HALT AND CATCH FIRE
Sources: NBC Threatened Ronan Farrow if He Kept Reporting on Harvey Weinstein
Ronan Farrow had already left NBC News. But a top lawyer at the network threatened to smear him if he continued to pursue the Hollywood mogul, multiple knowledgeable sources say.
The producer who worked alongside Ronan Farrow at NBC News on his Harvey Weinstein investigation quit in protest earlier this month.
Rich McHugh tendered his resignation on Friday, Aug. 17, a year to the day that the Weinstein story left with Farrow. Since then, Farrow has won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles that revealed allegations of sexual harassment and assault—and questions have lingered about why the network gave up on the story that helped launch the #MeToo movement.
NBC News has long insisted the Weinstein exposé wasn’t ready to run on air or online, contrary to Farrow’s claims that it was. Farrow’s story, which ultimately ran in The New Yorker, was part of a series that ultimately won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, earned him in the prestigious George Polk Award for National Reporting, and garnered near-universal praise from his colleagues.
The Daily Beast has uncovered new details of how the process went awry, including alleged threats from NBC, back-biting inside the network about who was truly responsible, and a previously unreported ultimatum by Weinstein’s attorneys.
According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, NBCUniversal deputy general counsel Susan Weiner made a series of phone calls to Farrow, threatening to smear him if he continued to report on Weinstein.
A spokesperson for NBC News, speaking on the condition of anonymity, vigorously denied those allegations. “Absolutely false,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “There’s no truth to that all. There is no chance, in no version of the world, that Susan Weiner would tell Ronan Farrow what he could or could not report on.
“The sole point of the Susan Weiner’s conversation with Farrow, roughly a month after he had left NBC, was to make sure he wasn’t still telling sources that he was working on the story for NBC since he had moved on to The New Yorker.”
In February 2015, Farrow lost his daytime show on MSNBC and began working with NBC News’ investigative unit. In November 2016, Farrow and a producer named Rich McHugh decided they wanted to do a story about Hollywood’s “casting couch,” the longtime practice of producers and other powerful men exchanging sex with women for film roles, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. The story was timed to be released around the Academy Awards, these sources said.
They presented the idea to NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, who suggested the team look into a October 2016 tweet by actress Rose McGowan that she was raped by a Hollywood executive, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation.
Over the next several months, Farrow collected evidence that suggested Weinstein had a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward women, according to the sources and previous reporting by The Daily Beast, HuffPost, and The New York Times. Weinstein has repeatedly denied all allegations of non-consensual sex. Sources familiar with the matter previously told The Daily Beast that at least eight women accusing Weinstein had agreed to go on camera, including two alleged victims with their names and faces.
In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday night, McHugh accused “the very highest levels of NBC” of later stopping the reporting.
“There was not one single victim or witness to misconduct by Harvey Weinstein who was willing to go on the record. Not one,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
By February, according to the sources, Farrow had secured an on-the-record interview with McGowan in which the actress said she had been sexually harassed by a powerful producer, though she did not name Weinstein. (McGowan subsequently named Weinstein during the NBC investigation, according to a source with knowledge of the story, but reportedly pulled her interview after being legally threatened by Weinstein, who had reached a $100,000 settlement with her in 1997 after she accused him of sexual assault.)
Farrow and McHugh also obtained a bombshell audio recording from a NYPD sting in which Weinstein admitted to groping Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in 2015. (The Battilana audio was subsequently published by The New Yorker.)
“The tape on its own was color, it added to an already known accusation,” an NBC spokesperson said. While it was “absolutely significant” to hear Battilana’s voice, the spokesperson said, the tape alone would not expose Weinstein as serial sexual predator, as has been alleged.
NBC’s reluctance stoked Farrow and McHugh’s concerns about NBC’s commitment to the story, the sources said. Farrow did not respond to a request for comment. Ari Wilkenfeld, McHugh’s attorney, told The Daily Beast that his client “has no comment.”
In spring 2017, according to the sources, Farrow played Oppenheim the audio of Weinstein with Battilana admitting that he was “used to” groping women’s breasts. At one point during their meeting, according to two sources, Oppenheim had asked if people still cared about Weinstein.
“That is absolutely false,” a NBC spokesperson said, “and it is clearly contradicted by the fact that Oppenheim assigned the story on Harvey Weinstein in the first place. Obviously he understood him to be and believed him to be a newsworthy figure.”
Farrow had begun to suspect that Oppenheim—who moonlighted as a Hollywood screenwriter—was potentially communicating with Weinstein directly about the story, according to the sources.
During a meeting in summer 2017, Oppenheim mentioned to Farrow that Weinstein had raised objections to Farrow’s reporting—even though Farrow had not yet asked Weinstein to comment on the allegations, according to individuals briefed on the meeting.
“Externally, I had Weinstein associates calling me repeatedly,” McHugh told the Times. “I knew that Weinstein was calling NBC executives directly. One time it even happened when we were in the room.”
HuffPost reported last year that Oppenheim had relayed concerns from Weinstein’s lawyers that Farrow could not report the story because the producer had worked with his estranged father, director Woody Allen. “No, absolutely not, and Noah Oppenheim never had a conversation with Harvey Weinstein about the content of NBC News’ investigation,” the network spokesperson said.
By August 2017, Farrow was prepared to fly to California to interview a woman who was going to claim in silhouette on camera that Weinstein had raped her, according to the sources. Farrow wanted to publish this interview and what he had already gathered, but network higher-ups said he needed more and would not allow Farrow to use an NBC News crew for the interview, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“Three days before Ronan and I were going to head to L.A. to interview a woman with a credible rape allegation against Harvey Weinstein,” McHugh told the Times, “I was ordered to stop, not to interview this woman. And to stand down on the story altogether.”
In an interview with the Times, Oppenheim recalled telling Farrow, “You can’t use an NBC camera crew for another outlet. You can do whatever you want to do. And you don’t work for us.”
Farrow went ahead with the interview anyway, paying for a camera crew out of his own pocket, according to sources.
“The reason the reporting stopped here is because Ronan asked to take it elsewhere because NBC News’ determination at the time was that you don’t have it yet,” the network spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Dejected, Farrow approached longtime New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta seeking advice about what to do with his reporting and where to take the story. Farrow had interviewed Auletta, who had twice previously attempted to report news about Weinstein’s alleged behavior, for the NBC story the previous month. Auletta suggested bringing the story to The New Yorker and called Editor in Chief David Remnick, who accepted the idea.
According to multiple sources, Weinstein attorney Charles Harder claimed in legal threats to Farrow and others that NBC News gave them written assurances that Farrow would not use any reporting he obtained about Weinstein during his time at the network. Harder did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“We immediately were clear with Weinstein’s legal team that we disputed the characterizations,” the NBC spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Despite letters from Weinstein’s attorneys, Farrow and The New Yorker decided to press on and eventually published the piece just days after The New York Times released its own bombshell report about Weinstein’s history of alleged sexual misconduct and the use of settlements and nondisclosure agreements to silence accusers.
Immediately after Farrow published his bombshell at The New Yorker, top figures at NBC began pointing fingers at each other, two sources said.
While Oppenheim told staffers at a division-wide town hall meeting that he took responsibility for the decision to let the story go, he privately told at least one colleague that NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack and Senior Communications Vice President Mark Kornblau had made him a scapegoat.
“He said to me, ‘It wasn’t my decision,’” said the colleague who spoke to Oppenheim after Farrow’s story was published at The New Yorker. “‘Mark Kornblau and Andy Lack are trying to throw me under the bus when it was Andy’s decision,’” the colleague recalled Oppenheim saying.
“This conversation is made up out of whole cloth, never happened. There is no daylight between Andy and Noah,” the spokesperson said.
While multiple higher-ups at NBC have repeatedly attempted to dismiss criticism of the network’s failure to publish the Weinstein story, questions about NBC’s decision are likely to cause more headaches in the coming months.
Earlier this year, publisher Little, Brown announced it was publishing a book by Farrow entitled Catch & Kill, in which he is expected to share his recollection of NBC’s decisions around the Weinstein story and report more broadly on the conspiracy of silence that protects powerful men.
— with additional reporting by Lloyd Grove
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Weiner’s title. We regret the error.