Brigitte Lacombe; Little, Brown and Company

How Ronan Farrow wrote the best (and most horrifying) spy thriller of the year

October 14, 2019 at 11:05 AM EDT

The year’s best spy thriller is stranger — and more horrifying — than fiction. In Catch and Kill, Ronan Farrow expands on his reporting of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others, while also telling his story of unraveling shocking conspiracies, from Hollywood to D.C. He weaves a breathless narrative as compelling as it is disturbing.

Farrow’s tale includes spies following him and others under covert names; evidence shredding; and death-threats popping up on cellphones. Silent alliances seem to form between the alleged predators he’s reporting on, and his bosses at NBC ostensibly supporting him. The book ends with a bombshell of an allegation of sexual assault against Matt Lauer, by the woman whose initial report helped lead NBC to fire the now-disgraced Today anchor.

It’s not on shelves until Tuesday, but Catch and Kill is already the best-selling book on Amazon, a spot it held onto for much of the weekend. It has inspired a lengthy letter from Lauer, in which he strongly denies any and all allegations of non-consensual sex. And as it’s peppered with dozens of names of powerful men who’ve faced down allegations of sexual misconduct over the past few years — everyone from Weinstein to Lauer to actor Jeffrey Tambor to President Donald Trump to Farrow’s father, Woody Allen — it rather bracingly exposes the rot that’s persisted across elite American institutions for decades. (All of these men listed have denied claims of sexual misconduct.)

At the beginning of October, Ronan spoke to EW from Los Angeles for an extensive conversation touching on the book’s revelations, style, and closing message. Catch and Kill is available for pre-order.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I wanted to start by discussing the hoopla around the book concerning reported threats from Dylan Howard and Matt Lauer, who you expose with rather severe allegations in the book. Given that, do you feel nervous at all about the book coming out?
RONAN FARROW: Every story I report, there is a playbook that gets used to try to get ahead of it and that often includes legal threats against either whoever is publishing the story or me personally, or both. It often includes spin in the press and the manipulation of tabloid pages. I wouldn’t say that I’ve become immune to that. I’m human, and it’s stressful and scary. Powerful interests saying they are going to wipe you out is not a fun experience. But when you reach a point in the reporting like where I am with the Catch and Kill reporting, where you really have wrapped your arms around the whole thing and done an incredible amount of due diligence and fact checking, you know that it’s bulletproof, with receipts, if you will, you just forge ahead and try to filter out the noise.

Describe the fact checking and vetting process for me and what you did day-to-day to make sure that this book was iron-clad.
I was incredibly fortunate to have Sean Lavery who is one of the world’s best fact-checkers today, and was a senior checker at The New Yorker. He vetted this book really exhaustively. That meant 10, 11, 12-hour calls where we summarized every single thing about every single person…and really heard out every response and made sure that any time there was a response that should be included in the book for fairness, that it [was] in there, that every nuance was captured and anything that is in the book is backed up by really hard evidence.

Let’s get into the anchor of this book which is a very damning, if nuanced, portrait of NBC. As you went about compiling this book and all of your reporting, how did that emerge for you as a central story?
I had just come off of the experience of spending a year reporting on the corporate culture at CBS, and that was the case where you had a lot of very serious allegations trailing a number of executives in a chain of commands at a company. You had a board and a set of executives who were aware of problems and covering them up, and you had a pattern of corporate practices including settlements that were being used to sweep a problem under a rug rather than address it.

I come at all of my reporting with a perspective of loving and caring about the free press and the journalists who bang their heads against the wall trying to crack open tough stories, and NBC is one of our great news institutions staffed by some of the best journalists I’ve worked with. I love the reporters there, and they’ve been incredibly supportive in rallying around this book in many cases becoming sources for this book, and I think really anticipating it in a positive way because of the closure of some of the important reporting that is in this book. I do think that if you expose some of that rot, you can start a real conversation about a reform that opens up the space wider for people to feel safer in a workplace, for journalists to produce more tough stories, and if they intersect with things that a company has covered up in the past, and that just takes sunlight on the problem.

This book is written in first-person, which we’ll get into more later, but I found it particularly interesting in terms of your feelings about NBC as well. You learn some disturbing things about your bosses and colleagues, and it becomes clear in the book that many are trying to halt your reporting. You mentioned the respect for the people you have there, but there is also the fact that you worked there before they informally let you go. Near the very end of the book you say, “I just wanted my job back.” There are these parallel stories of what you are reporting, the severity and gravity of it, and how you’re squaring it within your own career and your own journey.
From the beginning, I wanted this book to fully capitalize on the medium of being a book. I wanted the reporting to be as ironclad and bulletproof as any New Yorker piece that I’ve done, and it is. But that is under the surface. I wanted the reading experience to be narrative and compulsive and immersive in a way that books can be, and shorter-form magazine or newspaper writing can’t as easily. My hope is that in doing that, this allows important and careful reporting to get to a different and wider audience and to be experienced in a different and maybe more empathetic way. Seeing me follow that trail of clues and being behind the scenes, [this] unvarnished picture of the struggles those sources went through, will maybe empower the next journalist in a similar low point or the next source that is struggling with that decision. I wanted to put people in my shoes and put it in their shoes in only a way a book can.

It also at times reads like a genuine spy thriller. This meeting between spies introduces the book with this fascinating genre-feel, and the narrative is pretty propulsive. Then you have bizarre code names, a constant sense of being followed, paper shredding, all integral to the story. Did it feel like you were really living it, or did that come through as you were putting the book together?
It did feel like I was in some kind of a “cloak and dagger” espionage plot as the reporting was playing out. It was only when I got the underlying documents and got people to start fessing up to the fact that that conspiracy was real that I realized…that if you are wealthy enough and connected enough you can literally construct a movie style spy thriller operation to crack down on reporters. I actually thought that not only was it in the DNA of story — that it had this genre feel — but also it was important to make that link, because code names and false identities and honeypots are all well and good in a Dashiell Hammett novel, but they aren’t the kinds of tactics that should be thrown at free press in this country.

You talk a lot about how in your New Yorker reporting, it was really important that you were not the story and that the women’s experiences were centered. Obviously, the book is a different format and medium, but you are really the story here. Were you reluctant to make that shift?
The reason why I did make it personal is because I felt like I had to. Both things are true: I worked very, very hard. You can see me dodging and weaving…for a long time to keep the focus on the underlying allegations and the underlying stories. But I was constantly possessed by tough questions from tough, smart journalists; as [I quote] Stephen Colbert in the book [from our interview], “Part of the story is why these stories don’t get told, and you experienced that, and you are not answering questions about it.” It was a humbling moment where I had to catch myself and realize my major fear about ever being the center of attention — I had to reassess that.

The conclusion I drew was that I was right to take a period of time where the national conversation could be about those allegations, but also that Colbert and all these other journalists who grilled me about this were right too. I needed to literally take two years to do careful reporting to get out that story about the story. In a way it’s just as important, because we’re at this time where the press is so embattled, and there’s this authoritarian rhetoric getting weaponized against us. Trustworthy, fair reporting is the lifeblood of democracy. We need that and a certain admiration for all the reporters to do it. I hope that in telling my story and the story of the machine that got revved up to kill reporting in those years that I chronicled will be less about me, because it has to be in order to tell that story, but also a broader tribute to journalists and testaments to the importance of the freedom of the press.

Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

Let’s get into Matt Lauer’s presence in this book. He pops up early on, almost in signals to the reader to pay attention. Thinking back on those early interactions with him, where you’d bring up the idea of investigating sexual harassment in Hollywood and he sort of jumps, in your telling, did you become conscious of that later? What was that experience like reflecting on your interactions with him?
The book makes clear that the people around me who ultimately set against the reporting were also people in other contexts I had liked and had good working relationships with. Matt Lauer was very much in that category. I hope it also conveys there that I looked up to him and hung on his every word in terms of advice on how to become the best broadcaster I could be, and was incredibly grateful for his mentorship at a time that was somewhat of a low point for me career-wise. People are complicated, and clearly he in particular proved to have a lot of complications that I was not aware of at the time

Brooke Nevils tells you her story, that Matt Lauer allegedly sexually assaulted her, and I believe you granted it the most space and detail of any of the women’s stories in this book. (Lauer strongly denies the allegation, while NBC denies it tried to cover up Nevils’ allegation.) It’s the finale of Catch and Kill in a lot of ways. Can you talk about that decision, structurally? I know the book is mostly chronological, but it felt like an important place in the book and narrative.
Brooke Nevils was incredibly brave in doing what she did. I think anyone who walks back into a company and says, “Hey, here’s this bad thing that happened,” even knowing as she really did at the time, that it would upend her rights, it’s someone that we should rise up and strive to protect. And like any sources in my stories, I regarded all her claims with maximum skepticism. I grilled her, we looked at all of the supporting documents and witnesses and really made sure this stuff was true, and as you saw reading it, we also go to pains to be as fair as we possibly could be with the limitations we had in terms of ground rules with parties involved. In terms of making sure Matt Lauer’s thinking is reflected and all of the arguments that could possibly be invoked in his defense are in there.

I had no animus towards Matt or any of the people involved in that situation. Literally just trying to get the facts right, and you’re correct. It is explosive. She did go through a very traumatic situation that she alleges happened, and I think it’s an important story of why people should come forward in these situations, because it can change a corporate culture. You asked about the positioning of it in the context of this book, and it’s an important part of the reporting for all the reasons that I just described. But it also reflects that old T.S. Eliot line about returning the place you started, and understanding it for the first time. I’m butchering it. [Laughs] But you get the idea.

You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you feel that you finally wrapped your arms around “the whole thing.” Why did this feel like the place for this book to be completed? Because you also know that the story is far from over.
The story is absolutely far from over, and the threats against the press continue. Threats to the press can become an absolutely instrumental part of shutting down a democracy. It can literally become a life or death matter and thank God we’re in a country where that is not the case. But I think none of us can rest on our laurels. People are still deploying extreme tactics to kill stories. Media organizations are sometimes doing incredible work standing up to that, and sometimes not. I felt that this was an important time to have this conversation about this reporting.

The serious plot threads in the book do naturally culminate in those moments early this year: The NBC reporting comes to a head and there’s that final settlement to sign with Brooke Nevils. The Black Cube reporting comes to a head. It does leave the door open to all of that forward-looking conversation about, “Where is this going to go? How far are we going to go to protect the press and the tough stories that need to be reported?”

One of the subtler elements of this that struck me was the implicit line drawn between the way some powerful men allegedly assault or harass women, and the way some powerful men in your orbit talk about women — the latter is integral to the culture, but feels similarly violent. It gives a sense of a broader cultural problem. Can you talk about writing to that?
I do think that this body of reporting…illustrates two dynamics that were going on, one of which is a very specific plot where there were threats being held over people, and enticements being advanced to try to kill a story. The other [was] a cultural dynamic, which comes out in, as you say, multiple moments where people talked about women in a certain way, and moments where people talked about the reporting and its importance or not in a certain way.

Those moments where you have an executive in his early writings [arguing] that drunk girls going into a frat party are asking for it. Some of these are in and of themselves not necessarily things that you would want to condemn someone for, and people’s opinions [can] evolve and change. The book is very careful to allow for that, but I do think they all inform this extra layer of what makes them vulnerable to those more specific plots that were being advanced. Namely, when you have an all-male chain of command and all of those men subscribe to a certain set of traditional views of what matters and what doesn’t, you run into this assumption that people will just never care about reporting those types of crimes.

You comb through various communications and discover that Harvey Weinstein essentially consulted your father, Woody Allen, for advice as you were reporting on him. That must have been a bit of a trip for you. How did that feel?
I ended up obtaining a ton of documents, recordings and other types of records. Reading through all of Harvey Weinstein’s communications in that timeframe was a very intimidating experience. I was already aware from a legal threats I received — which I quote in quite a wholesome way — that there was this effort to personalize it and to use as a cudgel against the reporting things related to personal things about my past, which were in some cases demons I’d tried to outrun for years and years. So that was a painful realization that had already happened. But then months later, coming into all of these communications, and seeing the behind-the-scenes play-by-play of advancing that effort — including talking to Woody Allen — was less surprising and more, just, interesting. It illustrates a) how far Weinstein was going to try to attack this reporting, and how personal and below-the-belt he wanted those attacks to be, and b) that there is a certain kinship that he leaned on among men who have faced these kinds of allegations. He was asking, essentially, “What’s the playbook? How do I deal with this?”

A personal narrative running through the book is your relationship with your sister, Dylan. You really wrestle with guilt over how you reacted to her allegations of sexual abuse against your father when you were younger.
One of the decisions I made [in writing this book] was that if I was going to introduce what I went through on a personal level, it couldn’t be a victory lap. It had to be bracingly honest about myself and I had to go to a vulnerable place to help people who are in a similar low point or struggling with similar issues understand how complicated that feels, and how hard it is to make the right choice. You’re not even sure you’re making the right choice at the time. part of that was, [one], confronting head-on the relationship with my sister and the fact that her allegations did inform my understanding, not in any way of what’s specifically factually linked to the Weinstein case, but more broadly to the importance of the issue. I wanted to be frank about the fact that I was one of those guys who told a woman in his life, “You should shut up. This isn’t worth the cost.” It was a gradual and painful journey to come to an understanding that I was wrong and she was right, and that she was doing a brave thing, and that the culture and journalism needed more of that. I hope that personal story is helpful to people on both sides of those relationships. I’ve seen in just about every story I’ve reported about sexual violence that there are always those dynamics at play, that there is always a person in a source’s life — maybe a man — saying, “Why didn’t you just take the easy way out and shut up?” I’ve been there.

Dylan also guides you through the reporting process and offers insight into her own experience of not being believed. How did you and her discuss her presence in the book?
We had a lot of detailed conversations about it. As with any other person who features in the book in a significant way, she went through a fact-checking process. The veracity of those conversations and my notes on them were tested against her recollections independently. Also, as in all of those fact-checking calls, she had the opportunity to weigh in and say, “I’m not comfortable with this part.” Particularly for survivors of sexual violence, I really try to make sure that there’s an opportunity for them to shape how their experiences are being portrayed. That doesn’t mean I’m any less skeptical or rigorous, but it does mean if someone feels something is intrusive and personal and doesn’t want it in…it is such an intrusive and personal subject matter. So the answer is yes: She did get to weigh in. She actually was great about it and was very embracing of the fact that I wanted to be raw and honest about the fights that we had. I hope the book is a tribute to, in addition to the journalists who work on this, also to sources who are in the situation that she was in, and struggling to speak. It was a really nice resolution to the story that her illustrations are in the book. I thought she killed it.

Does this feel like a closing of a chapter for you, even if the story is ongoing?
That’s an interesting question. The themes continue. The press is still embattled. The investigative reporting that speaks truth to power that a whole community of journalists are struggling to get out is more important than ever to the future of our country. There are still Harvey Weinsteins in industry after industry; there are still media organizations struggling with whether to run stories about them. I think the issues are live. I hope and pray that I get the chance to continue to report on them. That’s not just with respect to sexual violence… related to corruption and malfeasance in corporations in all different types. That said, the book does bring full-circle a lot of unanswered questions that both I and the public had when that story emerged in the way that it did. And also brings in a whole slew of new reporting that I think sheds light on these really important, ongoing issues. I hope that it feels like a satisfying end when people close that back cover. I really strived for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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Related content:

NBC News boss denies that network tried to cover up Matt Lauer’s conduct: ‘Absolutely false’

Brooke Nevils, Matt Lauer rape accuser, slams his open letter: ‘I am not afraid of him’

Ronan Farrow reveals the books that have defined his life

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