I love the tradition of muckraking journalists in this country, whether it’s Ambroise Bierce, Upton Sinclair, or the good people at Mother Jones. An addition to this group is Ronan Farrow, who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, for which he shared a Pulitzer prize, and more recently the Eric Schneiderman story, which caused Schneiderman to resign three hours after publication. Farrow gave the commencement address at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles this week. He told graduates a story more of profound doubt than of heroism, which is very moving. The Weinstein story was not something everyone at the New Yorker was cheering on. Quite the contrary, Farrow was told it wasn’t a story and advised to drop it.
… the systems commanded by those powerful men I mentioned… came crashing down on me too. And… people I trusted turned on me.
There was a moment about a year ago when I didn’t have the institutional support of my news organization. My contract was ending. And after I refused to stop work on the story, I did not have a new one. My book publisher dropped me, refusing to look at a single page of a manuscript I’d labored over for years. I found out another news outlet was racing to scoop me on the Weinstein story, and I knew I was falling behind. I did not know if I’d ever be able to report that story, or if a year of work would amount to anything. I did not know if I would let down woman after brave woman who had put their trust in me.
I had moved out of my home because I was being followed and threatened. I was facing personal legal threats from a powerful and wealthy man who said he would use the best lawyers in the country to wipe me out and destroy my future.
And, if against all odds I got through that and found a way to publish this story, I did not know whether anyone would care. Because I had spent a year in rooms with executives telling me it wasn’t a story. Because this was before the extraordinary months of conversation and analysis and acknowledgment that the suffering of these women mattered.
I’m not being falsely humble. I was sincerely at a moment when I did not know if I would have a job in journalism a month or two months after, or ever again.
Farrow persisted in the face of all odds and at great personal cost to himself because he trusted his instincts and that is his message to the young graduates.
You will face a moment in your career where you have absolutely no idea what to do. Where it will be totally unclear to you what the right thing is for you, for your family, for your community.
And I hope that in that moment you’ll be generous with yourself, but trust that inner voice. Because more than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle—and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win.
Because if enough of you listen to that voice—if enough of you prove that this generation isn’t going to make the same mistakes as the one before—then doing the right thing won’t seem as rare, or as hard, or as special.
The Weinstein story is fundamentally about lack of character and the havoc that can wreak. Farrow’s story is also one of character and how that quality can redeem.