Ronan Farrow is tired–he’s very, very tired. And no one can blame him. Farrow spent a year chasing a story that everyone told him wasn’t a story at all, even though it led to involved parties making legal and personal threats against him. That story was about Harvey Weinstein’s exhaustive history of sexual harassment and assault, and it contributed to a watershed moment in which women and men came forward in unprecedented numbers with their own stories. It also won Farrow a Pulitzer Prize.
During his commencement speech at Loyola Marymount University this past Saturday, Farrow detailed the personal toll that doggedly chasing the Weinstein story took on him. But through it all, he says he couldn’t ignore his inner voice.
“In hindsight, it’s always clear whether or not your choices were the right one. In hindsight, you know whether it was right to stick to your guns, or right to turn the other cheek. Whether it was right not to give up on a story, or right to give a little to get along and move on–not necessarily because you’re cowardly, but because there are other stories and there’s only so much you can do,” Farrow said.
“But, in the moment, you don’t know any of that. You don’t know how important a story is going to be. In the moment, you don’t know if you’re fighting because you’re right, or if you’re fighting because your ego and your desire to win and your notion of yourself as the hero in your own story is clouding your judgment. I am so grateful for every story of every person who stared down that kind of uncertainty and listened to that voice telling them to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t clear that it was the smart or strategic.”
Read the full transcript of Farrow’s speech below:
Hello class of 2018! Faculty, administrators, students, congratulations! Parents, you’re done! Tear down those childhood bedrooms and reclaim that extra closet space you have yearned for.
Thank you, president Snyder, provost Poon, chair Viviano, for that lavish introduction. As you may have concluded from said introduction, a whole lot happened in my life this past year. And I am very, very tired. I’ve been up so long, President Trump called Chuck Todd a “sleeping son of a bitch” and I just felt jealous. I’ve been up so long, I feel like a side effect warning in one of those uncomfortable ads with the old people dancing in them.
It was such an honor, this grueling past year, to crack into a series of stories that–thanks to the brave sources who risked so much to talk to me, and thanks to the brave activists who continue to turn those stories into social change–seem to be having an impact. Due not just to me, but a whole group of reporters that you should be cheering for, banging their heads against the wall, cracking these tough stories. We are hearing the voices of sexual assault and harassment survivors who were silent for so long. We are grappling, as a culture, with our collective failure to create spaces that treat men and women equally and treat everyone with respect and dignity. And we are learning a lot about how powerful men, who did despicable things were protected for so long.
I know that hearing a generous introduction like the one I just got, hearing about people the way they’re rendered in commencement speeches, the way the media talks about them after the work is done, it’s easy for it all to seem kind of fancy–like it was always so neat and packaged, tied up with a ribbon. I’m still tackling unsavory stories involving unsavory characters and fielding a lot of incoming threats. So I’m profoundly grateful for any kind introduction, any award, any shred of support.
But I also wanted to take a second to talk about what it’s like trying to do work you believe in before the moment of impact.
I’ve talked a little publicly about some of the challenges I faced reporting my stories on sexual violence. How the systems commanded by those powerful men I mentioned earlier came crashing down on me too. And how people I trusted turned on me, and powerful forces in the media world became instruments of suppression.
I get asked about that story a lot. And fair enough–those vast systems that conspired for so long to keep reporting on sexual assault quiet are important for us to understand. But there’ll be time for that later. That’s not the story I want to tell you today.
I want to tell you about a simpler and more personal side of the story. One that, I think without a doubt, each and every one of you will experience your own version of in the coming years. A story that could have happened not just to a journalist but to an engineer or a foreman or a teacher or a doctor or a professor or a miner.
The reality is, I was not celebrated when I set about breaking these stories this past year. I was a guy doing a job at a time when not that many people thought I was a success story. And I don’t say that for sympathy. I had incredible career opportunities. I had done work I was really proud of, which I don’t take for granted.
But the reality is my career was on the rocks. And as a result of tackling this story as doggedly as I did, it fell apart almost completely.
There was a moment about a year ago when I didn’t have the institutional support of my news organization. My contract was ending. And after I refused to stop work on this story, I did not have a new one. My book publisher dropped me, refusing to look at a single page of a manuscript I’d labored over for years. I found out a different publication was racing to scoop me on the Weinstein story, and I knew I was falling behind. I did not know if I’d ever be able to report that story, or if a year of work would amount to anything. I did not know if I would let down woman after brave woman who had put their trust in me.
I had moved out of my home because I was being followed and threatened. I was facing personal legal threats from a powerful and wealthy man who said he was gonna use the best lawyers in the country to wipe me out and destroy my future.
And, if against all odds I got through that and found a way to publish this story, I did not know if anyone would care. Because I had spent a year in rooms with executives telling me it wasn’t a story at all. Because this was long before the extraordinary months of conversation and analysis and acknowledgment that the suffering of these women mattered.
I’m not being falsely humble. I was sincerely at a moment when I did not know if I would have a job in journalism a month or two months after, or ever again.
And I wish I could tell you that I was confident, that I was sure of myself. That I didn’t care, or I said ,”to hell with it.” And, look, if there’s a movie I’m sure there’ll be some moment where an actor smirks and lowers his shades and says, “over my dead body I’ll stop that reporting” and swaggers out of the room. I don’t know–I think Clint Eastwood is playing me in this movie.
But the real version of this was that I was heartbroken, and I was scared, and I had no idea if I was doing the right thing.
There were so many people in my ear at that time making such good arguments that what I was doing was a mistake. Not because they were evil, necessarily, but because they looked at the world as it was a year ago and they said, “this isn’t worth it. You’ll tell one story at the expense of so many others.” They were being rational about what our culture would accept and what it would care about, based on all the existing evidence. And these were people I trusted. My bosses saying, “you have got to stop, let it go.” My agent saying, “it’s causing too many speed bumps for your career–let it go.” Even loved ones, saying, “is this really worth it?” Pointing out that I was gonna risk my whole career for a story that might not even make a dent.
And I honestly considered those perspectives carefully because I felt, well, what do I know? I remember a low point last fall where I hadn’t slept, and I had lost all this weight, and I was on the phone with my poor, long-suffering partner who dealt with a lot of annoying calls from me during this period, and I was in a cab going from one meeting with a source to another, and I had just learned that I might get scooped entirely and I just fell apart. I was just sobbing, and trying not to sob which made it worse, and I’m pretty sure there was some snot happening there and it was not pretty. And I remember saying “I swung too wide! I gambled too much! I lost everything–no one’s even going to know that I lost everything!” And my partner said, “okay, we are going to talk about all of this, but also you are going to tip that taxi driver really well.” His name was Omar and he got me there on time and he was very supportive. Thank you, Omar.
Because I knew I would never live with myself if I didn’t honor the risks these women had taken, I didn’t in fact stop. But also, less nobly, I just realized I had gambled too much and there was no way out but through.
Despite not stopping, though, I did start to think that I might have made the wrong call at times.
And that’s the message, I guess, I have for you today. In hindsight, it’s always clear whether or not your choices were the right one. In hindsight, you know whether it was right to stick to your guns, or right to turn the other cheek. Whether it was right not to give up on a story, or right to give a little to get along, and move on–not necessarily because you’re cowardly, but because there are other stories, and there’s only so much you can do.
But in the moment you don’t know any of that. You don’t know how important a story is going to be. In the moment, you don’t know if you’re fighting because you’re right, or if you’re fighting because your ego and your desire to win and your notion of yourself as the hero in your own story is clouding your judgment.
You can have a feeling. You can have an instinct. You can have a gut reaction–an inner voice that tells you what to do. But you can’t be sure.
I am so grateful for every story of every person who stared down that kind of uncertainty and listened to that voice telling them to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t clear that it was the smart or strategic.
A group of juniors here, including Vandalena Mahoney, got behind the hashtag #BlackAtLMU this past September, sharing stories of everyday prejudice of the kind that sometime make us uncomfortable but are important to hear, and meeting with school administrators about race on campus.
In October, when the DACA legislation allowing people brought into this country as kids illegally to stay here longer was rescinded, Hayden Tanabe, of class of 2018, organized around-the-clock lobbying and rallied the 28 Jesuit student body presidents to sign a statement on the importance of supporting undocumented students.
Michael Peters, who would have graduated with you here today, died last year awaiting an organ transplant. And friends said he was shy and quiet, but he found it in himself to write a searing op-ed in the Loyolan, highlighting the good we can all do if we become organ donors. He taught me something, even in death.
“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teachings. Persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” That’s 1 Timothy 4:16.
The lessons of those students who stood up, and let their own strong senses of principle guide them, and tackled tough topics are important. Because this isn’t going to get any easier as you go through life.
Right now, we are surrounded by a culture that tells us to take the easy way out. That tries to tip the scales in favor of getting paid rather than protesting. That tells us to kill the story instead of poking the bear. A culture that tells us not to trust that voice that says to fight.
And the reason the culture sends us that message is we look around and we see people taking the easy way out and doing the immoral thing or the selfish thing and getting rewarded for it. And it’s easy to conclude that that’s just the way the world works.
So here’s what I would say to you: No matter what you choose to do, no matter what direction you go, whether you are a doctor treating refugees or a financier making money off foreclosures–and I genuinely hope you don’t do that–you will face a moment in your career where you have absolutely no idea what to do. Where it will be totally unclear to you what the right thing is for you, for your family, for your community.
And I hope in that moment that you’ll be generous with yourself, but trust that inner voice. Because more than ever, we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle, and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win.
Because if enough of you listen to that voice–if enough of you prove that this generation isn’t going to make the same old mistakes as the one before–then doing the right thing won’t seem as rare, or as hard, or as special.
No pressure or anything.
Congratulations, class of 2018!