One of the most astute comments you'll read in response to the recent revival of the Woody Allen sex assault controversy is from a guy named Chris Rasmussen. In a letter to the New York Times' Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, Rasmussen, who's an associate professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, asks a legitimate and incisive question: should the Times have published Dylan Farrow's open letter? It did over the weekend, in the regular opinion column of Nicholas Kristof.
I have long been an admirer of Nicholas Kristof’s columns. I cannot say that I object to his column on Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. I write to ask about the propriety of publishing largely one-sided columns assailing a lone individual. The writers who are permitted to “columnize” for The Times have a tremendously influential platform, and I wonder whether they should use that platform to advocate on behalf of personal friends, as Mr. Kristof did yesterday. If Dylan Farrow wishes to publish an open letter about her allegations, there are ample forums in this internet age. Should The Times and Mr. Kristof lend their credibility to her argument against Woody Allen?
I cannot possibly know what actually transpired between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow — no one can. Initially, I was strongly inclined to accept her account of being sexually abused. But Robert B. Weide’s recent column in “The Daily Beast” raises significant questions about the veracity of her childhood testimony and the acrimonious falling out between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.
I am not a journalist. I do sometimes teach courses on ethics. I know that public figures are fair game. So I write simply to ask about the wisdom and propriety of these ad hominem columns, which assail particular individuals and champion others. A couple weeks ago, Bill Keller published a controversial column about cancer and dying. Personally, I agreed with his larger point about how to die a good death. But his criticisms of cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams and his paean to his own father in-law seemed ad hominem.
I do not have answers. Only questions.
Sullivan doesn't really address the concerns of Chris Rasmussen; she simply says that she's "troubled" by the same issues he raises.
Rasmussen makes an excellent point about Dylan Farrow's open letter, which is that it was lent a tremendous amount of journalistic clout by Kristof's decision to put the Times' name behind it. While it's a riveting piece of copy, it does in fact amount to an unprovable accusation in a case which was, as a matter of legal standing, put to rest two decades ago. Many will argue that Dylan Farrow had every right to say what she did, and that's certainly true. But it doesn't change the fact that Kristof allowed a friend to essentially libel someone -- since, again, the accusations can't be proven at this point -- with the full faith and credit of the New York Times endorsing her statements.
This particular side of the debate has nothing at all to do with whether Dylan Farrow is telling the truth about what happened 21 years ago. Journalists often have to live by the same motto lawyers do: it's not what you know, it's what you can prove. Not adhering to this standard can open up an outlet to a very serious lawsuit. Yesterday in the segment I did on Fusion TV on this subject, Dan Abrams said correctly that Woody Allen could, if he wanted to, sue Dylan Farrow for making accusations that were legally unfounded. He won't, of course. Never in a million years. But if he doesn't choose to try to simply let this whole thing disappear into the next cycle of America's notoriously short attention span, he could sue Nicholas Kristof and the New York Times. And I'm betting he might have a pretty decent case. Once again, he won't sue, but he could.
One final note: There's a hell of an irony here that I don't think anyone's addressed yet. After his initial vehement public denials, Allen had kept quiet about the Dylan Farrow accusation and his brutal breakup with Mia for two decades. After the Mia and Ronan Farrow tweets that revived the whole controversy, he continued to stay silent. But producer and screenwriter Robert Weide, who made a documentary on Woody Allen and is an acquaintance of his, published a lengthy defense of Allen in the Daily Beast that provided both context and the official word on the investigation into Dylan and Mia's allegations from years ago. It got a massive amount of viral circulation. No one can say for sure, but it would be easy to believe that this -- maybe even more than the Golden Globes honor -- is what led Dylan Farrow to write her open letter. There's certainly a possibility that she was driven to comment by her mother and brother's Twitter quips and by the hurt and outrage of seeing the man she says molested her being honored on television. But the timing of her letter follows closely what would have been the final insult: a lengthy article meant to discredit her version of events.
It makes you wonder: If Weide hadn't defended Woody Allen, if the few days of internet outrage would have simply been allowed to run their course, would this whole thing be at the level it is now?