The Unbearable Agony of Being the Man of MeToo

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The details presented in Ronan Farrow’s new book Catch and Kill are familiar by now: Harvey Weinstein is a powerful man who reportedly used his power to sexually abuse women for the majority of his career. What is new is the difficult process of reporting this story and finally bringing it to publication in the New Yorker. That grueling tale is the meat of Catch and Kill, which reads as if John Grisham decided to take a stab at Spotlight, and is less about the alleged victims and moreso, seemingly, about good men, bad men, and a nefarious corporation that harbored abuse in the shadows. Framing Catch and Kill as a MeToo narrative is generous; it is a journalist’s procedural of how power can work in disservice to the truth, a story about one man working against a behemoth corporation whose attempts to kill a story about abuse of power and sexual assault are reprehensible.

Farrow’s dogged determination to beat the ticking clock and get his story out is what drives Catch and Kill, as opposed to the stories of the women whose bravery going public eventually shed light on Weinstein’s behavior—known for years only as an open secret and journalism’s great white whale. The fact that the story was eventually published is an incredible feat, but the story itself, and the women who populate it, play second fiddle to the character of Farrow as an intrepid journalist, dodging shady characters in dark alleys in search of the Truth.

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To be fair, many of the real-life elements of the book are incredible enough to be treated with the cinematic quality Farrow provides. Black Cube, a private investigation firm retained by Weinstein, allegedly surveilled Farrow for the duration of his reporting. Fearing for his personal safety and convinced that his house is bugged, he decamps temporarily to a wealthy friend’s sun-washed apartment in Chelsea—the most luxurious of safe houses. In a scene that will play out beautifully once the inevitable film adaptation is made, Farrow takes the physical materials of his reporting and locks them in a safe deposit box, with a note that reads, “Should anything happen to me, please make sure this information is released.” If that’s how Farrow felt during the process, imagine how Weinstein’s dozens of victims have felt for decades. Farrow certainly did not.

Following the reporting process makes for scintillating reading for those interested, but for those who might be looking for victim driven narrative— one that doesn’t heap laurels upon MeToo’s golden boy for his bravery and his reportage, then this is the wrong book. The women Farrow reports on and their stories feel minimized, somewhat in service of making Farrow the hero. Catch and Kill is paced like a thriller, and Farrow, the detective at the center, positions himself as the main character—a curious choice that doesn’t always pan out. It’s not that the story isn’t worth being told, or the subject matter deserves more reverence or that Farrow himself isn’t sensitive to his sources. He works with his sources without pressuring them, and his respect for them comes through in his reporting as well as what happened behind the scenes. But prioritizing the thrill of the chase flattens the experiences of the women whose stories are the foundation of Farrow’s journalistic revelations.

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About halfway through Catch and Kill, Farrow demonstrates some self-awareness on the optics of being a man reporting on women’s stories. By this point, readers have read through multiple chapters and pages of process, pushback and shady surveillance, recounted in minute detail. We learn about Farrow’s emotional state during the reporting process and read arguments between Farrow and his fiancé, Pod Save America impresario Jon Lovett. Farrow’s come-to-Jesus moment about his position as a de facto MeToo ambassador comes only after Lauren O’Connor, a former literary scout at the Weinstein Company and author of a 2015 internal memo that detailed Weinstein’s predatory behavior, refused to speak to him for fear of retaliation. “She is terrified and will not engage,” an intermediary tells Farrow. “With anyone.”

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Up until this point in the narrative, Farrow takes a beat, but not before acknowledging that O’Connor’s initial refusal to participate was a “blow” to his reporting. “I was painfully aware that I was a man writing a story about women’s consent, confronting a woman saying she didn’t want her life upended in this way,” he writes. “Eventually, she would begin to tell her story publicly. But at the time, I promise I wouldn’t include her.” It’s clear that this aside is meant to expose a crucial part of the reporting process to the general public, who might wonder why it took so long for the Weinstein story to break. Sources are often unwilling to speak for fear of retribution and Farrow diligently includes these instances throughout the narrative to make a larger point about the adversity he faced in the reporting. The effort is appreciated, but the effect is distracting.

The other issue that Farrow was up against, besides his own ambition, was an imminent story from New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor—the two women who share the Pulitzer with Farrow for their work breaking the Weinstein story. The two women published their own record of their process, She Said, which centers Weinstein’s survivors and considers the MeToo movement as not just a blip, but an irrevocable societal change, the impacts of which will be felt for years to come. The pressure any reporter feels to break a story is often self-created, but especially so in this case—throughout the book, Farrow comes up against NBC’s opposition time and time again. In Twohey and Kantor, he finds an extra bit of motivation. After learning that two of his sources, Patricia Arquette and Emily Nestor, received calls from the women at the Times, he writes, “I was sincerely glad the Times was there to draw some of the heat and ensure the story saw the light of day, whatever happened to my story. But privately, I was also feeling competitive, with some self-pity mixed in.” Understandable, yes, but a necessary inclusion? I’m not so sure.

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Catch and Kill also functions as a record of Farrow’s allyship. Here is a man who tried—and succeeded—to help women. It is important to remember that Farrow’s sister, Dylan, wrote about the “grooming” and alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, Woody Allen. In a piece for the Hollywood Reporter in 2016, Farrow lays bare his personal stake in the movement—his sister’s suffering—and it is this investment that led him towards the Weinstein story. But the enemy in Catch and Kill is not Weinstein, as one might expect, but it is the powers that be at NBC, for they are the ones that, according to this book, shut Farrow down at every possible moment.

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Noah Oppenheim, current president of NBC News, is posited as the bad guy, popping up at every turn to thwart Farrow’s attempts at getting the story to light. The real revelation of the book is not the Weinstein story, the gross abuse of power and influence by a man in power—it’s the revelation of just how much of a scumbag Matt Lauer really is, which Farrow discovered in his reporting, as he encountered pushback from the heads of the network.

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Exclusive excerpts published before the book hit the shelves reveal that NBC News anchor Brooke Nevils alleged that Lauer anally raped her in his hotel room in Sochi, when they were both covering the 2014 Winter Olympics. Ever the victim, Lauer fought back with a 1,300-word defense, in which he attempted to discredit Nevils’s story by positioning himself as a family man, a father of daughters, and a person who is being unfairly targeted by a vicious woman. This, of course, is the most interesting bit —it’s new and it is indicative of a larger culture of silence at NBC. Looking at this book through that lens is a bit more compelling. That a television network with massive reach and influence willingly harbored Lauer is the actual story, and would be better served without the riveting glimpses into Farrow’s interior life that appear in the middle of every other chapter.

Farrow’s flair for the dramatic is deployed with little necessity: at one point in the narrative, to describe the toll fighting the good fight has taken on his body, Farrow compares himself to a consumptive Victorian boy. It is clear that the work he did was important. But his focus on the toll it took on his own body, mind, and spirit minimizes the impact of the victims’ story. Thrillers are wonderful beach reads when they are fiction, and less so when they are real-life narratives about sexual abuse and power.

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