Ronan Farrow is one of the last people out there who actually can be considered a very good journalism. He is thorough and methodical, and I have no issue with his intent or integrity.
But the old journalism model is impeding him, all the same.
His latest New Yorker piece has exposed CBS chairman and chief executive Les Moonves for sexual harassment, and CBS is investigating the allegations by getting an outside counsel (just as "mediators" employed by a corporation to settle disputes with employees are not as impartial or objective as they are made out to be, I have never been a fan of the practice).
But this story is playing out very differently than Farrow's piece on Harvey Weinstein. For one, the more charismatic Moonves is staying cool. His wife is unwavering. The New York Post has had positive coverage of him, and he has supporters questioning the timing of the article.
I am not going to talk about the veracity of the allegations or judge one way or another. I am going to completely ignore the content of the story.
What interests me is the structure of this story and compare it to Farrow's original article for the New Yorker that took down Harvey Weinstein and sparked #MeToo, and look at the fallout of both from the standpoint of a boxing match.
I am going to mention a series of painfully obvious observations, but there is method to the madness: namely pointing out the limitations of journalistic TOTTAW: The One Trick That Always Works.
In boxing, you have a ring where the action is confined. You have two opponents who fight in the ring until (a) one player flat-out knocks out the other, or, (b) one player technically knocks out the other, TKO.
Now, we don't just take two random people off the street and throw them in the ring. They train. They have trainers who work on their strategies in how they will fight a specific opponent. You don't just throw a barrage of punches. You have to constantly move around the ring. You have to be aware of your surroundings, ensuring your opponent does not corner you, and you have no where to go so he can keep punching you. You have to know how this person fights: what are the strengths and weaknesses.
Boxing and war have a lot in common.
But it also has a lot in common with journalism.
The problem has been that journalists have been sticking to the old structures and methods for decades, while their opponents get an army of people to help them fight better: they hire lawyers, former journalists, PR firms that also hire former journalists, crisis management specialists, researchers who do market research, image consultants, and find all sorts of ways to up their game.
Media outlets do not hire former PR mavens, lawyers who ate journalists for breakfast. The structure and methods have not changed.
Ronan knocked out Weinstein for multiple reasons: it was a sucker punch, Weinstein's clout was already waning, and no one ever got to go after a titan like that in that way before when it came to allegations of sexual harassment.
Those in the entertainment industry were pretty much blindsided and were unprepared for that attack. They are used to being puppet masters who deflection attention away from their dark secrets with lots of shiny and pretty things and bombastic brag.
The story was unprecedented in many ways, but life does not happen in a vacuum.
People who get to the top in those cutthroat fields are there because they are exceptional strategists. They have campaigns. They delegate, meaning they have image armies at their disposal. They read the signs, and then adjust accordingly.
They hire people who specialize in radioactive clients, and they start preparing for these kinds of stories. If you think you haven't had people readying for it, and will be able to turn the tables, think again.
That's why you cannot count on TOTTAW: that one trick will work until someone else figures out the game and comes up with a counter-strategy. They can inoculate people from the narrative. They can use sophistry to spin perceptions. They can recruit others to support them in public. They can use proxies to offer counter-narratives. They can change masks on demand: being aggro alphas when they are in the gladiatorial arena, and then bullied little children when they are being called on the carpet for rigging a fight or cheating.
And they can take a patriarchal narrative and co-opt it.
Because structure is not just a way to deliver a content of a communications: it is also strategy.
And structure is something that journalism never gave a second thought. Static patriarchal is it.
If you are going to disseminate information, then you have to test the limits of structure, always working and refining because people you wish you expose are not some dolls in a box who just come out to be paraded when it is convenient for you.
When you go after people who make their way to the top, it is a very uneven fight.
It doesn't matter what the content of the information happens to be.
You are going in with the notion of disrupting a status quo. People do not like change. They do not like the idea that they could have possibly be wrong in their opinions at cocktail parties or Internet forums. They memorized the rules, and that should be good enough for eternity..
Journalism had rigs that benefitted them until the Internet took them away. The static nature of their structure and techniques comes in with the assumption that you can repeatedly use the same methods and your targets will always respond the same way.
Comparing the two articles, they have the same structure, but the responses on the subjects of the articles show a learning curve on their part. Weinstein is a textbook case of crisis management "don'ts". Moonves, on the other hand, is a textbook case of standard crisis management "dos". At this rate, the next one may very well find the system to neutralize it, and turn it around to their benefit, or come as close to that as possible. If there is a system to crack, it can be done. #MeToo broke the narrative that women ask to be harassed, but this is not the end. A new narrative or ten can be spun.
It is why structures have to be fully explored. It is the strategy you use to reflect reality.
The outcome of this latest story is something I cannot speculate on, but it is very interesting to see structural strategies emerging on one side of the equation, but not the other...