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Cohen: A columnist's rush to judgment

  • Writer and director Woody Allen and wife Soon-Yi Previn arrive for the screening of "To Rome With Love," in Paris, Monday, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

The defenestration of Woody Allen started on Feb. 2 with a column in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. He began by saying all the right things — that allegations against Allen of sexually molesting the 7-year-old daughter of his one-time companion Mia Farrow had never been proved and that Allen "should be presumed innocent." Then Kristof threw Allen out the window.

Waiting below was a mob of people who felt as Kristof did: There must be something to the allegation. Left unsaid in the Kristof column, but figuring mightily in public opinion, was the perception of Allen as odd, asocial and creepy because he had carried on an affair with another of Farrow's adopted daughters (whom he later married) and took nude pictures of her. Here, in short, was a man supposedly capable of doing what he was accused of. Case closed.

Not quite. Allen has responded to the Kristof column in a New York Times article of his own. It is not dispositive but it is persuasive. Allen notes that he has never been charged with sexual molestation, that he passed a lie detector test soon after the alleged event (21 years ago) and that he attributes the accusation to his messy breakup with Farrow.

I am not here today to settle the matter. I have no idea what happened, but neither does Ronan Farrow, the biological child of Farrow and Allen, and soon to be a MSNBC television host, who has gone after Allen with the Twitter version of an ax. Ronan Farrow's sincerity is not in doubt. But he was not present when the alleged crime took place, and he was a mere 4 at the time.

I am here, though, to take the New York Times to task. It published Kristof's column, which was, a fair reading would conclude, an indictment of Allen. Kristof unloaded the terms "traumatized," "belatedly diagnosed" and "post-traumatic stress disorder" in reference to Dylan — if they exist, so must the causes of them. He acknowledged that he is a friend of Mia and Ronan Farrow, and it was through them that he was contacted by Dylan, now 28. Kristof said he reached out to Allen, who declined to comment on the record.

As it happens, the Golden Globes recently honored Allen. And as it also happens, one of the clips of Allen films shown during the awards presentation was authorized by none other than Mia Farrow. Possibly Kristof did not know this, but he said that the Golden Globes "sided" with Allen. In doing so, it sent "the message that celebrities in film, music and sports too often send to their abuse victims." If this were "Law & Order," that paragraph would end with the familiar clang.

Then came yet another boilerplate disclaimer. "These are extremely tough issues, and certainty isn't available," Kristof wrote. Yet this was followed instantly by an implied "certainty" that, just a moment before, had been missing: "But hundreds of thousands of boys and girls are abused each year, and they deserve support and sensitivity. When evidence is ambiguous, do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?"

The Kristof column caused a stink, as well it should have. The column, which quoted heavily from a compelling open letter from Dylan, was persuasive. So was Allen's rebuttal. But mostly I had to wonder whatever happened to the age-old journalistic practice of being evenhanded — of reporting both sides of a story before going into print.

Kristof is a marvel of a columnist, indefatigable as a champion of victims of all kinds — particularly women and girls. But this time he made a mere swipe at balance. It was negligent of the Times to allow him to do so, and the rare decision to later give Allen his say does not rectify matters. The paper permitted a columnist to settle the functional equivalent of a personal score. He did not uncover a shred of new evidence; he did not provide us with a unique take on the matter. He simply believed his two friends, Dylan's mother and brother, and so, for a moment, did I. His was a powerful piece.

It's hard to imagine a more odious crime than child molestation. It's hard also to imagine the mortification of those falsely accused of it. If the Times thinks it has made matters right by printing Allen's rebuttal, it is both naive and wrong. It may or may not owe Allen an apology, but it owes one to its readers.


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