Want to get an investigative journalist talking? Ask them about the time their weak-kneed editors killed their carefully reported blockbuster — you know, the one with the chief executive admitting to a federal crime on the record, the one with impeccable reporting and silky writing. Or just listen to Ronan Farrow telling NPR’s David Folkenflik last fall about how NBC News in 2017 bailed on his story exposing the sexual assaults of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein:

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.

Bolding added to highlight a contention that has come into recent dispute.

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith on Sunday applied nearly 4,000 words of accountability to the journalistic archive of Farrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting Weinstein’s legacy of sexual assault in the New Yorker, where Farrow fled after months of frustration at NBC News. Wrote Smith of Farrow: “His work, though, reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives,” wrote Smith, attempting to shoehorn one of those big-picture theses into his investigative project.

The 32-year-old Farrow is big-picture enough on his own terms. And sometimes a story doesn’t need to speak to a broader theme. It just is.

Whatever the framing, an editor at the New Yorker and Farrow both responded Monday on Twitter to Smith’s allegations. Part of the pushback addressed the apparent discrepancy between how Farrow spoke about his NBC News reporting and how NBC News executives described it. Even though Farrow said on NPR that he had no fewer than “two named women” in the piece, Smith reviewed a script that contained “no on-the-record, on-camera interviews.”

In a tweet, Farrow addressed this problem:

As any journalist knows, “willing to be named” sources are not the same as “named” sources. If Farrow concedes that he “misspoke” in that NPR interview, he has a misspeaking problem. Compare the NPR comment to comments he made while promoting “Catch and Kill,” the book he wrote about reeling in the Weinstein story. Have a look:

  • NPR: “There was no draft of this story at NBC that had fewer than two named women.”
  • The View”: “I think the reporting is unimpeachable and stands on its own. It is actually an outright lie to say that there weren’t named women. There were three named women during the time that the story was at NBC. No draft had fewer than two women.”
  • Fox News with Bret Baier: “We had multiple named women in every draft of this story.”
  • Katie Couric podcast (see 5:30): “In every draft of this story while it was at NBC News, we had multiple named women.”
  • NPR’s “On Point” (see 43:30): “We lay out very clearly what we had, there is no draft of this story at NBC that had fewer than two named women.”
  • The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert: “We had a tape of Harvey Weinstein admitting to a sexual assault, multiple women named in every draft of the story.”
  • Fox News with Shannon Bream: “We had multiple named women in every draft of this story; an audio recording of Harvey Weinstein from a police sting operation admitting to not just one sexual assault, but a pattern of them.”
  • MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show”: “We had a tape of Weinstein admitting to sexual assault. We had multiple named women in every version of this story.”

The Erik Wemple Blog asked Farrow to comment on these additional instances of apparent misspeaking. He passed along this 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.

That version of events aligns with the account of Rich McHugh, who worked on the story with Farrow at NBC News. In a Vanity Fair piece, he said that Nestor had “agreed” to go on record and that actress Rose McGowan had at one point pledged to do likewise and pulled out only because she felt the network was “dragging its feet.” Nestor herself filmed her interview in silhouette, though after McGowan withdrew, she “tentatively offered either to attach my name to the interview in silhouette or potentially even reshoot the interview with my face visible. However, they were not interested in this interview,” said Nestor in a 2018 statement. NBC News has stated that Nestor did not tell the network that she was willing to be named.

In his book “Catch and Kill,” Farrow writes of a clash with NBC News President Noah Oppenheim: “We have a prominent person admitting to serious misconduct on tape,” Farrow told his boss, according to the book. “We have multiple-sourced accounts of five instances of misconduct, with two women willing to put their name out there, we have multiple former employees saying this was a pattern, we have his signature on a million-dollar settlement contract — ”

Amid the combat over “Catch and Kill” last fall, NBC News released a fact check of Farrow’s claims, asserting that it had pushed the correspondent to get victims and witnesses on camera. “He was unable to do so during his time at NBC,” said the network.

It speaks ill of NBC News that Farrow somehow couldn’t muster the goods at the network but then whipped them up in Pulitzer-winning fashion once he decamped to the New Yorker. In his critique, Smith suggests that NBC News would have been better off plowing through the sourcing setbacks and sticking with Farrow. That scenario, however, presupposes that NBC News had the guts to stand up to Weinstein in the first place. MSNBC host Chris Hayes put it well: “Ronan Farrow walked out of NBC News after working on the Weinstein story and within two months published an incredible article at the New Yorker that not only won a Pulitzer but helped trigger a massive social and cultural reckoning that continues to this day.” “Catch and Kill” features numerous instances in which Farrow receives instructions from higher-ups to stop the investigation. And MSNBC’s own Rachel Maddow in October 2019 looked into those claims, concluding, “As to whether or not Ronan Farrow was told to hit pause on any new reporting at a time when NBC didn’t think there was enough to go to air with, we have independently confirmed that NBC News did that. That did happen. He was told to pause his reporting.”

Given that Farrow’s reporting helped to take down a monster, do we care that he retroactively padded his reporting on various occasions on his book tour? Do we care that he embellished the contents of his notebook here and there?

We do. 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.

If nothing else, the episode suggests that Smith was wise to apply the squinting eye of skepticism to Farrow’s work — and to wonder aloud whether there was a storm of conspiracies seeking to stop him.

Watch Opinions videos:

Decades before the #MeToo movement was born, local organizers were fighting for women's workplace rights, says activist Monica Ramirez. (The Washington Post)