'Catch and Kill' and 'She Said': Book Review

These are monumental works of journalism, even if each has its flaws.

Two exposés take readers inside the Pulitzer Prize-winning hunt for Harvey Weinstein, the "white whale" of journalism.

On May 6, 2018, Ronan Farrow — the son of one celebrity (Mia Farrow) and estranged son of another (Woody Allen); the wunderkind who entered Yale Law School at 16, joined the State Department at 21 and became an MSNBC host shortly thereafter; the investigative journalist extraordinaire who exposed Harvey Weinstein in all his malignancy — delivered the commencement address at Loyola Marymount University. For anyone sitting there, like me, who'd imagined his life was a fairy tale, his words came as a revelation.

Just a year earlier, he said, "my career was on the rocks. And as a result of my tackling this story as doggedly as I did, it fell apart almost completely. My contract [with NBC] was ending. And after I refused to stop work on the story, I did not have a new one. My book publisher dropped me, refusing to look at a single page of a manuscript I'd labored over for years.... I had moved out of my home because I was being followed and threatened. I was facing personal legal threats from a powerful and wealthy man who said he would use the best lawyers in the country to wipe me out and destroy my future. And if, against all odds, I got through that and found a way to publish this story, I did not know whether anyone would care."

How much anyone cared became evident when his story broke in the New Yorker in October 2017, and when he — along with The New York Times' Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey — shared a Pulitzer Prize. Their efforts were textbook cases of reporting, which not only brought down one of the most powerful men in media but also unleashed a movement that has transformed our society and perhaps the world.

Now Kantor-Twohey and Farrow have written books (one coming out right after the other, like their original articles) that expand on their earlier exposés — Farrow with Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, and Kantor-Twohey with She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement.

These are monumental works of journalism that should be added to a canon including such modern-day classics as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower and Jane Mayer's Dark Money, consummate examples of how to pursue leads, develop sources, analyze documents and collaborate with gifted (and sometimes not-so-gifted) editors. If each has its flaws — neither is brilliantly written, and the Kantor-Twohey tome is particularly clunky — that shouldn't detract from their importance.

What's striking is the similarity in their approach. Both books interweave the authors' personal and professional lives and both spend the bulk of their space on the hunt for dirt on Weinstein (the "white whale" of journalism, as my former boss, Janice Min, put it), before lurching in other directions — one in pursuit of Today's Matt Lauer and a nefarious Israeli security firm called Black Cube; the other on the trail of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape.

Given their structural parallels, it's surprising how different the two books feel. She Said may be stylistically lacking, but it richly conveys the sensation of watching two remarkable reporters at work, rough and raw, unpolished and unvarnished, as they follow one lead and then another, pick at a thread and get caught up in a web of distortions and lies.

Catch and Kill, by contrast, scans like a thriller but also employs all the tropes of that genre. It's by far the easier read and yet it leaves an impression of déjà vu, as if one has binge-watched this sort of story before. It skillfully intercuts Farrow's battle to blow the whistle on Weinstein with his fight to maintain a romantic relationship (his fiance is former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett), toggles from his tussles with his bosses to his struggles to evade the hired thugs hot on his tail.

And what thugs they are. As anyone who has tracked Farrow's adventure will know, one of his most mind-boggling disclosures is that Weinstein, the now-disgraced movie producer and executive (aided and abetted by a host of liberal paragons from David Boies to Lisa Bloom), paid Black Cube to scare away his enemies, using all the tools of counterintelligence: surveillance, disinformation and human moles. Farrow's scoops about the company make his last chapters riveting.

Kantor and Twohey never confront rogues as colorful as these, but their search for the truth has all sorts of nuggets that make up for it, from the major (the letter Bob Weinstein sends his brother, telling him he's "brought shame to the family and your company") to the minor (tidbits about how Blasey Ford only slept two hours before her Congressional testimony and didn't even have a suit to bring to Washington).

The books overlap and yet take diverging paths to a similar end. Hence extras in one become featured players in the other — like Irwin Reiter, the Weinstein Co. executive who appears tangentially in Catch and Kill but is a key source for She Said. Similarly, The National Enquirer appears on one page in She Said, but its editor, Dylan Howard, emerges as a full-on, cape-swirling, mustache-twirling villain in Catch and Kill, where Farrow reveals he has a safe packed with incriminating material and a strategy to buy exclusive information and then not use it, or rather use it as leverage for something else. This strategy, known as "catch and kill," gives Farrow's book its title.



***

When we first meet him, Farrow is a recovering talk show host, still licking his wounds from the ignominious failure of Ronan Farrow Daily and facing the uncomfortable fact that his new home, NBC, doesn't want to run his investigative piece about sexual assaults on campus. This is merely the first ping in an endless series of volleys between the reporter and his employers.

He soon widens his net to encompass Hollywood's "casting couch," and Noah Oppenheim, then the executive in charge of Today and later president of NBC News, tosses him an idea:

"You should look at Rose McGowan," he says, referring to the actress, "she tweeted something about a studio head."

"I hadn't seen that," Farrow replies. "Maybe she'll talk."

McGowan is his first point of entry in a spreading oil-slick of slime and his dealings with her show how difficult it is to get the victims on the record. "She talked, unflinchingly and far more specifically than in her tweets, about her allegation that Weinstein had raped her," he writes. "Would you name him on camera?" he asks. "I'll think about it," she says.

The deeper Farrow dives, the more opponents (and opportunists) come out of the woodwork. There are the obvious candidates — like the team Weinstein has assembled to do his dirty work and the actress-turned-spy who masquerades as McGowan's pal — and the less obvious ones, shadowy figures who seem to be stalking Farrow.

Or is it just his paranoia? Are the two men he sees sitting in a car outside his apartment, both with Russian/Ukrainian accents, really after him? Or is that just the way you start to think when everyone is leaning against you?

Farrow's paranoia, of course, turns out to be only too real when he links the stalkers to Black Cube. By that time, he's in John Le Carre territory.

Less expected are the allies who reveal themselves to be enemies, like Bloom, daughter of feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who grills Farrow on what he knows, only to resurface as one of Weinstein's henchmen. "The last time I answered a call from Lisa Bloom that summer, I expressed astonishment," Farrow tells us late in his book. "‘Lisa, you swore, as an attorney and a friend, that you wouldn't tell his people,' I said. ‘Ronan,' she replied, I am his people.'"

More disappointing still, as Farrow portrays them, are Oppenheim and NBC News chairman Andy Lack. The author starts off by claiming how much he admires the youthful Oppenheim, who "had a quality I lacked and envied, which was this: he was insouciant, laid-back, cool." But that quickly changes. The more Farrow probes, the more Oppenheim finds reasons not to air his incendiary piece, which covers a multiplicity of crimes ranging from harassment to rape, involving women known and unknown, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Mira Sorvino to Rosanna Arquette to various assistants. Inevitably, Farrow implies, Oppenheim has an agenda: to hide the fact that one of his own, Lauer, has behaved as egregiously as Weinstein. (Oppenheim has strenuously denied the writer's assertions, saying "The facts do not support Farrow's allegation of a ‘cover-up.'")

As in all solidly crafted thrillers, the seeds of Lauer's villainy are sown early, before sprouting into weeds. He couldn't be more affable at first, when he invites a callow Farrow into his office, encouraging him to keep up the great work and asking which stories he's pursuing.

"Lauer was wearing a neatly tailored suit with a gray windowpane motif and a striped navy tie," writes Farrow. "He smoothed it down and shifted his attention back to me. ‘They sound terrific.' He was eyeing me appraisingly. ‘Where do you see yourself in a few years?' he asked.…

"I thought about his question about the future and said, ‘I'd like to get back to anchoring at some point.'

"‘I know, I know,' he said. ‘That's what you think you want.' I opened my mouth. He cut me off. ‘You're searching for something.' He slid his glasses off, inspected them. ‘Maybe you'll find it. But you're going to have to figure out yourself. What you really care about.' He smiled."

As Farrow heads for the door, Lauer has a word of advice. "Don't let us down," he says wryly. "I'll be watching."

"You want this closed?" asks Farrow.

"I've got it," Lauer tells him. Then, says Farrow, "He pushed a button on his desk. The door swung shut."

It's a marvelous scene that has led to much discussion following Lauer's recent insistence that there was no such thing as a button to lock his door, a key factor in allegations that he used it to trap women he abused. But the writing is also full of tricks that subtly prejudice us against him: the "neatly tailored suit" (why are villains always well-dressed?); the throwaway line "I'll be watching," which could be perfectly innocuous but, well, isn't.

Such touches give the writing the headiness of fiction but ever so slightly undercut its reality. Does Farrow really remember that Lauer "smoothed [his tie] down" before shifting his attention back to him? Does he also recall that he "slid his glasses off, inspected them"? Perhaps he has a photographic memory; perhaps he was keeping such precise notes that only a skeptic like myself would question him. Either way, these curlicues diminish authenticity.

So does the way Farrow undermines Oppenheim with discreet jabs, reminding us that his then-boss was once a right-wing columnist for a student paper ("Reading ‘Clit Notes'" was among his headlines), while letting others poke fun at Oppenheim's ineptitude as a screenwriter:

"What was that movie he did again?" asks Farrow's producer.

"Jackie."

"Oof," he replies.

Attacks of this kind might be understandable, given what Farrow went through, but they hint at an unappealing score-settling and self-righteousness. (In full disclosure, he has criticized my own work, and not unfairly; that said, I'm described as a "movie critic" in my fleeting appearance in his book, a job I've never held.)

None of this diminishes the power of Farrow's account nor the turpitude of the men he unmasks. As his discoveries multiply and the screw turns tighter on Weinstein; as he's forced to move out of his home and into hiding; as he lets go of his last shred of a career with NBC, one can only marvel at his courage, his resilience and moral fiber. It's one thing to tilt at windmills, it's another to tilt at a human power saw.



***

That's precisely what Kantor and Twohey set out to do in 2017. Kantor has come off a stint as White House reporter (she's the author of a solid biography, The Obamas), while Twohey has been on the Trump/women beat when they start delving into the executive's activities.

Their editor at the Times, Rebecca Corbett, gives them two guidelines: "The first was, Were there other powerful men in American life covering up abusive behavior toward women? [And the second was] to go beyond individual wrongdoers and pin down the elements, the system, that kept sexual harassment so pervasive and hard to address."

This explains why the book breaks away from the Weinstein narrative late in the game to tackle a different story, making it a wieldy hodgepodge, even if it achieves Corbett's larger goals. Regardless, the reporters' step-by-step analysis of their methodology makes this a peerless tool for other journalists.

"In June 2017, the daunting question was how to even get top actresses on the phone," they write. "The typical procedure to reach these stars was to call their publicists. But that was out of the question, as was contacting agents and managers."

Like Farrow, they begin with McGowan when they obtain her number, only she resists. "Here's the thing," she tells Kantor, "I have been treated quite shabbily by your paper at times and I believe the root of it is sexism…. The NYT needs to look at itself for sexism issues. I'm not that inclined to help."

While sticking with her, they throw out a wider net, seeking private email addresses and phone numbers, asking one lead to help reach another and embarking on searches that "turned into full investigations themselves." Some people lecture them that Weinstein's sex life is his own business; others treat them as naive idealists; one, a lawyer, offers to help and is willing to sit down and talk — but that's Bloom (who else?) and colleagues have already tipped them off to her double-dealing.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof connects them with Ashley Judd (which explains the tightrope he walks in Farrow's book when the writer calls for help). The actress agrees to talk but only if other women do so. Paltrow wants to support them and starts texting her show-business friends — and yet nobody is willing to go on the record. Fear, it seems, penetrates the very highest levels of the Hollywood pantheon, seeping into these women's marrow, corrosive and contagious. No matter how egregious the crimes committed against them, they are too terrified to speak until a sisterhood of women unite and provide the strength to do so, perhaps the greatest lesson in the book.

Doing the kind of gumshoe work that delivers results even in the Internet age, Kantor and Twohey persevere through failure after failure. "In the car on the way back from [visiting Paltrow in] the Hamptons…the reporters realized that they might be able to catch someone who had not answered their inquiries: a former Miramax executive who lived nearby," they write in their somewhat stilted third-person narrative. "So they took a detour and pulled up to the woman's summer cottage. She came to the door and greeted them with a smile. But as soon as she understood why they were there, she slammed the door in their faces, leaving them alone on the front porch."

While Kantor focuses on Hollywood, Twohey turns to public records, visiting state agencies and scouring social media to track down a government inspector who may have overseen harassment filings — only to learn, when she's reached, that she has no memory of anything. "What's Miramax?" she asks.

Planes, trains and automobiles play a role as the reporters trek across the world in search of information, the sort of luxury only a great and deep-pocketed publication like the Times could afford. The stories these journalists uncover along the way are heartbreaking. Driving to the house of one woman in Silicon Valley, they find she's never even told her husband about the horrors she experienced, which twice have led her to attempt suicide.

Another victim, Laura Madden, describes being summoned to Weinstein's hotel room during a shoot in Wales. She's only 21 or 22 when she meets him, an unworldly country girl, and soon he convinces her to take off her bra, then her pants. After that, he "stood over her, naked and masturbating," write Kantor and Twohey. "[He] suggested a shower and Madden was so numb she gave in. As the water poured around them, he continued masturbating and Madden cried so hard that the producer eventually seemed annoyed and backed off, she said. That was when she locked herself in the bathroom, still sobbing. She thought she could still hear him masturbating on the other side of the door."

Such atrocities make one long to see Weinstein tackled; but when he's finally brought down, it's with more of a whimper than a bang. After ranting and raving and doing everything to undermine the credibility of his assailants, he at last is told the story is running and crumples.

"The final notes he played were of self-pity," write the authors. "I'm already dead. I'm already dead,' he said. ‘I'm going to be a rolling stone.'"