When reporters tilted at allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by movie producer Harvey Weinstein, they squared off against a target with a surplus of resources and a shortage of ethics. The Hollywood titan thought nothing of deploying lawyers, spies and various forms of coercion to kill unfavorable journalism. To all that, add Weinstein’s own savvy in dealing with the media.
On second thought, put an asterisk on that last sentence, thanks to Ronan Farrow’s new book, “Catch and Kill.” After learning that his tactics had succeeded in stymieing an NBC News investigation by Farrow, Weinstein reportedly exclaimed, "If I can get a network to kill a story, how hard can a newspaper be?” That was a reference to a concurrent investigation into Weinstein by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, whose story surfaced days before Farrow’s own piece was published by the New Yorker.
A generous chunk of Farrow’s book addresses how his efforts fizzled under the leadership of NBC News executives. Meanwhile, Kantor and Twohey recently completed a book — “She Said” — that addresses how their efforts flourished under the leadership of New York Times executives.
It’s time for a side-by-side analysis of how two brand-name news organizations dealt with adversity in pursuing a tough story.
|New York Times||NBC News|
|Rebecca Corbett, an assistant managing editor for the newspaper, asks Kantor if there are other men, aside from Bill O’Reilly, who’d covered up sexual harassment. (“She Said,” p. 25)||“You should look at Rose McGowan, she tweeted something about a studio head,” NBC News executive Noah Oppenheim tells Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 28)|
|Corbett asks reporters: “What is your strategy for getting these women on the record?” (“She Said,” p. 47)||“She does sound a little...flighty," says investigative honcho Rich Greenberg about actor Rose McGowan. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 50)|
|In July 2017, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet tells reporters: Don’t let Weinstein speak off the record. (“She Said,” p. 81)||"Late February, 2017: Early reporting on Weinstein is insufficient to meet the planned air date around the time of the Oscars, but Farrow’s editors encourage him to continue to pursue the story.” — NBC News timeline.|
|“Corbett, Purdy, and Baquet gave the same instruction: Write!” (“She Said,” p. 139)||“Like, is this really worth it?” comments Oppenheim upon reviewing Farrow’s reporting. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 118)|
|Reporting team realizes that if they don’t publish, Weinstein "might go on to hurt someone else.” (“She Said,” p. 137)||“Look, I’m not saying it’s not gross, but I’m still not sure it’s news,” says Oppenheim of tape recording of Weinstein confessing sexual assault. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 137)|
|Baquet pushes for a narrower, quicker story to “lay down a marker” before the competition. (“She Said,” p. 139)||“Sometimes, it’s best to let someone else go first,” says Greenberg to Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 114)|
|Baquet to Weinstein lawyer: "I’m sick of this |
s[---]....Get your people in line and get back to us with your response.” (“She Said,” p. 162)
|“We’re supposed to pause all reporting," says Greenberg to Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 142)|
|The day before publication, Corbett pulls an all-nighter at the New York Times. “At 7 a.m., she finally stopped and left the building,” returning “soon afterward.” (“She Said,” p. 170)||“Just hang tight. No more reporting for a little bit,” says Oppenheim to Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 146)|
|Baquet: "Hey, Harvey? This is Dean Baquet. Here’s the deal. You need to give us the statement now. I’m about to push the button.” (“She Said,” p. 173)||“Let’s just do this by the book from here. No new reporting for now,” Greenberg tells Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 150)|
|Kantor and Twohey emerge from call with Weinstein team, only to realize that their editors were already making last-minute changes to the story.||“The company would like to put a pause on all reporting and contact with sources,” NBC lawyer tells Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 161)|
|Oct. 5, 2017: Story published.||“In light of what Noah said, we think you should not be meeting with any sources,” Greenberg tells Farrow. (“Catch and Kill,” p. 163)|
“Catch and Kill,” of course, represents Farrow’s version of events. NBC News’s pushback stresses a number of considerations — that Farrow didn’t furnish the goods, including on-the-record claims from victims of Weinstein’s harassment; that a review panel of veteran NBC News journalists went through Farrow’s reporting and deemed it not ready for air; that the review panel found problems in Farrow’s draft script; that Rose McGowan had withdrawn her participation from the piece; and that the story that Farrow eventually wrote for the New Yorker bore little resemblance to the material he’d gathered at NBC News.
“As he now acknowledges, NBC assigned Farrow the Weinstein story and actively supported it, editorially and financially, for seven months,” reads an NBC News fact check of Farrow’s claims. “We encouraged Farrow to go back to Rose McGowan and get her to name Harvey Weinstein on camera, we encouraged him to get the full [Ambra] Gutierrez recording and to arrange for his editor and an NBC lawyer to meet with her, and we repeatedly encouraged him to get a victim or witness on camera, on the record. He was unable to do so during his time at NBC.”
What NBC News appears to be saying here is that the Weinstein story was hard. Well, we knew that: By the time Farrow landed on the case, various publications — including New York magazine and the New Yorker itself — had bounced off the story, unable to get people on the record. The test of a news organization’s mettle in this case was whether it would stick around long enough to break the dam bottling up the stories of Weinstein’s victims.
That’s a test NBC News failed.
There are several moments in “Catch and Kill" when NBC News higher-ups warn Farrow about the scourge of “tortious interference” — meaning a situation where someone interferes with another person’s contractual obligations. In the context of the Weinstein story, that interference relates to NBC News persuading women to speak out in violation of nondisclosure clauses in settlements or exit agreements with Weinstein. At one point early in the reporting, Farrow tells Greenberg that one of the victims would disclose to NBC News her contract with Weinstein. “I don’t know that we can be interfering with contracts,” Greenberg replies. In reference to the contract of another victim, Greenberg says, “We can’t be making her breach contract.” Farrow, who worked closely with then-NBC News journalist Rich McHugh, responded, “We’re not making her do anything.”
At one point, Farrow mentioned to Oppenheim an interview he’d scheduled with McGowan. “You just can’t, Ronan,” said Oppenheim. “If [NBCUniversal General Counsel] Kim [Harris] decides that tortious interference or inducement to breach contract are big concerns for us, we can’t be rushing ahead with an interview before she makes that call.” But as Kantor and Twohey noted in “She Said,” McGowan’s 1997 settlement with Weinstein didn’t include a confidentiality clause.
In the first week of August 2017, writes Farrow, he met with Harris and others to discuss the script. “I also think we’re open to a tortious interference argument,” said Harris, though her overall message was “reassuring.” She wanted edits, not an end to reporting. Later in the book, Greenberg tells Farrow, “Harvey’s lawyers have made the argument that every employee is subject to a nondisclosure agreement. And we can’t just go encouraging them to breach those.”
“Tortious interference” has reputation problems in journalistic history. It was the very legal concern that prompted CBS News in 1995 to bail on an interview with tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. The company’s lawyers feared that the interview would trigger a tortious interference lawsuit from Wigand’s former employer Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales later called tortious interference “the basis for the specious legal argument made by CBS lawyers who warned against airing the piece.”
In an analysis of tortious interference, Mark J. Chasteen noted it was commonly invoked in ho-hum commercial disputes, as when Theater A coaxes a singer to violate her contractual obligations to Theater B so she can sing at Theater A. That’s the sort of law that appeared to obsess NBC News executives as they whiffed on what will survive as one of the decade’s biggest stories.
In “She Said,” the New York Times reporters make clear that “tortious interference” didn’t interfere with their reporting. “When the facts protect us, and the law protects us, it’s hard to argue with our legal position,” David McCraw, the top newsroom lawyer for the New York Times, is quoted in “She Said.” And when the Erik Wemple Blog asked Baquet whether he remembered discussions on this area of law, he responded via email that "that doesn’t sound familiar at all.”
In an interview, McCraw told us, “It was not raised with me by any of the Weinstein lawyers.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked NBC News to comment on why Farrow was allegedly presented with repeated “tortious interference” concerns. We will update the story if we receive a response.
Why belabor all this tortious interference stuff? Because no self-respecting news organization would hamstring an investigative reporter with what Farrow himself called “bulls[---]" in “Catch and Kill.” Every single day news organizations ask sources to divulge information that has been locked down in nondisclosure agreements. That’s their job. If corporate interests want to sue over such activity, let them.
History provides few laboratories quite like the Weinstein story, a drama in which two prominent news organizations were working on the same hard-to-crack investigation at the same time. To judge from the two books and additional information, the reporters at the New York Times faced an exhausting fight against a resourceful Hollywood figure. The reporters at NBC News faced an exhausting fight against a resourceful Hollywood figure and against skittish bosses. Not a fair fight.