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. Farrow describes how he put together his explosive 2017 expose of numerous sexual assault and harassment allegations against 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 New York 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 Trump. Howard forwarded Weinstein some “dirt” on 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 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 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, OK?”
He didn’t let it go, although there were plenty of people who tried to pry him loose. 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. Farrow learnt 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.
But Weinstein also cultivated an inside line to NBC itself. At a Time magazine gala, Farrow learnt 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. (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.)
One of the biggest revelations in ‘Catch and Kill’, revealed toward the end, is that a former NBC employee named Brooke Nevils says that 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.”
The behaviour 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 rationalise their behaviour 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.”