Michael Wolff Roasts Ronan Farrow — and Defends Woody Allen — in New Book ‘Too Famous’

In LA Mag’s exclusive excerpt, the ’Fire and Fury’ author dissects Farrow’s rise from failed MSNBC host to fearsome Pulitzer-winning journalist (and shares a few thoughts about the “unspoken weirdness” of Mia Farrow’s mothering).
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From Wolff’s book “Too Famous,” chapter titled “Ronan”:

“A basic part of Ronan Farrow and his family’s attacks on Woody Allen, Ronan’s likely father, involve Allen’s power in the media and what the Farrow family characterizes as the fearsome publicity operation Allen has assembled to protect himself and beat back criticism. In fact, the eighty-four-year-old Allen’s media team is mostly a relic from the 1970s. Virtually all digital and social media currents have passed it by. The New York Times, once Allen’s cultural champion, has rolled several generations forward and his defenders and admirers have long retired. Allen now largely ignores the media or hides from it, rather than courts it. Forced to interact with it, he will likely say something unguarded that gets him into trouble.

But this is a significant part of how Farrow sees himself: up against other people’s overwhelming media power, insidious and conspiratorial. He’s David facing the Goliath media and its legion of sexual predators. The Farrow family is a victim of the media’s injustice.

His book about the Weinstein case, Catch and Kill, is much less about Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes than it is about the unfairness and deceit and downright corruption of the media overlords working full-time against Farrow. That’s his real story, how he has overcome other people’s media power.

At the same time, Ronan Farrow is an ultimate creature of the media— the opposite of an outsider to it. We would surely not know of Ronan Farrow save for the media light he was born under.

After Farrow set himself up as the bête noire and avenging angel to his former employer NBC News, there was considerable finger-pointing within the news division as to who hired him anyway and why. Most fingers were pointed at Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News president and sometime screenwriter and Hollywood wannabe who thought the news network could use some glamour status. Although there were, too, fingers pointed at Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s chief, himself a noted starfucker.

The certain fact is that the twenty-five-year-old Farrow, without television experience of any sort, was given his own show, a daytime celebrity-and-entertainment-oriented format, because he was Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s son and often in a swirl of media attention because of it.

Ronan Farrow on MSNBC’s now-cancelled show “Ronan Farrow Daily”

In fact, at this point, he was best known for his mother’s public suggestion in an interview in Vanity Fair that he might not be Woody Allen’s child, but the son of Frank Sinatra (this would be easy to prove either way, but the Farrows have not pursued that further clarification, at least not publicly).

And yet, even as a born-and-bred media family, Ronan and various other members of his family believe that other media people have more media power than they do. It’s zero sum.

Allen, their whalelike foe, is one of the most famous men of his age—commanding more than half a century’s worth of steady media time. In addition to being her longtime lover, Allen was Mia Farrow’s primary employer in the media, depriving her of a career after their breakup. It is Allen’s entitlement as a person of such stature and power that might seem to have allowed him—Allen famously saying, “the heart wants what it wants”—to forswear all sense of propriety and reputational concern in 1992 and take up with Mia Farrow’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, whom Farrow and composer André Previn adopted from Korea when she was seven. Fighting back against Allen’s betrayal, Farrow leveled charges of sex abuse against him involving their then seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan, precipitating what might be one of history’s great domestic meltdown media circuses. It was, in the Farrow camp’s telling, the power of Allen’s lawyers and PR operation—and friends in the media—that helped him cast enough doubt on her accusations for courts and investigators to find him on multiple occasions blameless and let his prolific career continue unharmed. The media was the enemy as much as Allen.

Meanwhile, Mia raised Ronan (changing his name from Satchel) with no contact with his father and as her close confidant, inculcating in him the family’s blood score against Allen. Through her entrée as a Hollywood activist, she introduced her son into high political circles, where he would work briefly for Hillary Clinton and for the U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Mia Farrow’s revival of the charges against Allen in 2013, dormant for more than two decades, in the same Vanity Fair article where she dangled the Sinatra angle, was coincident with Ronan Farrow’s television debut. In his book, Farrow modestly demurs here, saying he has always tried to distance himself from the Allen situation, and it is only with the heaviest sense of duty that he has taken up his mother’s role as the main family prosecutor and spokesperson. But that’s almost exclusively who he was as he began his anchor job: Woody Allen’s implacable accuser, achieving dramatic notoriety for it, and, as well, possibly, Frank Sinatra’s son. (There was an effort to cast Farrow as a would-be diplomat, and he would subsequently write a book about diplomacy—a book moronic in its simplemindedness and probably unpublishable but for his media notoriety.)

Ronan Farrow and Mia Farrow attend the TIME 100 Gala 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TIME)

As it happens, Farrow’s show was quite a dreadful flop. He was hopelessly wooden on camera and absent the boyish charm the network had convinced itself he might offer. His cringeworthiness was made worse by his mother’s frequent calls to high-ranking NBC officials to complain about his lighting and the low caliber of his guests. To boot, he was personally unpopular at the network, an entitled name-dropper, which is quite something to be singled out for in the television business.

He was, in essence, fired, but in television custom allowed the gentle landing of working out his contract. He was given a temporary assignment to the Today show, with the clear implication that his future at NBC was short-term. Then Weinstein came into the picture. Here commenced the struggle that is the centerpiece of Farrow’s book, an epic journalistic showdown. Him trying to get out the truth about a sexual predator, and the powers-that-be trying to thwart him—hardly an unfamiliar tale in the Farrow home.

For NBC, this—Farrow as crusading investigator—was a confusing development on a number of fronts. First, NBC had fired him. And yet here he was proposing a major investigative effort—an odd bit of not getting the we-don’t-really-think-much-of-you message. And, at best, he was a mere rookie reporter, with scant journalism background and little support in the organization—and he wants to do what?

And then there’s the Allen thing. Certainly, in conventional reporting terms, you’d naturally question the appearance of bias here. This person whose life story was bound up in one of the most controversial charges of sex abuse of all time was now asking—demanding—to represent the network in a dicey sex abuse exposé. (In Catch and Kill he dismisses even the suggestion that there might be legitimate concerns about bias as preposterous.) And there was yet another, sotto voce, aspect of this. Many in the news division didn’t believe the Farrow family’s Allen story. This had become something of a generational divide. Younger people seemed to blindly accept the Farrow version, while older people—and these were older media people running NBC News—were skeptical. Some, in fact, believed the story to be flatly false and that it only achieved younger generation credibility in a Trumpian way, with the baldness and magnitude and repetition of the Farrow family claims.

Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill”

Having already hired him (even having now fired him), it was perhaps too late to ask who Ronan Farrow was and how you would measure his credibility if Woody Allen was in fact innocent, if Farrow was (either wittingly or unwittingly) part of a revenge plot. But the Weinstein story was awkwardly forcing the question at NBC (more awkward still because the current politics of the Allen story meant you could not ask the questions out loud).

As the teller of his tale, Farrow, naturally, does not allow, or appreciate, that at NBC he might have been regarded as a creepy presence. Instead, it’s a conspiracy to silence him. In his telling: Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful and fearsome figures in modern media, is on the phone, demanding, threatening, wheedling, as surely he was, and NBC executives gave in to him. That of course might be true along with Farrow being a creepy presence few would have reason to trust with this story.

At this point, Farrow shows up at the New Yorker. He is sponsored by the writer Ken Auletta, a New York media fixture married to the literary agent Amanda Urban, who was in turn the protégée of the literary agent Lynn Nesbit, a close Farrow-family friend—who took a prominent role as a media surrogate in supporting the 1992 allegations against Allen—and whose daughter was the longtime girlfriend of Mia Farrow and André Previn’s son Matthew. (At every turn, the background of this story is about media power and connections.) A further part of the background here is that by this point it was well known that the New York Times was rushing to get a story about Weinstein’s long history of sexual abuse into print. The story, in other words, had become a foregone conclusion; the fears that various publications, including the New Yorker, have had for many years about Weinstein’s vaunted reach and threats were evaporating.

The Times publishes its story, pretty much demolishing Weinstein, and then the New Yorker publishes the Farrow piece, putting a final nail in the Weinstein coffin, if it needed one. Farrow shares in a Pulitzer Prize. From there, he goes on to claim the central spot on the powerful-men-sexual-abuse beat. His targets will include former New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman, then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and then CBS chairman Leslie Moonves.

Farrow’s work for the New Yorker is notable for being particularly un-New Yorker-like. It isn’t truly written, it’s stripped-down, police-blotter, tabloid stuff (and even in this, Farrow is often paired with other writers). This accusatory-tabloid style gives him a kind of power few journalists ever get—he can break anyone. Just the rumor of Farrow’s interest in someone can break them. It’s an old-fashioned sort of press power. The accuser is more important than the accusations.

If the fundamental question about Allen’s guilt or innocence—and Farrow’s unrelenting pursuit of what might well be a false charge—yet lurks, almost nobody is going to mention it.

By the time Farrow publishes his book, the media equation has been entirely reversed. Farrow holds the power and the heretofore powerful men in media are quavering before him. Indeed, the most potent weapon against a powerful man is to accuse him of sexual offenses. There is likely no one who understands this better than Farrow. His book, focusing on the perfidiousness if not corruption of NBC, accuses virtually every ranking news-division executive at NBC of some form of sexual transgression. In the wake of the book, NBCUniversal’s top management reorganized the news division, putting a corporate-politician-type without news experience, Cesar Conde, in charge. So the effect of Farrow’s campaign against the network will likely be less, not more, news aggressiveness.

In the larger media business, among many working journalists, there has remained a private current of doubt about Farrow. There’s the discomfiting entitlement of Farrow’s rise with continued resentment at the Times about his sharing in the Pulitzer Prize. There’s the nagging, if mostly unspoken, weirdness of the Farrow family story: Mia Farrow’s brother in prison for sex abuse; her practically teenage marriage to the middle-aged Sinatra—himself a legendary sexual predator; Mia having Ronan’s legs broken as a teenager to make him taller; three of Mia’s fourteen children dying at young ages under never entirely explained circumstances. Indeed, the Farrow family story, even without the Allen saga, is gothic. What’s more, there have been reports about Ronan Farrow’s threatening approach to sources and major questions about his article (with Jane Mayer) in the New Yorker about a Yale classmate of Brett Kavanaugh’s who might possibly, though without supporting evidence, have been harassed by Kavanaugh at a law school party. And there remains Allen.

What if none of the accusations against Woody Allen are true? Allen, after nearly thirty years, continues to deny every meaningful detail of the claims, with no one else coming forward to support them, and with the Farrow children divided over their veracity. But not only that, what if Ronan Farrow has pursued the vendetta against his father knowing it was a likely fake? The account by Ronan’s brother Moses (starkly refuting almost every one of his mother’s central claims about the alleged molestation), who was fourteen at the time of his mother’s accusations against Allen and present at the time of the alleged incident—Ronan was five— certainly suggests you would need to be willfully blind not to have major doubts.

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn attend the premiere of “Cafe Society” in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

At the same time, even given questions about him, Ronan Farrow’s media profile remains unassailable—he’s a righteous fighter. You’re an outlier—part of the problem—if you question him. Moses Farrow was unable to find an established publisher for his account; instead he posted it on social media.

Ben Smith, the New York Times media columnist, tried to chip away at Farrow in May 2020, taking worthy issue with some of Farrow’s journalistic methods. But Smith seemed to shy away from asking the larger question that appeared to be on his mind: How exactly did Ronan Farrow get to be Ronan Farrow?

It is undoubtedly heretical to compare Farrow to Weinstein. And yet each seems to have seen the media business as a personal battlefield, a kill-or-be-killed prison yard. And for many, there are similar fears in crossing them—part of the reason so many young actors and actresses have publicly elected not to work with Allen is the fear of Farrow’s condemnation.

In 2017, Allen’s wife Soon-Yi Previn—in some sense the central character in the events that still pursue her family, but frustrated by the lack of agency she is allowed in explaining those events (Farrow continues to suggest that his adopted sister is intellectually impaired, risible to those who know her)—gave an interview to New York magazine about growing up in Mia’s house. It’s a devastating portrait, echoing the account given by her brother Moses, of extraordinary family enmity and dysfunction, with few fates being as surreal and dark as to be adopted by Mia Farrow. But the piece would have been much more devastating, except that Farrow closely tracked the story—as Weinstein would track Farrow’s story about him—threatening and pressuring the magazine, which, according to the writer Daphne Merkin, uncommonly, if not unethically, showed Farrow substantial parts of the story, if not the entire article, before it was published, allowing him to critique it and demand changes.

Two years later, with copies of Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing already printed—and with the publisher contractually insisting that Allen not disclose its publication to even close friends for fear of how Farrow might react—Farrow mounted an overnight campaign that prompted a walkout by the younger members of the publishing company’s staff, demanding cancellation of the title. The publisher capitulated and pulped the book.

Yes, Farrow has won. Hands down. And become a great power in the land.” 

“Too Famous” by Michael Wolff; copyright (c) 2021. Printed by permission of Henry Holt & Company.