Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow's "Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators" is a harrowing, disturbing and sometimes stranger-than-fiction account of systemic power, corruption, sexual abuse and cover-ups in the media and entertainment industries.
Farrow details a dramatic account of how he and NBC producer Rich McHugh uncovered sexual assault and rape allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
He also outlines what happened next: NBC shut the story down in 2017, he writes, after Weinstein threatened to expose former “Today” host Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct.
"Catch and Kill" landed on the New York Times’ best-seller list like a hand grenade — and it’s still reverberating.
The credit for “exposing this entire operation” goes to his sources “who kept coming forward and refused to stop,” Farrow told Here & Now’s Robin Young at a recent event in Boston. The story, he says, is about the courage of the women who came forward.
“In so many of the rooms where I document really bad things happening,” he says, “there was also someone brave enough to speak up.”
Farrow’s work of journalism reads like a thriller, complete with surveillance, intimidation and Herculean attempts to bury the truth. He says he wanted to show how vulnerable he felt while being stalked and “lied to a lot.”
But he says his experiences don’t compare to what his sources — many of them survivors of sexual violence — were forced to go through.
“These were women who were gaslit in some cases in a very profound way and who were on top of all of that retraumatizing themselves by telling these stories and risking so much,” he says. “So it helped, even at the time, to give me a sense of perspective that I knew that these women were doing such a brave and difficult thing.”
On his early reporting at NBC
“Very rapidly I start to hear that this is about allegations of rape and sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein. Rose McGowan goes on the record, but she is not the only one. There are multiple named women. I obtained a secret police wire recording in which Harvey Weinstein admits to not just a sexual assault, but a pattern of sexual assaults and is in the midst of what sounds very much like preying upon a woman.
“There's strange reactions and orders to put it on the back burner and hit pause and all kinds of euphemisms [at NBC]. And that does eventually then escalate to the president of the network, this guy, Noah Oppenheim, on six occasions saying, 'You need to stop reporting on this.' They ultimately have their lawyers threaten me if I ever reveal that they knew anything about the story.”
On excerpts in Farrow’s book revealing that NBC News President Noah Oppenheim wrote misogynistic columns while attending Harvard University
“I didn't know at the time [during early reporting], I should say, that he had written things like that women enjoy being preyed upon and pumped full of alcohol and, you know, really kind of endorsing sexual assault. And he's apologized for that since they've gone viral in the last few days — and since they're in the book.”
On persevering through his reporting and then appearing on Rachel Maddow’s NBC show after his New Yorker story was published
“I am forthright about my own moments of cowardice in this and many points in this plot. I'm just a guy who wants to keep his job and I've been fired over refusing to stop the reporting. But then it's dangled in front of me that I can come back ... if I don't talk about NBC. Rachel Maddow, you know, I've been assured no one is going to ask about it. But as tough journalists, including Rachel Maddow, grilled me about it, after which I burst into tears and then we're both getting screamed out by executives afterward. It's a scene. Also, the other thing that changed was sources began coming forward in a time period where NBC was telling its journalists, 'We have no secret sexual harassment settlements.' I'd lay out a paper trail of at least seven of them, several of them involving Matt Lauer.
“This was bigger than a story about NBC or AMI [owner of the National Enquirer] or Black Cube. It is about these systems of mutual protection among powerful people that lead to a situation again and again across industries where these problems are swept under the rug and paid out to make them go away. And the consequences of that are abusers stay in power and people continue to get hurt.
“In the world of media specifically, the truth gets hurt. Stories get killed. I follow a trail of clues from how Harvey Weinstein weaponized The National Enquirer all the way up to how Trump weaponized The National Enquirer and used them to suppress stories. This had a bearing on our democracy. We've got to stand up and say enough and hold media accountable.”
On his sister Dylan Farrow and confronting his family’s connection to sexual abuse
“It's tense. It was a searing process to have to confront these painful things in my own past, partly because as I report on each of these stories, there are these very below-the-belt attacks that try to weaponize every possible personal thing. Harvey Weinstein's legal threat letters to me are not, shall we say, Hallmark card stuff. He stuck his [private investigators] on me and there's a lot about my sister. And he calls, at one point, Woody Allen to kind of get advice. And then there are all these arguments and the legal threat letter is directed at me about my sister being sexually assaulted and therefore me being too close to the issue.”
On dodging lies from people working for Harvey Weinstein
“These are real betrayals. I mean, the lawyers, whether it's Lisa Bloom building a reputation on defending women, including my sister, author of many op-eds talking about the forensic credibility of my sister’s claim, who then went on Harvey Weinstein's payroll and signed on to letters threatening me based on the argument that my sister was brainwashed. Not a good look for Lisa Bloom.”
On the sexual assault survivors he reported on
“You read a story like Annabella Sciorra's. It's really wrenching, violent stuff. Rosanna Arquette and Mira Sorvino and Daryl Hannah. But it's also worth noting that there were just as many people who were not public names [such as] Lucia Evans, who is a marketing executive.”
On being stalked and feeling afraid during his reporting
“What I experienced was a small shadow of what the sources were going through. … But I also try to be forthright in this book and vulnerable in this book about the fact that I was scared and it sucked. And I did wonder if I was crazy until I got receipts and got all the contracts and got all the parties to these plots to admit to everything — except for NBC.”
Book Excerpt: "Catch and Kill"
By Ronan Farrow
"What do you mean it’s not airing tomorrow?” My words drifted over the emptying newsroom on the fourth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, inside the Comcast building, which had once been the GE building, which had once been the RCA building. On the other end of the line, Rich McHugh, my producer at NBC News, was talking over what sounded like the bombing of Dresden but was in fact the natural soundscape of a household with two sets of young twins. “They just called, they’re — no, Izzy, you have to share — Jackie, please don’t bite her — Daddy’s on the phone —”
“But it’s the strongest story in the series,” I said. “Maybe not the best TV, but the best underlying story —”
“They say we’ve gotta move it. It’s fakakt,” he said, missing the last syllable. (McHugh had this habit of trying out Yiddish words. It never went well.)
Airing a series of back-to-back investigative spots like the one McHugh and I were about to launch required choreography. Each of the stories was long, consuming days in the network’s edit rooms. Rescheduling one was a big deal. “Move it to when?” I asked.
On the other end of the line, there was a muffled crash and several successive shrieks of laughter. “I gotta call you back,” he said.
McHugh was a TV veteran who had worked at Fox and MSNBC and, for the better part of a decade, Good Morning America. He was barrel-chested, with ginger hair and a ruddy complexion, and wore a
lot of gingham work shirts. He had a plainspoken, laconic quality that cut through the passive-aggressive patter of corporate bureaucracy. “He looks like a farmer,” the investigative unit boss who had first put us together the previous year had said. “For that matter, he talks like a farmer. You two make no sense together.”
“Why the assignment, then?” I’d asked.
“You’ll be good for one another,” he’d replied, with a shrug.
McHugh had seemed skeptical. I didn’t love talking about my family background, but most people were familiar with it: my mother, Mia Farrow, was an actress; my father, Woody Allen, a director. My childhood had been plastered across the tabloids after he was accused of sexual assault by my seven-year-old sister, Dylan, and began a sexual relationship with another one of my sisters, Soon-Yi, eventually marrying her. There had been a few headlines again when I started college at an unusually young age and when I headed off to Afghanistan and Pakistan as a junior State Department official. In 2013, I’d started a four-year deal with NBCUniversal, anchoring a midday show on its cable news channel, MSNBC, for the first year of it. I’d dreamed of making the show serious and fact-driven, and by the end, was proud of how I’d used the inauspicious time slot for taped investigative stories. The show got some bad reviews at the start, good reviews at the end, and few viewers throughout. Its cancellation was little-noticed; for years after, chipper acquaintances would bound up at parties and tell me that they loved the show and still watched it every day. “That’s so nice of you to say,” I’d tell them.
I’d moved over to the network to work as an investigative correspondent. As far as Rich McHugh was concerned, I was a young lightweight with a famous name, looking for something to do because my contract lasted longer than my TV show. This is where I should say the skepticism was mutual, but I just want everyone to like me.
Working with a producer on the road meant a lot of time together on flights and in rental cars. On our first few shoots together, the silence would yawn between us as highway guardrails flashed by, or I’d fill it with too much talk about myself, eliciting the occasional grunt.
But the pairing was starting to yield strong stories for my Today
show investigative series and for Nightly News, as well as a reluctant mutual respect. McHugh was as smart as anyone I’d met in the news business and a sharp editor of scripts. And we both loved a tough story.
After McHugh’s call, I looked at the cable headlines on one of the newsroom’s televisions, then texted him: “They’re scared of sexual assault?” The story we were being asked to reschedule was about colleges botching sexual assault investigations on campus. We’d talked to both victims and alleged perpetrators, who were some- times in tears, and sometimes had their faces obscured in shadow. It was the sort of report that, in the 8:00 a.m. time slot for which it was destined, would require Matt Lauer to furrow his brow, express earnest concern, and then transition to a segment about celebrity skincare.
McHugh wrote back: “Yes. All Trump and then sex assault.”
It was a Sunday evening in early October 2016. The preceding Friday, the Washington Post had published an article demurely titled “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005.” There was a video accompanying the article, the kind you used to call “not safe for work.” In a soliloquy captured by the celebrity news program Access Hollywood, Donald Trump held forth about grabbing women “by the pussy.” “I did try and fuck her. She was married,” he had said. “She’s now got the big phony tits and everything.”
Trump’s interlocutor had been Billy Bush, the host of Access Holly‑ wood. Bush was a small man with good hair. You could place him
near any celebrity and he would produce a steady stream of forgettable but occasionally weird red-carpet banter. “How do you feel about your butt?” he once asked Jennifer Lopez. And when she, visibly uncomfortable, replied, “Are you kidding me? You did not just ask me that,” he said brightly, “I did!”
And so, as Trump described his exploits, Bush chirped and snickered in assent. “Yes! The Donald has scored!”
Access Hollywood was an NBCUniversal property. After the Washington Post broke the story that Friday, NBC platforms raced their own versions on air. When Access broadcast the tape, it excised some of Bush’s more piquant remarks. Some critics asked when NBC executives became aware of the tape and whether they deliberately sat on it. Leaked accounts presented differing timelines. On “background” calls to reporters, some NBC executives said the story just hadn’t been ready, that it had required further legal review. (Of one such call, a Washington Post writer observed tartly: “The executive was unaware of any specific legal issue raised by airing an eleven-year-old recording of a presidential candidate who was apparently aware at the time that he was being recorded by a TV program.”) Two NBC- Universal lawyers, Kim Harris and Susan Weiner, had reviewed the tape and signed off on its release, but NBC had hesitated, and lost one of the most important election stories in a generation.
There was another problem: the Today show had just brought Billy Bush into its cast of hosts. Not two months earlier, they’d aired a “Get to Know Billy” video, complete with footage of him getting his chest hair waxed on air.
McHugh and I had been editing and legally vetting our series for weeks. But the trouble was apparent the moment I began promoting the series on social media. “Come to watch the #BillyBush apology, stay to watch #RonanFarrow explain to him why an apology is nec- essary,” one viewer tweeted.
“Of course they moved sexual assault,” I texted McHugh an hour
later. “Billy Bush must be apologizing for the pussy grab convo right within spitting distance of our airtime.”
Billy Bush did not apologize that day. As I waited in the wings at Studio 1A the next morning, looking over my script, Savannah Guthrie announced: “Pending further review of the matter, NBC News has suspended Billy Bush, the host of Today’s third hour, for his role in that conversation with Donald Trump.” And then it was onward and upward to cooking, and more caffeinated laughter — and my story on Adderall abuse on college campuses, which had been rushed in to replace the one about sexual assault.
The years before the release of the Access Hollywood tape had seen the reemergence of sexual assault allegations against the comedian Bill Cosby. In July of 2016, the former Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson had filed a sexual harassment suit against the head of that network, Roger Ailes. Soon after the tape was released, women in at least fifteen cities staged sit-ins and marches at Trump buildings, chanting about emancipation, carrying signs with reappropriated “pussy” imagery: cats, howling or arching, emblazoned with “pussy grabs back.”
Four women publicly claimed that Trump had groped or kissed them without consent in much the fashion he’d described as routine to Billy Bush. The Trump campaign denounced them as fabulists. A hashtag, popularized by the commentator Liz Plank, solicited explanations of why #WomenDontReport. “A (female) criminal attorney said because I’d done a sex scene in a film I would never win against the studio head,” the actress Rose McGowan tweeted. “Because it’s been an open secret in Hollywood/Media & they shamed me while adulating my rapist,” she added. “It is time for some goddamned honesty in this world.”
Excerpted from CATCH AND KILL Copyright © 2019 by Ronan Farrow.
Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on October 28, 2019.
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