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Ronan Farrow on 'Catch and Kill,' the Weinstein Scandal and Investigative Journalism

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Journalist Ronan Farrow inside KQED's temporary office in downtown San Francisco on October 21, 2019. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Two years ago, investigative journalist Ronan Farrow published a story in The New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein's serial sexual assaults of actors and employees. Farrow joined KQED's Michael Krasny on Forum on Monday to talk about his new book, "Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators," which chronicles the lengths Weinstein took to suppress this story, going so far as to hire former Mossad agents and Ukrainian operatives to obstruct and intimidate the reporting being done.

Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode on Forum here.

Interview Highlights

On the concept of 'catch and kill'

"Catch and kill" is an old term in the tabloid world. It refers to acquiring the rights to a story, not in order to publish it, but in order to prevent its publication. Very often this happens with sort of mundane celebrity dirt. The National Enquirer has been doing it for years where they'd have something unflattering about an affair someone had and then withhold publication and scoop up the rights to whatever person's story was gonna be told and on behalf of that person, kill the story, usually in exchange for such and such celebrity will appear on the cover of The National Enquirer or another AMI publication or some other transactional exchange of that nature.

What I uncover in the events that unravel in "Catch and Kill" is the way in which The Enquirer was engaged in this practice for Harvey Weinstein, which is a story I was able to break later in The New Yorker. And how ultimately that trail of clues led to the top, if you will, to the president's collaborations with The National Enquirer, which were very much of a piece with that. In this book, I reveal several new cases in which there was pretty deep and substantial collaboration between Trump associates and the Enquirer.

On the connection between Weinstein and Matt Lauer

The book is about bigger patterns than any one media organization, although it does focus on AMI, the parent company of The National Enquirer, which was one attack dog collaborating with Harvey Weinstein to suppress these allegations. And on NBC News, which also became something of an instrument of suppression on his behalf.

It's really about our profession, and the ways in which corporate and legal practices designed to sweep harassment and abuse under the rug, rather than confront it, can create a situation where serial abusers stay in power and where people potentially get hurt. And the democracy suffers because you end up with a situation where news organizations are working at the behest of powerful interests and the truth gets distorted. I talk about how that has ramifications for our political future as well. Obviously, that collaboration between Trump and the National Enquirer wound up being a significant factor in 2016.

On being followed, and other tactics Weinstein used on journalists

People kind of make the observation that it reads like a spy thriller.

In one sense, that can sound like it's a glamorizing characterization, in retrospect. But in another, it's a reminder of how these exotic and underhanded tactics should be reserved for the realm of, you know, John Grisham novels. They should not be directed at real-life reporters trying to break stories. We have the protections of the First Amendment in this country and of our criminal laws. Therefore, I'm careful to have a sense of perspective and note that I was not in the situation that so many journalists in Pakistan or Russia or many other parts of the world are in, where they just wind up dead if they're reporting on powerful interests.

I feel it is an important story to tell, to look at the threats that get thrown at not just me, but a whole range of journalists in this plot. And to try to galvanize us all, to say, "no, enough." Powerful people should not be able to manipulate the press in this way and to intimidate journalists in this way.

On the stories about Donald Trump that were caught and killed

Donald Trump is a significant subject of the reporting in the book. There's new revelations about the tactics that he used to subvert the press and turn it into an arm of his campaign, essentially.

AMI has, since all of these events I've reported on, signed a non-prosecution agreement where they have admitted that this was taking place, that they were collaborating with Trump associates to kill stories, and it is all emblematic of a wider moment of urgency.

Where, as you say, we have authoritarian rhetoric weaponized against the press. This characterization of us as the enemy of the people where, in fact, journalism is the only explicitly constitutionally protected profession for a reason. And it's the lifeblood of our democracy to have free access to information that can't be fettered by the most connected and wealthy people in this country.

The book is a tribute to, and a love letter to, all the reporters who stand up in the face of that and stay strong, and all the sources who refused to stop talking in the face of that.


On Hillary Clinton's lack of support

I'm very measured about Hillary Clinton's role in the plot of "Catch and Kill," as I am in each aspect of the book. And you know as well as I that anytime you mention Hillary Clinton, it quickly gets transported into partisan headlines and sensationalized a fair bit.

The reality of her role is quite minimal. She was part of a series of interviews that I was doing with every living secretary of state for my previous book, "War on Peace." It is about the chaos at the State Department and the militarization of American foreign policy and the consequences of that around the world. And Hillary Clinton had been extremely supportive of that project and had known about it since I had worked at the State Department.

There is a portion of the plot of this book in which the walls are kind of closing in, in a whole number of ways. And I include an anecdote about Hillary Clinton attempting to back out of that interview. It comes after her flak, her spokesperson, Nick Merrill, calling to say, "We're concerned about this big story you're working on."

And that really is the totality of the facts, that there's a strange conversation where her team is concerned and has learned at a time when it is supposed to be secret that I'm working on this, that I am working on the story.

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On being an investigative journalist

I do think that good investigative journalism is at the heart of what can break through those conspiracies of silence and that hegemony .... of powerful interests that mutually protect and suppress. And every time I break a story, I'm very moved to say that brave sources continue to come forward. And in the wake of this book coming out, I've been inundated with leads of all sorts of types, including ones that, you know, directly reinforce the reporting in this book.

And it's never just about me, it's a whole community of reporters that are refusing to stop here.

On putting himself in the book

It was uncomfortable. And I'm very forthright in the book about the struggle over not wanting to do that, wanting for the story to stand its own on its own.

I think particularly because of my own background, which was very much, you know, in the shadow of celebrity and scandal, I write in the book about wanting desperately for the substantive work that I do to not be subject to those distractions, and to stand independently.

The nature of the plot was that my personal life, and who I was and my background, were thrown at me and all of that was used as a cudgel. So like it or not, you know, Harvey Weinstein and others who I go up against in this book really used myself in my past against me.


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