As the cultural conversation about sexual harassment and assault crescendos, three 2019 books examining powerful men and their accusers demonstrate the divergent ways journalists have navigated this charged territory.
“She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators," and “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation" spring variously from newspaper, television, and magazine reporting, which they scrutinize and extend. In the process, they both chronicle and fuel the #MeToo reckoning that journalism, in concert with social media, has helped prompt.
These worthy volumes land at a stressful time for journalists and media companies, beset by financial and reputational challenges. Against the backdrop of politically motivated cries of “fake news,” credibility issues loom large. So it’s worth noting what these books suggest about journalistic techniques, standards, and what philosophers call epistemology, or how we know what we know. For journalists, the question is what kind of evidence suffices to bring contested, potentially criminal behavior to public attention.
“She Said,” by the New York Times reporting team of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, is a journalism procedural focused on their groundbreaking investigation of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s career of sexual predation. (The Times and the New Yorker, where Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein stories appeared, shared the 2018 Pulitzer for Public Service.)
The book’s title gestures at the epistemological problem of this type of reporting, encapsulated by the trope, “He said, she said.” The expression indicates that contradictory verbal accounts of sexual misconduct can make factual determinations difficult. That notion is upended here, as the reporters unambiguously side with the (no longer merely “alleged”) victims.
It helps that Kantor and Twohey rely not just on interviews, but on a paper trail of e-mail and legal settlements, battened down by (sometimes violated) nondisclosure agreements. For the book, they have convinced more sources, including Weinstein Company executives, to provide incriminating documents and go on the record, further buttressing the story.
Toggling between initially recalcitrant sources and patient but demanding editors, “She Said” evokes Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate classic, “All the President’s Men.” Missing, though, are the dramatic personality contrasts that made the Woodward and Bernstein pairing so compelling.
Farrow’s “Catch and Kill,” while covering some of the same ground as “She Said,” is a showier book — a nonfiction narrative composed like a spy thriller (with actual spies, including at least two whom Farrow turned). It already has spurred a spin-off podcast by Farrow and seems destined for a movie or miniseries adaptation.
In a complicated ju-jitsu, “Catch and Kill,” even as it attests to the importance of journalism, adds weight to the assault against it. Farrow impugns not just the conduct but the motives of his onetime bosses at NBC News, painting them as alternately pusillanimous, misogynistic, and susceptible to external pressures to halt his Weinstein investigation. (They deny the charges, but have so far failed to authorize an independent probe.)
Like Twohey and Kantor, Farrow is a protagonist in the story, even if he tries his best to relegate the mantle of heroism to the women who confide in him. His personal stake is enhanced by his sister Dylan’s sexual abuse accusations against their father, Woody Allen (which Farrow has supported and Allen denies).
The title, “Catch and Kill,” is a reference to the tabloid journalism practice of paying potential news subjects for their stories, then burying them in service to some other agenda. In the book, the phrase becomes a shorthand for the ways in which a nefarious interlocking web of media, Hollywood, and political power brokers cover up the sexual (and other) misbehavior of their own. “That’s not a conspiracy theory,” Farrow said in a recent appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia. “It’s a real conspiracy.”
Farrow also noted the contrast between the “raw human anguish” he witnessed in his interview subjects and the “very spare, almost clinical style” of his New Yorker articles. “Catch and Kill” is essentially Farrow unleashed, but with an important caveat: He notes that he “used the same standard of fact-checking” as the New Yorker, shoring up the reader’s faith in even his most surprising revelations.
Both authors of “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” have personal connections to the Kavanaugh story, as they make clear. Robin Pogrebin was a Yale classmate who lived in the same freshman dorm as the future US Supreme Court justice. Kate Kelly attended a Washington D.C. girls’ high school whose social circles overlapped with Kavanaugh’s alma mater, Georgetown Preparatory School.
Yet they strive to purge their writing of personality and subjectivity, presenting the dueling “he said, she said” narratives of Kavanaugh and his principal accusers, Christine Blasey Ford (who alleged a high school sexual assault) and Deborah Ramirez (who said Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at Yale), with dispassion. Their contributions include secondhand corroboration of Ramirez’s account (potential eyewitnesses remained mum) and a vague story about another woman, Tracy Harmon Joyce, who might have had a similar experience at Yale.
An epilogue wrestles explicitly with the epistemological issues the Times reporters faced, evaluating their sometimes contradictory findings through the prisms of both journalism and common sense. They conclude “that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh as a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next thirty-five years became a better person.” In the end, their investigation segues into a coming-of-age story, and their title, for all its ironic undertones, points to redemption.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.