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Ronan Farrow on Sexual Harassment at NBC News, Matt Lauer and Whether ‘Jackie’ Is a Bad Movie

Kate Aurthur

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That Harvey Weinstein, the alleged sexual predator Ronan Farrow was investigating, had something in common with his father, Woody Allen, was something Farrow always knew. Defending his sister Dylan Farrow, who has said since she was 7 that Allen sexually abused her, has been “weaponized against me since the moment I started talking about it,” Farrow tells Variety

So it was no surprise to him to learn that in October 2017, as Weinstein panicked — knowing that both Farrow and The New York Times were close to publishing stories designed to expose him — the studio mogul put in a call to Allen to ask him, “How did you deal with this?” 

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The details of the call — “Jeez, I’m so sorry. Good luck,” Allen told Weinstein unhelpfully — among many other things, are all laid out in Farrow’s explosive book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” published this week. 

Farrow’s work has been a catalyst for the #MeToo movement, and his reporting has led to the toppling of Weinstein, Leslie Moonves, and New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. In “Catch and Kill,” Farrow recounts not only the backstory behind his investigation of Weinstein but the obstacles he says his former employer NBC News put in his way that caused him to move the story to The New Yorker. In the book, Farrow describes meeting after meeting with NBC News president Noah Oppenheim in which Oppenheim discourages and belittles Farrow’s ongoing discoveries.

Oppenheim has strenuously denied that NBC News obstructed Farrow’s Weinstein reporting, and issued an email to his staff this week in which he proclaimed, “We have no secrets and nothing to hide.” 

When contacted to comment about some of the details of what Farrow told Variety, a spokesperson for a firm NBC News has brought in to handle press requests referred to Oppenheim’s memo, which refuted many of Farrow’s claims

“Catch and Kill” is also a memoir of Farrow’s time under surveillance by Black Cube, an international investigative firm that employs ex-Mossad officers. He weaves in details about his personal relationship with former Obama speechwriter and Pod Save America co-founder Jonathan Lovett, and the strain Farrow’s reporting and NBC’s lack of support put them under. He writes about his sister Dylan, who serves as his moral compass. 

And he harps on his disdain for the movie “Jackie,” which Oppenheim wrote. “Tell him you like ‘Jackie,’” Farrow says to his mother, Mia Farrow, at the Time 100 gala, as they approach Oppenheim. “But I didn’t like ‘Jackie,’” she replies.

Farrow talks with Variety about NBC News’ “backdrop of casual misogyny,” how he got Matt Lauer accuser Brooke Nevils to talk to him and, of course, “Jackie.”

NBC News is denying many of your assertions, and Noah Oppenheim wrote an email to the staff this week, saying: “There is no evidence of any reports of Lauer’s misconduct before his firing, no settlements, no ‘hush money’ — no way we have found that NBC’s current leadership could have been aware of his misdeeds in the past.” Do you think “current leadership” may not have known, or is what he said not true?

The reporting in the book stands on its own, and we’re very confident in it. It was meticulously fact-checked with NBC executives. 

I think the headline here is that in a period in which NBC leadership had explicitly claimed to their own journalists that there were no settlements or NDAs with women with harassment complaints, we document a paper trail showing seven. And indeed, several of those were with women who had complained within this company, including at a high level, about Matt Lauer

It seems like almost a dare for women who may have settlements to come forward and say who knew what, when. Were you surprised to see Noah Oppenheim say there were no settlements over Lauer?

Noah Oppenheim has not said that there were no settlements. They’ve actually conceded that there are these settlements, and actually even a wider universe of them. These were couched in euphemisms, and formal records and complaints did not enter HR files. The commonality we see between so many prominent cases of this type is Bill O’Reilly saying adamantly, “There was never a formal record of an HR complaint against me,” and Harvey Weinstein saying, “There was never a formal record of an HR complaint against me.” Over and over again, this is how this works. 

None of the content of the responses is surprising, because the content of the responses is woven into the book. And the book is meticulously fair to those responses, and even generous to them. It was fact-checked by one of the great fact-checkers working today, Sean Lavery, one of the senior checkers at The New Yorker. Every sentence was put through the ringer, and it is nuanced appropriately. 

For the two years since your New Yorker story published, NBC News has repeatedly said that as of August 2017, you had no on-the-record sources on camera. What you did have is all laid out in the book — but just spell it out for me now like I’m stupid.

The book is very clear about what we had and when. Yes, we had multiple named women in every single draft of this story. Yes, we had a tape of Harvey Weinstein confessing to not just a specific assault, but to serial sexual assault. Yes, we had contracts and a paper trail and multiple, multiple employees — all of whom formed the backbone of the New Yorker story that ultimately ran — in the television piece, saying that they had witnessed misconduct.

But that actually is not the point. And it’s very much a misdirection tactic. The point here is that we were ordered to stop. And told not to so much as take a single call. And that was suspicious to everyone at a working level on this thing. My producer has obviously come forward, and wrote a Vanity Fair article recently saying he witnessed this. And that is not how journalistic outfits behave when they think reporters don’t have enough. Typically, they go out and get more — they don’t say, “Please cancel all these interviews immediately.”

And the book explains why. And I’d make a further point, which is: One thing that cannot be disputed is that I walked out of the door and showed The New Yorker magazine the exact same body of reporting that NBC had sent away. And they had the reaction of “My God, this is a huge story, and let’s work our asses off to get it ready for publication as quickly as possible.” And in just a few weeks, it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. So I’ll let people come to their own conclusions about whether what we had was newsworthy.

In the book you quote Noah Oppenheim saying to you several times about the Ambra Gutierrez recording, “How serious is this stuff?” and “Harvey Weinstein grabbing a lady’s breasts a couple of years ago, that’s not national news.” What was it like to hear him say those things to you?

There are specific plots that unfold over the course of this book, involving, for instance, at least 15 secret calls between top NBC executives and Harvey Weinstein that they’ve now conceded happened. And during which promises to kill this story were made. 

But I think equally significant is the backdrop of casual misogyny. That was evident in so many of the individuals that were charged with safeguarding this story — and did the opposite. I include Noah Oppenheim’s writing for The Harvard Crimson in the most generous way possible, saying, you know, “People grow and change. And he was younger then. And he’s more than a decade older by the time of the events of the book.” But he was in the present day making those same kinds of arguments. In those articles, he says, “Women enjoy being preyed upon, and pumped full of alcohol and being victimized in dark frat houses.” And he was in the same way evincing a disregard for women’s voices, and an unwillingness to believe that this issue really matters as he made significant news judgments. And as he engaged with Harvey Weinstein over this. 

And the combination of those attitudes — from Noah Oppenheim, who has written these misogynistic passages; from Andy Lack, who is accused on the record by multiple women of sleeping with underlings and retaliating against them; from Phil Griffin, who is also accused of some pretty unpleasant behavior in the office — absolutely informed the backdrop against which this plot unfolds.

The Oppenheim email says there’s no direct evidence in the book that NBC News didn’t want the story to run because of Matt Lauer. What do you say to that?

This is bigger than Matt Lauer. Bigger than any one person. What the book lays out is this pattern in the media world of what happens in an organization, whether it’s CBS or NBC, that has a pattern of concealing the problem of sexual violence rather than addressing it. And the way in which that makes them vulnerable to efforts to distort their news coverage. And I think that there is little doubt if you read this book, and look at the facts in the cold, hard light of day, that’s exactly what played out here.

They did fire Matt Lauer. Why do you think they decided to do that?

Because the credibility of Brooke Nevils’ claim is not in question, and wasn’t questioned by NBC. Her timeline of events is backed up by contemporaneous communications and others who were there. Certainly NBC is to be commended for finally firing Matt Lauer based on their awareness of there being a problem. That news organization, and others, need to see that as a beginning of accountability.

How did you convince Nevils to talk to you?

Brooke Nevils showed incredible courage in gradually deciding to tell her story. And it is particularly courageous because as I document in the book, she was paid a seven-figure settlement to prevent her from ever discussing NBC News. And she was horrified by the way in which her story was distorted and downplayed. She told friends, “You need to know I was raped, and NBC lied about it.” 

And she has been paid a lot of money and frightened into silence to ensure that she does not talk about NBC executives or what they know. And the fact that she pushed hard to make sure that her agreement would allow her to talk about Matt Lauer, which is not something that was initially on the table — they initially wanted to prevent her from even having contact with other Lauer accusers. That’s something NBC denies but that multiple people in those negotiations or around those negotiations told us. 

The book delves into your personal life a bit. Why did you decide to do that?

A thread in the book that I confront openly is my sincere desire to not be the story. I had worked on this reporting for a long time, and seen these incredibly brave sources do this incredibly difficult thing. And the last thing I wanted was for it to become a story about breaking the story before people could even process these very significant claims that these women were bringing forward. But I sat there on air for months and months, and got questions from good journalists where they really grilled me on this, and said, “Yes, but the story of why this story wasn’t told for so long is important too.” 

Your sister Dylan serves almost as your conscience. 

She is an incredible voice of conscience. And, you know, part of being forthright and honest about this journey that I went on was also addressing the fact that I wasn’t always right or heroic. I was one of the many people in our society who saw a survivor of sexual violence trying to speak repeatedly, and maintaining her story for years and years, and said, “Why don’t you just move on? Why does this matter so much? Yes, your point is credible — but this is such an inconvenience for everyone.” 

And this issue is often an inconvenience, and more and more people get smeared and blacklisted for talking about it. And I myself got blowback, and it was weaponized against me since the moment I started talking about it. But part of my evolution over the course of “Catch and Kill” is realizing that I was wrong and she was right. And that it was really important what she was doing.

Yes, you reveal in the book that you actually didn’t want her to revive her accusations against Woody Allen. It makes you look bad! You feel you weren’t on the right side when she wanted to come forward again?

I think that in so many stories, I have been disheartened to find that people around a survivor of sexual violence played that role of saying, “Why don’t you just shut up?” Hopefully by telling the story of how I was at one point one of those people, I help people understand that as difficult as it is, it can be really important to support someone in your life who is going through that process.

You also describe a memory of the two of you playing as children, “and a grown-up voice sounded, calling her away.” I just want to make that specific and clear: Do you remember Woody Allen calling Dylan away before he allegedly abused her?

Yes. That anecdote I’ll let stand as it is in the book. This was something that affected my entire family and that I have vivid memories of. And that obviously has affected her life profoundly going forward in a much more acute way.

At one point in the book, as he got more desperate, Weinstein calls Woody Allen to ask him, “How did you deal with this?” When you learned of that call, how did it feel?

I had heard about that call from other reporters prior to when I did my own reporting and was able to document it for the book. So it wasn’t terribly surprising. And also, Harvey Weinstein’s legal threat letters, which are printed in the book, generously included talking points about Woody Allen and my family, and an uncle who was convicted of pedophilia. And all these kinds of below-the-belt personal attacks that were not germane to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein but were designed to unsettle and intimidate. 

And so it was not terribly surprising to uncover in Harvey Weinstein’s credit card records that he was ordering a book about Woody Allen’s talking points against my sister. And that he was getting on the phone with Woody Allen.

The way you’re attacked for your family is so interesting. Noah Oppenheim shows you an old L.A. Times story about Woody Allen and Weinstein, like he’s trying to prove that you’re a hysteric out for revenge. It reminded me of the way women are often discredited and their voices are shut down. 

You know, I can’t claim to fully understand what it’s like to be a survivor of sexual assault. Or a woman. Or to be dismissed in the ways that those categories of people so often are. But I can tell you what it’s like to be someone who is assumed to be kind of part of the comfy boys’ club that talks in a certain way about women, and then raises concerns. And suddenly there’s a temperature change in the room, and you’re an outsider. And you’re getting called things like “hysterical,” and being accused of being too close to the matter, and too emotional. 

Jon Lovett is a character in the book in these ways that I found funny and moving.

Jonathan was an incredibly strong voice of principle, through all of the events that unravel and “Catch and Kill.” He is in there partly because I wanted to be honest about the fact that this was not glamorous or empowering. In the moment, it was confusing and frightening and uncertain. And among other things, my relationship hit a low point and suffered. And also partly because I think it’s a model for other people who are in the lives of either sources or reporters coming forward, who desperately need that support system and that kind of a voice of principle. 

You wrote that you proposed to him in draft pages for the book, and he wrote back, “Sure.” How’s it going?

I am really grateful that he said yes to that. I am so fortunate to have him in my life. He is a fierce advocate for justice on these issues. And I think the culture is lucky to have him in on this conversation.

When’s the wedding?

That has not been scheduled yet, because I have been drinking from a fire hose and not sleeping a lot. But we will get on that!

What are your plans for your HBO deal?

I am entering production on some interesting projects. And those will be long-form documentaries that are investigative and tough in the same way my New Yorker stories are. And I’m really excited to share them with the world. 

I read the book, obviously, but one of my colleagues is listening to the audiobook — there are a lot of accents, apparently! Did you have fun doing that?

In my last book, I got some criticism for not differentiating the voices enough. I did work as an anime voice actor earlier in my career in a small way, and it was important to me to do as much justice as possible to the really brave characters.

We did a very careful, respectful job, and gave a lot of thought to making sure that those voices were differentiated in a way that would help the reader, and captured a little bit of who those people were. But also weren’t full impersonations; it’s sort of at the halfway mark. I’m not an actor. But we wanted to make sure that it was imbued with a sufficient amount of character that these people came across in a full, well-rounded way.

Finally, Ronan: Why do you hate “Jackie” so much? 

It’s worth noting that in the transcripts of conversations that transpired over the course of “Catch and Kill,” I, in every instance, responded to criticism of “Jackie” by saying that I love the score. I think Mica Levi is incredibly talented — and I love “Under the Skin.” I love the “Jackie” score! And Natalie Portman is obviously incredible in it. There are a lot of good things to be said about “Jackie.” But it was very funny to discover in the record as I was reporting this out that there was this recurring theme of people just not getting “Jackie”! 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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