As I’ve noted before I seldom read books about contemporary politics or current affairs. When I open a virtual or physical book it’s almost always history and generally in the distant past. But I’ve been devoting a lot of time recently to reading a number of recent books for a project I’m planning. One of those I just finished is Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill.
I wanted to recommend it to you because I found it exceptionally good.
Farrow is a fascinating person on our public landscape. Like many of you I first heard about him as the child of famous parents. Then there were various stories about how he graduated college at some ridiculously young age, was working at the State Department under Hillary Clinton at some equally nonsensical age. Then he had that show on MSNBC which rapidly crashed and burned. Then, since network morning TV is off my radar, I didn’t really hear much about him until he exploded back on to the scene in 2017 with his string of path-breaking exclusives on Harvey Weinstein and what we now know as the #MeToo movement.
The MSNBC show always struck me as an uncomfortably privileged exercise. Basically his first turn in journalism in his mid-20s and it’s his own show on a top cable news network. It seemed predictable and not entirely undeserved when it flopped. But that clearly wasn’t the whole story. Farrow seems to be that rare person who gets a lot handed to him and yet manages to live up to the billing and more. Investigative journalism, which usually turns on some mix of smarts, obsessiveness and charisma, was what he was meant for.
I say all of this because I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up the book. What got me to read it was my interest in and project about the culture of secrecy, extortion and private surveillance, to which the #MeToo movement is inextricably tied and yet distinct from. The core reporting on Weinstein and others, which won Farrow a Pulitzer, you likely know about. Most of that was in the original articles which began at NBC and were all published in The New Yorker. They’ve rippled out into numerous secondary accounts, news coverage and more. That’s in the book of course but again we mostly know that story.
The book is really about the process of reporting the story, which is a tale about NBC News and their on again, off again efforts to kill or declaw story and Weinstein’s army of lawyers, PR people, private investigators and private intelligence operatives effort to disrupt or kill the stories being written about him. This meant not only Farrow’s at NBC/New Yorker but also Jodi Kantor’s and Megan Twohey’s at the Times. It is about the sheer power, resources and weapons an enormously wealthy and powerful person can bring to bear to prevent exposure.
Let’s be honest: most current affairs books aren’t good. Or to be a bit more generous they are serviceable and informational, which is generally fine because you want the information. You want to go deeper on some story you learned about in the daily press. If they’re cleanly written and organized you get that information. I decided to read this book looking for information. I was pleasantly surprised to find more.
One of the themes and plot elements of this book is Farrow’s feeling of paranoia about whether he’s being watched, surveilled; whether his bosses at NBC News are being straight with him or whether they’re furtively in contact with the people he’s pursuing. In part because we, the readers, probably know some of the final story the book is filled with a negative capacity – he’s paranoid but it’s actually much worse than he imagines. We know part of that future before he does, before the narrative confirms it. But not all of it.
Lisa Bloom, the crusading feminist lawyer (daughter of Gloria Allred), shows up to help in his work. He takes her partly into his confidence. She’s actually working for Harvey Weinstein. He really is being surveilled – not just with traditional tails and stakeouts. But his movements are being tracked electronically – probably illegally. (Another tantalizing part of the narrative is the number of operatives he’s eventually able to turn against the private intelligence firm.) Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein’s ur-accusers, was befriended by and took on as her confidante a woman who was actually working for the Israeli private intelligence firm (Black Cube) Weinstein had hired to kill stories about his predation. Through the writing he and those he’s talking to are being crowded around by people working for or controlled by Harvey Weinstein. But he and they don’t know it. As the reader you can feel their presence crowding around you – a weird mix of claustrophobia and second-guessing.
Gaslighting and dissimulation are hallmarks of the Trump Era. The fact that this woman, who went by the pseudonym Diana Filip, was able to inveigle herself so deeply into McGowan’s world isn’t precisely what we mean by ‘gaslighting’. But the effort to destroy or control a person by upending their own hold on reality or trust in their perception of it runs very close.
There’s a second layer to this part of the narrative. Not only is Farrow involved in a multi-domain war with Weinstein and his lieutenants, which he doesn’t know about until most of the way through the story. NBC also has numerous executives and stars who have their own #MeToos issues, if seldom at Weinstein’s level. One of the many revelations, though never quite stated explicitly, is that the eventual downfall of Matt Lauer at the Today Show seems to have been helped along, if not caused, by National Enquirer stories which were themselves part of Weinstein’s effort to bully NBC News into dropping Farrow’s story. Like President Trump, Weinstein was thick as thieves with The National Enquirer, as both a defensive and offensive weapon. It is a pattern.
All of this comes together as the reader when a book is exceptionally well written, well-plotted. There’s enough of Farrow’s own personal life and story to draw us in but not so much as to tire or annoy. Any tendency to hate this guy who is triply blessed with good genes, good looks and good luck is drawn down by a steady diet of humor and self-deprecation. He leaves the reporting and writing to speak for itself, which it does. It’s impossible for me to imagine the book hasn’t already been optioned and in the process of being made into a movie. It reads like a movie.
The story is basically about Harvey Weinstein and how even industries that are purportedly modern and cosmopolitan were and certainly still to a great degree are hotbeds of predation where power means secrecy and impunity. It’s also a story about journalism. It’s easy to see Farrow’s antagonists as bad guys. But the narrative made me think about whether we can expect news organizations that are deeply interconnected with the entertainment and telecommunications industries to do really challenging investigative journalism. That’s no excuse for the people involved. But this structural reality was what hit home most for me. Mostly it was another story of the ways in which the ubiquity of global interconnectivity, the Internet and mass entertainment, once welcomed as liberatory have become tools in the hands of the powerful.