Recently I read “She Said” and “Catch and Kill” back to back. I didn’t set out to read them on top of each other– “She Said” became available for me at the library right before “Catch and Kill” was released, so I’m considering it a happy accident. I believe that my enjoyment of the books was actually enhanced by reading multiple accounts of the Harvey Weinstein investigation by two types of reporters in about two weeks.
Let me preface my review by making a bold statement. I’ve read over 50 books this year, and these two are among the best. I’d go so far as to say they’re two of the best books I’ve read in many, many years. They feature double agents, spies, intrigue, and adventure–and they just happen to be true stories. Anyway, let me get into it.
Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor are reporters for the New York Times. Ronan Farrow was a television journalist, who was working to bolster his investigative reporting credibility prior to renegotiating his contract with NBC. Print journalists have different jobs than television journalists, and the work of television journalists evolved as their medium continues to merge with the Internet — television reporting is now backed up by stories published on the news channel’s webpage.
Kantor, Twohey, and Farrow worked on the same story. They quietly investigated allegations of assault against Harvey Weinstein, the man behind the success of Miramax, a producer who was viewed as the springboard beneath many a Hollywood career. He may not have been a household name in every home in America, but his movies are certainly well-known: Kill Bill, Scream, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, I could go on for awhile.
As the journalists began looking into the rumors, they made contact with all kinds of people who had been involved with Miramax as well as Weinstein’s current venture, The Weinstein Company. Actresses were not the only people who had made accusations against the producer — sources were willing to state that he had attacked staff members such as production assistants, and forced others to be complicit in attacks by accompanying women to “meetings” at hotel rooms and then leaving them alone with Weinstein.
One of the challenges faced by the reporters was getting women to go “on the record.” Many sources were fine with giving information on background, meaning the gist of what they were saying could be used to provide context for the story, but on the record means the specific details could be or published, along with their name. In addition to asking if their names could be used, Farrow questioned if his sources would consider being filmed, (with the option of having their face in shadow), for his reporting on television.
Journalists have to cultivate trust with sources. Often, those sources want to know the information the reporter already knows. There’s a fine line to be walked in these cases — where a reporter must protect the identities of sources and information they’ve been provided, but also prove to potential partners that they are the real deal. For stories as sensitive as the one regarding Weinstein, names carry weight. Rose McGowan was willing to go on the record for the New York Times story, as well as be filmed for Farrow’s NBC piece. She was the catalyst. McGowan’s willingness to put herself on the line for both stories was critical to breaking the whole thing open.
What McGowan didn’t know was that word was getting around about the investigations, and that she was becoming a target. Farrow details the Black Cube operation that Weinstein put into place, after receiving a referral to the spymaster organization by Ehud Barak. Black Cube is led by a group of former Israeli intelligence officers. Weinstein was paying them huge sums of money to interfere with the investigations — to quash the New York Times story, to obtain information about the book McGowan was working on, (including the specific allegations against him), to follow Farrow around, and to figure out who was speaking with reporters.
Operatives for Black Cube posed as journalists and even cultivated a friendship with McGowan, ultimately accessing the draft of her book. Farrow was targeted to the point where he relocated to a safe house in Chelsea, New York, and rented a bank safety deposit box with a list of his sources, extensive notes, and an audio recording that could be used to recreate his story should he be hurt, killed, or otherwise unable to complete the piece.
Here’s the thing, though. As Farrow convinced more and more people to tell their stories and commit to going on camera, his bosses at NBC were less willing to air the story. It ended up going through so many phases of review that Farrow knew, eventually, the network would kill the story. One of the NBC heads told him straight up that he should take the piece to Vanity Fair. In the end, that’s what he did.
The New York Times piece came out first, with Kantor and Twohey breaking the story in October 2018. Shortly after the story was published, women around the country began telling their own tales of harassment and assault using the hashtag #metoo. As “She Said” indicates, the Weinstein story helped to create a global movement, and to instigate an in-depth conversation about the treatment of women.
Where “She Said” gets a little shaky is its tie-in with the Christine Blasey Ford testimony during the Senate confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. Ford became an iconic figure for women everywhere as she bravely told her story of Kavanaugh’s alleged assault during a party in high school. Twohey and Kantor give an incredibly detailed account of what it took to actually get Ford to Washington to testify, how she struggled with her decision to go to her member of Congress in the first place with her story, and how she handled the aftermath of becoming an instantly recognizable figure.
They handle Ford and her story gently, respectfully, and from a distance. The reporters were invited into the conference room at a D.C. hotel where Ford was holed up with her lawyers and friends, during a whirlwind preparation before she went to Capitol Hill. The pair had a tenuous connection to Ford, and loop back with her at the end of the book, but there is a very palpable disconnect between their first-person accounting of the Weinstein investigation and their connection to Ford’s experience.
The Times reporters, however, check all the other boxes. What was especially impressive about “She Said” was reading how the Times as a whole circled the wagons, supported the reporters, and threw its collective journalistic weight, legal knowledge, and business experience behind the pair. When Weinstein’s attorneys made threats, the Times basically said, “Bring it.” When Weinstein himself made phone calls, entered the building and pleaded, asked for meetings, he was respected but not catered to. He was treated like a person, but not like a person who was more important than the alleged victims in the story.
Farrow encountered a reporter who had tried to write the Weinstein story for The New Yorker back in 2002. This reporter ended up being a fantastic connection for Farrow, and during their conversations he made it clear that he thought Weinstein would continue to remain under wraps.
If NBC was the only player, the story wouldn’t have broken. In “Catch and Kill,” Farrow makes clear that the head of NBC News and MSNBC, as well as other network big-wigs, went out of their way to take calls from Weinstein, to kowtow to his lawyers, and to eventually ignore the story. Contrast the NBC approach with the New York Times. Later in the book Farrow details the respect the brass at Vanity Fair gave to his story once he brought it to them.
Both books were extraordinary. Farrow handled his more like a memoir, as he has a Hollywood background and some personal experience with sexual assault allegations within his family. “She Said” was more of a traditional account of journalism, with a hefty sprinkling of the aforementioned Kavanaugh hearing drama and the aftermath of the #metoo movement.
An undercurrent of both books was the idea of complicity–both by people who had knowledge of what Weinstein was up to and remained silent, and by the organizations and systems that were put in place to keep victims from speaking out. Eventually, some of those processes managed to have the opposite effect–when the journalists began looking into settlements, and one of the high-level accountants for Weinstein Co. became a source.
The complicity concept is nicely summed up by Farrow in this paragraph: “And there it was, at the end of his arguments: an unwillingness not just to take responsibility but to admit that responsibility might, in some place, in someone’s hands, exist. It was a consensus about the organization‘s comfort level moving forward that stopped the reporting. It was a consensus about the organization‘s comfort level moving forward that bowed to lawyers and threats; that hemmed and hawed and parsed and shrugged; that sat on multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct and disregarded a recorded admission of guilt. That anodyne phrase, that language of indifference without ownership, upheld so much silence in so many places. It was a consensus about the organization‘s comfort level moving forward that protected Harvey Weinstein and men like him; that yawned and gaped and enveloped law firms and PR shops and executive suites and industries; that swallowed women whole.”
Journalism matters. Trust matters. Cultivating trust with sources and within communities is imperative to creating real change in society. By reading either “She Said” or “Catch and Kill,” you will see that celebrities and Hollywood-types share starring roles with newspaper editors and other publishing industry veterans whose names are relatively unknown outside of their respective circles. In both books you will see troubling instances of woman-on-woman crime, inflicted on victims by so-called feminist lawyers who try to quash or ruin the stories of women in order to accept payoffs and enable the perpetrators to keep on harming others.
We know how these books end, or at least we think we do. I won’t spoil either ending. Yes, we know that Weinstein has been indicted and continues to face new charges. What you won’t expect is how often your heart keeps breaking, and racing while reading these books.