Ronan Farrow emphasizes public service, the ‘inner voice’ during UB Distinguished Speakers Series
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses his reporting, authorship in the Center for the Arts
Ronan Farrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said the spirit of American diplomacy is “far from great shape.”
He said people need to rise to create stability and opportunity.
Farrow spoke about the power of journalism and diplomacy to a packed audience in the Center for the Arts on Thursday night. Farrow is an investigative journalist whose work on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault scandal earned him international acclaim. Farrow spoke for roughly an hour and a half on topics such as his bestselling book "War on Peace" and his journalistic work on sexual violence. Farrow wrapped up the night with an on-stage Q&A session and book signing.
Cristanne Miller, a SUNY Distinguished Professor and English professor Edward H. Butler, introduced Farrow before his speech. Farrow came out to applause and thanked the “beautiful Western New York” crowd, or –– as he joked –– “Upstate” (the “very offensive” term) in the New York City world.
Farrow opened and said it’s been “an honor … to crack into stories that, thanks to brave sources who risked a lot” and “brave activists,” readers heard the voices of sexual violence survivors who were “silenced for way too 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,” Farrow said.
“We’re learning a lot about how powerful people did despicable things and were protected by all of our institutions for so long.”
But Farrow deflected celebration. He said he was “a guy doing a job” when not a lot of people thought he was a “success story” before his Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
“I don’t say that for any sympathy, I was luckier than most and had incredible career opportunities," Farrow said. "I had done work I was proud of that I won’t take for granted, but the reality was my career was on the rocks."
“As a result of my tackling of those stories, as doggedly as I did, it fell apart almost completely.”
Farrow said about a year ago, there was a moment where he didn’t have the institutional support of his news organization or book publisher. When other outlets began to swoop in on the Weinstein “scoop,” he said he questioned whether a year of work with women “would amount to anything.” He didn’t back down to threats, either.
He published the story but still wasn’t confident in the future, he said.
“[With] the world as it was at that time, they concluded ‘it’s not worth it, you’ll tell one story at the expense of so many others,’” Farrow said.
“Even loved ones pointed out ‘Is this really worth it?’”
But there was a much greater risk, he said, that the women he talked to took to expose sexual violence in America. Still, he said he wondered whether or not he made “the wrong call.”
“But in the moment, you don’t know how important a story is going to be,” Farrow said.
He said you can’t be sure on readers’ reactions to stories. Farrow said he is grateful for people who stare down their “uncertainties” and listen to voices that tell them “to do the right thing.” He thanked The Spectrum, for instance, for writing stories on the likes of the late UB football player Solomon Jackson and the audience applauded the remark.
But Farrow said we need more people who trust their inner voices. He said we see people taking the easy way out, between politics and how America takes its place in the world.
One of these ways he said, citing his late mentor Richard Holbrooke, is through public service and mentioned isolationism/protectionism are “short-sighted solutions.”
He went on to talk about the power of state diplomats in the 20th century but that diplomacy isn’t “a panacea.”
“But those figures did have undeniable success and staying power in stabilizing the world,” Farrow said. “That history is in stark contrast to the situation we see today.”
Farrow discussed the Trump administration diplomats firings and the “plummeted” amounts of people taking the Foreign Service Officer Test. He said in the absence of experts who can “negotiate our way out of conflict” can create complications.
“As a result, a very different set of relationships is coming to form the bedrock of American foreign policy,” Farrow said.
He said if people are going to have a chance of surmounting our shared obstacles, from climate change to election interference, “we’re going to need strong alliances and careful conversation driven by experts.”
Farrow ended his address to a sea of applause from the Buffalo crowd before his Q&A session with Miller. Farrow talked about methods to get sources comfortable to open up, the polarized media “landscape” and what it’s like being known for his reporting on sexual violence.
Kris Flaschner, an East Amherst resident, said she regularly attends DSS events and she was enthralled by Farrow’s presentation.
“He’s humble, especially considering what he comes from, and he’s very genuine,” Kris Flaschner said. “He made some comments about the Democrats, he wasn’t afraid to portray the fact that he is genuine and authentic in how he looks at things. [His call for public service] was motivating and I loved the directives he gave to the UB students in the audience.”
Steve Flaschner, Kris’ husband, said he hasn’t read “War on Peace” and didn’t know much about Farrow before Thursday.
“I think he’s extremely knowledgeable, he’s worked in many different venues and yet he’s striking out on his own,” Flaschner said. “Everything with the Weinstein thing, he brought that to light, and he keeps going. I would seriously think about looking to see his book [on his reporting] and ‘War on Peace.’”