We are just starting to learn what’s in my former colleague Ronan Farrow’s forthcoming book, “Catch and Kill,” but what we’ve learned thus far is astonishing. He paints a sinister portrait of NBC News where, according to Farrow, a culture of harassment, self-interest and elite-coddling ultimately led the organization to spike the groundbreaking story of sexual abuse allegations against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein.
That story, of course, has turned into one of the most significant feats of journalism of our time, sparking the #MeToo movement and earning Farrow a Pulitzer Prize. Full disclosure: I’m a former employee at NBC News and so I do have a little insight into the organization. At the time the Weinstein story broke, NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said: “The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive to all of us.” In fact, that “notion” is precisely what Farrow claims to expose.
There are some of the bombshells in this new book. First of all, Ronan reports on a new rape allegation against Matt Lauer. A woman who was working with him in Sochi for the Olympics tells Farrow that the star anchor raped her. Lauer denies the charge and claims their affair was strictly consensual.
But the crux of the book is how Weinstein tried — and ultimately was successful — to get NBC News to kill Farrow’s story on him. Farrow had to hire his own camera crew and take the story to The New Yorker to get it published. Basically, Weinstein played the fellow elite card. He relentlessly called the big bosses to pressure them. According to Farrow, in one of those calls Weinstein told an NBC executive: “It was the ’90s, you know? Did I go out with an assistant or two that I shouldn’t have, did I sleep with one or two of them? Sure. We all did that.” The network executive, Farrow reports, expressed what sounded like sympathy and a promise to look into Weinstein’s concerns.
If true — and NBC denies that it was pressured — these guys appeared to relate to one another as buddies. They were part of the same social “club.”
Farrow also reports that Weinstein attempted to weaponize Lauer’s misconduct to kill the story. He allegedly threatened to reveal information about Lauer that had been gathered by the National Enquirer. NBC denies that it was ever presented with damaging material about Lauer. But if you choose to believe Farrow’s reporting instead of NBC’s denials, the fact that NBC had its own problems could have made it much harder for the network to hold other powerful men to account for alleged misconduct.
Remember, NBC had the infamous Access Hollywood tape of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE and Billy Bush — Access Hollywood being an NBC property — but still managed to get scooped on the tape by the Washington Post.
In another telling exchange, Farrow claims Oppenheim told him that his Weinstein reporting and a related recording would force them to “make some decisions … like, is this really worth it?” Oppenheim told Variety, “We are more confident now than ever in the decisions we made around Ronan’s reporting.”
But if what Farrow claims is true, just think about the implications of that reported statement. Weinstein was rich and powerful, with a lot of friends and money for good lawyers, not to mention private investigators. It might be uncomfortable at parties. Other people in “the club” might be mad. The cost-benefit model of news analysis has favored taking down the powerless who can’t fight back over the powerful who have the money and the connections to put up a fight.
Farrow also has implicated the Clintons. At the time he was reporting the allegations against Weinstein, Farrow was trying to secure an interview with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE on foreign policy. He claims then-Secretary of State Clinton’s publicist Nick Merrill sent him a gem of an email explaining that the “big story” Farrow was working on was “a concern for us.” In other words, drop the story on Weinstein or no interview. Weinstein had been a big donor to Clinton’s campaign. It ultimately took her an eyebrow-raising five days to issue any sort of statement following the initial New York Times reporting on allegations of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.
The whole thing is a sordid stew of elite-coddling and cowardice. It’s also an extreme parable of how the news process too often works. News isn’t judged just on its newsworthiness. It’s filtered through a prism of class solidarity and institutional self-preservation. Matt Taibbi, in his book “Hate Inc.,”writes about the proliferation of news stories that punch down the local restaurant or marginalized citizens — they’re just so much easier to take on. It’s much more difficult, costly and uncomfortable to challenge those with power — the banks or the big corporations or the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.
So what Farrow really exposes with this book is not just how NBC News came to lose out on one of the biggest stories of recent years. He also paints a picture of the ugly underbelly of what honestly could be any of the big news organizations, which tend to reflect the interests and tastes of the affluent. Farrow’s book may reveal an absurdly extreme example of that maxim, but the sad truth is that many in the news media cover for powerful people every day.
Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.