Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and reporting on powerful men with a lot at stake. A conversation with Ronan Farrow.
Ronan Farrow, investigative journalist and contributing writer to The New Yorker. Author of "Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators."(@RonanFarrow)
From The Reading List
Excerpt from "Catch and Kill," by Ronan Farrow
Chapter 1: Tape
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 sometimes 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 skin care.
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 Wash‑ ington 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 necessary,” 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.
Vanity Fair: "Ronan Farrow Alleges That Harvey Weinstein Used Matt Lauer Blackmail to Pressure NBC" — "In his forthcoming book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow details the methods Harvey Weinstein allegedly used to stymie Farrow’s investigation into Weinstein’s behavior, which Farrow began while he was still a reporter at NBC News. When his bombshell story about Weinstein ran in the New Yorker in 2017, there was speculation, but no clear answer about why NBC declined to run it. According to Farrow’s reporting, Weinstein found an effective pressure point in Matt Lauer, whose career would later topple under #MeToo allegations as well.
"'Weinstein made it known to [NBC] that he was aware of Lauer’s behavior and capable of revealing it,' Farrow writes in the book, per the Hollywood Reporter. Farrow alleges that Weinstein worked with American Media Inc. chief content officer Dylan Howard to find the leverage he needed against NBC, and that he subsequently used the dirt he’d gathered from the National Enquirer on Lauer to pressure executives at the Peacock to kill his story. ('The story presented by Mr. Farrow, while dramatic, is inaccurate,' an American Media spokesperson said in a statement to V.F. on behalf of the publisher and Howard.) As THR notes, Farrow’s book also includes a denial from the network that it ever received a specific threat from Weinstein. A representative for Weinstein declined to comment, telling V.F. in an email, 'There isn’t anything new here.' Weinstein has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex.
"'NBC News was never contacted by AMI, or made aware in any way of any threats from them, or from anyone else, for that matter,' NBC told THR in a statement. 'And the idea of NBC News taking a threat seriously from a tabloid company about Matt Lauer is especially preposterous, since they already covered him with great regularity.'
"Still, Farrow told THR, 'The [book documents] a period in which secrets at NBC were under threat of exposure. And it is very clear from the conversations I document how heavily those secrets weighed on their [reporting] judgment.' "
Washington Post: "Ronan Farrow overcame spies and intimidation to break some of the biggest stories of the #MeToo era" — "Unlike most journalists — most human beings — Ronan Farrow can tell you what it’s like to be tailed, surveilled and tracked by people with possibly sinister motives. It is, he attests, kind of stressful.
"'I don’t want this to sound like woe is me, but I’ll be honest,' Farrow says. 'It’s really hard when you’re in those moments . . . when you wonder if you’re being followed, and it turns out you are, it’s frightening.'
"For a few months in 2017, he nervously eyed suspicious-looking vehicles, spent nights in friends’ apartments and took evasive maneuvers, such as walking against traffic to foil anyone following him in a car.
"A friend advised him: Get a gun."
Politico: "Ronan Farrow: National Enquirer shredded secret Trump documents" — "American Media Inc. and the National Enquirer shredded sensitive Donald Trump-related documents that had been held in a top-secret safe right before Trump was elected in 2016, according to fresh allegations made in a new book by journalist Ronan Farrow.
"During the first week of November 2016, the book alleges, Dylan Howard, who was editor in chief of the National Enquirer at the time, ordered a staff member to 'get everything out of the safe' and said, 'We need to get a shredder down there.'
"His order came the same day a reporter for The Wall Street Journal called the Enquirer to ask for comment on a story about how AMI, which owns the supermarket tabloid, had paid $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said she had had an affair with Trump, to keep her quiet right before the election. The Enquirer never published her story."
This program aired on October 18, 2019.