the body politic

Ronan Farrow Depicts a Chilling Cover-up at NBC

Andrew Lack, Matt Lauer, and Noah Oppenheim. Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage/Getty Images

Ronan Farrow’s new book, Catch and Kill, which will be published on Tuesday, reads like a thriller, beginning with two Russian spies in an Uzbek restaurant in Brooklyn, before unwinding and building toward ever-darker revelation. And while it may be tempting to understand the book’s major bombshell as the on-the-record allegation that Matt Lauer anally raped Brooke Nevils, a younger NBC colleague with whom he went on to have an affair, it’s not the assault itself (which Lauer denies) that serves as the book’s chilling denouement.

Rather, it’s the whole, intricate puzzle Farrow puts together, with astounding reportorial reach and detail: a weave of phone conversations, texts, in-person meetings, the exchange of gifts and information between powerful people in network news, magazines, law firms, and politics — all, Farrow suggests, in service of the protection of powerful men and the suppression of stories about the harm that they’ve done.

The reveal in Catch and Kill is not that there are corrupt people; it’s that corrupt people are in control of our media, politics, and entertainment and that, in fact, many of them remain in control — two years after the mass eruption of stories of harassment and assault that Farrow played a big part in precipitating. In his detailed laying out of systemic dread, Farrow does much to vividly describe the kind of horror story we still live in, when it comes to harassment and assault and, more broadly, to power imbalances and abuses.

Farrow, like his New York Times peers Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in their recent book She Said, has chosen to frame his narrative around his own journalistic project — how he came to publish the blockbuster story of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual predation. But unlike Kantor and Twohey’s triumphal tale of working within a supportive news organization, much of Farrow’s story is about working against the news network, NBC, where he was employed as an on-air investigative journalist and where he did much of his reporting on Weinstein, though that reporting would never air. (He eventually published in The New Yorker).

It’s a neat trick, especially for someone who is himself the product of Hollywood power (albeit a particularly gothic strain of it), to be able to convey the meta-experience of being dead-ended within an institution not just determined but designed to quash stories of abuse. Farrow winds up filtering the feelings of powerlessness and paranoia that grip so many, so much less powerful than he, as they try to make their way through professional mazes built to trap, demoralize, intimidate, and ultimately sap them of their ability to fight back and tell their stories.

Farrow takes readers through every step of his struggle with his unwilling employer, every meeting with editors and producers and executives and lawyers, from whom he gets mixed messages, alternating enthusiasm and discouragement, until he bumps up against full-on obstruction from NBC and the double-dealing of his own sources and confidants. (In one of the most cinematic moments in the book, Farrow confronts the lawyer Lisa Bloom and reminds her that when he turned to her as a lawyer and friend near the start of his investigation, she’d sworn not to tell Weinstein’s people about his reporting. “Ronan,” she tells him over the phone near the end, “I am his people.” Bloom’s role in undermining Weinstein’s victims was also exposed in She Said.)

Throughout the book, there is a sense of suffocating foreboding, the dawning realization that almost no one in the narrative is clean. Early on, Farrow describes a meeting at which he sought professional guidance from Lauer. ”My future felt uncertain, and it meant a lot to me that Lauer was giving me the time,” Farrow writes, noting how, as he reels off a list of stories he wants to pursue, Lauer’s “eyes snapped back” at the mention of one on sexual harassment in Hollywood. Later, Farrow visits another NBC sage, the septuagenarian news anchor and legend Tom Brokaw, for advice as he’s getting stonewalled by network executives on his developing story. Brokaw (who would later be accused by former female colleagues of having made unwanted sexual advances) urges him to keep pushing, to do the right thing; he offers his formidable support.

Then Brokaw asks Farrow who the story is about. When Farrow says it’s Weinstein, he writes, the “warmth drained out of the room.”

“I have to disclose, Ronan,” Brokaw tells him in a voice we can all hear because it was the voice of American news for decades, “that Harvey Weinstein is a friend.”

They’re all friends, it feels, as you read this frightening volume, and it seems as though they all have bad histories with women, sex, and power, patterns they seem to have cultivated within the institutions that made them powerful and brought them together to begin with.

Noah Oppenheim, a Today show and NBC News executive to whom Farrow reported, shruggingly tells Farrow that during the 2016 election, women in NBC’s news team had reported sexual harassment by a Trump campaign official on the trail but weren’t eager to come forward publicly. Oppenheim, Farrow discovers, has been shrugging off abuses of gender and power for a long time; as an undergraduate, he wrote anti-feminist screeds for the Harvard Crimson. “To the angry feminists,” read one, “there is nothing wrong with single-sex institutions,” arguing for men’s clubs and noting that “women who feel threatened by the clubs’ environments should seek tamer pastures. However, apparently women enjoy being confined, pumped full of alcohol and preyed upon” — a prescient description of what Brooke Nevils says happened to her in Lauer’s hotel room. “They feel desired, not demeaned,” Oppenheim wrote as a student.

It was not long after, we learn, that Oppenheim was “discovered” while a college senior by Phil Griffin. Griffin is currently the president of MSNBC, and Farrow describes him as a crude boss who waves around a photo of a woman’s exposed vagina in a meeting, commenting, “Would you look at that? Not bad, not bad”; Farrow also reports that Griffin, while a senior producer at Nightly News in the 1990s, once pressured female producers to accompany him to a peep show in Times Square. In 2000, Griffin had been caught in a blizzard on his way back to New York, along with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the longtime host of Hardball, who had been reprimanded for verbally harassing an assistant producer in 1999 and was caught on tape joking in 2016 about slipping Hillary Clinton a “Bill Cosby pill” before interviewing her. Escaping the blizzard, Griffin and an unnamed colleague had “stopped off at Harvard Square and started talking to some undergraduate girls at a bar,” Farrow quotes Oppenheim as having described. “They followed them to a late-night party at the newspaper building and one picked up a copy of the paper” and read one of Oppenheim’s Crimson articles.

That’s how young Noah Oppenheim found his way to NBC News, where he’s been president since 2017 and where he continues to work alongside Griffin and Matthews, and also Andy Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, who Farrow reports has a history of hounding female employees into affairs with him. One former correspondent who worked for Lack at CBS describes being relentlessly pursued by him when he was her married executive producer in the 1980s: “If your boss does that, what are you gonna say? … If you say, ‘I don’t want to celebrate with you,’ you’re asking for trouble.’”

Around every airless corner is another troubling figure — most of them powerful men, some women, some merely weak lackeys, others double agents, all of them working in tandem to protect their power and each other. Farrow reports that the day after he met with David Corvo, another longtime NBC producer brought on to vet the Weinstein story, the network would finalize an almost $1 million separation agreement with a former NBC employee, who’d alleged that Corvo had pursued her inappropriately and doggedly in 2007 (NBC has denied that the employee’s payout had anything to do with her earlier complaints against Corvo). Farrow writes of an evening at a 2017 gala honoring NBC anchor Lester Holt and Amazon Studios head Roy Price (who would later resign after sexual-harassment allegations): “Jeffrey Tambor (who would also be accused of sexual harassment) … toasted Price. Noah Oppenheim did the honors for Holt, praising his unflinching coverage of tough stories. Then he returned to his seat at NBC’s table alongside David Corvo … Nearby, at Amazon’s table, Harvey Weinstein applauded.”

These are the people who catch Farrow in a web, obstructing his reporting on Weinstein for reasons it takes him the whole book to finally comprehend. Through it all, he documents — with reporting that has been vetted by a New Yorker fact-checker — that at least several of his bosses are in contact with Weinstein himself and, at one point, receive, during the days that Weinstein understands the story to have been killed, a celebratory bottle of Grey Goose (officially for something having to do with Megyn Kelly). In another instance, Farrow’s NBC superiors — acting, Farrow believes, at the suggestion of Weinstein himself — use Farrow’s own familial experience to delegitimize his story, arguing that he’ll be seen as having an ax to grind because of his feelings about his sister Dylan’s claims that their father Woody Allen molested her as a child.

Since reports of the book’s contents have leaked, NBC has vigorously denied Farrow’s account, claiming that they did not work in any way to suppress his reporting. In a story for Vanity Fair, Farrow’s producer Rich McHugh rejected NBC’s characterization of what happened.

Two years ago, I worried that we were understanding the stories we were hearing about harassment and assault as the wrong kind of horror, imagining them to be about singular monsters, Freddys and Jasons: supernaturally grotesque individuals who could be vanquished. Back then, my colleague Irin Carmon — who would go on to publicly decry the “system” of executive, legal, and network suppression of harassment stories she tried to report at the Washington Post, in a story that prefigured some of Farrow’s narrative here — had already observed to me that trying to report out stories of endless complicity, realizing that harassers and their protectors were everywhere, felt more like the scene in which Allison Williams dangles the keys in Get Out: “Trust no one.”

She was right, of course. Because Get Out was a movie about the psychological terror of racism and the legacy of systemic bias, its horror the exposure not just of a few villains, but of a network of purported allies, eager to exploit and terrorize.

The version of the story that’s about the individual Bad Guys works as a comfort and a balm, permits us to sit around and wonder what will happen to those “taken down” by Me Too, while the structures that supported them still stand strong. No matter how many individual bogeymen have lost their jobs, we live in a world in which our ability to evolve is still measured by our willingness to forgive them and return them to positions of power and not by a determination to elevate other kinds of people to positions of authority. The focus on the fates of those individuals draws our attention from the vast mechanisms of cover-up that remain in place and work to protect powerful perpetrators.

After Brokaw was accused in 2018 of kissing his colleague Linda Vester against her will in the 1990s, he wrote a letter in response, denying her claim and focusing on his own suffering, which he described as tantamount to being “perp-walked” and “taken to the guillotine.” In the days that followed, the network reportedly pressured its female employees to sign an open letter of admiration and support for him. “We felt forced to sign the letter,” one staffer later told Page Six. “[T]he unspoken threat was that if your name was not on it, there would be some repercussion down the road. Execs are watching to see who signed and who didn’t.” This staffer’s description eerily echoes Andy Lack’s alleged pursuit of his junior colleague: If your boss does that, what are you gonna say?

NBC is the network that sat on the tape of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women by their pussies. It was NBC’s Lauer who sat in an anchor chair in 2016 — in part because he’d been well protected for years by a network that had worked to ignore and bury complaints of sexual misconduct — and who from that perch gave Trump an inept, softball interview in prime time. Before he lost his job for a habit of propositioning, groping, and rubbing his penis against female colleagues, NBC employed Mark Halperin, who on Morning Joe in 2016 dismissed New York Times reporting on Trump’s unwelcome advances toward and groping of women, telling America that “there’s nothing illegal, there’s nothing even kind of beyond boorish or politically incorrect, which is built into the Donald Trump brand. So if that’s the best they have … Trump can celebrate this story politically.”

Trump is president now. And while Lauer and Halperin may be gone, the network that paid and protected them to the last is intact. NBC News is still overseen by Noah Oppenheim, by Phil Griffin and Andy Lack and David Corvo. They decide, right now, who gets to sit at anchor desks and in guest chairs. (Disclosure: I have been a semi-regular unpaid guest in those chairs at MSNBC, though perhaps coincidentally, since publishing a July piece that was critical of NBC’s political coverage, especially with regard to gender and race, I have not appeared on air.)

Yes, as Farrow points out, NBC is also filled with great, hard-working, ethical journalists, the vast majority of whom have never made jovial cracks about slipping presidential candidates rape pills. But the people who are in charge, at the top, actually shaping the coverage and thus the American understanding of the world, are the ones who went to strip clubs and late-night Harvard parties together, who followed undergraduate girls, who patted each other on the back as they got awards and covered up each other’s affairs and harassment and assault of junior co-workers: These are the guys who run one of the nation’s news networks.

They are responsible for telling millions of people the story of our nation, explaining power itself, in 2020. These men decide how to frame coverage of the Supreme Court, on which sits one justice credibly accused of sexual harassment and one justice credibly accused of sexual assault; this term, that court will decide crucial cases about LGBTQ discrimination and reproductive rights.

While I was reading Farrow’s book, a friend walking in Manhattan snapped a picture of a curious sight: It was Harvey Weinstein, whose trial has been postponed until January, sitting alone on a chilly night, smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table at Cipriani, a media and entertainment destination where powerful people used to go to be seen. Weinstein looked slumped and haggard; it was two years to the week that the original stories about him had run. I stared at the photo of this diminished man, but I didn’t feel much.

I’ve been asked so often what I think should happen to these guys, the monsters whose badness has been exposed, who’ve been knocked from their thrones, either temporarily or permanently. Prison? Forgiveness? Rehabilitation? I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t long for anyone to suffer, to be jobless or friendless or depressed; I don’t yearn to see anyone — not even Harvey — in prison; I really don’t. That’s partly because I don’t believe in prison, but also because I know that locking up a couple of bad guys won’t fix what’s broken.

What I want is not even for all the bad people to be punished; all I really want is for them not to be in charge anymore.

Ronan Farrow Depicts a Chilling Cover-up at NBC