MEDIA FEBRUARY 4, 2014
Let me start off by saying something that shouldn't be controversial but apparently is: I have no idea whether or not Woody Allen molested his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, in the early 1990s.
There is nothing terribly surprising about a journalist expressing this kind of uncertainty. It is, after all, our jobs to question, to investigate, to form opinions about what we find while still retaining a healthy degree of curiosity, and even doubt, regarding the subjects we write about. And yet, if we examine the responses to Farrow's open letter in the New York Times alleging that Allen sexually molested her, we find several commentators who not only avoid such prudence but are even insinuating—if not outright stating—that such uncertainty is part of the problem.
The problem instead is our culture of knee-jerk outrage—especially among online columnists.
In a recent article in Salon, Roxane Gay posits that many people in Hollywood and “public intellectuals” are “compartmentalizing” their feelings about Allen, trying to separate their feelings for Woody the person and Woody the artist. She calls out Cate Blanchett for her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, where she "gushed about Allen’s talent." She even criticizes Nicholas Kristof, who brought Farrow's letter to light, for his apparently dubious decision to offer “some semblance of reasonable doubt” by forewording Farrow's letter with a comment about Woody's defenders denying the charges. “He wants it both ways,” Gay writes.
Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry takes things one step further, proclaiming that Dylan Farrow must be afforded the same presumption of innocence as Allen, and that the presumption of Allen's innocence requires a presumption that Farrow is lying, which only happens, Bady writes, in a “rape culture”: “You can’t presume that both are innocent at the same time. One of them must be saying something that is not true. But 'he said, she said' doesn’t resolve to 'let’s start by assume she’s lying,' except in a rape culture, and if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.”
Michelle Dean at Flavorwire approvingly cited both Gay and Bady in her piece “Presuming Woody Allen's Innocence Is Not a Neutral Stance,” and used Farrow's letter as “an opportunity to weed out her social media feeds.” She chastises people who, "under the pretty thin veneer of 'not rushing to judgment,'" are “all” operating “on impartial, bad or biased information.” To her credit, Dean admits her biases. “The key is to be honest about them,” she writes.
One can argue that Gay, Bady, and Dean are all commentators and are simply expressing their opinions. They are not reporting, and as such, should not bear the same responsibility as investigative journalists. But does this give them license to write whatever they want? When commenting on a case involving allegations of sexual abuse against a minor, do the voices in the media bear any responsibility for at least making sure their arguments are logical and fair-minded, not simply emotion-laced diatribes?
We live in a media age of instant turnaround. News editors are tasked with feeding an audience which seems to have an insatiable appetite for immediate, pointed commentary. The fact that I am publishing this piece 72 hours after the Farrow story broke does, in the eyes of some, make it untimely if not irrelevant. There is great pressure, especially online, for writers to weigh in on debates with lightning speed. Measured columns won't do—writers instead are encouraged to write strongly opinionated pieces that can rack up clicks and impassioned comments. I am all too guilty of this myself. For my column at the Wall Street Journal, I have often had to write quickly, and often this meant relying on the most forceful—but not necessarily the most nuanced—phrasing to get my message across.
Should we be surprised, then, when a great deal of the opinion we read seems coarse, not particularly well thought-out, more revealing about the particular biases of its author than actually contributing to greater discourse on the topic? When writers start making points that seem like they belong more in the comments section of their own articles rather than in the articles themselves, perhaps we in the media need to recognize that we're not doing our job properly.
For a long while, these emotion-based arguments were what many in the “liberal elite” believed to be the exclusive realm of conservative media outlets such as Fox News. It is not uncommon among certain circles to hear this criticism time and time again: Fox, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck and their ilk prey upon the fears and biases of their audiences, wooing them to believe imperfect arguments by appealing to their emotions. But in accusing the callous “Hollywood elite” of dismissing the allegations against Allen, and repeatedly referencing the vulnerability of victims of sexual violence, are these authors not doing exactly the same thing? After all, who in their right mind would side with a child molester?
I don't think commentators have a responsibility to argue both sides. Gay, Bady, and Dean have every right to side with Farrow, but they're using her letter as the sole piece of evidence in convicting Allen in the court of public opinion. They don't express even the slightest desire for inquiry into the matter. Dean tells those of us who harbor doubts why we are wrong, while Gay and Bady concern themselves with raising awareness about specific causes, all of which, including the disturbing prevalence of sexual abuse and the under-reporting of rape in America, are valid, even vital concerns. These journalists are using the letter to advance other agendas, some of them worthy, but on a foundation full of logical holes. They seem less interested in changing minds than in eliciting an "amen" from the choir that's convinced Allen molested her.
Woody Allen's defenders point out that he was never charged with molesting Farrow, and a team of child-abuse specialists concluded that she hadn't been molested. His detractors note that a state attorney at the time said there was “probable cause” to charge Allen, but that he chose not to prosecute the case to avoid traumatizing the young girl. There are plenty of reasons to doubt both sides. For journalists to “react” to Farrow's letter without acknowledging those doubts does the public a disservice, and for them to question the morals of those who remain in doubt does journalism itself a disservice.