Not many books can manage to make media reporting interesting for a wide audience, yet Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators (Little, Brown) has done just that. The book sold 100,000 copies in all formats (hardcover, e-book, and digital audio) in its first week on sale, Hachette Book Group said, with more than 45,000 of those coming from outlets that report to NPD BookScan. It hit the top 5 on a handful of nonfiction bestseller lists across the country: #2 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction and combined print and e-book nonfiction lists the week of 10/24, #3 on the Publishers Weekly hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, and more. The book takes a true crime approach to the story of Farrow's hunt, alongside that of many other journalists, to out Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator, detailing how the disgraced Hollywood mogul used all his influence and wealth in an attempt to prevent it. PW spoke with Farrow about his literary influences, how he made the inside baseball of investigative journalism riveting for the masses, the difficulty of reporting on the Weinstein story, and more. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
This book is being called "true crime" by some readers, and it is, but it's also a semi-autobiographical work of media reporting. Did you have any literary models in mind? How did you synthesize all the book's different aspects into a coherent whole?
There was always that challenge built into exploring this subject, knowing that first and foremost, there has to be multiple years of meticulous investigative reporting with an incredibly rigorous fact-checking process, and then also knowing that the nature of the story meant it had to be a book, and therefore not just the same kind of reporting I would do in a magazine article, or a television piece, but something that authentically lived in the shape of a dramatic book, with what I rapidly realized would be material that lends itself to a dramatic narrative arc. All of the creative choices were made in service of what I saw in the actual real-life timeline of events. And what quickly emerged was this noirish series of twists and turns and a lot of scene setting that has caused people to have those reactions. We never called it a true crime book, but everyone has said that's what it is, and I only embrace that label.
Part of the challenge here was not just delivering this very, very air-tight reporting, but once I had accomplished that, making sure that it was transporting and emotional in a way that fully took advantage of being a book. I then wanted the voice to be something completely different from what I would do in a magazine piece, and that meant capturing the right balance of humor and emotional honesty. I read pretty eclectically to try to inform that. There were two layers of process. One was after I had assembled this very precise bible: here's what happened on every day for a two-year window, backed up by texts and emails and documents and contracts that were ready for fact-checking. Then, for the first several months, I just focused on structure and outlining. In terms of understanding what would make for the most satisfying beats of where you reveal clues, I had to make these decisions about where do I step outside of my own experience in these events and when I realize the twists and turns and give the reader a kind of omniscient narration for various reveals. The very first draft was close to a thousand pages long, and had everything discovered kind of diegetically, as I realized it during the course of the plot—it didn't have any breaking from that narrative voice. In the end I balanced it to be a little more reportorial in tone and a little less novelistic, and to give you a little more of the context up front. And it's been satisfying to see in reviews that people have felt that we've struck a good balance there.
But there was a lot of tweaking, and that first section of that process was really just devoted to immersing myself in what would make for an effective shape and how much to reveal and when. And that meant reading a lot of Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and everything up to and including the J.K. Rowling detective novels that she did as Robert Galbraith. I wanted to look at different examples from different eras of trying to satisfyingly met out information. Even though, of course, this was nonfiction, with a very different set of challenges, like I said, once I looked at the full layout of the facts, I realized that it had that kind of mystery shape, and I wanted to do right by that mystery by kind of transporting readers into the midst of it. I's been very satisfying to see that people have gotten that, have found that. And then there was a subsequent part of the process that was suggested about getting the voice right, for which I read a ton of completely different material. I read a lot of Cynthia Ozick, a lot of Murakami. I read a lot of postmodernists—some Thomas Pynchon, some A.A. Gill.
Publishing has taken some hits recently, about an industry wide dearth of fact-checking. Your book was rigorously fact-checked. How instrumental was the New Yorker in that process? Was the publisher involved at all in that part of the process?
There was an independent fact-checker involved, who I hired—Sean Lavery, one of the senior fact checkers at the New Yorker, who, to my eye, is one of the best fact-checkers working today. He's been in deep in some of the most challenging and complicated investigative journalism that they've done there. He was also not the initial checker on some of those first Weinstein pieces, so he had a little distance from the boss, although he does ultimately show up in it in a couple of places, because his role checking the book becomes part of the plot. But the indispensable nature of fact-checking can't be stressed enough when you're trying to report facts like this carefully and fairly. It meant that there was always another pair of eyes, that was totally impartial, on every sentence. He has no incentive except to make sure that everything is airtight, and worked incredibly long hours, running every contentious part of his book by every person involved, and poring over documents and eyewitness accounts to make sure that anything in there was going to survive an onslaught of scrutiny, which it has.
That doesn't happen just by accident or because I magically have good instincts, though I'd love to think that's the case. That happens because you hire an independent fact checker who's really rigorous and tough. And if this book can be part of the conversation about how publishers should include that as part of their business models for a nonfiction book, I am only honored by that. I have loved seeing people turn up the heat on publishers to try to encourage them to do more of that, and I think this book is a testament to why it's important.
NBC was unwilling to release your reporting, but the New Yorker was, and now Little, Brown has published your expansion of it. What do you think decisions like that say about the trustworthiness and priorities of different forms of media right now?
We're living in this moment where there are these authoritarian attacks on the free press. And you see the president calling journalists the enemy of the people, and that's an old tactic that's shown up under various regimes over history, and it's usually not associated with the defense of basic rights. The reality is, we live in a democracy that specifically enshrines in its Constitution the importance of the free press. It's the only profession with that kind of an explicit constitutional protection. And that's true for a reason. It's very clear, especially in a moment of great challenge and turmoil like the one we're currently in, how much you need the free flow of information, and how dangerous it is when powerful people try to shut down the free press. There's that great moment in the book where one of the guys following me, Igor Ostrovskiy, starts talking about his dealings as someone who grew up in a police state setting, where there wasn't a free press, and how he feels it's so crucial that we all have free access to information and didn't even want to be following around reporters or suppressing them at the behest of powerful interests.
I hope that sentiment carries over to anyone who closes the back cover of this book. It is very much a tribute to and a love letter to the free press, and the many hardworking journalists that I included in the book. And I think one of the lessons of the book is that they won't stop going even in the face of a lot of obstacles that get thrown at them. I do think that one of the most powerful ways in which the free press can stay vital is for us to hold ourselves accountable at every turn, and make sure that we're not becoming instruments of suppression or spin for powerful interests. And that can be a hard learning process. It's one that we've seen play out at Vox and CBS, and now we see these protests about NBC both from within and without that organization. I think we are moving towards more accountability, more understanding of the costs to the free flow of information and to these institutions when they yield to pressure from powerful interests. And all of that makes the press as an institution more armored in the face of those kinds of spurious attacks on it.
You were already a public figure when the #MeToo movement started, and since then, you've become the journalist arguably most synonymous with it in the public eye. Yet you make clear in the book that there were dozens of other journalists involved in reporting this story, including Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times, who broke the Weinstein story five days before your story was published in the New Yorker (and whose book, She Said, published in September, has sold significantly fewer copies). What do you think it says about the industries and culture you work and live in that the journalist whose star has risen the highest in terms of public awareness around the #MeToo has been a man? And how do you feel about that?
I've been very conscious at every point in my career of the tremendous position of privilege I occupy as someone who doesn't look or sound like a marginalized voice in most respects. I think that absolutely we still live in a culture where women are not heard as easily, including in journalism. But there were wonderful male and female journalists who were part of an important community of reporters banging their heads against the wall trying to break this and other top stories, and at every chance I can, I really try to go to pains to elevate any voices among the sources and among that community of journalists who are saying important things and not being heard because of systemic bias in our culture. And I've been really heartened to see how this moment has also correctly embraced the important work of women journalists too. You see wonderful writing by commentators like Rebecca Traister and Jia Tolentino, and incredible women investigative reporters like Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, really doing leading work and, I think, getting just cultural recognition for it.
Correction: This piece has been updated for clarity, and to correctly spell Twohey's name.