What the Awful Woody Allen Scandal Says About Pre- and Post-Internet Media Culture

Even As Social Media Feeds On Itself, It Only Gets Stronger

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One stray detail that's emerged amidst the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow saga: Allen doesn't go online.
As Robert B. Weide, director of the 2011 PBS documentary "Woody Allen: A Documentary," wrote in his highly viral late-January Daily Beast post titled "The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast," Allen only emails by proxy, via his assistant; he still pounds out missives on a manual typewriter.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

An innocuous but telling detail -- and one that paints a picture of a 78-year-old man in a bubble, both isolated from and subject to the minute-by-minute obsessions of a web-centric public. As Allen has been busy pecking away on his Olympia SM-3 for the past six decades -- it's reportedly the only typewriter he's ever owned -- the media culture around him has changed so drastically as to be, in many ways, unrecognizable.

The Allen-Farrow saga, thanks to its revival, has, oddly enough, become both a pre- and post-internet scandal, a big story in two different centuries. If you think of it as a media product (it's upsetting to regard it that way, yes, but in many ways that's what it's become), examining how it was consumed at the start vs. how it's being consumed today can tell us a lot about exactly how the web and social media have rewired the culture's nervous system. Specifically:

The media has become the media-about-media industry
Back in 1992, the mainstream media -- for most people at the time, the only media -- reported on allegations that Woody Allen molested Dylan, the 7-year-old daughter of his former girlfriend Mia Farrow. Key contemporaneous accounts were published in The New York Times and Vanity Fair.

Think about that for a moment. It wasn't until 1996 that both of those publications took to the web, and even then Google was still two years away from coming into existence (meaning searching the web -- what little web there was back then -- was hit-and-miss). These mainstream-media accounts controlled the narrative.

Fast-forward to 2014. The scandal reignites because of tweets about Allen sent out by Mia Farrow and her son Ronan surrounding the Golden Globes telecast -- a "social TV" moment if there ever was one. In the days and weeks thereafter, the Daily Beast piece by Weide follows, as does Dylan Farrow's post on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's blog and then Woody Allen's statement in response.

There's really no actual journalism -- i.e., reporting -- going on here. Just media quoting and rehashing other forms of media -- tweets, blog posts and statements, along with, at this point, very old contemporaneous news accounts.

The media has become the media-vs.-media industry
This isn't just a Farrow vs. Allen war, it's a media-vs.-media war. When there are essentially no new facts being reported -- just new accusations and new counter-accusations -- the way the modern media moves the ball forward is by not only by quoting and requoting other media, but by attacking other media. See for instance, "Don't Listen to Woody Allen's Biggest Defender," by Jessica Winter, about Robert Weide's Daily Beast post, or Maureen Orth's VanityFair.com post titled "10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation," in which she defends her own past reporting for Vanity Fair by challenging "a number of commentators [who] have published articles containing incorrect and irresponsible claims."

It's the media, with an emphasis on "me"
I've seen countless posts and comments online that take sides not because of the facts of the Allen-Farrow saga, but because of personal experiences entirely unrelated to the case. Like, "Farrow is believable/credible because I know someone who was molested as a child, or I, myself, was molested" -- or, "I believe Woody Allen because I know someone who was falsely accused, or I was, myself, falsely accused."

The blog world and social media in particular seem powered by this sort of me-centricity. In the early '90s the mainstream media controlled the narrative of this terrible story about a celebrity family; now there's an entire cottage industry centered around wresting control of the story away from not only the traditional media, but from the subjects themselves.

The media has become an endless 'Rashomon'-like circular loop
As decades-old facts (or "facts") are rehashed and debated, where does that leave the journalistic precincts of the media? In a sort of endless limbo, because nothing is entirely, definitively verifiable this many years later (and of course there was no eyewitness account or physical evidence of the alleged molestation).

But the Allen-Farrow saga does fit perfectly into the age of "social": It's anti-news, or un-news -- content that regenerates itself, that spins one way or another based on whatever various commentators said in their last tweets, in their last posts, in their last soundbites. It's a social-media-driven story that never ends, that offers no closure, or promise of closure, ever.

That's the thing about social media: Even as it feeds on itself, it only gets stronger.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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