In Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow tells the story of how NBC executives worked for months to try to kill the Harvey Weinstein exposé that would later earn Farrow a Pulitzer Prize. The primary villain of the book isn’t Weinstein; it’s the secret infrastructure that powerful people have built to silence critics and protect themselves from scrutiny.
“Things like the use of NDAs, and the use of private investigation firms to smear and surveil people, and the efforts to subvert the press and manipulate the press—I knew that those were bigger than Harvey Weinstein, bigger than the entertainment industry,” Farrow said. “Those are systemic and affect industry after industry, and there were Harvey Weinsteins all over the place.”
Weinstein used his relationships with top executives at the National Enquirer and NBC to bury stories about his predation. Farrow’s reporting reveals that Donald Trump used the National Enquirer to bury stories in a similar way—principally via “catch-and-kill,” whereby tabloids purchase the exclusive rights to damaging information about famous people and then bury the stories. (In his reporting, Farrow gained access to some documents that had been hidden away in the infamous “vault” of American Media Inc., the National Enquirer’s parent company, uncovering a trove of documents about President Trump’s affairs, some of them previously unreported.)
Catch and Kill is about these “instruments of suppression” that influential people use against the media, very often with the complicity of influential people within the media.
This week on the Mother Jones Podcast, our editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, speaks with Farrow about his explosive journalistic tell-all. The conversation took place during a recent live event in San Francisco, co-produced by Book Passage and the Curran Theater. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below, which has been lightly edited and condensed.
Let me congratulate you on Catch and Kill, which I tore through this weekend, and also congratulate you on the announcement of your engagement to [Pod Save America host] Jon Lovett.
Thank you! God bless that man for putting up with me. It is not easy. I think the book is brutally honest about how not fun I can be to date.
Seems like it’s a brutally honest portrait of two people who never sleep, but uh…
Yeah for sure.
So reporters often avoid the “how I got that story” frame and shy away from the first person altogether. But this book is more than a retelling of the stories you wrote for the New Yorker. You’re the book’s main character, not Harvey Weinstein, not his victims or the other perpetrators. Why did you feel this was the best way to advance our understanding of what you had already written?
The book is very forthright about this classic reporter struggle of not wanting to be the story, and in fact has many scenes of me, and when I say “scenes” it’s a thing that actually happened, it’s a work of nonfiction. Me sitting on air and dodging questions from tough journalists about the story behind the story, and these vast systems that conspired to keep the truth quiet for so long.
And I sat there and dodged and weaved and said I want the focus to be on these incredibly brave women that have come forward and on the underlying allegations, and all of that was true, but as source after source began to come forward to describe what ultimately became the plot of Catch and Kill, and these revelations in the worlds of media and politics and private espionage, I realized that this story of instruments of suppression was as important as all these journalists had said, and that to tell it required brutal honesty and it required being sort of vulnerable about myself and my own role in it and the way I was targeted alongside sources. And I realized that would take two years of reporting to get right ’cause it involved a lot of investigative journalism.
In the past 10 days since the book has come out and got its real press run, NBC has continued to stick by the assertion that you didn’t have the story. And yet, and I say this as an editor, seven weeks later you published a print piece that had to be far enough along to go through rigorous editing, lawyering, fact-checking with editors you’d essentially just met. Uhh, that’s a lotta bullshit.
Yes, this is why we love Clara! Yeah, that is a lot of bullshit. It just is. The indisputable point is the one you just made. It actually is four weeks between when the New Yorker greenlit this story and when we put it out, and, yes, we had multiple named women in every draft of the story at NBC, and we had an audiotape from this police sting operation of Harvey Weinstein admitting to not just one sexual assault but serial sexual assaults, and a vast majority of women talking about a pattern of predation. All of that was in the NBC story. And, look, it’s all in the book—you can judge for yourself whether it should have been on air. But there is no arguing I took it across the street to another outlet. They said, oh my god, let’s get this out as quickly as possible, and then it was a Pulitzer Prize–winning story in a few weeks.
You know the fundamental offensive here. I get these kind of smear tactics, spin machines, and legal threats on every story I do. It’s just part of the occupational hazard of investigative journalism. It’s not new or surprising. All of these rebuttals are reflected in the book because we fact-checked and fact-checked and scrubbed every sentence, and you’ll see it’s very measured and very fair, including to NBC. Their responses are in there, but the misdirection of what has become a full-time job for a group of executives trying to tell the press over and over again that there wasn’t a “there there” to the Harvey Weinstein story is that it covers up the fact that the complaint was that they ordered us to stop reporting.
My producer, Rich McHugh, an incredibly brave journalist who refused to stop and didn’t take the orders to shut this down, lost his job ultimately for speaking out about this in the company, a real profile in courage. He’s written about this recently, that we were ordered over and over to cancel interviews with rape victims, to not take a single call. And that is not journalistic behavior.
It’s interesting because two years ago, when NBC made these criticisms, it seemed cowardly at the time, but it also seemed like, okay, maybe there was this bit of, “Well, we didn’t have the stuff you need for TV. We didn’t have enough on camera. We didn’t have enough visuals.” But actually you had quite a number of sources willing to go on, and not just in shadow.
That’s exactly right. I mean, Rose McGowan has been very vocal in recent days saying that is not true, that she did go on the record and she showed her face and did this incredibly brave thing and for months and months hung in there, as there was this kind of prevarication from NBC and these mixed signals. And ultimately she was spooked, but the moment she fell out of that story, another incredibly brave source, Emily Nestor, volunteered to take an interview that she had given before with her face in shadow. This is a common technique in television, by the way. Almost all of my investigative stories before this had people with their faces in shadow. This is not something that TV producers typically object to. And it would have never been all women you don’t see. There were multiple named women.
But Emily Nestor did this incredibly brave thing, volunteered to reshoot her interview, even though she was scared—her mom was scared of retaliation. And it is a real disservice to people as brave as Emily Nestor that there’s a group of executives of a certain kind of thinking, certain age, certain kind of profile, these guys who have banded together and tried to undercut those sources, including lying about them. They’re running around telling the press these women weren’t brave enough to go on camera. And Emily Nestor, would she really have gone on camera? Well, she offered to and they declined it, and she’s said that on the record. So thank god for reporters who see the facts and take them where they should go, which is to publication in this case. Thank god for David Remnick, thank god for the Emily Nestors of the world who won’t shut up, and to the moms who raised them right to do that.
So several top NBC news executives—Andy Lack, Noah Oppenheim, Phil Griffin—have skeletons in their own closet re harassment or unsavory suggestions in meetings, or writings they did in college which aren’t just anti-feminist but directly hostile to women. When you started to report this book and get into these backstories, was that the first thing you said: Oh maybe that’s the reason they’re against it? Was that the thing that started to trip you up?
I think both things are true. The reporting began to solidify against one thing that was happening, which was a very specific plot about what secrets this company held, and the reporting on that began to coalesce first.
So this was about the NDAs they had the folks sign?
Right. This group of executives and lawyers at this company were arguing that it was not appropriate to report on secret sexual harassment settlements. And what I document in this book is, that was an argument given to them by Harvey Weinstein, that in at least 15 secret calls with Harvey Weinstein they’ve now admitted they promised to kill the story and yielded to his argument that you cannot report on secret settlements because you’ll open yourself up to lawsuits. And at the same time they were vulnerable to that argument, because in a period when they had previously lied to their own journalists and said we don’t have any settlements, they in fact had at least seven. I tell the stories of some of those, and this was a company that was enforcing exactly the pacts of silence that Harvey relied on within its own midst, and that included a number of cases involving Matt Lauer. It included cases involving senior executives.
And it’s a great illustration of how when you cover up a problem and pay out women with allegations, and potentially men, but in this case it was women, to make them go away, people can get hurt. Because serial alleged predators stay in positions of power. And the truth can get hurt, because when you’re a media organization, very rapidly it becomes a conflict of interest, that you’re making these arguments about what should and shouldn’t be reported on while you yourself have a stake in upholding that silence.
This claim that came ultimately through Harvey Weinstein, that this was tortious interference, that essentially if the women broke their NDA somehow, you and NBC could be sued for facilitating that in some capacity—they never made that threat to the Times, I think you report in the book. So I’m curious what you think about that.
The Washington Post did a great side-by-side chart, by Erik Wemple at the Post, of all the moments of the pivotal progression of my story and the Times story. We at the New Yorker reported the first allegations of assault and rape about Harvey Weinstein. At the Times they did a separate story about the first allegations of verbal harassment, and you see this striking context of—literally the Post did a table where they get their first big lead. Dean Bacquet at the Times and their editors are like, great, go for it, track it down, stop at nothing, and NBC is like, you should probably stop making calls. Just over and over again. Like you gotta stop. This would be a great magazine piece—can’t you do this for someone else? Wouldn’t it be great if you did it for someone else? I don’t know, tortious interference. And the tortious interference thing is particularly crazy for me as an attorney. I just went to my 10-year reunion two nights ago.
Ronan’s 31, but we’ll come back to that subject.
Don’t hoot and holler that much because by the 10-year law school reunion, I have news for you, everyone’s dealing with complicated child care situations and it is not very lit. 9 p.m. is kind of bed time for 10-year reunion. But one thing I do remember from law school is that tortious interference is a doctrine that usually gets invoked in cases involving completely different kinds of things: if you are deliberately and maliciously trying to frustrate someone’s contract because you’re a competitor of theirs. You know, if I were a rival studio head trying to get Harvey’s employees to break some element of their contract to benefit my business and hurt his, that’s your classic tortious interference case. What there is not is abundant case law showing successful judgment against news organizations acting in the public interest. And the most prominent invocation of tortious interference as a specious legal rationale for shutting down a story, of course, for anyone who follows journalism books and movies, is The Insider. Remember The Insider? Russell Crowe in the fat suit or whatever. Wonderful performance. Jeffrey Wigand, whistleblower, on the big tobacco story. And in that case CBS’s parent company gets involved and they start talking about tortious interference. And it’s literally the stereotype of a fake legal argument from a parent company.
And one that a network felt an unbelievable amount of shame and opprobrium from the profession for ceding to that, like it’s the biggest case we have: Don’t do that, your peers will not look kindly on you.
Right! And as my producer and I sat there and were told by the parent company that we needed to be worried about tortious interference, we just kept saying, like, has nobody seen The Insider?
Paging Christopher Plummer.
My partner Jon is howling through all of this, but The Insider, can’t they just rent it? For what it’s worth, just about any legal question like this you can spin it in a way where you take it more seriously, but the New Yorker’s general counsel, who’s a very sober media attorney, Fabio Bertoni, just sort of wrinkled up his nose and looked puzzled that I’d been talking about tortious interference. And said there’s no case law that suggests that’s a problem in this kind of situation.
Just as an aside, it’s infuriating that a network with near bottomless pockets and scads of in-house lawyers is so chickenshit. When smaller organizations that really do risk being, and in the case of Gawker have been, driven out of business by frivolous suits don’t have that luxury and yet still fight the good fight.
And a great counterpoint there is the New Yorker, which is still a much smaller and less monied enterprise, and looked at this same body of evidence and said not only are we not yielding to Harvey’s threats, we are informing him that we find these threats to be specious because he was attacking me and coming at me with all sorts of personal legal threats, too. They offered to retain an attorney for me. They really pulled out all the stops to stand by this, and that’s part of a journalistic outlet’s obligation, to go into battle if that’s worth it. And the Times was ready to be sued and the New Yorker was ready to be sued, and I think with good attorneys safeguarding the reporting who knew anyone can threaten anything, and it doesn’t actually mean they’ve got a good case.
So the New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey were working. You guys were racing each other,, and reporters are competitive and hate to get beat on any even small element of a story, but from the 5,000-foot perspective, do you think having two such prestigious outlets landing such huge stories within a week really helped turn the Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement into a juggernaut?
Hugely so. And it was very inspiring to me. Part of the plot that unravels in Catch and Kill is me being very alone for long swaths of time. That’s why there’s been all of this misinformation. NBC literally hired a Wikipedia whitewasher to scrub and distort and remove references to all of these scandals from executives’ pages. A news organization did this. They admitted to it. And the comments are so transparent by the way.
“Matt Lauer is a great human being.”
To this day Wikipedia is stripped of references to all this stuff, but it’s a good lesson in how fragile all this is and how people need to object when the deck is stacked and you have paid solutions to these problems that can eclipse any of the normal systems in place. Thank god we have outlets like the New Yorker willing to go into battle, because we might not be having this conversation otherwise. But I talk about being in the thick of all of that and feeling very alone, and one of the pieces of misinformation inserted into Wikipedia was, it took two months for the New Yorker to do this story, and you have Noah Oppenheim yelling at people in this book. You know, David Remnick sat on stuff for years and now I’m the villain! Nobody sat on anything at the New Yorker, I can tell you firsthand. I was out in the cold with no news outlet, paying out of pocket to keep these interviews going for weeks, and the New Yorker greenlit the piece, and four weeks later it was in print. They had to do a titanic amount of work, as you can imagine, turning something like this into a New Yorker piece and giving me the greenlight to continue to take calls. That was the big shift. At NBC I was being stopped. The moment I was able to act on those leads of course it coalesced more, so there was additional reporting. But by and large I was alone.
Knowing the Times was on the story was hugely important to me. It was a lifeline. It was bizarre when I told that to my bosses at NBC, and they said sometimes it’s good for someone else to go first. I had that reaction, too, and even when it was this sort of white-knuckle race to the finish, where I was very frightened that I was going to get scooped and no one would know I had done all this, I was very honest in the book about these selfish moments where I was like, oh shit, I swung too wide, this was too big a gamble. You’re absolutely right that the one-two punch of two big outlets landing these completely different stories about different aspects of this ensured that this was a moment people paid attention to.
At a certain moment I wondered if you and Jodi and Megan had a Slack chat where you’re like, oh my god, all this stuff was coming in, why don’t you guys go after that one. I’ll go do Les Moonves.
Well, they went on book leave because they’re not insane. They’re like adults who have to organize their time and also have to take care of their kids and stuff, so they holed up in Brooklyn and were working on their book, and we would see each other at events and stuff, and they’d be like, we’re cranking away at our book and I’d be over deadline on my book because I had this torrent of other leads. I probably should’ve had the discipline they did and just go straight into the book, but what happened was, I broke a bunch of other stories back to back, was exhausted, and then in a blind panic about the book. So my editors are stressed out of their minds. Everyone’s telling me there’s no physical capacity to print this book in time. I think Jodi and Megan are better with deadlines, among many other wonderful things about them.
And I have to say, for all you must have rushed toward the end, I did not find a copy-editing mistake in that book, which is unusual when something comes that fast and furious.
Thank you! Well, this is spoken like a savvy editor. Can we have a moment of applause for fact-checkers and copy editors? Because this book is made possible by both of those categories of people. Sean Lavery, one of the heads of fact-checking at the New Yorker, did so much hard work, literally was on the phone with some very angry executives at a company that shall remain unnamed, for like 11 hours, until 3 a.m., and got a nosebleed afterward from stress. This guy really got put through the wringer and made sure every sentence was so fair and so measured and nuanced. And there’s been no surprises in the response to the book as a result. And then the copy-editing process, we had so little time, and I pushed this publisher Little, Brown so hard to put resources into it— we’ve just got to copy edit and re–copy edit every page. Everything had to be proofed because anything could’ve been a vulnerability. We knew there would be so much scrutiny, and we got it done. I can’t believe we got it done.
I think one of the gut punches, aside from the stories of the women themselves and the abuse they suffered, was the realization that such civil rights heroes like David Boies and Lisa Bloom were not only working for Harvey, but…
I think that hiss was quite fair based on the available evidence…
But were really duplicitous on a bunch of different levels, and you can’t probably go into them all, but do you want to hit a highlight or two?
Yeah, sure. There are so many highlights to choose from in the canon of Lisa Bloom duplicity in this book. Where to start? I mean, Lisa Bloom is a particularly striking example. There could also be a book about David Boies and the way he’s dealt with reporters on this, on the Bad Blood story about Theranos. Big Carreyrou fans over here. Me, too. Very good book, Bad Blood, and very poor showing by our friend David Boies. I will say, though, that it’s a little facetious to say Lisa Bloom is worse, and it’s not my job to say anyone is worse or bad or anything, but she should not be a member of any bar or legal organization.
I was really wondering if anything either one of them did was grounds for disbarment. I mean, for Boies working both sides of the aisle…
In both cases there are these kinds of wild conflicts of interest and acts of deception. Boies, when I obtained these contracts he’d signed in his own fancy signature, ordering former Mossad agents to shut down reporting on Weinstein, including the Times reporting, as he was representing the Times, when I presented it to him—first of all, one interesting thing about David Boies is, he does play ball with reporters in a way that’s quite smart from a self-protection standpoint, but also almost on some level noble. I mean, he admitted on the record to that being his signature, and those being the contracts, and in one sense that’s just ’cause I had him dead to rights, but in another sense he could have put up more of a fight, and he didn’t, and he confessed everything, so he’s like a villain who does the big confessional speech at the end of the movie, and he actually compares himself to a villain in the Mission Impossible series in this book, which is really a weird thing to do.
Which villain was this?
Well, that’s actually the weirdest part. It wasn’t even a good villain. It was Billy Crudup in Mission: Impossible III, who’s not the main villain in that movie, which is also maybe deliberate on his part. So that was one of the weird things that happened in this book. But Lisa Bloom, on the other hand—I was gonna say it would be facetious to say she’s worse, but certainly what I can speak to without passing judgment on her soul as a human being, which is not my job, it’s someone’s job. I think she’s getting a lot of that from the victims of Harvey Weinstein, who she gaslit and smeared, and that’s fair of them to do, but it’s not my job. But I can speak to my own experience and I can say that Lisa Bloom’s betrayals and hypocrisy hit me harder because you have to bear in mind this was a woman who had been this ardent defender of women, had built a career and a reputation on integrity of that kind and on that issue, had written op-ed after op-ed on my sister, and talking about how the forensic evidence backed up my sister’s claim, and how brave my sister was to come forward, who had been a regular on my cable news program decrying the kind of circles of mutual protection and power that shield predators in Hollywood. And then was filing expense reports with Harvey Weinstein saying like, I’m gonna do an opposition operation on Ronan, dangling her female clients as bait, saying I can give you an exclusive with Blac Chyna if you just talk to me and tell me what you’re reporting on. Posing as a friend and someone I could trust and giving me assurances she would not reveal our conversations to Harvey Weinstein, and then turning around at the end of that strange summer and saying—when I said, “Lisa, you promised you wouldn’t tell his people,”—“Oh Ronan, I am his people.” It’s unbelievable. She has apologized for that, and maybe that’s sincere.
And is this just greed?
I think it’s just greed. I’ve talked to friends of hers, and the full thing she says in that conversation is, “Ronan, I am his people, he optioned my movie, I’ve been in this really awkward position.” But she sure as hell leaned into destroying these women. Another attorney on Harvey Weinstein’s evil legal team said to me, “None of us, the evil attorneys, could believe how Lisa Bloom relished tearing these women apart.” And I don’t know what’s going on there. She had some pent-up issues.
How much overlap is there between the Harvey protection racket and the Trump protection racket?
A lot. Both are major themes of Catch and Kill. This book is about Donald Trump, too. I follow a trail of clues in this book, from Dylan Howard of the National Enquirer—a big fan of Catch and Kill, hired lawyers at great personal cost in every region of the world to threaten to sue booksellers who carry this fine book here. Prevailed in those legal threats in Australia. This book was banned in Australia thanks to Dylan Howard. Then there was too much demand, and they’re selling it now. Which is, jokes aside, another example of the ways in which specious legal threats can end up suppressing the truth. You had a country not reading a book that had a lot of news value for that country, because Dylan Howard is Australian—he’s a major character in it because big companies, including Amazon Australia, just buckled and thought it wasn’t worth the trouble, even though it was a truly ridiculous threat. This is all very careful and fair to Dylan Howard.
Another subissue highlighted by this: We are very lucky in this country to have the protection of the First Amendment. Not everywhere does, so you would very likely not see that kind of ban on a book in the United States, and we’ve all got to fight like hell to uphold the First Amendment, and other countries need to reform when they have these laws that facilitate frivolous defamation suits. The UK did a bunch of reforms. Australia has these legacy UK laws, and it’s a really bad situation for freedom of information and the truth in that country.
But I follow a trail of clues from a story I broke about Dylan Howard and the Enquirer killing stories on behalf of Harvey Weinstein and being basically an attack dog for Harvey Weinstein, digging up information, secretly recording people who might have adverse information about his accusers. It’s pretty ugly stuff, and there’s a paper trail on it that I document in the book. And then I’m led from that ultimately to a series of revelations about how Donald Trump and his team used the Enquirer in a very similar way during the 2016 election. And there are revelations in this book about new instances of them collaborating closely.
So not to name-check every journalism movie out there, but this section of the book is sort of part Sweet Smell of Success, part L.A. Confidential, where it’s just…
I like these comparisons. Thank you.
…”Cat’s in the bag, bag’s in the river.” You know, just these sort of gatherings, real or fake, to lord over people or have as an insurance policy. You ultimately saw an inventory of items in the so-called vault of AMI, National Enquirer, that had been gathered about Trump. And you say, intriguingly, including affairs that have not yet been reported on. Should they be?
The question of affairs is always a complicated one in this kind of reporting. My view is, if an affair corroborates some kind of an MO that then extends to more serious or criminal behavior, then that is worth talking about. A story like Eric Schneiderman, where some of the stories involved consensual relationships in which he was nonconsensually then beating women up, that’s an example of talking about affairs can be fair game because within those affairs there’s a subset of behaviors that is newsworthy. I think, in cases where someone is having affairs within the workplace and then retaliating against people, I mean Andy Lack, the head of the NBC News Group, there’s multiple women on the record talking about when they were associate producers, or talent on his shows, that he would pursue them relentlessly and then be kind of nasty to them afterwards and freeze them out of work opportunities. And he denies the retaliation, but not the sleeping with underlings.
In one case his response to one of these claims was that he didn’t see how he could have retaliated because he didn’t recall the affair ending. So that was a novel response. The affair did end, to be clear, and quite unhappily, and she did feel she was retaliated against. I think those are valid subjects because when someone is making news judgment decisions about whether it’s a matter of public interest to disclose Harvey Weinstein’s predations within the office, and when that informs a kind of baseline of views on women and how to treat people in the workplace and power dynamics, that’s all fair game. I think if something is truly a consensual affair, that’s not the kind of thing I’ve ever or would ever report on. Yet the closest that I’ve come to it, and this shows up in this book, if there are transactions around a non-newsworthy affair that then make it newsworthy, the concealment of some consensual affairs by the National Enquirer, of Trump’s affairs, became a real matter of the national interest to disclose.
AMI, ultimately, after doing a lot of lying to me, there was a lot of Dylan Howard and the general counsel at the National Enquirer lying through their teeth saying they never collaborated with Trump at all—we just killed these news stories because they didn’t meet the National Enquirer’s exacting standards for publication. We just paid them a lot of money and then the reporting didn’t check out. Obviously this didn’t turn out to be the case. They signed a non-prosecution in the end with the Southern District of New York saying, yes, we lied, just kidding about all that journalistic stuff, we had a deal with Trump, and here’s how it played out, and, yes, it could have been a violation of election law. And we promise not to do any more crimes for, I think it’s three years. Seriously, it’s a crazy agreement. Oh yeah, there’s a window in which they can’t do crimes anymore.
Set your clocks.
Yeah, set your clocks! And there’s all these questions about whether they’ve violated that agreement since then by inter alia blackmailing Jeff Bezos, which is a thing they do in the plot of this book. Karen McDougal had an affair with Trump, which was totally consensual and who cares, but it then became a very probable violation of election law that the now-president collaborated with a media outlet to catch and kill the story. I felt very comfortable reporting on that and making it clear that the news was the transaction, not the affair.
Can you give us a bit of hint into the trickiest bits of reporting? For example, you offer up dialogue of calls between Weinstein and various officials at NBC. Are we to gather that such calls are either recorded or that assistants at one end or the other or somebody sits in on them?
While for source protection reasons I cannot always answer that for a given conversation, I have a general answer to that question which I can give you because it’s the very first thing in the book. I’ll read you the author’s note, which gets at this question in some detail and considerable caution:
“Catch and Kill is based on two years of reporting. It draws on interviews with more than 200 sources as well as hundreds of pages of contracts, emails, and texts, and dozens of hours of audio. It was subjected to the same standard of fact-checking as the New Yorker stories on which it is based. All of the dialogue in the book is drawn directly from contemporaneous accounts and records. Because this is a story about surveillance, third parties often witnessed or surreptitiously recorded conversations, and I was sometimes able to obtain their testimonials and records. I adhered to legal and ethical standards when creating my own recordings.”
So you know there’s a variety of sources, but what I can say is, when you are reading an exact quote in this book, it is memorialized in some incontrovertible way. And you will notice that amidst much furor and pushback on this book, there has been no disputation of a single quote.
So you went to college at 11. I can’t stop laughing at that.
I went through a Doogie Howser phase. And you know what’s the worst? My mom, who’s an amazing person, my mom is so brave. She’s so ahead of the curve on these issues, she stood by a sexual assault survivor at a time when everyone called her crazy for it, and when the full attack machine of a powerful person was coming at her and she was getting smeared and blacklisted because the oldest tactic in the book is to blame the mother even though she had nothing to do with this allegation—all she did was refuse to bury it. And god bless that woman. But I will hold her accountable for this: She did give me a bowl haircut when I went to college at 11. And it just wasn’t necessary to double my trouble when I already did not fit in. I will say I had big glasses and I looked very adorable in retrospect.
Okay, well after that—you graduated at 15 or something—you went on to get a law degree from Yale. There’s a PhD in there somewhere.
I finished the PhD.
There’s Rhodes Scholarship.
There was a Rhodes Scholarship in there, a PhD in there. Do we have any grad students here tonight? Okay, we got some grad students. So for every grad student out there, particularly working grad students, I worked throughout this PhD and was wonderfully privileged to be able to juggle these things and not have to deal with family stuff at the time. I was okay financially. And I know it’s much harder for a great many people. But it is nevertheless, for someone in my position, I’m breaking all these stories in the book, I’m going through the events of this book, I’m also trying to make PhD deadlines, and I tell you all of this so you can draw strength from the fact that it took me a full seven years to finish that PhD. I just finished it in January. I am very glad that that’s over, I’m very grateful to the Oxford professors who tolerated my rolling back into Oxford every six months or whatever for various oral exams because you have to defend the thing over and over again.
I feel like we are one on this.
Who among us hasn’t? And they would sort of look at me quizzically and say, depending on which year it was, “We heard maybe you’re anchoring an American television show every day?” And I’m like, that is a side job, and my main passion is this dissertation. And then they’re like, “We heard you won a Pulitzer Prize?” And they’re like, “You’re doing investigative reporting?” Side project. Passion is my foreign policy PhD.
And somehow during #MeToo reporting you also wrote a book on the end of diplomacy and the decline of American influence, which seems…prescient.
War on Peace, get it on Amazon. I’m very proud of it. And the throughline in both of these books is that a lot of brave whistleblowers made both possible.
Okay, anyway, you’re no slouch. But I wanted to get into, for this book, how much, when you were trying to crack the world of Harvey Weinstein, did being sort of third-generation Hollywood “royalty,” for lack of a better word, help you? Did you know the byways better than most reporters, like have some access to some angles?
Part of the book’s plot is how that got weaponized against me and was not always a positive. On the other hand I think you’re probably right that I was a known quantity in a way that was slightly helpful. You’d have to ask the sources. I think that the decisions people were making about coming forward were so wrenching and life-altering that no credential could really sway that so substantively. What I saw was that people made a decision that I can’t take credit for at all. People were either deciding to take that leap or not based on an analysis of harm to them, weighed against the greater good, and chance at protecting other people going forward. So Mira Sorvino and Annabella Sciorra and Rosanna Arquette and Emily Nestor, Ambra Gutierrez, who does this incredible high-wire act in this book, we reveal for the first time that she preserved evidence and got it out. Just amazing people, and they took those risks because they decided they were going to do a brave thing. The reporter who was there with them, I don’t want to say was secondary because reporters do incredible work on this kind of stuff every day, and we need reporters out there pushing sources to take that leap, for sure. But I also want to make clear that they had the agency here and they did the brave thing, and I don’t know what good and bad parts of my personal baggage and history helped or hindered that, but I’m glad it went the way it did.
Do you think knowing your sister was a survivor of sexual assault or abuse helped them be able to unburden themselves to you? Did it help you know how to communicate to them?
I think that was the most direct link in that category of personal things that contributed. Rose McGowan raised it in our early conversations and had seen that I had gone through this journey of initially telling my sister to move on, and wondering whether it was worth the fight for her to maintain her claim as she has consistently year after year. And I’m very nakedly honest about that evolution, that I went from that to gradually realizing that she was right, both in the sense that the evidence was on her side and also in the sense that she had been courageous to stick to her guns, and it was worth every ounce of inconvenience for those of us around her. In the sense that this was a big scandal that blew up and triggered all this blowback for all of us every time she spoke, my mother, but also me, and Rose among others had seen that I’d had that evolution, and written an op-ed talking about how we needed to ask tougher questions and how my sister’s claim had been ignored for too long. And I did help people understand that while I was an arm’s-length reporter who was coming fresh to the Harvey Weinstein case, I did have some understanding of the stakes of the issue and the vast machines that women went up against as they spoke about this.
O’Reilly, Trump, two-plus years of #MeToo reporting have been both edifying for women but also so triggering and traumatic, hearing all these stories, reliving their own cases of sexual abuse. And I have to say, just watching you back in the little gathering here before, to see so many people—and I was across the room, I wasn’t overhearing them—but come up, and it seemed so clear that they’re looking to you to maybe unburden themselves, maybe thank you. You’re getting a lot at you, and that’s gotta be really hard. And I just was wondering if you could talk a little about it. I know you’re always putting the victims ahead of your own story in that way, but it’s difficult to be the receptacle of that and to honor it.
Well, thank you. That’s very compassionate of you to view it that way. To sound like a broken record, I would point out that it’s harder for the people who come up and say, hey, this happened to me, and to share their stories. And I’m always grateful. Many of you who were here tonight did that in that gathering, and I’m always just profoundly grateful—first of all because, if you’ve read the book, I also get a lot of threats and people wanting to kill me or smear me or blackmail me. So thank you for not doing any of that. That’s a start. And separately I know that it takes guts to say those things. And there’s various forms of it. People outright come and tell their stories, or just say something significant, or there’s a meaningful look and a “hey, thanks.” And everyone has their own way of expressing this, but it is tremendously galvanizing to me to have people come up and say that the work matters.
It also means a lot to me when reporters come up and say it’s meant something to them or inspired them in some way. I hope I have the opportunity to be in receipt of newsworthy leads, and if you have one, if you’re sitting on a piece of evidence, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t hesitate. I’m grateful for every person who continues to care and rally around it. Writing this book, I knew I’d get a heap of shit from a lot of powerful people and there would be these kinds of threats, and that’s fine. My only job is to keep my head down and be really rigorous in the reporting and fact-checking, and I’ve done that, but it still makes a difference to see both people in the media and people in the public really stand behind it and cut through those threats and the spin and the distortions.
Until you started doing this reporting, and even after you started meeting ordinary people telling their stories about abuse at the hands of nonfamous or powerful men, did you know how wide and deep and profound a problem this is?
I didn’t have a crystal ball, and again I didn’t have a lot of time or bandwidth to think about the wider world. I very much was in the rabbithole of thinking about this crazy international espionage plot. Which can be distracting, it turns out. But I did know that I was reporting on issues that were important partly because they were structural and that things like the use of NDAs and the use of private investigation firms to smear and surveil people, and the efforts to subvert the press and manipulate the press, I knew that those were bigger than Harvey Weinstein, bigger than the entertainment industry, that those are systemic and affect industry after industry and that there were Harvey Weinsteins all over the place. So I was not surprised to see this outpouring of brave people refusing to stop speaking about it. I was grateful, and I’ve been bowled over by the enormity of it, but I wasn’t surprised.
Do you think you’re still being surveilled?
Well, that starts to intersect with ongoing reporting, so I’m not going to answer that.
Very intriguing. Backing up to one of the things you do write about, one of the great flips in the book is one of the guys working for Black Cube, maybe two still, they started flipping on this black-ops surveillance group, other conflicting and overlapping groups. When did that information come in? Because in the book you weave it in in real time. You know, when people were out in cars, they seem hapless, I have to say.
There’s a little bit of a comedy of errors with the espionage plots on the ground level. There’s a Russian and a Ukrainian guy. They’re working long hours and peeing into bottles, and they spend several days following a neighbor of mine who looks a little bit like me—blonds—it’s very easy to get us mixed up. Literally they’re following this guy around the city and he looks like me from behind, and they go up to tap him on the shoulder and realize maybe it’s not him and call my cellphone, which they’ve now gotten through their records searches, and I pick up somewhere else entirely and hear a string of Russian curses. But on the other hand these are serious things, too, and not the sorts of intrusive tactics that should be thrown at journalists in this country, and one of these guys, Igor Ostrovskiy, and the source you mentioned, a sleeper, which is another saga in the book that plays out, leaks us documents in real time that prove that these people at this Israeli firm are lying to us, and they’re both people who believe in the free press and were dismayed to be part of this kind of operation, and that ultimately I hope makes this book a hopeful book and an optimistic one, because there’s plenty of darkness in it, but it ends on a note about the bravery of all these sources and whistleblowers who I think will keep coming in these dark times.
Going back to NBC: Is there any movement within the network or outside the network to do something? To have an independent investigation, the way other networks—you know, CBS had one after Les Moonves—have done when they’ve come up against a string of predators in their midst, and then covering it up as well?
Right, I mean when I broke those stories about CBS, there was a similar effort to dig in, to begin with, and a board that was protecting a group of executives accused of misconduct and of sleeping with underlings, very similar in a whole lot of respects—secret pattern of settlements and an initial effort to kind of smear me and the reporting. And then that did fall away thanks to an incisive, outside press that wasn’t tolerating the bullshit, and thanks to wonderful reporters within CBS saying “enough” and demanding answers. That gave way, as you say, to independent investigation and leadership change. In NBC’s case you have executives who are accused of serious misconduct and you have this pattern of cover-ups that have now been revealed. It’s the same kind of early phase where there’s an effort to dig in and an almost sort of Trumpian response of just the same talking points over and over. “There wasn’t a there there to the Weinstein reporting. It wasn’t worth putting on air,” which is somewhat besides the point and is not convincing anyone, so it’s a strange response, and there have been just unanimous calls from within that building for tough questions to be asked of this leadership, and people like Chris Hayes have gone on air and called out their bosses and said we should’ve broken that story, and I don’t know if any of you saw that Chris Hayes segment. It’s worth looking up. It’s a hard thing to do, to call out your bosses, and we’re seeing a lot of that.
Back to Harvey, I think one of the things that I realized as your reporting was first starting to come out two years ago, you and the Times, was that this whole generation of young actresses, we thought, “Oh, whatever happened to so-and-so? Well, it’s just the usual Hollywood bullshit where they reach 35 and they don’t get roles again until they’re 60.” But actually, so many of them were disappeared in one way or the other. And I wonder if, for even just Weinstein’s victims or a broader sense, do you think that we have seen most of the iceberg on that front?
Oh, I don’t think so at all. Certainly if you’re talking about the wider blacklisting and smearing of women who talk about these things, that persists, and it goes on every day. You know, people who speak truth to power are very quickly branded difficult, hysterical, emotional, are very quickly frozen out of work opportunities, and that happens in every industry. It’s especially ruthless in Hollywood, which is so ruthless about women and objectifying and commodifying women anyway. Thank god the women in these stories have spoken and the women who for the first time tell their stories in Catch and Kill have spoken. I hope it helps the culture, but that fight is just beginning. And it’s great to see people outside of and around those sources backing them up and talking about their role in whatever industry propping up those smearing and blacklisting efforts. Peter Jackson gave an interview saying like, “Yeah, I blacklisted Mira Sorvino and Ashely Judd. I didn’t really know that that’s what was happening, but Harvey Weinstein said they were difficult, so I took them out of the running for parts.” And that’s a small thing but really important. It’s really good that he did that, and that really takes guts, so props to Peter Jackson. Big Tolkien fan, so.
That reminds me that you asked me to discuss Wrinkle in Time.
Oh yeah we had a really deep conversation about Wrinkle in Time before this.
Are you Charles Wallace?
That’s so funny. I guess I did kind of identify with Charles Wallace. I think I wanted to be Calvin.
How am I doing? Am I becoming more like Calvin as I age? I hope.
You gotta start going to escape rooms with Jon. Then you’ll be a Calvin.
I feel like this audience is not—do we have Wrinkle in Time fans? Okay, yes. All right, we should just take a moment because that is such an important work of literature. I have not returned to it in recent years, but I did as probably a late teen, and I think it holds up. I think I might need to reread that, now, immediately. Also, the movie. Thoughts?
It had moments.
It did. It had moments.
So you wrote Catch and Kill…
That was a very diplomatic conversation about A Wrinkle in Time, the Walt Disney company film.
I love Ava DuVernay.
We love Ava DuVernay. She’s great. She’s fantastic and I liked many things that the movie earnestly tried to do.
Which brings me to maybe my final question, which is: You wrote Catch and Kill very cinematically. You’re moodily looking out into the ballet studio across the street. You’re constantly caught in rainstorms with the rivulets of water coming down your back. There’s actual cases where you and your assistant are, like, trying to evade people in the streets. It’s a good, rip-roaring read.
I believe that’s what’s known in the “save the cat” outline structure as the “fun and games” portion. Didn’t feel like fun and games at the time, but…
Uh, has it been optioned yet?
It has not, and I have taken some very exciting meetings with people I really respect creatively, but all while I was writing the thing and in a context where I felt the only answer could be, let’s talk in a few years because I have to do literally two years of incredibly hard investigative reporting before I even know how this story ends. But, yes, from very early on, I’m honored to say there was interest and just my focus has had to be on the reporting.
Okay, we’ll take that as your caveat. But who’s your dream director, living or dead, for this particular story, and who should play Ronan Farrow?
I can’t answer those questions because, Clara, if you really are invested in wanting to see a movie happen, then I can’t piss off the one director by naming the other director.
The dead directors.
The dead directors, well, the dead directors are really hard gets, as it turns out. Very, very difficult. Very hard to set up a film with Fellini these days.
It’s too bad. All right, so final-final question: Is Pundit in fact an angel?
There’s a chapter in Catch and Kill entitled “Pundit” in which Pundit plays a not inconsiderable…
I saw a few quizzical looks. Pundit is the dog that your mom gave to your now-fiancé, Jon Lovett. And Jon talks about her a lot.
She’s a goldendoodle, and the running reference to Pundit on the podcast is that Pundit is angel—and that does fact-check because Pundit actually has a moment of working with a source who’s reliving some pretty traumatic events, and leaping into her lap and comforting her when she’s upset.
And she’s crying about the horrible things she suffered from.
And Pundit is very alarmed. Dogs get alarmed when someone is upset. Pundit is very emotionally tuned in and was very upset by the interviews with sexual assault survivors. There’s a running theme of animals in this book, which is quite surprising. You kind of alluded to the cinematic nature of it. It was a challenge to get that balance on that right, and I’ve been so relieved that reviews have been embracing of that, because it was naturally embedded in the material. I spent months generating a bible, like the tick-tock of what happened every day, and the documents and communications from that day, so I had kind of the universe of what happened in real life.
Did the fact-checkers go in and say, “Actually Ronan, it was raining, you were right.”
Yeah, they did. Every reference to weather in here was of course fact-checked. But there were choices on a stylistic front. I had that bible of just the dry facts of what happened beat to beat, and that’s like 1,000 pages, and actually the very first draft of the book itself was also 1,000 pages. I’m not making that up. My poor editor. I’d gotten it down to 900 by the time she saw it, and then 700 by the time David Remnick saw it. Everyone suffered through long drafts of this book, but one of the stylistic tensions was, I made the choices about genre and prose style based on what I saw in the bible of real-life events. I realized there’s a running joke on these four occasions, and that’s a theme I can weave through. There’s X number of scenes taking place in rainstorms, and that’s pretty noirish, that feels like a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler. And so the noir thriller vibe naturally bubbled up from the facts, but then there was still the question of, first and foremost, it had to be an airtight body of investigative reporting, and how much propulsive narrative and scene-setting stuff is a distraction? I really worked very hard to calibrate to the point where the narrative nature of the book is transporting and powerful in a way that enhances the reporting but doesn’t distract from it. So one of the things to fall on the cutting-room floor was actually more weather. There’s a scene that takes place during an eclipse. There’s sunsets. There’s rainstorms. But I think David Remnick was one of the people who was like, it’s so much rain. So there’s, I think, half the rain that there was in real life in this book.
I will say that Ronan Farrow moodily staring out into rainstorms is the new Bob Woodward anxiously looking through parking garages, so well done.
I will take that compliment, thank you.