What is a resistance journalist?

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I worked in communications in October 2017 and quickly closed a briefing to read Ronnan Farrow’s New Yorker piece about Harvey Weinstein.  It was the type of reporting that will likely inspire students to pursue journalism.  The type of reporting the New York Time’s Ben Smith recently argued might just be too good to be true, instead saying Farrow’s journalism may have more in common with a Weinstein melodrama.

I first heard about Smith’s new gig from a Canadaland episode and was impressed by his first column that looked critically at the Times.  If we are meant to hold institutions and powerful players to account, we need watchdogs offering the same critical eye to our own work.

Not one of us in this industry should be above reproach, Ronan Farrow included.  As Smith enumerates, Farrow’s career sky-rocketed from a minor role with NBC to winning a Pulitzer Prize.  But I’ve been thinking about Smith’s criticism since I read his column.

In his lengthy piece on Farrow’s body of work, Smith dubs the son of Hollywood royalty as part of ‘resistance journalism,’ a group of journalists who rose to fame during Donald Trump’s presidency.  I would argue Smith never successfully made the case for the term, let alone why Farrow is a resistance journalist.

Sure, Farrow has come of age as a journalist during this presidency, but Farrow isn’t best known for  his reporting on 1600 Penn.  His legacy will likely come back to Weinstein, a man who publicly identified as a Democrat and  donated to the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  The resistance journalist bit puzzled me further when Smith took issue with Farrow’s interactions with the Clinton camp while he reported on the producer.  Smith argues Farrow misinterpreted a call between Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill but it seems like Smith misinterpreted his own term.

The resistance, at least as it manifested so far, has largely been linked in resistance to President Trump but with an allegiance to Hillary Clinton.  Yet, an integral part of Farrow’s reporting placed the party that’s always had the most to gain from the resistance under a scrutinous spotlight: the Democratic party.

Plenty of journalists have and will rise to prominence during this presidency, as have journalists in every other presidency.  They may not get everything spot on but that’s arguably the largest occupational hazard of the job.  Smith’s own column has already been amended by a couple of corrections.  If Farrow is a resistance journalist, I wonder who else fits the bill.  Perhaps Smith would classify Maggie Haberman, a talented journalist who continues to catapult during this presidency as a resistance journalist.  The New York Times journalist has reported on Trump at length but Amy Chozick wrote Clinton’s team would try to undermine her by invoking Haberman’s name.  Chozick says she didn’t see Haberman  take that bait.

Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars enumerated the drones strikes committed under Barack Obama.  Has he been a resistance journalist in hiding?

Journalists will continue to rise from covering flashy topics like Hollywood or the White House but they will also take unconventional paths to their by-lines.  This is perhaps the most concerning part of Smith’s critique.  Yes, Farrow was a cub reporter who landed at the New Yorker without a journalism school degree.  We’ll likely see more journalists follow suit.

I agree with Smith’s assessment that Farrow could have used more support and guidance, but in stretched newsrooms those sorts of resources are already at a premium.  Smith fashioned Farrow into a quirky supporting character, much like a caricature from a narrative he accuses Farrow of depending on to craft his work.  But it may have been those qualities that made Farrow the person to publish work that ultimately backed up what already came from Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.

With a set of famous parents, a broad spectrum of career experience and a personal connection to sexual assault, Farrow had a unqiue vantage point to process the allegations and connect with famous voices needed to break the story.  He was also able to get people like Rose McGowan to go on the record when she wouldn’t do so with the Times.  She also tweeted out her own concerns with Smith’s approach to this criticism.

The reporting from Farrow, Twohey and Kantor eventually encouraged other women to bring forward their own stories, with strikingly similar patterns to what we read in print.  Those women, like the women featured in Farrow’s own reporting weren’t perfect.  In her own victim impact statement, Miriam Haley said, “I showed up.  Not as a perfect victim, but as a human being.”

That didn’t stop a jury from finding Weinstein guilty on two counts.

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