ever worry about overreach on the #MeToo beat or about backlash?

MASTERS Knowing how difficult these stories are to get to publication, I kind of worry more about underreach. I worry about the stories we’re not getting.

FARROW I worry about both. You don’t have to look far to see examples of overreach, examples where a kind of reporting that has at one point been applied to serious and profound instances of violent crime gets applied to something that has either a much lower threshold of seriousness or a much thinner factual and evidentiary basis. I’ve seen tons of those examples. I’m sure you’ve seen headlines where you’ve had a similar reaction. So I do balance both. For sure there are more stories that aren’t being told that should be, and none of us should lose sight of that. But also, I do think it’s important that all of us as reporters do that analysis all the time. Is this serious enough? Is it bulletproof enough? Check it and recheck it and be willing to throw it out. I mean, that’s part of what makes it such an onerous beat for institutions to back in a sustainable way, because you have these expensive, long-range investigations. And, at least in my career, I’ve walked away from things I’ve been on for months.

MASTERS I don’t know that we’ve walked away. I mean, there’ve been some where we couldn’t get into the end zone and we don’t give up. Sometimes stories have taken months and months, and then we finally get there. … Then there are stories like the allegations about Aziz Ansari, which was an anonymous source with murky allegations. And we would not have published that. I wouldn’t have pursued that.

FARROW Yeah, I see examples of that out there. I have chosen to focus as much as possible on the more clear-cut cases where the level of seriousness is such that there’s just no argument that it’s on the bubble in any way. I have been at the receiving end of such a fire hose of stories from so many different industries, I have chosen to use my time on probably the most extreme and serious ones, by and large.

MASTERS In the early days of this, I would say it wasn’t easier, but it was simpler. We were getting allegations of assault, primarily. They were clear-cut — if true, this is an act of assault. And then it morphed slowly into the abuse area, and abuse is where it starts to get very tricky sometimes because it’s a creative business, people yell, some people then react. In some cases, you sort of say, “Is this really a story? Do we really need to go there?” And it’s a tougher call. But we’ve done those stories. We don’t shy away from them.

FARROW They can be important. Yeah, I mean, I’m glad that people aren’t shying away. I do think I set the bar very high. I think there is a very wide category of ethically dubious behavior, even behavior that hurts people in one way or another, that exists in a space of subtlety where I don’t think it’s news.

Have you noticed substantive institutional changes in these past five years?

MASTERS Not the kind that I would necessarily want to see. It’s hard for me to say whether HR at one company or another is more responsive to allegations that employees bring to them. But fear is a hell of a motivator, and people got scared knowing that they could be getting a call from a Ronan or a Kim. And I think that may have helped in some situations. I’ve had many people say they were scared when they got a call from me. I’ve had people say, “How do I know if I’m crossing a line?” And I always say, “If you have to ask that question, you’re probably crossing a line.” I don’t think fear is a bad thing in a workplace that has been so permeated by abusive practices as Hollywood has been, but I’m sure there’s a great deal that still goes on without being exposed and without any kind of justice.

FARROW I think there’s been meaningful, if tentative, policy change. There have been efforts on the legislative side to curtail the overuse of nondisclosure agreements. I also think there is a more inevitable cultural shift. To Kim’s point, people are more worried about accountability for certain kinds of transgressions. And that’s a good thing. I agree with Kim that it’s probably far from being enough, but I think I do sense a change.

MASTERS I would say something that encourages me is the attitude of younger women. I think older women, unfortunately, felt like a certain amount of harassment was the price of doing business. But the younger women are not willing to tolerate certain behavior. And, in many cases, the men, too. I want to emphasize, men have come to us with stories — and have been the primary movers on stories about behavior that they observed that they’re not OK with. Another question that arises again and again: Is there a path back from these allegations? I think unless you’re talking about real criminal conduct, there should potentially be a path back. I’ve been pretty disappointed not to see anybody take [the road to redemption]. My highest hopes were for somebody like Louis C.K. because he’s smart, he’s analytical. I thought maybe he would sort of vanish for a while and look really deeply into what motivated him to do this kind of behavior that he’s been accused of and come back and tell us lessons learned, some kind of soul searching. He has not done that at all. It’s been, like I said, a big disappointment.

FARROW I’m inclined to agree with you. I think wherever there possibly can be, there should be a path back. And whether that’s the case depends on a lot of factors, especially the seriousness of the crimes involved. I do think that the objective of shining a light on these kinds of problems, from our standpoint as reporters, it isn’t like scorched earth to take them out. It’s to hopefully trigger accountability, a meaningful conversation so that crimes and cover-ups can’t exist in the shadows. I think the exposure of the facts is the goal, not something punitive. And that’s not to say that people affected by the kind of misconduct we’re talking about don’t have every right to feel very differently, to feel angry, or like they want punitive measures. But I think my job as a journalist is just to clearly render the facts and inject those into the conversation.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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