Life

How Powerful Media Outlets Tried to Kill the Weinstein Story

Ronan Farrow on his new book, Catch and Kill.

Ronan Farrow
Ronan Farrow in New York City on May 2.
Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of The Waves, author Ronan Farrow discussed his new book, Catch and Kill. The book tells the story of how he exposed sexual misconduct by movie producer Harvey Weinstein—and how various players, including Farrow’s bosses at NBC, tried to block his investigation and kill the story. Farrow’s conversation with Christina Cauterucci, June Thomas, Nichole Perkins, and Marcia Chatelain is excerpted below. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: To me your book read like a psychological thriller. You’re being stalked, you’re battling a conspiracy, you’re putting your notes in a safe deposit box with a letter about what to do in case you disappear. What made you want to focus on that part of the story—on Weinstein’s efforts to stop your reporting and NBC’s cowardly failures, rather than just expanding on your reporting on Weinstein’s alleged abuse?

Ronan Farrow: Built into the plot is this struggle that so many of us have as journalists, of not wanting to be the story, and this odd tension where Weinstein weaponizes some very personal stuff from my past and makes me the story. Then the shutdown of the story starts commanding interest from good, tough journalists, who grill me about it.

And then it’s partly the critical mass of sources coming forward, talking about these vast systems designed to shut down stories and these cultures of suppression at NBC and American Media Inc. and CBS and other places that convinced me that this was a story as important as any other I had reported on. And that meant making it a personal narrative.

Nichole Perkins: Has your reporting changed the way you see the intersections of power and performances of masculinity? Have you become more aware of men who have such extreme difficulty separating status from their masculinity?

Sometimes in conversations that I have with men accused of serious crimes of sexual violence, those two things are strikingly intertwined—that a person’s status leads to a set of misapprehensions or rationalizations after the fact about their actions, whether that is someone who has maybe had life experiences that involve getting rejected by people they were making sexual advances on and power became a cudgel to get what they couldn’t get by consent, or the reverse case, where someone by dint of their power and charisma is used to people saying yes, including people who work for them and people they have complete control over. And I’ve seen the scenario where someone seems to be convinced that it’s impossible that anyone could say no. And both of those extremes lead to a situation where power has corrupted and led to this criminal activity. On the other hand, some of that is people psychologizing themselves after the fact. It’s rationalizing, and no matter how powerful someone is, I think they know when they’re engaged in criminal activity.

Marcia Chatelain: One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is the way that you unmask the deep connections among media and entertainment companies. At various turns, when roving reporter Ronan goes out to try to report the story, you realize how many people have this close relationship with Weinstein or his companies. When we think about the way forward, it’s not just a story about people being brave enough to talk about their experiences—it’s also about how power has been consolidated in these industries. What do you imagine is possible in the wake of the exposure of this type of story in terms of how these various circles interact with each other? Or do you think we’re stuck with these weird relationships among the press and the entertainment industry and the publishing industry?

This gets back to the first question in the conversation. One of the reasons why I thought this was a separate, important story was because it explains how powerful interests throttle the flow of information in our culture and how that can affect our democracy. One of the threads in this book is me following these clues from Weinstein’s relationship with the National Enquirer to Donald Trump’s relationship with the National Enquirer and potential violations of election law that resulted from them burying stories for Trump. This is important stuff. Who controls the news? Who tells our story, and at whose behest?

And the deep web of alliances between the media and powerful people accused of terrible crimes absolutely has distorted news coverage at some of our greatest news organizations. There’s a straight line through that reporting I’ve done on the Enquirer, on CBS, on NBC. Some of those are great news organizations, and some not, but they’re all media companies that enjoy the protections of the First Amendment, and rightly so. And I think one of the most powerful things we can do is have an honest conversation about how to hold ourselves accountable, especially at our great media organizations, but even at our tabloid media organizations, how to ensure that people who are supposedly in the business of imparting knowledge aren’t instead becoming instruments of suppression.

I refuse to think that we are stuck with those circles of mutual protection and suppression of information. I think the fact that media is becoming more diverse and fragmented is actually a good thing in terms of loosening the vice grips powerful people have held on the media for so long. And I think that the bravery of sources like the women in Catch and Kill and the bravery of the reporters I talk about—Ken Auletta, Ben Wallace, Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey—that all leaves me with a lot of optimism about our willingness as a culture to continue to confront complicity in the media.

Cauterucci: You mentioned a couple of other reporters who had worked on the story before, and you also mentioned that it took sources willing to talk and willing to come forward in order to get the story out there. What do you think played into the ability to finally get this story out there, after so many thwarted attempts?

Well, I have the luxury of doing my work in a cultural moment where some of these things were being reassessed. It was still almost impossible for so many of my sources to imagine that they might speak and be heard, but I was able to convey to them that there were some hidden precedents beginning to emerge. You know, that the accusers of Bill Cosby had refused to shut up, that Gretchen Carlson and others at Fox News had done what they did and blown that scandal wide open.

There were a couple of examples I could point to where there was at least some suggestion that the dam might break, and that in turn rests on a whole wider history of feminism and activism and things I have nothing to do with, including Tarana Burke’s wonderful work. She coined the term me too, and it’s still so instrumental to mobilizing people. I’m a reporter. I don’t have anything to do with movement-building or activism, but I certainly was able to work in a climate where activists had created more of a space for women to speak their truth on this subject.

Perkins: When women became more vocal about speaking out against sexual harassment, a lot of times their male colleagues would say things like, “Uh-oh, I can’t tell you that you look good today, or else I’m going to get fired,” to try to cover up their discomfort. I wonder if your colleagues have changed their behavior when you come around now. Are they joking with you, saying things like, “Uh-oh, I’m not on next on the list, am I?” And is there a little bit of fear in those jokes?

I definitely get a lot of those jokes. Most of the calls I make to guys are supportive calls, working with sources who are willingly giving me information. It’s a very small subset where I’m adversarially calling to grill someone about serious allegations against them. But it cuts both ways. I think the reputation that I’ve acquired leads a lot of people to pick up the phone, and that’s great. Hopefully that flows from people having some sense that I’m trustworthy as a journalist. There are also plenty of people, maybe in the same category you’re talking about, who hang up the phone really quickly when I call and who assume it’s about something terrible. I’ve had to develop a language where if I’m calling a prominent man in my reporting, and they’re not accused of something terrible, I have to say very quickly: “This is not about anything about you. I’m just seeking information about someone else.” Which is an odd position to be in.

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