6 February 2020

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

I saw so many people posting this book all over social media towards the end of last year and added it very high on my wish list hoping my husband hadn't gone Christmas shopping yet (safe bet). Not only are the cover and title very cool, but I've been looking for an objective way to learn more about all this Weinstein stuff and what better way than directly from the horse's mouth... 

The book is a deep dive into the years Farrow spent putting together the story he wrote for The New Yorker that first revealed Harvey Weinstein's history of sexual assault. The New York Times technically published an article about Weinstein first but it focused exclusively on workplace harassment and manipulation and never actually accused him of sexual crimes. While most of the book is focused on Weinstein, Farrow extends to book to talk about his reporting on the cover-ups by American Media Inc. (the parent company of a number of news stations, etc,) which include assault stories about Donald Trump and Matt Lauer. Farrow also talks about the counter-intelligence organizations hired to find these stories and squash them, organizations which threatened him over the course of his reporting.

One after another, the AMI employees used the same phrase to describe this practice of purchasing a story in order to bury it. It was an old term in the tabloid industry: 'catch and kill.'"

While Farrow didn't originally choose to pursue this story (NBC asked him to follow a few leads), he's not fully detached from it either. Farrow is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, also big Hollywood personalities, and years prior his sister Dylan accused their father of sexual assault. Farrow acknowledges this 'link' early on in the book so he's able to move on from it and write about Weinstein separately from it, but it's interesting how as his reporting goes deeper, he continues to reflect on how he treated his sister while she was going through a similar process. He ends up with all this guilt for telling her to move on, and not to ruin her life pursuing the allegations, etc.

I did not want to be defined by my parents, or by the worst years of my mother's life, of my sister's life, of my childhood. Mia Farrow is one of the great actors of her generation, and a wonderful mom who sacrificed greatly for her kids. And yet so much of her talent and reputation was consumed by the men in her life, and I took from that a desire to stand on my own, to be known best for my work, whatever that might be."

Ronan Farrow

The book is told chronologically and I'd say 75% is focused on Farrow's reporting on Weinstein. He goes into details about all of the victims that come forward, the interactions he had with them, and how he began piecing the puzzle together. If you've been keeping up with the Weinstein case in the media, a lot of this content will be familiar to you but it was interesting to see the way Farrow built unique relationships with these women that allowed them to feel comfortable enough to come forward and fully disclose their stories.

[Weinstein's] movies had earned more than three hundred Oscar nominations, and at the annual awards ceremonies he had been thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, ranking just below Steven Spielberg and several places above God."

Something I found particularly interesting was Farrow's experience asking respected female celebrities about Weinstein and whether they knew about any of his predatory tendencies. Meryl Streep, for example, denies knowing anything when Farrow asks, but I love this quote from when he spoke with Susan Sarandon:

Susan Sarandon, the kind of ethical futurist who had stubbornly refused to work with accused predators for years, gamely brainstormed leads. She let out a cackle when I told her what I was up to. 'Oh, Ronan,' she said, going into a teasing, singsong delivery. Not mocking, just delighting at the impending drama about to befall me. 'You're going to be in trouble.'"

Can't you just perfectly hear Sarandon saying that?

What I think was fresh about this book that you wouldn't know just from watching the media coverage on Weinstein is how hard it was for Farrow to get this story out. Despite NBC initially giving him the lead to follow, once he comes back with an actual story and women willing to go on camera, NBC spends months giving Farrow the run around as to why they can't run with it 'yet' and actively discouraging him from pursuing it.

Weinstein and former NBC anchor Matt Lauer

The network executives were obviously under a lot of pressure in their professional and social circles not to pursue this Weinstein story. It also came out later that NBC covered up sexual assault allegations against their former anchor Matt Lauer, so they likely knew they weren't the pot to be calling the Weinstein kettle black. (Farrow touches a bit on the Lauer scandal towards the end of the book.) Farrow is encouraged a number of times by various people to take the story to a different news outlet that was brave enough to publish it but it takes him a long time to feel like that's the right decision. He struggles with his loyalty to NBC and his faith that they would eventually run the story, but also with his loyalty to his producer who worked tirelessly on the story as well and would go un-credited if he published it with a print media outlet.

Eventually Farrow realizes  NBC has been making up excuses for months about various legal reasons why they couldn't run it, and he takes the story to The New Yorker where the editor David Remnick throws all sorts of resources at Farrow to break the story in what they think is a race against The New York Times - (The NYT does end up beating them to the Weinstein punch but their story barely scratched the surface of what Farrow had). Farrow keeps a running joke throughout the book about how his boss at NBC, Noah Oppenheim, fancied himself a screenwriter and I love this exchange where he's talking to Remnick:

'And NBC is letting you walk away with all this?' Remnick asked. 'Who is this person at NBC? Oppenheim?'
'Oppenheim,' I confirmed.
'And he's a screenwriter, you say?'
'He wrote Jackie,' I replied.
'That,' Remnick said gravely, 'was a bad movie.'"

When Farrow's story was published in The New Yorker, people were smart enough to wonder why it didn't run on NBC where he worked. It started to become a central part of the story, whereas Farrow really wanted it to be about the women who came forward. Rachel Maddow had Farrow on her show  (an NBC show at that) to discuss his journalism and asks him outright why the piece didn't run on NBC. She was brave enough to out her own network for trying to cover the whole thing up.

NBC maintained a story for a long while that the work Farrow brought them was nowhere near ready to run and nowhere close to what he brought The New Yorker. Obviously, Catch and Kill is Farrow's side of the story and I'll never know for sure, but I do believe Farrow that the stories were near identical and the execs at NBC didn't have the balls to run it. Farrow struggles a lot weighing his loyalty to his producer and to a network that has been good to him, against his journalistic obligations to the work he was doing. 

It was the consensus about the organization's comfort level moving forward that stopped the reporting. It was a consensus about the organization's comfort level moving forward that bowed to lawyers and threats; that hemmed and hawed and parsed and shrugged; that sat on multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct and disregarded a recorded admission of guilt... It was a consensus about the organization's comfort level moving forward that protected Harvey Weinstein and men like him; that yawned and gaped and enveloped law firms and PR shops and executive suites and industries; that swallowed women whole."

While I really liked all the stuff I learned in this book, I'm not entirely sure about the format. I didn't love all of the stuff scattered throughout where Farrow was being spied on, I found it distracting. I also thought the chronology dragged on. The middle of the book was just Farrow waiting to hear if NBC would run it / interviewing more women and it felt like it went on forever. I also thought the actual publication of the story was super anticlimactic, but part of me wonders if that was intentional because Farrow mentions the lived experience feeling the same.

It's not that I wouldn't recommend this book I just think it could have been edited/formatted in a more compelling and concise way. I've recently learned Farrow also did the whole thing in an 8 episode podcast which, I won't listen to because I just read the book. Farrow won a Pulitzer for this reporting, so I think it's super cool to learn about his process, but perhaps the podcast would be a better platform.

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