- Title: Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
- Author: Ronan Farrow
- Genre: Non-fiction
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Co.
- Pages: 448
Work in entertainment journalism long enough and you’re bound to accumulate a Harvey Weinstein story: even in Canada.
My anecdote is extraordinarily benign. After editing and publishing an article by Globe and Mail contributor Johanna Schneller about the financial woes plaguing the Weinstein Company (TWC) in May, 2017, I received a distressed e-mail from the head of publicity at TWC informing me that “Harvey would very much like to speak with you today.” I immediately offered up my availability and braced for one of the film producer’s infamous outbursts. Nothing happened – no call received, no verbal lashing. I knew that our story was unimpeachable – all the facts were checked and sourced, and the piece contained nothing outrageous other than summarizing TWC’s string of flops – but I still breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to face the telephonic wrath of Hollywood’s favourite bully.
Five months later, with the publication of exposés by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in The New York Times and Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, it became startlingly and nauseatingly clear just how little I actually knew about Weinstein. And now, with the publication of Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, it is clear just how much so many others did know – and why they might have chosen to keep their secrets so closely guarded.
It was almost inevitable that Farrow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for his New Yorker work, would write a book detailing his Weinstein investigation. The tale is a publisher’s dream – a behind-the-scenes dive into what happens when noxious Hollywood power collides with big-media indifference. And in Catch and Kill, Farrow delivers, racing through the missteps and breakthroughs of his reporting as if he were on fire, skewering so very many along the way.
Weinstein certainly gets the worst of it. Through interviews with Rose McGowan, Annabella Sciorra, Rosanna Arquette and Mira Sorvino – some of whose recollections might induce post-traumatic stress among readers who are victims themselves – Weinstein comes off as an insatiable and horrifying predator, a true monster. (His criminal trial for two counts of predatory sexual assault, one count of first-degree criminal sexual assault, one count of first-degree rape and one count of third-degree rape is set to begin in January; he has pleaded not guilty.)
But Farrow did not write Catch and Kill to only tell the world what his and Kantor and Twohey’s work already detailed. Farrow is also, even mostly, occupied with shining a big fat light on all those who protected Weinstein. Those who ignored him. Those who went out of their way to look the other way. The result is astounding and sickening at the same time, a celebration of all that is right with journalism – even as it exposes all that is so very broken.
If NBC News had ended up breaking the Weinstein scandal, then Catch and Kill might not have existed. When Farrow started to work on the story, he was an anchor and reporter for the television giant. Around June, 2016, he was working on an investigative series dubbed “The Dark Side of Hollywood?” but was having trouble getting traction on topics. Soon, though, Weinstein’s name began to surface in research and Farrow pursued sources who could corroborate whispers of sexual harassment and assault. Yet, for every inch Farrow and producer Rich McHugh came closer to securing the story, NBC took one step back. Anyone even mildly familiar with the Weinstein narrative knows that NBC eventually had nothing to do with bringing the story to light. What Farrow’s book makes clear, in precise and damning detail, is just how much NBC tried to bury it.
Much of the blame is left at the feet of Noah Oppenheim. Farrow portrays the NBC News president as slick but weak-willed, a man more interested in the privileges of Hollywood (he wrote the screenplays for Jackie and The Maze Runner) than journalistic integrity. Over the course of the book’s first half, Farrow illustrates Oppenheim’s every attempt to kill the story, which neatly echoed the Matt Lauer scandal that happened to be brewing inside Oppenheim’s own shop at the time and would blow up shortly after the Weinstein stories were published. Also coming under intense scrutiny are Oppenheim’s boss, NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack, producer David Corvo and MSNBC president Phil Griffin, the latter described by colleagues as infamously lewd, at one point brandishing a zoomed-in image of a television personality’s “wardrobe malfunction” in one meeting. (In a memo to NBC staff this month, Lack said Farrow’s book paints “a fundamentally untrue picture” of the network.)
Other boldfaced obstacles float into Farrow’s orbit, too, with the reporter incriminating everyone from highly respected lawyers to various Hollywood publicists to the men running American Media Inc. (publisher of The National Enquirer) to Hillary Clinton as being responsible, to varying degrees, for Weinstein’s reign.
And then there’s the other half of Catch and Kill, which dives into the unbelievable efforts of Israeli security firm Black Cube to derail Farrow’s investigation. The story of his reporting is fascinating. The story of how it almost never came to light is disgusting.
Unfortunately, there is another element to Catch and Kill that isn’t as essential. While Farrow had little choice but to insert himself into the story – is anybody going to trust a book about sexual assault in the entertainment industry by the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow that doesn’t mention his own family’s history nor his own privileged proximity to celebrity? – the author does himself no favours by doing so while wedging himself between the tropes of a would-be spy-vs.-spy blockbuster.
Certainly this kind of behind-the-scenes story demands a first-person perspective, but Farrow could have just as easily emphasized the sincere doggedness of his own reporting rather than lean on the faux-breathlessness of an airport-thriller genre. Frequently, his writing slips into hard-bitten cliché and head-scratching attempts at literary flourish (“She assembled this sentence like she was reading characters off a newly unearthed cineform tablet” or “I looked out of the window. Across the street, the lights were off and the dance studio was in shadow” or any of the chapters where he reconstructs conversations between two private detectives hired to make his life hell). It is not paranoia if everyone is indeed out to get you, as is the case here. But that doesn’t excuse Farrow’s hyperbolically suspicious prose.
Then there are the repetitive cheap shots he lobs at his foes (I haven’t been exposed to this much hate for the Natalie Portman-starring Jackie since my last round of drinks with Toronto film critics), the too-cute detours into his fraught-but-supportive relationship with political podcaster Jonathan Lovett (he hid a marriage proposal in an early draft, which thankfully did not survive to the final version) and the occasional spot of slipshod fact-checking (he gets the job title wrong for a well-known Hollywood Reporter editor) that look especially bad given the demands of the subject matter.
Toward the end of the book, Farrow writes about a regular practice at the National Enquirer that had the publication buying up the rights to negative stories about famous personalities for the express purpose of burying them: “catch and kill.” Given that reality, and the behaviour described at NBC, the fact that we’re reading Farrow’s book at all – as well as Kantor and Twohey’s She Said, which in an echo of the reporters’ original Weinstein scoop timing was published just before Catch and Kill – is a testament to the power of unrelenting journalism. A devastating and depressing and infuriating testament. But a testament all the same.
Barry Hertz is the film editor of The Globe and Mail.
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