We live in polarized times, but one thing still seems to be shared across the political divide: sexual misconduct. As Ronan Farrow documents in his absorbing new book, “Catch and Kill,” mistreating women is a bipartisan enterprise.
This can make for some twisted alliances. Farrow describes how he put together his explosive 2017 exposé of numerous sexual assault and harassment allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a longtime Democratic fund-raiser and “part of the brain trust around Hillary Clinton.” (Farrow’s article ran in The New Yorker in October 2017, five days after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The Times published their article detailing harassment allegations against Weinstein.)
Farrow quotes gleeful emails between Weinstein and Dylan Howard, the editor of The National Enquirer, whose parent company, American Media Inc., was run by David Pecker, a staunch supporter of Donald J. Trump’s. Howard forwarded Weinstein some “dirt” on the actor Rose McGowan, who had tweeted the month before about “my rapist,” whom she didn’t name. “This is the killer,” Weinstein wrote. “Especially if my fingerprints r not on this.”
“Catch and Kill” gets its title from a tabloid practice that A.M.I. had honed over the years: purchasing a story in order to bury it. A.M.I.’s strategy is an essential part of this book’s narrative, but what Farrow suggests is that NBC News, which employed him at the time, did something with the Weinstein story that wasn’t entirely dissimilar. Instead of hush money, Farrow says, NBC officials used the institutional levers at their disposal to shut down his work on Weinstein — from intermittent discouragement to elaborate stonewalling to a legal review that turned out to be both labyrinthine and absurd.
They even ordered Farrow and his steadfast producer, Rich McHugh, to take the rather extraordinary step of halting their reporting; then, when Farrow’s article ran in The New Yorker, NBC released a statement saying that the reporting NBC officials saw (and that Farrow says they tried to impede) had not been up to snuff.
Farrow documents the bafflement and frustration he felt as he and McHugh devised strategies to continue with their news gathering. Getting women to talk on the record about sexual trauma is exceedingly difficult, requiring delicate negotiations and an enormous amount of trust. When NBC ordered Farrow to stop his interviews, he was put in the position of trying to reassure his nervous sources while his employer wasn’t reassuring him at all.
In “Catch and Kill,” Farrow talks candidly about his relationship with his adopted sister Dylan, who has long said that their father, Woody Allen, molested her when she was a child. Making his way to a hard-won interview with McGowan, Ronan — who feels guilty for asking Dylan years ago why she couldn’t “move on” — asked his sister’s advice for how to talk to someone who’s “accusing a very powerful person of a very serious crime.”
“Well, this is the worst part,” Dylan told him. “The considering. The waiting for the story.” She continued: “If you get this, don’t let it go, O.K.?”
He didn’t let it go, though there were plenty of people who tried to pry him loose. In addition to the “all white, all male” chain of command at NBC, there was Weinstein himself, waging a war on all fronts.Part of the book is about Black Cube, the mysterious Israeli firm that Weinstein’s team hired to conduct intelligence work, like compile dossiers on journalists (Kantor and Twohey’s recent book, “She Said,” recounts their experiences with the firm, too). Farrow learned about Black Cube when he started to receive leaks from two different sources. A Nissan Pathfinder he kept seeing in front of his home turned out to be a tail. He received multiple barrages of spam texts; he later learned that the texts were possibly connected to attempts to track his cellphone.
But Weinstein also cultivated an inside line to NBC itself. He would bark out the names of NBC’s top brass so that his assistants would get them on the phone and he could start cajoling and bullying. At a Time magazine gala, Farrow learned that Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, was sitting at a table with Weinstein.
In the book, the warning signs about Oppenheim start out small but ominous. Presented at one point with a considerable list of Farrow’s findings, including a recording of Weinstein admitting to groping women against their will, Oppenheim wasn’t entirely convinced. “I don’t know if that’s, you know, a crime,” he told Farrow. “We’ve gotta decide if it’s newsworthy.” (Farrow gets some sweet revenge by depicting Oppenheim as a slick yet pitiable figure; a running joke in “Catch and Kill” is how nobody likes the film “Jackie,” a “morose biopic” about John F. Kennedy’s widow that Oppenheim wrote.)
It became clear to Farrow that NBC’s chain of command was nervous about the story for reasons other than an excess of journalistic caution. He learned that the network had brokered at least seven nondisclosure agreements with women who brought complaints of discrimination or harassment at NBC. Weinstein might have known something about this too. In a phone call to Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News, Weinstein griped that “your boy Ronan” was digging up stuff from “the ’90s” and added: “We all did that.”
One of the biggest revelations in “Catch and Kill,” revealed toward the end, is that a former NBC employee named Brooke Nevils says that the former NBC anchor Matt Lauer raped her, forcing her to have anal sex despite her repeated protestations that she didn’t want to. Nevils describes what happened in exacting, upsetting detail. “When she woke up,” Farrow writes, “blood was everywhere, soaked through her underwear, soaked through her sheets.”
Nevils, like some of the other women Farrow spoke to, continued to have sexual encounters with the man she says assaulted her. She says she was frightened for her career; Lauer maintains that their relationship was “consensual.” She told Farrow that after one encounter in Lauer’s office when he demanded that she give him oral sex, she asked him, “Why do you do this?” and he replied, “Because it’s fun.”
“Catch and Kill” is mainly about these women’s stories, and the dueling efforts to suppress them and to bring them to light, though Farrow knows how to leaven the narrative, slipping in scenes of the occasional domestic squabble between him and his partner, the former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, as well as offering some necessary comic relief. Farrow can be disarmingly wry — “I knew my way around a paternity rumor” — even when writing about another shadowy psyops firm spying on him and other journalists. He got his hands on a document that included observations about journalists’ Twitter followers. “Kantor is NOT following Ronan Farrow,” it said, to which he responds in this book: “You can’t have everything.”
It’s a lesson that Weinstein, accustomed to having it all, never seemed to learn. Farrow describes several fact-checking phone calls with Weinstein in the days before The New Yorker published the article. The petulant producer was incredulous that the recording of him admitting to groping women still existed; he had long believed his lawyers had arranged an agreement with the district attorney’s office that the tape, made during a police sting, would be “destroyed.” (Spokespeople for the district attorney’s office later told Farrow “they never agreed to destroy evidence,” though when he asked a contact there about the tape during the course of his reporting, the person found it referenced in the case files but couldn’t find it.)
The behavior documented in “Catch and Kill” is obviously and profoundly distressing — not just the horrific abuse, but the various methods available to moneyed men who want to keep women silent, and the many ways they try to rationalize their behavior to others and themselves.
But there are some hopeful threads, too.
The first has to do, strangely enough, with the fury with which Weinstein tried to stop the journalists following the story; his extreme measures indicated that he knew there were institutions with sufficient power to hold him to account.
The second has to do with how some of the people Weinstein tried to enlist in his efforts turned into conscientious objectors and helped the other side. One of those turncoats was “Sleeper,” who supplied Farrow with incriminating documents about Weinstein and Black Cube. Farrow can’t tell us much about this source, but he does tell us this: “She was a woman and she’d had enough.”
There are several kinds of success stories. We emphasize the ones starring brilliant inventors and earnest toilers. We celebrate sweat and stamina. We downplay the schemers, the short cuts and the subterfuge. But for every ambitious person who has the goods and is prepared to pay his or her dues, there’s another who doesn’t and is content to play the con. In the Trump era and the Trump orbit, these ambassadors of a darker side of the American dream have come to the fore.
.. What a con Holmes played with Theranos. For those unfamiliar with the tale, which the journalist John Carreyrou told brilliantly in “Bad Blood,” she dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her Silicon Valley dream, intent on becoming a billionaire and on claiming the same perch in our culture and popular imagination that Steve Jobs did. She modeled her work habits and management style after his. She dressed as he did, in black turtlenecks. She honed a phony voice, deeper than her real one.
She spoke, with immaculate assurance, of a day when it might be on everyone’s bathroom counter: a time saver, a money saver and quite possibly a lifesaver. She sent early, imperfect versions of it to Walgreens pharmacies, which used it and thus doled out erroneous diagnoses to patients. She blocked peer reviews of it and buried evidence of its failures.
This went on not for months but for years, as Holmes attracted more than $900 million of investment money and lured a breathtakingly distinguished board of directors including two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger; a former secretary of defense, William Perry; and a future secretary of defense, James Mattis. What they had before them wasn’t proof or even the sturdy promise of revolutionary technology. It was a self-appointed wunderkind who struck a persuasive pose and talked an amazing game.
She was eventually found out, and faces criminal charges that could put her in prison. But there’s no guarantee of that. Meantime she lives in luxury. God bless America.
Theranos was perhaps an outlier in the scope of its deceptions, but not in the deceptions themselves. In an article titled “The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley” in Fortune magazine in December 2016, Erin Griffith tallied a list of aborted ventures with more shimmer and swagger than substance, asserting: “As the list of start-up scandals grows, it’s time to ask whether entrepreneurs are taking ‘fake it till you make it’ too far.”
Much remains mysterious about the Enquirer’s actions, and in particular its connections, if any, with President Trump and the government of Saudi Arabia — a possibility that Bezos alluded to in his blog post. Both the Saudis and Trump are aggrieved at The Post, and Trump wrongly blames Bezos for the newspaper’s accurate but unflattering coverage of him. When the Enquirer’s initial article about Bezos’s extramarital relationship was published, the president gloated in a tweet: “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”
The president would obviously love to see a sale of The Post to a friendlier owner — perhaps Trump pal David Pecker, the chairman and chief executive of AMI. (One is reminded of autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have benefited from bullying media organizations into submission in their own countries.) The Enquirer was threatening Bezos in order to get him to affirm that its coverage was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Might the Enquirer have, at a minimum, pursued the story to curry favor with Trump?
.. This is apparently not the first time the publication has been accused of extortionate demands. Other journalists, including Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, have said they were threatened by the Enquirer’s lawyers while investigating the tabloid’s relationship with Trump. And Bezos wrote that “numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI.” These machinations are now being exposed because of Bezos’s smart and courageous decision to confront the Enquirer rather than give in. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,
.. I suspect David Pecker will rue the day that his friend Donald Trump became president — if he does not already. And he is not alone.
- Paul Manafort had a flourishing business as an international influence-peddler before he became Trump’s campaign chairman. He now faces a long stretch in prison after having been convicted of felony financial charges. Trump’s friend
- Roger Stone has now been indicted for the first time after a long career as a political dirty trickster.
- Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, has gone from well-respected general to felon.
- Michael Cohen had a cushy career as Trump’s personal lawyer before his client became president. Now Cohen, too, is a felon. Numerous other Trump associates and family members are facing, at a minimum, hefty legal bills and, at worst, serious legal exposure.
Every organization Trump has been associated with — the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump campaign, the Trump administration — is being investigated by prosecutors and lawmakers. His name, long his biggest asset, has become so toxic that bookings are down at his hotels. And Trump, a.k.a. Individual 1, faces a serious threat of prosecution once he leaves office. Before it is all over, Trump himself may regret the day he became president. His unexpected and undeserved ascent is delivering long overdue accountability for him and his sleazy associates. We have gone from logrolling to having logs rolled over — and it’s about time.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accuses the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail with compromising photos unless the Washington Post ended an investigation into how the magazine obtained private texts related to his divorce