The accusations against Woody Allen — seen here at the Cannes Film Festival last month — pose a different set of challenges for the media than those against Bill Cosby, writes Margaret Sullivan. (Thibault Camus/AP)

In the new documentary “Weiner,” an ordinary voter has something to say — New York-style — to the sharp-elbowed, mic-wielding reporters hectoring former congressman Anthony Weiner about his adulterous sexting as he campaigns for mayor.

‘We’re from the Bronx!” she shouts, getting in their faces. “We don’t care about that personal garbage!”

Bronx values notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that in politics, most of America does care. Personal foibles are considered an important window into a candidate’s character and judgment.

But what about the world of entertainment? With Woody Allen’s new movie, “Cafe Society,” out next month, familiar accusations have resurfaced.

Allen, who many years ago had an affair with his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and later married her, has never been able to shake the accusations of rape from his daughter Dylan Farrow. Her brother Ronan Farrow has backed her up. Another brother, Moses, says the abuse could never have happened, and he blames an ugly custody battle between Allen and Mia Farrow. Allen was investigated years ago and has never been charged with a crime; he defended himself in a New York Times piece in 2014.

None of that has dissuaded major stars, including Lena Dunham and Sarah Silverman, from blaming Allen. Just last month, Susan Sarandon declared, “I think he sexually assaulted a child and I don’t think that’s right.”

In a recent essay in the Hollywood Reporter, Ronan Farrow (a reporter for NBC News) blasted the media for the positive coverage given to Allen. He predicted more of the same with “Cafe Society.” No one would ask Allen or his stars “the tough questions” because, he wrote sarcastically, “it’s not the time, it’s not the place, it’s just not done.”

Are journalists indeed derelict? Should they dig in, as they should have done years ago with Bill Cosby? Should reviewers and writers continuously revisit the accusations against Allen?

Robert Weide, a filmmaker and Allen biographer, has called Ronan Farrow’s recent charges “disingenuous, irresponsible and even dangerous.”

His comparison to Cosby “would be laughable under less tragic circumstances,” Weide wrote. He noted that Cosby has dozens of accusers, with similar stories, who only now are having their day in court. In contrast, Mia Farrow, on her daughter’s behalf, “had months in court as well as unlimited and well-utilized media access.”

John Podhoretz, the longtime culture critic and the editor of Commentary magazine, made this point: If Ronan Farrow were able to “set 5,000 reporters on it, what could they glean?” There were only two people present, and one was a 7-year-old child; if there were anything to discover, it surely would have been brought out by now.

But, Podhoretz told me, that doesn’t mean that Allen gets off unscathed. Whether Allen molested Dylan Farrow is “unknowable,” he said — unless one begins with the perilous assumption that every allegation of sexual assault should be considered true.
Yet some things are indeed known. The history of Allen’s having an affair with a very young woman, Previn — who was a family member — is uncontested. What he did amounts to “a moral stain,” Podhoretz said, and Allen’s legacy will always have an asterisk attached.

Setting 5,000 reporters loose on Allen would be pointless, but journalists nevertheless can do something useful here. Editors and reporters can make sure, in writing about Allen’s life and work, not to ignore what is known. That doesn’t mean that every movie review should bring up Dylan Farrow’s charges or Allen’s personal history. But certainly any longer piece should make reference to these troubling chapters, even it means losing access to Allen. (The Hollywood Reporter was banned from a Cannes lunch after it published Ronan Farrow’s article.)

More important, journalists should keep digging into the bigger subject of rape and sexual assault, especially on college campuses. The sexual assault by a former Stanford University swimmer, Brock Turner, and the resignation of Kenneth Starr at Baylor University show how pervasive the problem is — and how ineptly our institutions respond.

The media can bring to this both sensitivity and a passion for change. It’s badly needed. Geneva Overholser, who led the Des Moines Register to a Pulitzer Prize for public service more than 25 years ago with a series on rape that named the rape survivor with her consent, is disheartened by the lack of progress. She sees a huge gap between what we say we won’t condone and what is “rampantly present.” Our culture too often shrugs and says, “Boys will be boys.”

The media can help, she told me, by bringing sexual assault out of hiding, “to give voice to all sides, to examine attitudes, to help society see and understand.”

The truth in the Woody Allen case may indeed be unknowable. But the widespread problem of sexual assault is not. And just as journalists made a difference in the civil rights battles of the ’60s, and the struggle for gay rights more recently, they can — and should — do so again.

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