Book Review: Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

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“It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.” So goes the punchline to an old George Carlin bit on our ruling elite that kept playing in my head as I read Ronan Farrow’s new book, Catch and Kill.

When Ambra Battilana Gutierrez went to New York City police immediately after the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her, Weinstein hired former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani as a lawyer and, despite sufficient evidence, the district attorney didn’t press charges. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. When Weinstein found out Farrow had been reaching out to past accusers, he talked directly with NBC executives to get the story killed. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. When Farrow continued his investigation anyway, George Pataki, the former Republican governor of New York, called to inform Weinstein. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. When Weinstein was looking for private investigators to spy on and intimidate Farrow and his sources, the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, put him in contact with a firm of former Israeli intelligence officers. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. When Hillary Clinton found out about Farrow’s investigation (Weinstein is a big Clinton supporter and fundraiser), Farrow started getting calls from Clinton publicists and spokespeople offering opportunities if he’d stop and insinuating repercussions if he wouldn’t. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. Whenever a woman accused Weinstein of sexual harassment or sexual assault, she was smeared as a floozy by Weinstein’s tabloid friends at the National Enquirer—the same folks who covered up scandalous stories about Donald Trump for years. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.

Many big club people weren’t happy with Farrow looking into Weinstein’s sexual predations. Mostly, it seems, for non-wicked reasons. They just didn’t understand why he was causing trouble for himself. Horns being blown outside the club were one thing, but Farrow was an investigative journalist at NBC and the son of famous parents—he was invited to the parties, he was on the red carpets. Those who told him to give it a rest were genuinely perplexed: he might not be at the main table, but why was he banishing himself to the streets?

Farrow never gives a straight answer for what kept him going. If asked, I think he’d say the courage of his sources. After all, they suffered far more than just stolen dreams. Plus, Farrow’s fall from TV prominence was less than catastrophic. He was let go at NBC and let into the pages of the New Yorker; now he’s one of the country’s top celebrity journalists. At one point, while he was still working at NBC, one of the company’s executives told Farrow that if he didn’t want to do the dirty work of television—a celebrity wanted her interview with Farrow edited so she would seem to say the opposite of what she actually said—he should go “work for PBS and have complete freedom and make a hundred thousand bucks a year.” This was intended as a threat. To us non-big club people, with our uncles on disability and our sisters fired for complaining about work on social media, “complete freedom” and a salary almost twice the average family’s income is pure fantasy. But in the big club it’s evidently the stuff of nightmares.

Catch and Kill is about the story of the story. It’s Farrow’s account of how Weinstein tried to stop it and why NBC was less than excited about pursuing it. (Matt Lauer, the company’s dominant cash cow, would eventually be accused of similar sexual predations.) Farrow’s account is fair, calm, and, as far as I can tell, truthful. However, it religiously sticks to facts at the cost of evaluating their implications. One of those implications being a gross parallel between what Farrow faced in trying to get his story published and what Weinstein’s accusers faced in trying to make it in Hollywood. Both had big club people using their ambitions against them. Both found themselves in a system where success and morality are at odds.

The pretext for film mogul Weinstein meeting with women was always to talk about their hopes and aspirations. He would assure them he could make (and therefore also break) their movie careers. If they wanted to be an actress or producer or executive, they would have to do what he said, which often amounted to a sex act. And after doing what he said, they’d have to keep quiet about it. Farrow obviously got a much softer Faustian bargain—all he had to do was drop one measly story. But the mindsets of Weinstein and NBC executives were the same: I have the power to determine your future, so you’d better do as I say—or else. One situation is disgusting, both are tragic. Both should be made impossible rather than remaining institutionalized.

Weinstein was not a perversion from the system but a perverse expression of it. He was able to do what he did because of the power he had. So long as we have the big club we will have Harvey Weinsteins.

Catch and Kill is a sort of reverse The Jungle. In that book, Upton Sinclair wanted to disturb readers with the treatment of Chicago’s food workers but instead disgusted us with the negligence and grossness of food production. He famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” With Catch and Kill, Farrow wanted to tell a story of the “good ol’ boys’ club” at the top of our system but ends up hitting something more fundamental.

I tried to keep track of all the money Weinstein spent on his rendezvous and cover-ups—the planes, the hotel suites, the assistants, the lawyers, the private investigators, the confidentiality agreements—but lost track somewhere in the millions. A lot of people worked really hard to earn that money, and Weinstein used it to humiliate, torture, and silence women. That kind of power doesn’t corrupt, it is corruption.

Almost none of the big club people involved have faced any consequences. Nor will they. Even Weinstein, who was charged in March 2018 but still hasn’t gone to trial, is living a life of luxury. Just last week, he was at a speakeasy in New York surrounded by bodyguards and beautiful women. When a female comedian found out he was there, she heckled him and was booed for doing so. A lot of people asked what those boo-ing were possibly thinking? They were probably thinking the same thing as the beautiful women: I want in the big club.

One of Weinstein’s lawyers said the “casting couch” was there before Weinstein and it’ll be there after he’s gone. Donna Gigliotti, a movie producer who previously worked with him, said he “isn’t guilty of anything worse than what a million other men in this business do.” And when actors started getting asked what they knew and thought about Weinstein, many were quick to say “the problem” wasn’t just in Hollywood.

All these things are true, but they don’t add up to a defense. There will always be sexual abuse and sexual violence. Art, history, experience, culture—everything from women being humiliated in porn (women coerced into sex in hopes of getting in the big club is a popular theme) to the picture of the female intern’s ass getting passed around the office—tells us this is true. But just because hearts are wicked doesn’t mean institutions have to indulge that wickedness. That is the ultimate and obvious implication of Weinstein’s story. Not that there are men like him, but that we live in a system where men like him are allowed to become monsters.