Ronan Farrow: 'Catch and Kill' Tactics Protected Both Weinstein and Trump

42 min

Ronan Farrow's 2017 exposé of the sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker earned him a Pulitzer Prize and helped usher in the #MeToo movement. Now, in his new book, Catch and Kill, Farrow writes about the extreme tactics Weinstein allegedly used in an attempt to keep him from reporting the story.

"Harvey Weinstein's attorneys ... signed a contract with this Israeli private intelligence firm Black Cube explicitly tasking secret agents with killing reporting on Harvey Weinstein," Farrow says. "There was a full-on international espionage operation that was built up around this."

Farrow says that he was followed and that his house was bugged as a result of his work on the story. He eventually moved into a safe house and put his reporting documents into a safe deposit box with a note reading, "Should anything happen to me, please make sure this information is released."

Farrow had started investigating Weinstein as a reporter at NBC News. But, he says, network executives blocked the story from ever being broadcast and eventually let Farrow go. Farrow speculates that the network was doing so, in part, to protect news anchor Matt Lauer, who was subsequently accused of sexual misconduct. Farrow spoke about NBC's efforts to stifle the Weinstein story in this NPR interview. NBC News has maintained that Farrow's story on the sexual misconduct allegations was not solid—that he had no accusers on record, specifically—when it refused to move forward with the story in 2017 before he took it to The New Yorker.

Farrow notes that NBC's efforts to quash the story are part of a broader "catch and kill" strategy, whereby powerful entities and individuals go to extreme lengths to keep unfavorable stories from being reported. His book alleges that American Media Inc., the parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer, engaged in such practices in an effort to control negative stories about then- presidential candidate Donald Trump.

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"I personally reported a number of stories about cases in which AMI sought or actually did buy the rights to a story in order to get rid of it during the election, and that subsequently has become the subject of a serious criminal investigation," Farrow says.

He adds that the practice of catch and kill is "used both literally in the plot with respect to several stories that AMI goes after and tries to bury for Donald Trump and others, but also figuratively about the media's role in sometimes not just advancing, but also suppressing, stories."


Interview highlights

On the backlash he has experienced because of the book

Doing these kinds of investigations of powerful interests means that you get a whole smear machine spun up against you every single time. It happened on the Weinstein story; it happened on the CBS story; it happened on the NBC story; it happened on the AMI story. And all I can say is I've been immensely heartened, Terry, by the way in which fellow reporters have rallied around the journalism in this book and defended it and independently corroborated it. And the reaction has been pretty uniform.

Just like with the Harvey Weinstein story, I think people have seen through the spin and I think that they have correctly pulled out of this book the important themes which is there are systems still in place at some of the top institutions in this country that aid and abet and protect people accused of serious crimes and silence accusers and shut down reporting. But there are also really brave sources who continue to speak and reporters who continue to bang their heads against the wall trying to make sure the truth comes out. And I leave this process of reporting this book with immense hope and immense optimism, because I don't see any signs of that stopping.

On how AMI's catch-and-kill efforts relate to the Weinstein story

[AMI] had what's called a "kill file," which they have for various celebrities containing all of the dirt that they haven't published on someone. ... There's various reasons why AMI doesn't publish things. ... In a number of cases they don't publish things because of an arrangement they broker with a powerful person. ... [Chief Content Officer and Vice President] Dylan Howard develops a very close relationship with Harvey Weinstein. We have all of his statements saying, "This was purely a professional relationship," but we document [that their relationship] extended to secretly recording people who might be used to impeach Harvey Weinstein's accusers, really going after accusers in collaboration with Harvey Weinstein.

On AMI's kill file on Donald Trump

AMI did indeed purchase the rights to [Playboy model] Karen McDougal's story in order to bury it. Another story that I broke ... is about a case in which they purchased the rights to a claim by a Trump Tower doorman that he was aware of a relationship Trump had had that had produced a "love child." ...

Like many of these catch-and-kill stories, it's unclear whether the underlying claim has any veracity. The love child story ... may or may not be spurious, and also on some level, who cares, right? ... The thing that is absolutely worth caring about is the transaction, the fact that there was a potential violation of campaign finance law here and a media outlet acting as an arm of a political candidate. Here again there is an example of collaboration between the candidate and the news outlet, The National Enquirer, to try to go after a story, and here again, the underlying claim in that lawsuit raises a lot of question marks. ... But the fact that AMI went after it has not been disputed by them—they've confirmed it—and is yet another interesting data point in this unfolding saga which is still a subject of serious criminal investigation.

On Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen going to the Enquirer and requesting the kill file

I talk about for the first time seeing the master list of all of the Trump dirt, if you will, that AMI had in its vaults. Early in 2016 ... the National Enquirer and Dylan Howard created a master list of everything that they had on Trump. And again, you'll sense a running theme here. The story here is not what was on the list we saw. It's about 60 entries and this is the first time a reporter has seen the insides of the vault, if you will. It is mostly news that has already been out there. There's about five affairs—some of those haven't become public—but consensual affairs-type items. There's at least one allegation of abuse, but it's the Jill Harth allegation, which ultimately did become public. But what is a significant story is that this list was made and we have a multiple-sourced account backed by documentation of National Enquirer leadership beginning to shred documents related to Trump in the days before the election—and this is strenuously denied by Dylan Howard. We have that denial in the book, but there are ironclad accounts of him ordering a destruction of documents and, a year later—when a senior official at the National Enquirer went to check whether all of the Trump dirt still existed in the vault—there were documents that were missing consistent with that account of document destruction.

On the Enquirer's endorsement of candidate Trump

Throughout the election, the Enquirer, as it was seeking to catch and kill stories for Trump, was also sort of descending farther and farther into this rabbit hole of endorsing Trump and really hammering on Hillary Clinton. ... For the whole year she was about to die, according to the National Enquirer. And I think that a lot of us in the press discounted the significance of that. We weren't conscious of all of this real estate on checkout stands at grocery stores all around the country being devoted to pushing one candidate. And that's where the criminal investigation and the nonprosecution agreement signed between AMI and prosecutors is significant, because it acknowledges that something quite possibly illegal and quite possibly material to the election and the future of this country played out. The stakes ... are very high, both for the individuals involved and for the future of our democracy. We had an election that was very much, I think, affected by this practice of catch and kill.

On what AMI got in return for killing unflattering stories about Trump

They have now admitted that there was a quid pro quo and that there were meetings in which a deal was struck to collaborate in this way. ... You saw things like [AMI CEO] David Pecker getting a lot of access to the White House, suddenly getting a lot of access to potential Saudi donors at a time when the Enquirer was on its last legs and suffering from declining circulation numbers and a lot of debt. So we're very careful not to say anything speculative, but certainly there are ways in which David Pecker, the head of the National Enquirer, the head of AMI and others at the Enquirer benefited from this. And we talk about Dylan Howard ... the editor of the National Enquirer, who worked under David Pecker, sending friends pictures from inaugural events, really having access and being in the corridors of power. So there was an exchange of access and largesse for killing these stories, it appears.

On the Enquirer's attempts to discredit Farrow

As I began to break these stories about the National Enquirer I, too, became in Dylan Howard's words, "National Enquirer fodder," and he sent a letter to [New Yorker Editor] David Remnick, very furiously railing against me and saying, "Ronan is about to become National Enquirer fodder," and indeed I did. For a brief shining moment, Terry, I was an all-caps sans serif villain in the pages of the National Enquirer, and I joke about it, but it is actually painful and intrusive and an ugly business to have an outlet that is essentially a thinly veiled attack dog for powerful people come at you and say, you better come in and talk or we're going to just unleash whatever we want to make up or dig up about you, and with the Enquirer it's usually a lot of both.

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Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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