By Ronan Farrow
Little Brown. 428 pp. $30.
Reviewed by Abraham Gutman
When Ronan Farrow’s bombshell story outlining sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein appeared in the New Yorker in October 2017, folks in media wondered why the NBC News investigative journalist wasn’t airing the story on his own network. The reason goes far beyond media gossip. In his new book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Farrow details the efforts of NBC News executives to bury the story and sheds light on the coordinated efforts among powerful men — and institutions — to protect predators.
In Catch and Kill, Farrow alleges a sort of quid pro quo between NBC News and American Media Inc. — the parent company of the tabloid The National Enquirer — to protect predators. If NBC News wouldn’t publish sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, AMI wouldn’t publish allegations against Today show anchor Matt Lauer — one of the network’s most valuable players — and other NBC News higher-ups. Weinstein had his skeletons in his closet, but so did NBC.
After Farrow started to investigate allegations against Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul called NBC News chairman Andy Lack and, according to Farrow, said, “we all did that.” Indeed, in the book, Farrow reports allegations against Lack for being “almost unrelenting” in his sexual advances toward female subordinates.
After seven months of investigating Weinstein for NBC News, securing on-camera interviews, copies of non-disclosure agreements, and a recording in which Weinstein allegedly confesses to sexual assault, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim is said to have told Farrow and his producer Rich McHugh — an unsung hero in the story — to “stand down.” When the two persisted, Oppenheim suggested that Farrow “go with God” and take the story to another publication. Less than two months later, the New Yorker published Farrow’s work. It would go on to win him and the magazine the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, shared with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the story in the the New York Times.
While the majority of the book is about NBC, it describes a pattern of behavior not unique to the network — as Farrow’s July 2018 report on allegations of sexual harassment and assault by CBS CEO Les Moonves suggests.
The book is full of plot and drama: spies from the Israeli firm Black Cube tracking Farrow and others, “catch and kill” schemes in which tabloids pay accusers for the rights of their stories just to not publish them (as Farrow says AMI did with multiple allegations against Donald Trump), a suspect decision of a Manhattan prosecutor not to pursue criminal charges against Weinstein in 2015, weird evasions from Hillary Clinton, and Farrow’s engagement announcement to former White House speechwriter and podcaster Jon Lovett.
Catch and Kill also details how difficult it was to get allegations in print or on the air.
When NBC News executives started delaying Farrow and McHugh, they responded that they could get more evidence, and do more to establish a pattern of behavior. Another argument from the pair’s bosses: Weinstein, they said, wasn’t known outside the Hollywood-media bubble and so the allegations weren’t newsworthy.
By the end of the book, Farrow presents enough evidence to make it persuasive that the arguments made by NBC News higher-ups were an attempt to conceal the company’s own secrets. But these are the questions that journalists ask themselves every day: Do we have enough to publish? Is this newsworthy enough? Kantor and Twohey face the same questions in their own Weinstein investigation book, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, while getting the full support of their paper.
The reporting on Weinstein was followed by an avalanche of reports of sexual harassment and assault by other powerful men that reignited the #MeToo movement founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke. After the Weinstein story broke, actress Alyssa Milano asked women on social media to use the phrase to show the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. Countless women, worldwide, joined. The backlash was swift, with some arguing that #MeToo can be weaponized against powerful men — a heated discussion that boiled over during the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But if there is one thing that is clear from Catch and Kill it is that getting an allegation published is far from easy. This is a story about a ruling class of men who protect one another — and about the courage of women who speak up despite the social, and often legal, repercussions.