We live in polarised 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. Mr Farrow describes how he put together his explosive 2017 exposé of numerous sexual assault and harassment allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a long-time Democratic fund-raiser and “part of the brain trust around Hillary Clinton.”
Mr Farrow quotes gleeful emails between Weinstein and Dylan Howard, editor of The National Enquirer, whose parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), was run by David Pecker, a staunch supporter of Donald J Trump’s. Mr Howard forwarded Weinstein some “dirt” on the actor Rose McGowan, who had tweeted the month before about “my rapist,” whom she didn’t name.
Catch and Kill gets its title from a tabloid practice that AMI had honed over the years: purchasing a story in order to bury it. AMI’s strategy is an essential part of this book’s narrative, but what Mr Farrow suggests is that NBC News, which employed him at the time, did something with the Weinstein story that wasn’t dissimilar. Instead of hush money, he says, NBC officials used the institutional levers at their disposal to shut down his work on Mr Weinstein — from intermittent discouragement to elaborate stonewalling to a legal review that turned out to be both labyrinthine and absurd.
They even ordered Mr Farrow and his steadfast producer, Rich McHugh, to take the rather extraordinary step of halting their reporting; then, when his article ran in The New Yorker, NBC released a statement saying that the reporting NBC officials saw (and that Mr Farrow says they tried to impede) had not been up to snuff.
Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr 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, OK?” 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 Mr Weinstein himself, waging a war on all fronts.
Part of the book is about Black Cube, the mysterious Israeli firm that Mr Weinstein’s team hired to conduct intelligence work, like compile dossiers on journalists. A Nissan Pathfinder Mr Farrow 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 Mr Weinstein also cultivated an inside line to NBC itself. At a Time magazine gala, Mr Farrow learned that Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, was sitting at a table with Mr Weinstein.
In the book, the warning signs about Mr Oppenheim start out small but ominous. Presented at one point with a considerable list of Mr Farrow’s findings, including a recording of Mr Weinstein admitting to groping women against their will, Mr Oppenheim wasn’t entirely convinced. “I don’t know if that’s, you know, a crime,” he told Mr Farrow. “We’ve gotta decide if it’s newsworthy.”
It became clear to Mr 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. Mr Weinstein might have known something about this too.
One of the biggest revelations in Catch and Kill 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.
The behaviour documented in Catch and Kill is obviously and profoundly distressing but there are some hopeful threads, too. The first has to do, strangely enough, with the fury with which Mr 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 Mr Weinstein tried to enlist in his efforts turned into conscientious objectors. One of those turncoats was “Sleeper,” who supplied Mr Farrow with incriminating documents about Mr Weinstein and Black Cube. Mr Farrow can’t tell us much about this source, but he does tell us this: “She was a woman and she’d had enough.”
©2019 The New York TimesNews Service
Catch and Kill
Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
Brown & Company; $30; 448 pages