I recently found myself reminiscing about a conversation I had with William Shawn, who at the time was the editor of the New Yorker magazine. My talk with Mr. Shawn came to mind because of two events that have recently been in the news. First, the collapse of the Russian dossier, a political dirty trick that was taken seriously by the New Yorker and the rest of the media. And secondly, the release of the film “The French Dispatch,” a cinematic love letter to the New Yorker of the 1960s.
The question the convergence of these events brought to my mind was this: how had the New Yorker gone from the incredible, detailed, careful, and in-depth journalism of James Baldwin, Lillian Ross, Renata Alder, and A.J. Liebling, to the the woke radical leftism of the current magazine, which forcefully pushed the Russian dossier—a hoax and opposition research hit hatched by the Clintons—not to mention the sloppy work of the New Yorker’s most famous contemporary writer, Ronan Farrow? I suppose everything has its life cycle. It’s just been painful watching the New Yorker die.
Real Journalism vs. Resistance Journalism
In recent months, the New Yorker’s work has been dismantled in a way that would have mortified William Shawn. I interviewed Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, when I was 25, back in 1989. I was living in a row house in Georgetown with three other guys, and writing a story for a weekly Washington paper about a writer named Julian Mazor. Mazor had written several short stories for the New Yorker in the 1960s. The stories were included in a well-reviewed collection, Washington and Baltimore, that was published by Knopf in 1968. Washington and Baltimore had deep spiritual and literary meaning for me. My father, himself a journalist, had introduced me to the stories.
To finish my profile, I had to hear from Shawn—or “Mr. Shawn,” as I (and everyone in the New Yorker office) referred to him. The call came around 9:30 p.m. on a Friday. I remember the exact moment so clearly because Shawn was such a towering figure in journalism, and hearing his soft, gentle, polite voice on the other end was like a Catholic receiving a blessing from the pope. Shawn had followed Harold Ross as the New Yorker editor, taking over the magazine in 1952 and leaving in 1987—an incredible run of nearly four decades. The writers he had edited were a pantheon of giants: Apart from the already mentioned Baldwin, Ross, Alder, and Liebling, there was J.D. Salinger, John McPhee, Pauline Kael, Joseph Mitchell, and Calvin Trillin.
Getting Mazor himself to talk to me had not been easy. A main angle of the piece was that Mazor was reclusive, a J.D. Salinger type who avoided publicity. Weeks of phone calls had finally worn him down and he agreed to the interview. The conversation with Mr. Shawn was the piece of the puzzle I needed to finish. He described Mazor as a unique voice, unlike anything else he had seen at the time. I mentioned the tremendous effect Mazor’s story “The Boy Who Used Foul Language” had on me when my father gave it to me to read when I was in the eighth grade. I wrote up the story. I’ll never forget the day it was distributed all over Washington and I started getting phone calls from friends and family—and Mazor himself. He thought I had done a fair and honest job. He was particularly thankful that I had honored his request to keep off the record the stories he had told me about “Jerry”—J.D. Salinger, who had been his friend.
I knew I had damn well better be accurate. My father was a writer for National Geographic, a job he had started in 1964 after a few years at Life magazine in New York. Journalism was a holy priesthood in our family. It was an honorable profession filled with people who cared about the truth. My childhood was spent around swashbuckling NatGeo adventurers, scientists, translators and the world’s greatest photographers. Typical was Luis Marden (1913-2003), the real-life most interesting man in the world. Marden was a gentleman, a polymath, and an adventurer—and he knew his French wines. The son of an insurance broker father and a mother who was a teacher, he grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, got interested in photography, and was hired by National Geographic at age 21. He never went to college.
A pioneer of underwater photography, Marden spoke five languages. His house, on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia, was custom built for him by Frank Lloyd Wright. Madden found the wreck of The Bounty and dove with Jacques Cousteau. He wore a Brooks Brothers suit, a “shirt of sea island cotton,” and a silk tie, and he was friends with King Hussein of Jordan and the King of Tonga. His discoveries include: an Aepyornis egg, discovered in Madagascar; the Brazilian orchid Epistephium mardenii (yes, named after himself); a lobster parasite that became a new species of crustacean; the first report of underwater fluorescence. At age 70 he did a story on ultralights, small airplanes, and actually flew one.
Marden would fit right in in “The French Dispatch,” a new film from Wes Anderson. The film is a fictionalized valentine to the New Yorker of the 1960s. The setting is a small French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé, where The French Dispatch magazine editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) oversees a collective of eccentric American writers who produce the magazine for an audience in America—specifically the middle America of the home office of the journal in Liberty, Kansas. “The French Dispatch” film is set up to be like an issue of a New Yorker magazine. It tells three stories. The first is told by arts correspondent JKL Berenson (Tilda Swinton) and centers on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a brilliant artist serving a life sentence for homicide who paints Simone (Léa Seydoux), a prison guard and his muse and model. The second story is a pantomime of the 1968 student protests in Paris, with Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a sexy revolutionary and Frances McDormand as Lucinda Krementz, the French Dispatch correspondent. (This section is inspired by Mavis Gallant’s 1968 coverage of the protests for The New Yorker, “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook.”) The third and final story has writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a saturnine combination James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling, profiling a legendary chef named Nescaffier (Steve Park), who works in a police department kitchen.
These writers are oddballs, to be sure, but, like Luis Marden, they are also brilliant and take the requirements of their craft seriously. They will get their facts right.
The New Yorker’s Fall
“The French Dispatch” not only celebrates the New Yorker, but reveals how badly the magazine has fallen in recent years. A prime example of the collapse of standards is star Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ronan Farrow. Farrow’s work was sharply called into question in 2020 by Ben Smith, a media reporter at the New York Times. According to Smith, “if you scratch at Mr. Farrow’s reporting in the New Yorker and in his 2019 best seller, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, you start to see some shakiness at its foundation.” Farrow, writes Smith, “delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic—with unmistakable heroes and villains—and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic. At times, he does not always follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure, or he suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but he cannot prove.”
Smith itemizes examples of Farrow not talking to key alleged witnesses in sexual harassment cases, subjectively interpreting events that those he writes about see quite differently, and ignoring key facts. In one case, he related an allegation that an NBC producer had heard a story of sexual assault, but never actually asked the producer in question. Smith: “Mr. Farrow and the fact checker never called the producer. And if they had, that element of the story would have been much more complicated—or would never have appeared in print.”
Another story involved Michael Cohen, a former personal lawyer to President Trump. In “Missing Files Motivated the Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records,” Farrow suggests something suspicious inside the Treasury Department. An FBI employee had noticed that records about Mr. Cohen, the personal lawyer for President Trump, had vanished from a government database in the spring of 2018. Farrow quotes the anonymous public servant as saying he was so concerned about the records’ disappearance that he leaked other financial reports to the media to warn the public about Cohen’s financial activities. Congressional Democrats and the media went crazy—Rachel Maddow called the story “a meteor strike”—and the Treasury Department promised to investigate.
Yet as Ben Smith notes, “two years after publication, little of Mr. Farrow’s article holds up, according to prosecutors and court documents.” The Treasury Department records on Michael Cohen never went missing. That was just the claim of a civil servant, an Internal Revenue Service analyst named John Fry. Fry would later plead guilty to illegally leaking confidential information. Fry, his lawyer said, had been watching “hours and hours” of television, and was “a victim of cable news.” Fry had leaked the information after seeing a tweet by Michael Avenatti, an anti-Trump lawyer who is now in prison for extortion. In May 2018 Avenatti went on Twitter and demanded that the Treasury Department release Mr. Cohen’s records. Fry, as Smith describes him, was “a longtime I.R.S. employee based in San Francisco [and] one of the legions of followers of Mr. Avenatti’s Twitter account, and had frequently liked his posts. Hours after Mr. Avenatti’s tweet that day, Mr. Fry started searching for the documents on the government database, downloaded them, then immediately contacted Mr. Avenatti and later sent him Mr. Cohen’s confidential records, according to court documents. Mr. Fry ended up pleading guilty to a federal charge of unauthorized disclosure of confidential reports this January.
“The best reporting tries to capture the most attainable version of the truth, with clarity and humility about what we don’t know,” Smith wrote. “Instead, Mr. Farrow told us what we wanted to believe about the way power works, and now, it seems, he and his publicity team are not even pretending to know if it’s true.”
A Kafkaesque Experience
In the interest of full disclosure and honest journalism, I should reveal that I myself had a telling encounter with Farrow once. It was September 2018, and a woman named Christine Blasey Ford had accused Brett Kavanaugh, then a judge up for a seat on the Supreme Court, of of sexually assaulting her in 1982 when we were in high school. Ford claimed that I was in the room when it happened. I discovered this when I got a phone call from Farrow in mid-September 2018, just after the news broke that Senator Dianne Feinstein had a letter that had something to do with Brett. Farrow informed me that I was mentioned in the letter and that the charge had to do with “sexual misconduct in the 1980s.”
I still find myself incredulous at the vagueness of that charge. I was being asked about nothing specific, but rather something that had happened “in the 1980s”—as in, the entire decade. As John McCormick wrote at the time in The Weekly Standard: “Judge says he first learned he was named in the letter during an interview with the New Yorker. . . . The Kavanaugh classmate told TWS that the New Yorker did not provide him the name of the woman alleging wrongdoing, a specific date of the alleged incident, or the location where the incident is alleged to have occurred.”
Blogger Allahpundit put it well: “
Judge apparently found out he was named in the letter when Ronan Farrow called to ask about it. Farrow offered no details about when the incident supposedly happened or where, or even the name of the woman. Judge has been accused of participating in an attempted rape with a would-be Supreme Court justice, in other words, and can’t even get the basic facts of the allegation provided to him. It’s Kafkaesque.
Just as with the Michael Cohen story, Michael Avenatti seemed to be pulling levers behind the scenes. In May of 2018 Farrow had dined with Michael Avenatti. A week after the Blasey Ford accusation in September, Avenatti would accuse me and Brett of being present at 10n high school parties where girls were gang raped. Just before the accusation broke, I got a phone message from Jane Mayer, who along with Farrow is a Marquee New Yorker writer. Mayer breathlessly revealed that there were “shocking and horrible” allegations about me and Brett that were about to surface. She didn’t specify, and when I called her back three times, Mayer never picked up the phone.
A few months earlier, in the March 12, 2018 New Yorker, Mayer had published an exclusive piece: “Christopher Steele, the Man Behind The Trump Dossier” It was a profile of Christopher Steele, a former British spy who had produced a dossier claiming that Trump had been involved in scandalous behavior with Russian prostitutes and that the Kremlin was using the information to blackmail the president. In the years since, the dossier story has collapsed, with major media outlets like the Washington Post retracting large chunks of their coverage and adding editor’s notes to many stories.
Special prosecutor John Durham had revealed that the entire thing was produced and promoted by the Hillary Clinton campaign. In her New Yorker piece Mayer also reported that Robert Hannigan, head of GCHQ, a British intelligence agency, intercepted a “stream of illicit communications” between “Trump’s team and Moscow” at some point prior to August 2016. Hannigan then briefed CIA director John Brennan about these communications. Brennan later testified this inspired the original FBI investigation.
Journalist and Russiagate debunker Matt Taibbi raised a question that William Shawn or any other solid old-school editor would have asked: what did “illicit” mean? Taibbi explains: “If something “illicit” had been captured by GCHQ, and this led to the FBI investigation (one of several conflicting public explanations for the start of the FBI probe, incidentally), this would go a long way toward clearing up the nature of the collusion charge. If they had something, why couldn’t they tell us what it was? Why didn’t we deserve to know?”
Taibbi then asked Mayer the meaning of illicit. Mayer only said that she “independently confirmed aspects of [Harding’s piece] with several well-informed sources,” and “spent months on the Steele story [and] traveled to the UK twice for it.” But, she wrote, “the Russiagate story, like all reporting on sensitive national security issues, is difficult.” Taibbi wasn’t buying it: “I can only infer she couldn’t find out what ‘illicit’ meant despite proper effort. The detail was published anyway. It may not have seemed like a big deal, but I think it was. To be clear, I don’t necessarily disbelieve the idea that there were ‘illicit’ contacts between Trump and Russians in early 2015 or before. But if there were such contacts, I can’t think of any legitimate reason why their nature should be withheld from the public.”
In his takedown of Ronan Farrow, Ben Smith made this conclusion:
Mr. Farrow, 32, is not a fabulist. His reporting can be misleading but he does not make things up. 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.
William Shawn could not have put it better.