You can tell the New York Times is going to kiss Ronan Farrow’s ring when the headline on his Sunday magazine profile by Jesse Lichtenstein is “Ronan Farrow, Reluctant TV Star.” One rarely attaches the word “star” to someone rumored to be heading to mid-mornings on MSNBC.
Lichtenstein lays it on thick, both about the contours of Farrow’s new “edgy” TV show and about Farrow’s deeply impressive biography: By the time he was 10, Farrow had traveled with his mother to South Africa, where he had private conversations with Nelson Mandela about the power of nonviolent protest.” Oh, and he plays songs on the street in preparation to record an album:
We ordered our meals, talked books, movies, music (in Washington, he would occasionally busk on the sidewalk to try out the songs he has been recording for an album). At one point he pulled off a striking Katharine Hepburn impersonation. The conversation turned to his book, which he sold to Penguin this fall. It explores the notion, shared with Holbrooke, his mentor, that America’s habit of funding and arming “bad guys around the world” has had a powerfully negative effect on a new generation of leaders.
“It’s the U.S. creating Al Shabab, and the mall shooting in Kenya happening over and over,” he said, then added, apologetically, “I sold it in as unwonky a way as I could.”
Just after news of his book deal broke this fall, on the very day that Farrow and MSNBC were set to announce their new TV show, a bit of gossip appeared. In an article in Vanity Fair, his mother let slip, somewhat coyly, that Farrow’s father might not be Woody Allen, but Frank Sinatra, her first husband. (As she told Vanity Fair, “We never really split up.”) “There was a very serious conversation at MSNBC about, ‘Oh, crap, is this going distract from the story?’ ” Farrow said. “Spoiler: Yes!”
He made a pitch-perfect quip on Twitter — “Listen, we’re all possibly Frank Sinatra’s son” — and waited a few weeks for chatter of his parentage to run its course on the Internet, conversations on “The View” and so on.
“Look, I get it, it’s hilarious, it’s wild,” he said at lunch. “There are salacious aspects of the story I’m able to sit back and appreciate with everybody else. And then it’s, ‘O.K., how do we move to the substance and redirect this conversation so we’re actually talking about stuff that’s useful?’ ” '
Because when Farrow isn’t hanging out in “charmingly musty” environs making “pitch-perfect quips” on Twitter, he’s preparing to become a “reluctant star” on MSNBC:
Last summer, when he got the call from MSNBC, Farrow was living in a charmingly musty dorm room at Magdalen College, Oxford, England. He had left a job at the State Department for a Rhodes scholarship, studying politics and international relations. Farrow assumed MSNBC wanted him to make appearances as a talking head on their shows. He had written articles decrying what he saw as the American government’s obsession with secrecy and the partisan tenor of the Congressional hearings on Benghazi and had been invited to talk about them on television.
But Phil Griffin, the president of the network, had other ideas. He’d seen clips of Farrow giving interviews and speeches and was impressed. “I started following him on Twitter,” he told me recently, “and loved the way he talked about things.” When Farrow was in New York, the two sat down for a chat. “Within 20 minutes I wanted to hire him,” Griffin says. “He’s got it.”
Farrow wants his show to “to have a sort of gritty reporting style to it,” with hand-held cameras, a feel of “rough and spontaneous, not polished and packaged.” Ronan, raw. He wants to marry his glib tweets with the radical essence of Bill Moyers PBS programs:
His models are a mix of old school and new, a marriage of Bill Moyers and Twitter. Griffin, the president of MSNBC, told me that it was Farrow’s presence on Twitter that he wanted Farrow to emulate. “I look at his tweets and I say: ‘The way you write those little 140 characters, they’re great. That sensibility has got to be in everything you do.’ ” He was probably not thinking of the tweet that Ronan wrote the day after Thanksgiving: “The only thing better than Black Friday with your sister is Friday with your black sister.” Some of his 150,000 followers must have wondered what this blond white guy was thinking. This drier side of his humor might fare poorly under daily media scrutiny; or it might be what attracts an audience.
The blog Inside Cable News predicted: “I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate about the possibility that if Farrow lands early in MSNBC’s dayside schedule – 10 am ET for example – that the show may be more than one hour in length. It would seem unlikely given how the long format show was tried a few years ago with Dylan Ratigan and didn’t work. Yet, for MSNBC to make the kind of splash it seems to be sending strong signals it wants to make with Farrow – to plant a flag if you will – I wouldn’t automatically eliminate the idea that the show winds up being more than an hour long.”
Because the New York Times couldn’t possibly get enough of pitch-perfect Farrow in 60 minutes.