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.”
I want to burn the frat house of America to the ground... I was riveted by the hearings, and Professor Hill’s testimony about how her old boss, the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, behaved — the references to pornographic movies, to his own sexual prowess, the way he would ask her out, again and again, and not take no for an answer... It’s one thing to say #MeToo, but if I find out it’s them, too, I can picture myself hunting down the man who hurt them and dismembering him with my fingernails and burning the whole world down... When Clarence Thomas won his seat, I felt like someone had taken an eraser to the core of my being, and had rubbed a bit of me away. I felt diminished, a little less real, and, certainly, a lot less likely to be believed if I had anything to say about male colleagues... Bill Cosby was found guilty. Harvey Weinstein is going to trial. Les Moonves lost his job as chief executive of CBS, even if a CBS board member, Arnold Kopelson, said, “I don’t care if 30 more women come forward and allege this kind of stuff.”.. One by one, like bad dreams, the #MeToo men have come back from the allegations against them, having suffered — if that’s even the right word — the equivalent of a misbehaving child’s timeout.
.. Matt Lauer is swanning around Upper East Side steakhouses, reportedly assuring fans that soon he’ll be “back on TV.” Louis C.K. returned to the stage. John Hockenberry is telling his story in Harper’s Magazine, and Jian Ghomeshi is telling his in The New York Review of Books.
.. Women aren’t supposed to want revenge any more than we’re supposed to be angry. It’s not socially approved, not attractive, not ladylike. We swallow our pain and keep our own behavior exemplary while excusing the bad behavior of others, knowing, from examples like Professor Hill’s, what could happen if we speak up, and what we stand to lose.
.. There are famous novels, canonical plays, entire genres of movies centered around men seeking revenge (the “Iliad,” “Hamlet,” every western ever). There aren’t many stories about men righting their wrongs; even fewer about women making men sorry.
NBC employees told the publication that Lauer had a button under his desk that would lock his office door. “It allowed him to welcome female employees and initiate inappropriate contact while knowing nobody could walk in on him,” Variety wrote.
.. A good morning-show host has to be able to go into “hardcore news mode” if a breaking story happens, as Thompson put it, and the next day throw on an apron and banter with an author promoting their latest cookbook.