By Mariana Sánchez Gaona
BU News Service
BOSTON — Spies, surveillance, code names and a web of deceit are all part of Ronan Farrow’s latest book “Catch and Kill.” The reporting on Harvey Weinstein became bigger than sexual misconduct allegations, turning into a window of a world of secret settlements used to cover up patterns of abuse in well-known media institutions.
“[Catch and Kill] is about these systems of mutual protection among powerful people that lead to a situation again and again across industries,” Farrow said at his Oct. 24 book event in Boston, “where these problems, sometimes serious crimes, are swept under the rug and paid out to make them go away, and people are silenced.”
Before Farrow’s Weinstein story came out in 2017, he had pursued the same story at NBC. The broadcasting company decided not to run the story but allowed Farrow to take his reporting to another news outlet. A few weeks later it was published in the New Yorker and won a Pulitzer Prize in public service with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke their own Weinstein story five days earlier at the New York Times.
“Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” generated various controversies even before its release. In the book, Brooke Nevils, a former NBC staffer, alleges that Matt Lauer raped her in 2014. The former Today Show host released a letter denying the accusation.
The book was briefly banned in Australia because of legal threats from Dylan Howard, the former National Enquirer editor in chief. Farrow uses the Enquirer as a prime example of the technique of catch and kill. The tabloid bought the rights to unflattering stories about Donald Trump when he was running for president with the intention of not running them, only to keep them from being published elsewhere.
One of these stories, which Farrow pursued, was of the alleged child Trump had with his housekeeper. “The Enquirer was buying up these Trump stories that sometimes may have just been specious rumors,” Farrow said, “but the transaction was real.” Howard and Chief Executive of America Media Inc. David Pecker (parent company of the Enquirer), struck an agreement with federal prosecutors who were investigating violations of election law in the Trump campaign.
“That was part of a chain of collaborations between a powerful guy and a media outlet that buried stories that may or may not have had an effect on the outcome of the election,” Farrow said.
But the bigger story is still NBC’s willingness to quash the Weinstein story when Farrow was working on it for the company. Farrow was asked to stop reporting on various occasions, cancel interviews and to not take any more calls from sources on the subject. “They ultimately have their lawyers threaten me if I ever reveal that they knew anything about the story,” he said.
“I had just spent a year living in the trauma and pain of all of these sources with allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and sincerely believing that they deserve to be in the spotlight and not wanting to distract from that. I was able to convince myself,” he said, “[that] dodging questions about the killing of the story isn’t the same as lying about it.”
That was until he was a guest on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. She wanted to know why the company where they both used to work didn’t pursue this story until it was on the air. Farrow said that NBC would have to answer that question. He added that other media outlets had tried to report the story before but faced a great deal of pressure from Weinstein’s legal team for reporting on the allegations of sexual misconduct made against their client. Later, NBC released an official statement saying that the story didn’t meet its journalistic standards.
“Catch and Kill” digs deeper into the network’s own culture of secret settlements and sexual allegations. The book follows the paper trail of non-disclosure agreements on severance packages from former NBC employees who received an unusual amount of money for being fired. Some network executives, who had allegations made against them of inappropriate behavior, were reviewing the Weinstein story. At the time, tabloid stories on Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct with company employees were also used as a pressure point by Weinstein to kill the story.
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim downplayed Brooke Nevils’ rape accusation. Oppenheim now says Farrow is a disgruntled employee. Maddow had Farrow on her show again last week. She started the interview with NBC Universal’s latest statement, “anybody who believes they are constrained from talking about sexual abuse or sexual harassment by a non-disparagement or confidentiality clause, if they come forward to NBC Universal, they will be released from that.” A move Farrow praised.
Back in the Back Bay Events Center, where Farrow held his book presentation, he said that “NBC has not denied the fundamentals of the facts, there is disagreement about the characterization of the facts.” He believes that these systems only help keep abusers in power and result in more people getting hurt.
“And on the other hand, in the world of media specifically, the truth gets hurt and coverage gets distorted and stories get killed… this had a bearing on our democracy,” he said. “If we want access to the truth as informed voters, we’ve got to stand up and say enough and hold the media accountable.”
Sarah Dannin, a 27-year-old writer in attendance, said people should be more aware of the type of media they consume, be more skeptical and shouldn’t take things at face value. “Because I think as much as we wouldn’t like to think, there are corporate and other sorts of power structures at play,” she said, “[they] have an influence on the lenses through which we see things.”
Farrow closed his talk in Boston with a little bit of hope. “Catch and Kill” is about crimes and cover-ups, he said.
“It’s also a story about the bravery of those women who came forward and whistleblowers [from] both genders who helped expose this entire operation from the inside, and the journalists, not just my story, in here a bunch of great journalists’ stories run through these pages, who also refuse to stop.”