Ronan Farrow and Kim Masters: The emotional toll of reporting #MeToo

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

Ronan Farrow speaks with Kim Masters for HBO’s “Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes” documentary series. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Harvey Weinstein’s predations were no secret to many in Hollywood, but the story didn’t become public until 2017, when The New York Times published the first expose, soon followed by journalist Ronan Farrow’s account in The New Yorker.

Before the explosive revelations, which led to the #MeToo movement, Farrow says that Janice Min, The Hollywood Reporter’s head at the time, invited him to write an op-ed in 2016 describing his own allegations of sexual abuse by his father, filmmaker Woody Allen, in connection to other stories of acquiescence surrounding celebrities.  

“Balancing that against my journalistic feelings about these issues and how to report on them was a very important turning point for me,” Ronan says. “People whose families are touched by this kind of violence, often want to go nowhere near it professionally, understandably, and that was very much the category I was in.” 

But once he wrote the column for THR, he realized the issue was larger than he initially thought. “That op-ed really did set off a larger media cycle than I anticipated and clearly was scratching at the surface of something that deserved more conversation and journalism around it,” he says. 

He started receiving calls and tips of abuse allegations from several of then-producer Weinstein’s victims, and researching. At that time, he was invited to do some interviews at THR. 

“I was pursuing these stories about the dark underbelly of Hollywood and trying to get at some of those same issues more deeply,” he recalls. “I believe that might have been the moment at which I was alerted to how long and concerted [Kim Master’s] effort on this had been.” 

The Business presents a conversation between Kim Masters – editor-at-large at the publication and host of The Business – and Farrow, moderated by THR’s film senior editor Rebecca Keegan. The exchange focuses on their first encounter, their behind-the-scenes efforts to investigate and write about abuse allegations in Hollywood, the emotional toll of the work while holding abusers to account and whether the industry has truly changed. 

The efforts to write about assault and abuse in Hollywood 

When Farrow came to THR, Min introduced him to Masters, who intermittently to Farrow’s work was getting other tips about Weinstein’s abuses. “I had just heard about Rosanna Arquette and Gwyneth Paltrow as [Weinstein’s] victims,” she says, and adds that her biggest contribution to Farrow was to tell him that he was on the right track. 

For Farrow, having support from Masters and other fellow journalists was a relief. “I think for all of us who have worked on stories where we've gotten internal interference, you can sometimes feel a little gaslit,” he says. “People like you and Ken Auletta, who had circled the story and come to believe that it could be done, was quite significant to me, if nothing else emotionally, just to know that colleagues I respected really thought that I was onto something by chasing it.”

The story “wasn't gettable, until it was gettable.” 

Farrow pursued and published the Weinstein sexual harrassment and abuse story, and The New York Times came out with an exclusive just a few days earlier about the Hollywood producer’s habit of paying off his accusers to cover up his behavior for decades.   

Masters says that when the stories were published she felt crushed. “When you and the Times both got the story, I was so upset with myself,” she admits. “‘Why didn't we get it?’ We tried so many different ways, but maybe we gave up too soon.” 

However, her feelings changed after being on “The Catch and Kill Podcast with Ronan Farrow,” in which Farrow also interviewed Ken Auletta – fellow media critic for The Yorker. 

On episode 5 called “The Hunt,” from January 14, 2020, they discussed their efforts to break the Weinstein story on the West and East Coasts. That’s when Masters realized the story “wasn't gettable, until it was gettable.” 

“Only when [Weinstein’s] power diminished – because he wasn't doing as well in business, and there was discontent inside of his own company – that the cracks led to this to happen,” Masters says. “I think that's where it just started to be possible, and it made me feel better.”

Farrow points out that the Weinsten story also broke during a time of “confluence of circumstances,” including Donald Trump and his rhetoric, which led to the #MeToo movement, and maybe some changes in Hollywood. 

Though he admits his story didn’t end nor diminished the problems, he feels that that was the moment when they had to “confront something that was just kind of bubbling in the background culturally,” he says.”The conversations I had with Janine [Min] and THR were rooted in that moment. The backlash that led her to ask me to write that op-ed, it was all building towards something.”

Farrow’s New Yorker expose earned a Pulitzer Prize and he went on to report on former CBS chairman Lesley Moonves, among others. 

Then, an explosion occurred

Following Farrow’s article for The New Yorker, an explosion occurred. “Our phones at THR, it was like they were falling off the desks from just ringing. Call, after call we were almost operating like a triage trying to figure out who would handle which tips,” Masters says. 

Farrow also experienced that. “I had that same feeling of a deluge,” he recalls. After getting a tip, he would call Masters to check on that or discuss industry specific topics. “It was a nice moment, and more than that, I think an important moment in terms of the fellowship of journalists that emerged around it, trying [to do] meaningful things.” 

In the summer of 2021, HBO and Farrow created “Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes,” a documentary-series which chronicles his interviews with whistle blowers, journalists, private investigators and other sources conducted for his podcast and bestselling book, "Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators." Masters appeared on the podcast and documentary. 

Deciding which stories to pursue

Because this story opened a floodgate of sources and information, Masters has certain stardarts to decide which story to pursue, but that can be a challenging task. Her decision is based on the source’s trustworthiness. 

“I really feel like the threshold question is, ‘How credible does this person sound? What ways would we have of verifying the allegation? Have we heard from more than one [person]?’ she ponders. “If somebody has a credible allegation, and we don't make an effort, we're leaving that person to go on their merry way and find more victims.”  

But that was not always the case. One example she gives is of when she started receiving tips of alleged unwanted advances by John Lasseter, former head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. “I'm gonna be honest, I sort of thought, ‘Really? The Toy Story guy? I got to do this?’” she admits now. 

She eventually wrote the story, but, “I probably sat on my butt too long on that one,” she remarks. “Then there was another call, another call, another, and at a certain point I just thought, ‘I'm really being derelict in my duty if I don't pursue this’.” 

In Farrow’s case, he looks at the source’s credibility by making an initial round of calls. After that, he bases his research on a matrix of other qualities that come into play in determining whether to pursue a story or not. 

“I think most of us are looking at a nexus of stories’ consequences to the wider culture, the kind of cost benefit analysis,” he explains. “If you understand [that] the stakes matter, and the people involved are able to articulate those stakes, clearly it doesn't have a kind of shape and arc to it that you can latch on to.”

Handling the emotional toll and threats

For reporters, covering accounts of assault and abuse takes time and involves high stakes for themselves and their sources, so there’s a high emotional toll in the process.

Masters says she tries to deal with them instinctively. “Every woman I know who's honest, has been harassed and maybe worse, myself included, so I can try to just be authentic and relate,” she says. “‘What do I do with the blowback on me?’ I don't know. My job is to help the people who have been hurt, and so that's where I feel that I'm serving a purpose.” 

For Farrow, confronting the emotional toll from covering these kinds of stories is real. “It's a tough topic for us to discuss publicly because I, and I think most of the reporters I know, don't want to be the story, and that's especially true if you're working on stories where sources are dealing with really tough stuff, acute trauma,” he says. “You don't want to compare yourself as an observer looking in, but we do get drawn into the emotional and practical blast radius of these fact patterns, and we do become targets.” 

In Farrow’s latest project, the 2022 HBO documentary “Endangered” with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, they  follow reporters from around the world facing a number of different kinds of threats to their safety, their journalism, or both.

Farrow says that over the years, he has himself been targeted and legally threatened, but he decided to continue on. “I've gone from being really reticent to talk about that, to feeling it's actually kind of important for us all to talk about that, to keep perspective, to appreciate that all of us reporting in the United States have the protections and privileges of a pretty robust free press, the First Amendment, basic rule of law,” he observes. “We're not like so many reporters in Russia or Pakistan, or any number of other places, where you might just wind up dead the next day with very little accountability.”

Possible overreach and backlash

Knowing how difficult these stories are to get published, Masters worries about undereaching. “To me, I worry about the stories we're not getting,” she states. “Because I work for THR, I feel [that] we are the recourse for people, unfortunately. There is no other place to go. You can try complaining to HR, you can try complaining to the Guilds, but sadly, it hasn't proven so far to be effective.” 

But Farrow has seen reporters going too far. “I think you don't have to look far to see examples of overreach, where it kind of template for reporting that as at one point been applied to serious and profound instances of violent crime gets applied to something that has either a much lower threshold of seriousness or a much thinner, factual and evidentiary basis,” he observes and explains that he has walked away from stories if he feels he’s gone too far.  

At the same time, he also says he tries to be an impartial observer to the situation, while maintaining a moral incumbency to stop people from getting hurt. “That's a balancing act because you don't want to get so in that mindset that you're approaching it from a kind of a standpoint of activism or wanting a specific outcome,” he declares. “What we're doing in some of these cases, especially with the kinds of stakes we're talking about in these stories, has to be almost clinical, and have a certain remove, at least that's my approach to it.” 

Actress Rose McGowan speaks during a press conference along other accusers, on the first day of Harvey Weinstein’s rape and sexual misconduct trial at the State Criminal Court in New York City on January 6, 2020. More than 100 women have accused the then-Hollywood producer of sexual harassment, assault and in some cases like McGowan, rape. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

Have there been substantive changes in Hollywood?

Five years after the #MeToo movement exploded, there have been some adjustments in the industry, but Masters hasn’t seen substantive changes yet. 

“Not the kind of institutional change that I would necessarily want to see,” she says, but suspects people are fearful of being exposed. “Fear is a hell of a motivator. I don't think fear is a bad thing in a workplace that has been so permeated by abusive practices as Hollywood has been, but I'm sure there's a great deal that still goes on without being exposed, and without any kind of justice.”

Farrow believes there have been some meaningful tentative policy changes. “There have been efforts on the legislative side to curtail the overuse of non-disclosure agreements, so depending on the jurisdiction, you have seen some progress that feels systematic,” he states, and adds that there have been more “ineffable cultural shifts” because people are worried about accountability.

And, he concludes, “I think the exposure of the fact is the goal. That's not to say that people affected by the kind of misconduct we're talking about don't have every right to feel very differently, to feel angry, but I think my job as a journalist is clearly [to] render the facts and inject those into the conversation and hopefully with an understanding that the goal of our part of it isn't punitive.”




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham