Review: Ronan Farrow’s ‘Catch and Kill’ reveals a spy story and portraits of perseverance
At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read Ronan Farrow’s book.
I didn’t want to spend hours with a revolving cast of powerful men accused of doing unspeakable things to women, with impunity or the next best thing.
I didn’t want more evidence that women can matter so little, that we can be interchangeable orifices to a not-that-small group of rich guys in high places.
I know the world can be like this. But I didn’t want to know the world can be like this.
Now I know, in painful detail, thanks to Farrow and “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators.”
And you should too. Read this book.
Farrow is the New Yorker magazine contributor who shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times. Their reporting is why disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is headed to trial on rape charges in New York City and could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.
Their work fueled the #MeToo movement and gave voice to scores of women, famous and not, who allege Weinstein harassed, groped, raped or otherwise forced himself on them in New York, California and London and then brutalized them into silence.
Their meticulous reporting allowed these women not just to be heard but to be listened to for the first time. And it brought to account men accused of sexual misconduct and the industry that protected them. That’s what the best investigative journalism does.
But this is where the stories diverge.
Kantor and Twohey’s new book, “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement,” details what it’s like to be investigative journalists for a newspaper that gave them the time, resources and support to make a difference. Told in the third person, it has the cool, authoritative voice of the New York Times. It focuses on the women who broke their silence and the work that helped them do it; it’s a primer on how to do deep-dive journalism. It came out in September.
“Catch and Kill,” which was released Tuesday, is a far different work. It’s equal parts memoir, spy story and portrait of perseverance — the women’s and the author’s — under terrible circumstances.
Farrow began exploring rumors of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct as a reporter for NBC News. In “Catch and Kill,” he describes what it’s like to work for a media outlet that tried to quash the story the Pulitzer committee eventually said helped spur “a worldwide reckoning about sexual abuse of women.”
The New Yorker, a magazine with a conscience and a mission, later published Farrow’s series of articles on which this book is based.
The NBC that Farrow portrays in “Catch and Kill” is the definition of a hostile workplace. Farrow’s more sensational allegations about the company have already made their way into the headlines. He described MSNBC president Phil Griffin waving around an enlarged image of a television personality’s genitalia during a work meeting. And Farrow leveled the bombshell allegation that former Today show co-anchor Matt Lauer anally raped a young colleague while they were covering the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
That colleague is Brooke Nevils, and her complaint led to Lauer’s firing in 2017, but NBC News did not disclose the accusation at the time. Lauer denies the allegation; he says he and Nevils had a consensual affair.
Nevils’ allegations are lengthy, graphic and on-the-record in “Catch and Kill.” Her account underscores the pain, damage and, in Farrow’s telling, the complexity of sexual assault. After Sochi, Nevils and Lauer had several sexual encounters, at his home and in his office.
“Nevils told friends at the time that she felt trapped,” Farrow wrote. “Lauer’s position of authority — over both her and her boyfriend, whose brother worked for Lauer — made her feel unable to say no.”
Lauer is the specter that hangs over much of Farrow’s deeply reported book, with its largely on-the-record accusations. A foundation of “Catch and Kill” is Farrow’s contention that Weinstein had collected dirt on Lauer, and that NBC killed Farrow’s story on the producer’s misdeeds to protect the star at the center of one of the network’s most important franchises. NBC counters that Farrow’s work was neither substantiated nor ready to run.
As my colleague Stephen Battaglio reported, NBC has launched a counter-assault against the book at the same time it is trying to quell the uproar Farrow’s allegations have caused among its employees.
Battaglio quotes from a memo sent to employees that was obtained by The Times: “Now that we’ve read Farrow’s book, it’s clear — his smear rests on the allegation that NBC’s management knew about and took steps to hide Matt Lauer’s misconduct before his firing in November of 2017. Without that, he has no basis on which to rest his second conspiracy theory — that his Harvey Weinstein reporting was squashed to protect Lauer.”
At the heart of “Catch and Kill” is Farrow’s quest: first, to get an important story; success. Then, to keep a much-loved job at what he thought was a destination network; failure. Then, to get that story published; success again.
All the while, Farrow alleges, NBC worked to shut down his and producer Rich McHugh’s efforts. Throughout “Catch and Kill” the author maintains that Weinstein tried to bully them into silence, and to threaten, harass and buy off the women Weinstein had harmed.
Farrow writes that Weinstein went so far as to have him followed by spies with ties to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, doing everything a rich, frantic and cornered man could to save his livelihood, his reputation and, ultimately, his freedom.
But perhaps Farrow’s greatest success was to listen, believe and act, even at his own peril. Because just listening is not enough.
Actress Daryl Hannah, whose sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein are detailed in the book, said she previously had told anyone who would listen, but it didn’t matter.
“I think that it doesn’t matter if you’re a well-known actress,” she told Farrow, “it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty or if you’re forty, it doesn’t matter if you report or if you don’t, because we are not believed.
“We are more than not believed — we are berated and criticized and blamed.”
Someday, maybe, that will no longer be the case.
Catch and Kill
Little Brown: 464 pages; $30
La Ganga is a Times staff writer.
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