Ronan Farrow's high-wire act: Why it matters that 'Catch and Kill' is such a page-turner
Most stories about journalism, outside of active war zone reporting, are not exactly thrilling to observe. Journalism itself — the grinding, sometimes grubby, day-to-day practice of it — rarely is. A lot of the work behind even the most explosive stories can be tedious; for every heart-racing secret meeting in a parking garage, there are thousands of hours spent waiting to be called back by people who do not really want to call you back. Even acclaimed films like “The Post” and “Spotlight” — built around the biggest, era-defining investigations — must work their cinematic tension exquisitely to make document diving and note taking exciting enough to watch, let alone stand for Best Picture.
Understanding this challenge only underscores why Ronan Farrow's "Catch and Kill," his behind-the-scenes account of overcoming stranger-than-fiction obstacles to report the story that helped propel the Me Too movement's wave of momentum against sexual abuse and harassment, is so valuable. In his book, Farrow exposes in meticulous detail the many intersecting levels of power, institutional and personal, that tried to squash his reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged pattern of sexual abuse and harassment and subsequent cover-ups before it could be told. It is a terrible story of abject malevolence, betrayal, predation, and — to be extremely generous toward NBC, where Farrow once worked — corporate cowardice, but it's also a propulsive, cinematic page-turner.
That may sound like inappropriate, even grotesque, praise. But consider how the "too far?" backlash to Me Too manifested almost immediately; the tenacity with which power will protect itself has been evident from the start. Consider that now, two years later, there's Harvey Weinstein, showing up casually to an Actors Hour performance at a downtown New York venue this week, daring patrons and comedians alike to say anything about it. (They did and got heckled in return; one patron who spoke out against him was kicked out.) Add this to the many whiplash comeback tales that disgraced men in media and entertainment have floated — those little Page Six trial balloons filled with toxic gas — and even executed over the last two years. The system constantly wishes to correct tectonic power shifts and settle back into its comfortable worn grooves. It requires powerful, sustained force pushing back. A compelling book that readers can't help but want to finish can make an impact, changing hearts and minds by holding scattered collective attention long enough for an understanding of the injustice to truly take root.
Should it matter that ex-Mossad agents working on behalf of a Hollywood mogul lend "Catch and Kill" a layer of spy-novel intrigue? No, but I suspect it might help spread the book's lessons farther and wider than it might without them.
Because the truth is that it is an ongoing challenge to make the public continue to care about the women at the heart of the Me Too stories past a headline's immediate outrage expiration date. The vigilance it requires is exhausting, with the burden falling primarily on the women themselves to keep performing their pain for a hostile, skeptical audience. And it is heartbreaking and nauseating to watch the system, like clockwork, fix its mussed hair, straighten its tie, and go right back to its old table at Cipriani. Given that reality, the dose of "holy shit, no, this story is wild" that "Catch and Kill" serves can go a long way toward ensuring that Farrow's exposé of how that system works, in all of its damning specificity, will continue to have legs.
Farrow balances that moral clarity and his painstaking detailing of his reporting process with vivid prose, wry self-awareness, and an eye for the ominous detail to craft an undeniable page-turner, written in such a way to make a reader want to push on to the next chapter immediately to find out what happens next — even those who could by now, two years' worth of follow-up news cycles later, recite many of the facts and outcomes of this investigation by heart.
This creates an unsettling friction within the conscientious reader, to be sure: There is nothing entertaining about Weinstein’s alleged pattern of predation, which destroyed so many lives and careers, nor the ring of protection around NBC golden boy Matt Lauer and his alleged sexual misconduct — including full details of a harrowing rape allegation by former NBC employee Brooke Nevils — that the fallout later revealed. It is devastating to follow Rose McGowan's decision to pull back from going on the record when she saw NBC's attitude toward the story clearly, and her dismay as she learned a person she thought was a confidant turned out to be an undercover agent with Black Cube, the Israeli operatives hired by Weinstein to spy on McGowan. (She's now suing Weinstein, Black Cube, and attorneys David Boies and Lisa Bloom, claiming racketeering, invasion of privacy, and more.) And it's disturbing to think, as the book makes a strong case for, that one of our preeminent news operations could have catered to an accused sexual predator because they were nervous about the glass house their own network operated in, a fear they ended up having to face anyway.
Putting all of the pieces together in this book as Farrow races against several clocks to file his story illustrates just how strong and far-reaching the machine is that works to keep the status quo in place. The dirty hands seem to outnumber the clean, and they all work together to form a sticky web. Seemingly always near the action is AMI's Dylan Howard. Even the New York City District Attorney's office was rumored to have been compromised somehow during the handling of Ambra Gutierrez's assault case against Weinstein. (Rudy Giuliani, who served on Weinstein's legal team during that period, manages to be one of the lower-key members of the Weinstein orbit, which says a lot.) Moments of stinging betrayal underscore how justified the paranoia of Weinstein's accusers was — when attorney and ostensible champion of women Lisa Bloom, in whom Farrow had confided, revealed that she had broken his confidence after swearing that she "wouldn’t tell his people,” it's a devastating moment. (“Ronan,” Bloom said to Farrow, “I am his people.”)
The machinations of Black Cube's spy operation — exposed by an inside leaker and a counter-surveillance stringer with a conscience, espionage-thriller style — add the sinister narrative tension that elevates the stakes of the bureaucratic pushback dance that Farrow and his NBC producer Rich McHugh endured from network news higher-ups, right up to the point when Farrow took his story to the New Yorker, and the fallout and spin that came after. The spy stuff is undeniably jaw-dropping and should hook curious readers from the start. But Farrow pulls off his high-wire act — he never loses sight of why he is telling this (at times surprisingly bizarre) story, and who stands to risk the most when it all goes public. And ultimately it's from the more banal narrative threads of corporate opposition where the most instructive antagonists of the "Catch and Kill" story emerge.
Nobody seemed to buy the incredulous claim by NBC News after the Weinstein exposé came out that Farrow's story was not up to standards when he took the story to the New Yorker, after Farrow meticulously chronicles the reporting he had on the record every step of the way. He details every time he and McHugh were stymied or slow-walked by an editor or a higher-up like NBC News president Noah Oppenheim, who plays a key role. This scene, after Farrow plays his copy of the wire recording that confirms Gutierrez's story about Weinstein, is typical of the internal road blocks their story met with while it was still in progress:
There was a yawning silence after the tape finished playing. Apparently realizing that we were waiting for him to say something, Oppenheim produced a sound somewhere between a weary sigh and an apathetic "eh” and made a shrugging gesture. "I mean…,” he said, drawing out the word. "I don’t know what that proves.”
"He admits to groping her,” I said.
"He’s trying to get rid of her. People say a lot of things when they’re trying to get rid of a girl like that.”
I stared at him. Greenberg and Weiner stared at him. "Look,” he said, annoyance creeping into his voice. "I’m not saying it’s not gross, but I’m still not sure it’s news.”
At several points in Farrow's account it seems as though the network hoped that Farrow and McHugh would take the hint and kill the story themselves without anyone having to outright order it. It would have been more convenient for everyone if they had just dropped it and let the status quo ride — sure, it's gross, but is it news? For everyone, that is, except the women.
Despite the ongoing challenges these stories still face, we can at least say that Farrow, Twohey and Kantor changed what newsrooms consider "news" — even, one hopes, at NBC. Audio of a powerful and famous film producer admitting to groping a woman against her will, to say nothing of a litany of allegations of disturbing violence against women showing a decades-long pattern, should now be considered undisputed news.
And yet one of the most important takeaways of "Catch and Kill" is how Oppenheim's role in the narrative illustrates how much easier it is to support existing power rather than threaten it, even in — and maybe especially in — well-funded corporate media. Simply put, it takes courage to do the hard thing and suffer the aftermath. It's usually much easier to do nothing. It's also seductively easy for someone in that power-support role to cast themselves as merely a helpless bystander, unable to disturb the universe by pushing back against an overwhelming force like, as Oppenheim characterized it to Farrow, the "consensus about the organization's comfort level moving forward."
“Even if you think that NBC was either cowardly or acted inappropriately or whatever, which you’re entitled to feel, I hope that you would realize the way this has become personalized and hung on me is not fair or accurate,” Oppenheim said to Farrow after the story was published, and NBC's role — and his, as head of the news division — also came under scrutiny from the rest of the press. “Even if you believe that there is a villain in this, that the villain is not me.”
Most people are not Harvey Weinsteins, or Matt Lauers. But a good deal might find themselves in Oppenheim's role at some point in their lives, and have to make a choice about the path of least resistance, especially when the individual's relative power is contingent on "the organization's comfort level" with them.
“I’m just making a plea,” Oppenheim said to Farrow. “If the opportunity ever does present itself to you to say that maybe I’m not the villain in all this, I would be grateful.”
In this story, the main villain is Harvey Weinstein, no dispute. It's tempting to stop there. What "Catch and Kill" illustrates with devastating thoroughness is how power assembles to protect itself. But it also demonstrates that when individuals do break with the system, its inevitability crumbles. The leaker at Black Cube who blew the whistle to Farrow on the firm's dealings with Weinstein, the private investigator who revealed the surveillance plan, women who took the biggest risks of all in coming forward, McHugh and Farrow who put their careers on the line to get those stories heard, David Remnick's team at the New Yorker who gave the story its home — "Catch and Kill" is full of heroes of varying degrees, whose combined acts of courage, big and small, helped fuel a historic movement toward accountability for abuse and harassment. It stands to reason then — as Oppenheim's plea suggests he may have realized — that a story like this could include many villains of varying degrees, too.
It's easy to come away from "Catch and Kill" relieved about never being a Weinstein or a Black Cube operative and leave it at that. But hopefully readers caught up the incredible story of it all will also ask themselves, should they ever find themselves in the position of an Oppenheim or a Bloom, what they will do with the power they have.