Watching Ursula Macfarlane’s mesmerising documentary about Harvey Weinstein last month, I found myself wondering again how he got away with his alleged crimes for so long. Yes, he was rich and powerful. Yes, he operated in that phoney realm (Hollywood) in which beauties and beasts are apt to go along with one another. And yes, as a producer of genius, he was protected as the goose that laid the golden eggs. Nevertheless, there were people around Weinstein, also rich and powerful, and liberal minded to boot, who knew what was going on. Why did no one speak out? Why did nothing concrete ever stick?
Ronan Farrow’s extraordinary Catch and Kill, in which he masterfully tells the story of his quest to reveal Weinstein’s repugnant activities to the world, doesn’t merely answer these questions. It makes them come to seem complacent, even profoundly stupid. Several times while reading it, I had the sense that, having been blind, I could now see – and for miles, too. But while this brought with it a certain bracing clarity, it hardly came as a relief. As some American critics have already observed, Farrow’s narrative has the pace of a thriller. Were it really a thriller, however, the collusion at its heart would be too much: you would dismiss it as airport pulp. Here is a conspiracy so deeply embedded and far-reaching that even as I write, those alleged to be involved not only remain in their jobs; in recent days, they have pugnaciously denied all wrongdoing in the matter of the reporting of Weinstein’s behaviour.
Catch and Kill follows the publication of She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times journalists with whom Farrow shared a Pulitzer prize for breaking the Weinstein story in 2017. The two books are, though, quite different. Farrow is just as tenacious as Kantor and Twohey; his work rate pushes him to exhaustion and his partner, Jonathan, to exasperation.
But as the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, he is both of the world he describes and outside it (his sister Dylan has accused her father of having abused her as a child, allegations that Allen denies; Weinstein’s company, Miramax, used to distribute Allen’s films). If Farrow is in possession of an abundance of empathy – Weinstein’s victims trust him and rightly so – he also has an ear for dialogue and a taste for drama. There is something amusingly self-conscious about the way, at one point, he places evidence in a safety deposit box. He’s not being histrionic. Sinister operatives from an Israeli security company engaged by Weinstein are by now tailing him. Nevertheless, he doesn’t pretend not to relish the moment (“should anything happen to me, please make sure this information is released”).
But back to that collusion. Farrow’s book captures the terror and paranoia that eat away at Weinstein’s victims for the simple reason that he comes to experience them himself, a human mirror. The producer’s sphere of influence extends ever outwards, like the powerful arms of some giant squid. Will it pull Farrow under? No, but it will lead him to lose his job at NBC, where he is an investigative reporter. Again and again, his bosses at the network block his reporting on Weinstein. Why? For a long time, he can’t work it out. Gradually, though, the fog lifts. What it amounts to, says Farrow, is this: they are all in it together.
The eyes of Matt Lauer, the then presenter of NBC’s Today show, “snap back” when Farrow reveals that he’s working on a story about sexual harassment (in 2017, Lauer was fired by NBC following an allegation of sexual harassment by a co-worker; in Catch and Kill, Farrow states that the woman in question, Brooke Nevils, was in fact anally raped by Lauer, an allegation Lauer denies). The warmth “drains out” of the room when Farrow mentions Weinstein’s name to Tom Brokaw, the veteran news anchor; it turns out the two men are friends (in 2018, Brokaw, too, was accused of making unwanted advances towards women, allegations he denied).
As an undergraduate, Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, wrote anti-feminist diatribes for the Harvard Crimson (one insisted that women enjoyed being “preyed upon”) and it’s to Oppenheim that (coincidentally?) Weinstein sends a bottle of Grey Goose vodka soon after he (Weinstein) hears that Farrow’s investigation has been killed (Oppenheim tells Farrow, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that he doesn’t think he has a story; NBC’s line now is that the story simply wasn’t “ready”).
Phil Griffin, the president of NBC’s political off-shoot MSNBC, is another of those who isn’t too keen on Farrow’s project. What kind of man is he? According to Farrow, the kind who waves around a photograph of a woman’s vagina in a meeting and who once pressurised female producers to accompany him to a peep show. Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, allegedly has a history of hounding female employees. The day after Farrow meets David Corvo, a producer brought in to work with him, the network finalises a $1m agreement with a former NBC employee Corvo had pursued inappropriately (NBC has denied the payment was connected to such a complaint). In the period covered by the book, at least one of these men was in contact with Weinstein.
I could go on. Hillary Clinton pulled out of an interview with Farrow following concerns about his reporting of Weinstein, a Democrat donor. The book also dishes on the activities of the National Enquirer, the work it did buying up and then burying negative stories (the “catch and kill” technique of the title) about both Donald Trump and Weinstein, to whom its former editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard, was close.
By the time Farrow pitches up at the New Yorker, having come to believe that his story will never air on NBC, he cuts a lonely, desperate figure, as isolated in his way as Rose McGowan or any of the other women Weinstein attempted to intimidate into silence. And no wonder. No matter that you are Ronan Farrow. No matter that your reporting will stand up to the rigours of the New Yorker’s fact checkers. These are all powerful people and they can do a man, or a woman, real harm.
Not that it’s over, even now. In recent days, all manner of weasel statements and legal threats have emanated from those named by Farrow. That he is determinedly standing by his book – that he’s standing at all – is the only chink of light in this for me. These stinking structures. They hold now and they will hold in the future. When NBC, whose job it is to tell America about itself, reports on Weinstein’s trial in January, women from Washington to Wisconsin will ask themselves what has been left out; they will wonder who did the edit and how and why. Meanwhile, women elsewhere will turn their minds to their own institutions. What else is there still to find out? Who is keeping quiet and about what? For how much longer are we going to have to push this boulder up a hill?
• Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow is published by Fleet (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian