The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ronan Farrow overcame spies and intimidation to break some of the biggest stories of the #MeToo era

Investigative reporter Ronan Farrow, author “Catch and Kill,” earlier this week in New York. His new book delves into the Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer cases, among others. (Mary Inhea Kang/for The Washington Post)

Unlike most journalists — most human beings — Ronan Farrow can tell you what it’s like to be tailed, surveilled and tracked by people with possibly sinister motives. It is, he attests, kind of stressful.

“I don’t want this to sound like woe is me, but I’ll be honest,” Farrow says. “It’s really hard when you’re in those moments . . . when you wonder if you’re being followed, and it turns out you are, it’s frightening.”

For a few months in 2017, he nervously eyed suspicious-looking vehicles, spent nights in friends’ apartments and took evasive maneuvers, such as walking against traffic to foil anyone following him in a car.

A friend advised him: Get a gun.

There are a number of these moments threaded through “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” Farrow’s chronicle/memoir of his pursuit of allegations of sexual predation against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. As Farrow recounts, Weinstein arrayed not just some big legal guns to thwart him and other reporters, but a host of black-ops characters: former Mossad agents, Ukrainian surveillance pros, European undercover operatives. Their mission was to monitor Farrow and other journalists who were closing in on Weinstein. One of Weinstein’s sub rosa retainers was an Israeli intelligence company called — no joke, Mr. Bond — Black Cube.

Farrow pierced this legal and quasi-espionage veil to land a devastating story about Weinstein, published by the New Yorker exactly two years ago Thursday. The story, which followed by five days a separate series of revelations about Weinstein in the New York Times, earned Farrow and Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey the Pulitzer Prize. More important, their exposés touched off a cultural avalanche. Within weeks, other powerful men saw their walls of privilege and protection come tumbling down amid the march of the #MeToo movement.

(Weinstein, who eventually was charged with sex crimes, including rape, faces trial in New York in January. He has pleaded not guilty.)

This is the story of how Hollywood's unique power structure enabled sexual harassment to remain the entertainment industry's open secret. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

In the wake of his landmark Weinstein story, Farrow, 31, went on to expose other powerful men and institutions, becoming the go-to journalist of the movement and the moment.

The immediate follow-up to his Weinstein reporting was his disclosure of the “catch and kill” tactics employed by American Media Inc., parent of the National Enquirer, to suppress stories it sometimes later used to blackmail celebrities (the phrase refers to paying sources for exclusive rights to their information and then withholding, or killing, the story). Among the beneficiaries of the tactic: President Trump. Former Playboy model Karen McDougal had told the Enquirer about her alleged affair with Trump, but her story was caught and killed by AMI during the 2016 campaign.

Farrow’s subsequent reporting brought down CBS boss Leslie Moonves and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (the latter piece co-written with Jane Mayer). Most recently, he revealed that an elite think tank at MIT had a secret funding source: the late billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The story prompted the abrupt resignation of its director.

Farrow, of course, is no ordinary reporter. Aside from his background as an intellectual prodigy, his mother is actress Mia Farrow and his father is Woody Allen, although both his parents have suggested at times that his real father is Frank Sinatra (to which Ronan Farrow quips: “We’re all possibly Frank Sinatra’s son. I’ll leave it at that”). His family issues have been tabloid fodder ever since Farrow’s sister, Dylan, accused Allen of molesting her when she was 7 in 1992.

Allen, who has denied the allegation and was never charged with a crime, later married their sister, Soon-Yi Previn, making the director both Ronan’s father and his brother-in-law. He is long estranged from Mia Farrow and the Farrow siblings.

Dylan Farrow is both the muse and moral center of “Catch and Kill” as Farrow, as an investigative reporter for NBC News in early 2017, sets about investigating vague allegations against Weinstein. She appears repeatedly throughout his narrative to spur him on as his reporting runs into obstructive forces, including, he writes, his bosses at NBC News. (In his desperation to shake Farrow, Weinstein at one point tried to lean on Woody Allen to persuade Farrow to back off; his representatives later argued that Farrow’s family history was a disqualifying conflict of interest.)

Dylan Farrow’s experience, and Allen’s long-running efforts to suppress and undermine her account, were a kind of foreground story for the book, Farrow says. But he adds, “This isn’t a story in which I’m the hero of her narrative.” Long before the #MeToo era, he confesses, he’d sometimes ask his sister to “shut up” about her accusations.

“I felt I had to be nakedly honest and vulnerable about that” in writing his account, he says. In tribute to his sister, Farrow included some of her illustrations in the book.

Befitting a Farrow story, “Catch and Kill” is chocka­block with scoops and revelations. The most headline-grabbing is an allegation by a “Today” show producer, Brooke Nevils, that she was raped by Matt Lauer, the program’s co-host, when they were covering the Winter Olympics in 2014. Lauer — who was fired shortly after Nevils went to NBC’s management in late 2017 — vehemently denied Nevils’s account in a lengthy statement Wednesday.

Much of Farrow’s book seeks to answer a question that hovered in the background of his celebrated New Yorker article about Weinstein: Why did the story wind up in the New Yorker when Farrow spent months investigating him for NBC News?

In Farrow’s telling, Lauer is the key to that question. His thesis is that Weinstein pressured NBC News and its executives by using AMI’s accumulated dirt on Lauer to slow down and eventually stop Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein. Farrow writes that NBC covered up multiple allegations against Lauer stretching back years by paying his accusers and ensuring their silence through nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). He also writes about several instances of workplace misconduct by NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, and MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, making them vulnerable to exposure by Weinstein.

In response, NBC News defended its record of covering harassment stories, citing its coverage of Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein and others.

It was, Farrow says, “a corporate coverup.”

Farrow writes that NBC even had a corporate euphemism for its settlements — “enhanced severance” — that enabled it to plausibly deny that the payments were hush money.

Needless to say, this has touched off a battle royal with NBC. The network has vigorously disputed Farrow’s premise and his reporting about it. Lack said on Wednesday that NBC was unaware of any issues involving Lauer until Nevils stepped forward, reiterating NBC’s statement on the matter since the story first exploded.

Further, an executive familiar with the network’s legal affairs said in an interview with The Washington Post that Lauer was the subject of four employee complaints — but three of them came in after he was fired following Nevils’s allegations. Contrary to Farrow’s assertions, “there is no evidence of a pattern” of earlier claims, said the executive, who spoke with NBC’s approval but would not be identified.

In the days leading up to the book’s publication next Tuesday, the network has launched a furious public relations counterattack against Farrow. NBC News President Noah Oppenheim has visited seven news organizations, including The Post, to present an elaborate rebuttal, complete with binders containing timelines, interview transcripts, expense logs and contemporaneous text messages and emails to and from Farrow and his editors documenting his progress on the Weinstein story.

The short version of Oppenheim's presentation is that Farrow's reporting wasn't ready, that he didn't have any of Weinstein's accusers on the record at the time he walked away in frustration in August 2017. "There was a wide circle of people [at NBC News], and there was unanimity at the time and there is now, that we made the only decision we could that [Farrow's reporting] hadn't met our standards for air," Oppenheim said.

But Farrow and his producer at the time, Rich McHugh, say they had several women on the record at the time, and commitments from others to follow suit. They also had a damning audio recording of a police sting in which Weinstein admits to assault.

NBC’s “actions were a massive breach of journalistic integrity,” said McHugh, who left NBC in 2018. “They can do all the verbal gymnastics they want, but at the end of the day, they ordered us to stop reporting.”

Farrow’s editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, also said the reporting was well advanced, though not yet ready for publication, when Farrow initially walked into the magazine. It was published within seven weeks.

Interestingly, NBC doesn’t dispute one of Farrow’s scoops, a minor one but telling nonetheless. In the wake of the Weinstein imbroglio, he writes, the network hired a “Wikipedia whitewasher” to scrub references to the episode from some of its pages, a curious decision for a news organization dedicated to transparency. To this day, there’s no reference to the Weinstein affair under Oppenheim’s Wikipedia entry, and only a fleeting one in Lack’s.

Whatever the merits of NBC’s full-court press against “Catch and Kill,” the network’s campaign seems more likely to boost the book’s sales than to diminish it, and to raise the author’s already ascendant — some would say amazing — profile.

The short version of Farrow’s prodigious résumé:

He started college at the age of 11, and graduated at 15, whereupon he was immediately accepted into Yale Law School. He delayed entry at Yale to work as a speechwriter for Richard Holbrooke, the famed diplomat. He also became a spokesman for UNICEF in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria.

While still a teenager, he began publishing op-ed columns in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. His commentaries focused on issues involving Africa, such as the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan.

After finishing Yale Law at 21, he spent two years at the State Department during the Obama administration, running U.S. relations with nongovernmental organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also served as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s adviser for youth issues.

He then received a Rhodes Scholarship to study abroad at Oxford University.

NBC signed him to a contract at 25, handing him his own daytime MSNBC program, “Ronan Farrow Daily.” The show lasted a year before being canceled because of low ratings, but the network kept Farrow on as an investigative correspondent.

Soon enough, in one of the many overlapping elements and crisscrossing personalities that show up in “Catch and Kill,” Lauer was introducing Farrow’s reports on the “Today” show.

Along the way, Farrow wrote a best-selling book about the history of American diplomacy, “War on Peace,” published last year.

Earlier this year, he earned a PhD in international relations from Oxford. The subtitle of his 89,000-word thesis: “Political Representation and Strategic Reality in America’s Proxy Wars.” Farrow describes it as an examination of America’s collaborations with foreign militaries and militias.

Aside from Farrow’s formidable intellectual heft, Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, said he saw something else in the young journalist during his reporting of the Weinstein story: empathy.

“I’ve seen a lot of investigative reporters, but I’ve never seen a situation where so much empathy was required,” Remnick says. “I saw his doggedness and the endless hours he put in, but I also had the opportunity to see him [interact] with the women who were treated so horribly by Weinstein, and it was quite something. There was sincerity. There was patience. It was empathy.”

Remnick doesn’t know whether Farrow was ever in real danger during this period (“I think the surveillance stuff was mostly designed to intimidate and scare him. I don’t think he was about to get a Luger in the back”), but he also said he never saw Farrow sweat under the pressure. “He was very, very cool,” he said.

While the cinematic elements of “Catch and Kill” make it likely bait for a movie or TV adaptation, Farrow says he hasn’t actively considered offers for the book, though there’s been interest in it since it was first announced last year. (Farrow himself is developing a series of documentaries for HBO about “the abuse of power by individuals and institutions”).

“I wanted to put the book first,” he says, “so I’ve kicked that decision [about selling the rights] down the road.” And then Dr. Farrow gives a gentle laugh, adding: “Not that I’m opposed to it.”