On an unseasonably warm October afternoon, in a basement in the historic Cooper Union Building in Manhattan, Ronan Farrow, flanked by a team of well-dressed publicists, is diligently signing books. It is Tuesday, the day of the book’s release, and he says it is the first time he has seen them laid out en masse in labyrinthine stacks, almost like an “M.C. Escher drawing,” he says.
Farrow is one of the last true cultural polymaths. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and the author of Catch and Kill, which documents the arduous reporting process behind his groundbreaking 2017 New Yorker investigation into the sexual assault allegations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Additionally, he is a Yale Law School graduate, a former Obama administration official, and an Oxford Rhodes scholar, as well as one of those rare celebrity scions whose parents (Mia Farrow and Woody Allen) are mentioned as secondary to his considerable achievements. There is one more talent you can add to the list: proficient multi-tasker. At the urging of his publicists, Farrow signs books during the entirety of our conversation. “I will be even more incoherent and distracted than I was before,” Farrow, who has been making the publicity rounds for Catch and Kill, ruefully cracks. Of course, he is no such thing.
In person, Farrow is witty without being smarmy, and erudite without being pretentious; when asked about Jackie — the 2016 Jacqueline Kennedy biopic written by his former NBC News boss (and current nemesis) Noah Oppenheim, the mediocrity of which serves as a running joke in the book — Farrow says he enjoyed the score of the film, casually name-dropping Mica Levi, the composer of the film’s score, as if she were an Us Weekly cover mainstay. (A subsequent Spotify search confirms the Jackie score is, in fact, good.)
It’s easy to see why sources would feel comfortable opening up to Farrow. It’s also easy to see why his amiability and almost comically good looks would lull powerful people into viewing him as someone vulnerable to cajoling or intimidation tactics. But as Catch and Kill amply demonstrates, Farrow is made of much tougher mettle than that. The book documents how Farrow doggedly chased the Weinstein story, convincing terrified sexual assault survivors to go on the record, as his NBC News bosses attempt to stonewall it, citing a long list of increasingly implausible reasons, before killing it altogether. In the face of unrelenting legal threats, phone tapping, and being followed by the private Israeli surveillance firm Black Cube, Farrow continues reporting the story, ultimately publishing it in the New Yorker, and winning a Pulitzer in 2018 (the award was shared with New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who also published a groundbreaking story about the Miramax cofounder). Catch and Kill also reveals new details about American Media, Inc. (AMI) and their tabloid, The National Enquirer, most notably their practice of “catch and kill,” or purchasing the rights to stories that present CEO David Pecker’s allies in an unflattering light, and then refusing to publish them. For the first time, Farrow reports on a list of more than 60 stories the publication bought about Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate, some of the evidence of which was later discovered to have been destroyed.
Catch and Kill is exhaustively reported (the book was vetted by senior New Yorker fact-checker Sean Lavery) and compulsively readable, with nearly every page revealing a provocative detail about a household name in media or entertainment. It exposes some of the central issues in reporting on sexual assault, such as NBC News’ attempts to discredit Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan by referring to her as “crazy” — a label she has since struggled to shake, even in the wake of his downfall, and one that is “the oldest trick in the misogynistic playbook,” says Farrow. “One of the points that I try to make in those conversations at the time is that a person’s level of stability and kind of the vibe that they give off is separate from your ability as a reporter to interrogate the truth of their claims,” he says. “And Rose McGowan turned out to be dead-on accurate about the things she suspected. I think Rose McGowan was a lot more on point in her assessments than the wider culture in some cases.”
The book is also, in many ways, a deeply personal story for Farrow, whose sister Dylan publicly accused their father of sexually assaulting her in 1992, when she was seven years old. (Allen has denied the allegations and was not charged due to lack of evidence, though as Farrow notes in his book, former Connecticut state attorney Frank Maco has said there was probable cause for his arrest.)
Catch and Kill is interspersed with conversations between Dylan and Farrow, who writes that his reporting on sexual assault was in part spurred by his guilt over initially failing to support his sister. In one gut-wrenching passage, Farrow recounts telling Dylan not to revive the allegations against Allen in a 2013 Vanity Fair interview, pleading with her not to speak publicly about them for fear of negatively impacting his career. “The questions that swirled between us as to whether I’d done enough, soon enough, to acknowledge it, had introduced a space between us,” he writes. Dylan’s drawings are featured in interstitials throughout; Farrow’s mother, Mia, whose bitter custody battle with Allen was tabloid fodder for years, has not yet read it, but did text Farrow with a “holy-moly jaw hitting the floor kind of description of how proud she was,” he says.
Farrow is unsparing in his assessments of the powerful figures he writes about in his book, some of whom he suggests may have looked the other way to whispers of misconduct. Of Meryl Streep, a former Weinstein friend, Farrow says while there is “no evidence that she knew more than she said, and I have no reason to doubt that claim, there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. Meryl Streep was in a position of significant privilege and elevated power in her rapport with Harvey Weinstein.” (Streep has denied knowing anything about the allegations, writing in an October 2017 statement, “One thing can be clarified: not everyone knew.”)
Of celebrity attorney and self-styled victims’ advocate Lisa Bloom, whom Farrow recounts positioned herself as an ally to his reporting while secretly representing Weinstein, Farrow says he was “shocked” by her lack of ethics: “To target me as an opposition target, under the guise of giving advice and dangling her clients [in front of me] — I think all that collectively raises serious questions about whether Lisa Bloom should be a member of the California Bar,” he says. When asked if he thought her apology for her work with Weinstein published in the New York Times was sincere, Farrow says flatly, “No.” (In a tweet last month, Bloom wrote, “I thank Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow for forcing me to confront the colossal mistake I made in working for Weinstein two years ago.”)
He is more guarded, though by no means uncritical, in his assessment of Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was a beneficiary of Weinstein’s financial largesse, and who abruptly canceled an interview with Farrow shortly after learning of his investigation into the complaints against Weinstein. In the case of Clinton, there are “tangible accounts that someone was told,” Farrow says, citing Tina Brown and Lena Dunham coming forward to say they had warned the Clinton campaign about Weinstein’s behavior. “There’s follow-up questions that can be asked about how specific those concerns were and how actionable they were and how far up the chain were they communicated.” Of Clinton cancelling their interview, Farrow says while he “can’t speak to her state of mind,” at the time he viewed it as “another example of these circles of mutual protection of the most powerful people and the turns screwing, as word of my pursuit of the story leaked to political circles.”
Perhaps the most shocking revelation in Catch and Kill relates to NBC News itself, particularly its treatment of the sexual misconduct allegations against former star anchor Matt Lauer, who was abruptly fired by the network in late 2017. Farrow’s book contains the first interview with his accuser, Brooke Nevils, a former employee who alleges that Lauer anally raped her in his hotel room while the two were covering the 2014 Sochi Olympics, leaving her bleeding profusely. Not only does Nevils’ brutal description of the assault starkly contrast with NBC’s version of events when the allegations against Lauer were first reported, but Farrow also reports that NBC had extensive knowledge of Lauer’s alleged history of sexual misconduct prior to his firing in 2017.
Farrow’s thesis is that NBC News suppressed the Weinstein story in exchange for Weinstein promising not to release evidence of Lauer’s sexually predatory behavior to the National Enquirer. NBC News strongly denies this claim, and has launched an aggressive PR campaign to combat some of the claims set forth in Farrow’s book. In a lengthy internal memo to NBC News employees, Oppenheim included a detailed timeline of NBC’s investigation into the allegations against Lauer to point out the inconsistencies of Farrow’s allegations. “Farrow’s effort to defame NBC News is clearly motivated not by a pursuit of truth, but an axe to grind. It is built on a series of distortions, confused timelines, and outright inaccuracies,” he wrote.
In NBC’s defense, it is difficult to come away from the book with the impression that Farrow is totally unbiased, though his feelings do seem warranted: the book documents in excruciating detail the myriad, increasingly incomprehensible excuses NBC executives provided for sitting on the story, from not wanting to violate NDAs to finding the account of Weinstein accuser Ambra Gutierrez (who Weinstein admitted to groping on tape) not credible due to her profession as a lingerie model. All the while, Farrow and his editor Rich McHugh were acutely aware that the New York Times was pursuing its own story, an excruciating dilemma for any journalist to face. (For his part, McHugh supported Farrow’s version of events in an op-ed for Vanity Fair.)
Farrow disagrees with the assessment that Catch and Kill is motivated by his frustration with NBC, though, pointing out that he attempted to stay on at the network as a contractor before the two cut ties last year. “I think I’m very nakedly honest about the struggle that I have in the book of wanting to go back to my job and liking these people outside of the context of the shutdown of the story, and wanting desperately to cut a deal with them and agreeing not to answer questions on air about [the reporting],” he says. Farrow claims that the decision to speak out about the reporting process in Catch and Kill was driven by “the accumulated weight of documentary evidence that there’s a pattern of legal and corporate practice worth reporting on,” he says.
Former National Enquirer head and current AMI Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard, the Australian tabloid powerhouse who is alleged to have supervised the destruction of documents related to stories about Trump, has also been relentless in his efforts to block Catch and Kill from publication, sending cease-and-desist letters to booksellers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. And in Howard’s home country, where libel laws are skewed much more in favor of plaintiffs than those in the United States, some booksellers have opted not to sell the book.
The larger response from the powerful news organizations named in Catch and Kill stands in stark contrast to the optimistic note struck by the ending of Farrow’s book, in which he writes that “the courage of women can’t be stamped out. And stories — the big ones, the true ones — can be caught but never killed.” Because the truth is, for every Ronan Farrow there are hundreds more exhausted, underpaid content farm employees; for every editor unafraid to take on a story in opposition of powerful interests, there are hundreds more who are simply hoping to bring home a paycheck; for every terrified sexual assault survivor willing to speak, there are hundreds more who weigh the cost of coming forward against the potential gain, and understandably choose to remain silent. At the end of the day, there is only one good reason to expose an injustice. There are hundreds more to keep quiet, or to simply look the other way.
When asked about the hopeful message at the end of the book in contrast with large corporations’ efforts to suppress it, Farrow emits a bitter chuckle. “The reason that the book ends on that note is not to say the problem is done. It’s to suggest that we all need to fight like hell to make sure that the free press is protected and that books that include important investigative reporting in the public interest see the light of day,” he says. “And you know, I think the juxtaposition of what’s in this book and the irony of booksellers in one region folding in response to a campaign to suppress it speaks for itself.”
Although Farrow says that Catch and Kill is ultimately a “fundamentally optimistic work about journalism,” it’s easy to read it not as a testament to the power of the media industry to expose the rich and powerful, but to the power and privilege of Farrow specifically, who, as the well-connected son of a Hollywood family, was perhaps in one of the best positions to report on abuses of power within the entertainment industry. Farrow is frank about his privilege in this respect. “Every story we do in our profession brings whatever complicated combination of good and bad baggage, and I try to work with what I’ve got and take the good from it,” he says. “And I certainly am immensely grateful for any way in which my background [helps], and maybe in some cases this story made me a known quantity to some of these actresses.”
Farrow is also frank about the fact that his privilege has insulated him from many of the struggles faced by reporters attempting to do similar stories, who may worry about losing their jobs if they don’t toe the line. “I am very aware of the fact that I was able to keep going and just move out of my place when I needed to stay with a friend [in a loft in Chelsea] for security reasons, and I know that if I were struggling to make ends meet that would have a whole other layer of complicated ramifications,” he says. “I’m conscious of the fact that I was in a position where I could keep going and that not everyone would be.”
The media industry Farrow depicts in the book is anything but sunny. It’s a world of secret cabals and uneasy alliances made by people well-versed in corporate jargon and doublespeak, whose devotion to protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful is secondary only to their interest in protecting themselves. And it’s not difficult to see how a certain type of reader could view Catch and Kill as a tacit validation of long-held fringe conspiracy theories about the media and the ties that bind corporate executive interests.
Farrow is one of the few people in a position to speak to the veracity of these theories. “I feel like, at my heart, I’m still this kind of legalistic, conservative-minded investigative reporter who comes at everything not quite believing it and being skeptical, and it’s hard to shake that,” he says. But having lived through being surveilled by such shadowy corporate interests, he can not only attest to the existence of conspiracies, he also has the receipts to back it up. “Conspiracies aren’t fake. Conspiracies happen all the time. Conspiracy is a legal term of art that produces tangible legal charges with some frequency,” he says. “What I document in this book is not a conspiracy theory. Harvey Weinstein really did hire an army of spies. There were really private contractors tracking women and reporters. There really were these underhanded tactics used to subvert the media. That’s all documented.
“Sometimes,” he says, “the conspiracy theory is real.”