On this special episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, you get two interviews for the price of one: First, Jessica Pressler, a New York Magazine staff writer whose longform story about a New York City high society grifter, Anna Sorokin, became a viral hit online. Then, New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, who’s the author of a new book called “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else).”
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I am here at Vox Media headquarters on a beautiful day in New York City. Today, Recode Media listeners, is a special day because you get two podcasts for the price of one, which is 0 dollars. Lucky you. We have two very cool guests here. I wanted to make sure you got to hear both of them in the same podcast.
First, I talked to Jessica Pressler, the great New York Magazine writer. She has an amazing story. You may have read about this New York grifter/socialite/fraud. It’s amazing. You will really enjoy the story. If you have read it, go read it. And we had a great conversation that runs about half an hour.
And then after that I talked to Ken Auletta, the great New Yorker writer, media critic. He’s got a new book out about the ad business called “Frenemies.” We talked about that. It’s also a conversation about Google, and ad tech. It’s also a conversation about how Ronan Farrow got the Harvey Weinstein story, how Ken tried to get that years ago and didn’t, how Ken helped bring Ronan Farrow to the New Yorker. That’s a very cool story as well.
They’re all coming up, they’re all free. Enjoy. One thing we ask of you before we get started: Tell someone else about this show and, while you’re at it, go to Apple Podcasts and rate and review us. If you want to spend that time criticizing Kara Swisher — or “Kara Fisher,” as you called her, random person — you can do that. It’s not the best use of your time; Kara will not read those comments. But if you want to praise this podcast in Apple Podcasts, go ahead and do that. That’d be awesome. Thank you.
Okay, here is my interview with Jessica Pressler.
This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am here with Jessica Pressler, staff writer/contributing editor at New York Magazine. Jessica has written many amazing stories. She’s written one in particular that we are going to spend a bunch of time talking about. We don’t often devote an entire podcast to a single story.
Jessica Pressler: Wow
Not to a single story, but we want to focus on it. If for some reason you haven’t read this story, what’s the title of the story, Jessica? You don’t know ... grifter.
No, it’s about the grifter. I think it’s, maybe, “She had so much money, she just lost track of it,” is the headline on the story.
I’m assuming that most Recode Media listeners have already read the story. If for some reason you are listening to this podcast and you have not read the story, pause this podcast right now. Jessica will wait with me.
We will wait for you to read it. It’s free. You could spend a little bit of time. It’s a pretty long read, right?
It’s pretty long.
About 20 minutes of reading time?
I’d give it 20 minutes.
Yeah, half an hour. Come back. Rejoin us. We’ll start talking about it. Ready? Okay.
And we’re back with Jessica Pressler. We’re still here with Jessica Pressler to talk about your amazing grifter story. This popped up about a week ago on the internet.
I was at the Code Conference so I couldn’t get to it for days, and my Twitter feed was just full of people praising this piece.
Oh, that’s so nice.
So congratulations, you had a much-tweeted-about story.
It was much tweeted.
So everyone has now read the story. We don’t need to summarize what the story is about.
Everyone in the world.
I want to talk about the construction of the story, how you got to it. When I was reading, like, oh I heard of this story before, and as I was going through it, I’m like, “Well obviously, this woman” — what’s her name, Anna ... what’s her real name?
Anna Sorokin. Obviously, there’s a bunch of grifters. Maybe I read about this when she was arraigned, and then as I was doing research for this, I was actually doing some googling, there was a Vanity Fair piece about this same case that came out about a month ago.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, there was an essay.
I was going to ask you this later, but what happens when you’ve been working on this for many, many months, and then Vanity Fair has a first-person story about the exact same thing you’re writing about.
I mean, you sort of tear your hair and rend your garments a little bit, but, you know, all things considered, they’re pretty different cases.
Did you know it was coming?
No, I didn’t know it was coming. I had reached out to her, and it’s a risky thing.
This is Rachel Williams, Vanity Fair photo editor.
Writing a first person piece about being scammed by the same person.
Yeah, I mean, it’s her. I had reached out to her. It’s a risky thing to reach out to somebody at a competing publication about the story. So, I wasn’t surprised, entirely, and I certainly couldn’t fault her for doing that. She had a crazy experience and her piece is really interesting.
It’s a great piece. You have a great piece as well.
So, I was like, I guess I won’t write that much about the Morocco vacation, was kind of my feeling about it.
So, let’s walk us back. Where does a piece like this show up on your radar, because you do a lot of profiles of famous people. There’s a great Alec Baldwin piece I was rereading. There was a great Avicii piece that you did a few years ago that got resurfaced after his death recently. That’s kind of your stock in trade. Or one of the things you do a lot of is meet a famous person, have lunch with them, hang out with them, profile them. This is a different thing.
This is a different thing, and this sort of came up because I do a lot of profiles. It’s my job, and it’s enjoyable for the most part. But I do like long narrative stories a lot more. Not more, but you know, a lot. And they take a lot of time and effort. So I don’t do a ton of them, but this came up because a few years ago I did a story about a group of former strippers at Scores who were arrested for stealing their clients credit cards and racking up enormous debt.
Did you get a National Magazine Award for this one?
I didn’t get that, no.
Were you nominated for it?
I was nominated.
Okay, that’s pretty close.
But someone else got it who really deserved it, so it’s totally fine. I’m not bitter. And also, they don’t really give National Magazine Awards for stripper articles.
If I was voting for that, I would have voted.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
But this is strippers at Scores ripping off their clients.
Strippers of Scores ripping off their clients.
The astonishing thing is that this doesn’t happen all the time.
Well, I think it does happen all the time. They were caught.
They were caught.
They were caught, and it was more like a crime ring and it was a whole thing, and so I really enjoyed doing that story. I loved the people. I was really interested in the fact that there are these women of New York, kind of like lady scam artist grifters ... that there’s this whole underworld. There’s all different kinds. And I reached out to this really wonderful New York Post photographer who had taken a picture of one of those women, this guy Steve Hirsch, and he took an amazing photo of one of the women from that story. And I was asking him, “Do you know other ones, because I was thinking about maybe doing a book project on it. Have you seen any new, interesting, fun things lately?”
Other stripper scammers? Or just other scammers?
Just other scammers. Other lady scammers.
Other underworld, interesting figures.
Other underworld, interesting people from those kind of ... because we had had conversations, like in the courthouse. He’s a Post photographer that hangs out at the courthouse.
So he sees the underbelly.
He sees everybody, and it’s amazing. And he was like, you should check out this woman, Anna Sorokin. And I googled it, and it was actually in the Post. It’s in the story that it was in the Post in October when she was arraigned.
So it wasn’t you seeing the Post, it was a Post photographer saying, “You should look at this story.”
I mean, “You should look at this thing that you totally missed that happened in October.” So, I looked it up. I wrote to Anna in prison. She called me and I met with her a few times. It kind of evolved from there.
So how long, sort of soup to nuts, did it take to put this thing together?
I think I must have met her either in February or March, but I was doing a lot of other things in between.
So pretty quick ...
Yeah, it was pretty fast.
... for a deeply reported piece.
Right. Well, I mean, I had this deadline.
You’re pointing to your belly ... baby in it.
So I, and again, stipulated that I’m not totally myself right now, because I’m about to have a baby. So, yeah, I had a deadline. I couldn’t linger on it too long.
Can we talk a little more about how you assemble a piece like this? It looks to me, reading it, there’s three main sources for it, just by people you quote. You’ve got the concierge at the hotel, you’ve got the trainer, and then you’ve got Anna. Were you going into this thinking, “I need Anna or someone to explain this story for me, otherwise I can’t do it”? Or could that be a write-around? How were you thinking about what you need to assemble a story like this?
Well, there’s a lot more sources than that, for starters, because everything is triangulated and checked against other people
Right. Especially when you’re talking about a scam artist, right?
Especially when you’re talking to someone who is a professional liar. You definitely need to check out everything that they say against other things, and, you know, when you have people talking about where they work and you have to check with that place, and all of that stuff, so there’s a lot of different people in it. So I guess they are kind of just main characters in the story. And I didn’t really set out to get them. As soon as I met Neff, I knew that Neff ...
Neff’s the concierge.
Neff is the concierge ... and that she was going to be the entry point into the story, because she is all of us. Meeting this person and entering this world.
Tease that out, all of us. Meaning she’s the reader, or she’s a New York person?
I think I mean she’s a surrogate for the reader, and that she is experiencing this world for the first time and seeing it, and you kind of want to see it through her eyes a little bit. And she’s also just a delightful person, and really fun and hilarious, and was really quotable and fun to talk to.
Yeah, as a side note, but kind of not a side note, I think this is one of the themes of your piece, right? There’s different strata of New York, and Neff represents a real important one, which is young person with artistic/professional ambitions who doesn’t have money, but is around money and people who have a lot more money than her. And her job is literally to service people with a lot of money, but she’s ... where was she, where did she live?
Crown Heights, right? So, you just look at it, and it helps if you live in New York and you get the geographic references, but you sort of get that there’s an upstairs/downstairs thing. And a lot of New York is greased by those interactions, right? People who have money and don’t have time work with people who have more time than money, and they have other things those people want. And they sort of play back and forth.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And we’re all kind of in service in some ways to these people.
Especially if you’re in journalism.
I know. Let’s not get into names.
And on that media/New York theme, I mean, you can have a grifter in any situation where people have money, right? But it strikes me that there is a little bit of a media connection here, that a lot of people she’s interacting with are in New York glossy magazines/fashion publications, in a world which I don’t know that well, but my sense of it is, like a lot of other New York media, is that you have a lot of people in that world who either have money and that’s how they can afford to not get paid very much, or they don’t have money but they have to be comfortable being around people with money, and it seems like Anna comes in and exploits a lot of that.
Yeah, definitely. There’s also ... we’re in this moment where a lot of people have these very loose, weird job descriptions.
Creative directors. They’re futurists. And you never really know what that means. You don’t really know how they’re getting paid. They’re not really doing the thing ... it’s a real trade. And you don’t really know anybody’s background, which I feel is an important point.
Do you think that’s different now than 10, 20, 40, 50 years ago?
I wasn’t alive 50 years ago, so I can’t say. I don’t know.
I do that math all the time in my head when I’m meeting people socially, and trying to figure out ... you live there, your apartment looks like this, or you seem to have this job, how are you paying for it?
Right? And it’s weird, New York’s super frank, and everyone is up front about everything, but they still don’t really want to talk about where money comes from and how they make their money.
Right. The Observer had an amazing article a few years ago that I think about all the time ... the secretly rich of New York. It was, like, wait, how do you have that apartment, and nobody really knows, and you don’t want to ask and be rude, so I think we’re in an extreme moment of that for sure, because of the wealth and equality and because there’s just like obscenely rich people. And they have children, and there’s a ton of trust fund kids running around with fortunes from God knows what.
And that percentage increases, because as anyone knows, New York gets more and more expensive, and if you could afford to live in the East Village then you ended up moving to Bushwick and now Bushwick has luxury condos, and you get filled in by people who are paying, whose parents are paying all cash.
And they live in China or Brazil or wherever they live.
Yeah ... and they’re like a Koch, or something like that. And you’re like, “Oh, all right.”
Is this sort of a through line for a lot of your stuff? Or it’s just one of the things you’re writing about New York?
I guess it sort of has become that, and it is because I’m writing a lot about New York and I work at New York Magazine. And that is in some ways the story of New York at this moment.
I don’t know if that’s exciting or depressing or both.
I mean, either. I go back and forth. When you have a story like this that’s enjoyable, then it’s exciting. Sometimes, when you’re profiling a bunch of Wall Street guys, you’re like, “Wow, this is the same story.”
Yeah, but it’s one of the tricks of “Billions.” I’m hoping to bring in Brian Koppelman to talk about it, like how you can make a wealth porn story that also has human beings in it, and also has a nuance of how you feel about money. Cool trick.
I have more questions for you about your awesome grifter story ... I’m just going to call it Awesome Grifter Story, since neither of us can remember the title. Was it hard to get Anna to talk? It seems like she’s eager to talk.
It wasn’t hard to get her to speak to me and meet with me. It was hard to get her to tell me all the things I wanted to know, which is, “Are you crazy?” “How long has this been going on?” It was a lot of dancing around the fact that she had committed a crime, in a weird way, because, first of all, it’s an open court case. She hasn’t been sentenced yet, or anything like that. She’s actually in the middle of plea bargaining. So she couldn’t really, even if she wanted to, admit guilt. She couldn’t.
She basically is, though, at least in the quotes you’ve got. She’s saying ... what’s the line? “If I was trying to scam ...” She’s sort of indignant that she’s being accused of sort of petty stuff. Well, no, “I had much broader ambitions.”
Right. It’s very hard to get around the fact that there are forged wire transfer confirmations from Deutsche Bank. And Deutsche Bank testified that these are ... so there is guilt for something. However, I think that there is a lot of other stuff that happened beforehand, and going back years.
Back to Germany. You talk about that.
Back to Germany.
She’s been scamming people for a long time.
I think so.
Do you have a sense, and you kind of, I’m not sure if you hit this head on, of what her ... I mean, I know she’s trying to create at some point this foundation/real estate project that’s sort of in her narrative, but if you’re a regular person, you’re watching someone essentially bilk people out of thousands of dollars at a time individually, hotels, restaurants, whatever it is. You’re trying to figure, well, what’s your goal here? I could see stealing something, but then you’d want to run away. But she was living in New York for years doing this. What did she think she was doing?
I think she really thought it was going to happen, and this is one of the things about the story that is most intriguing to me. She really thought that this foundation was going to happen. This was a real plan she had assembled. We talked about this a lot. She’s like, “And I had assembled a really good team.” She had assembled a really good team for what she was trying to do. And if she had gotten that $35 million loan, this could be happening.
She was going to create a ... I’m sure you’ve read the story by now, but she was going to create an art/gallery/boutique hotel ...
Yeah, it was a thing that does exist, like a social club type thing, which by the way, a lot of people were raising money for very similar, I mean not quite similar, social clubs, but that they exist. The CORE: Club exists. The Wing exists. These are places that have art and they have events. I actually wrote a story about private clubs recently for Departures Magazine. There’s a ton of them. And they’re spreading up all over the city. Huge buildings. People pay membership fees.
NeueHouse, exactly. It’s a real thing, and it’s a thing that people raise venture capital money for, and raise millions of dollars.
And broadly right, the whole sort of fake it till you make it. We celebrate that a lot of times in Silicon Valley. I have an idea. I put it on a napkin. Now, theoretically, I’m also a coder or at least I know who that coder is, and I probably am a white guy who dropped out of Stanford or Caltech. There’s some things that she doesn’t fit that pattern for, but the idea of, “I’m going to make a thing out of thin air, and you don’t believe me, but once it’s built, and people value it at X number of millions of billions of dollars, it’s a thing. And I’m given a pass for everything that happened up until that point.”
Right, and she might not have been a white guy but she was a foreign person — an indeterminately foreign person — and that is also a character that we see a lot in New York. I had one guy that she met with about doing food and beverage stuff [say], “If I met with every Russian oligarch who wanted to start a social club, I’d never leave the office. It happens all the time.” She thought it was going to happen.
So the scamming ... going to Morocco and not paying for it, and going to a fancy dinner and asking someone to pay for it because your credit card is mysteriously declined, in her mind she’s not getting a free meal or getting a free trip to Morocco, these are just things she’s doing en route to her eventual success.
Yeah, and I believe that she thought that she would pay all those people back. And maybe if she had gotten that loan from Fortress or whatever, then she would have.
Yeah. I mean, there’s a benign version where you start with money and you go and do a ridiculous app, or ridiculous project, and you live in a world where everyone facilitates that, or even people who see it as clearly a bad idea — because we don’t need another hundredth sharing app — will sort of go, “All right.” And by the way, maybe they’ll take a consulting fee from you.
I used to work for Steve Forbes who ran for president twice. There was no way he was going to win. I mean, it’s harder to say now in a Trump era, but he was clearly not going to be elected president because he had no charisma. But people, I’m sure ... I know he spent tens of millions of dollars on those campaigns. Again, no one did anything wrong, but they allowed him to continue with this fantasy.
The difference was that it was his money.
Well, the difference was that he probably paid his bills on time, and he wasn’t like, “I’m gonna promise you a wire transfer,” that doesn’t come, and stuff like that. But yeah, for sure, there are people, and to an extent, maybe we’ve all done this. We enable this dream because it could happen. Because it happens all the time.
And by the way, there’s an interesting side note, where Anna is born in Russia in 1991, right? So the wall is coming down, and Russian capitalism is flourishing, and then she moved to Germany. You don’t go that much into it, but you can sort of imagine this person sort of recreating themselves multiple times, and going to New York and saying, “All right, I can do whatever the fuck I want here.” And it’s easier to do it here than in Russia or Germany.
Right. I mean, I think that she definitely recreated herself in London and in Paris and in Berlin before here, but this had to have been the easiest place, because there was this city where nobody cares about your lineage. I think in Europe they sort of care about that stuff. They care about background. Less so, perhaps, than they used to, for sure, but obviously in England that’s something that people care about.
And we’re big suckers for accents, right? If you have an English accent, you’re automatically smarter.
My dad has an English accent. He gets away with a lot for that. And you have a great line in there about ... you quote some tech entrepreneur who’s worth millions of dollars. “Yeah, I think she was part of the art collecting family in Germany,” but you name the name and then you parenthesize “no such family.”
When he said that I was like, “Oh, there must be a family and then I looked and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”
That’s the story in one nutshell. And then the actual construction of the story, the way you wrote it, where you start with the concierge and you sort of pull back the camera, and you meet more people who are being scammed, but you’re not spelling out that it’s a scam. Eventually, the reader realizes this is — the headline gives it away — the reader realizes these people are being scammed even though the people are telling you this aren’t sure at the time they’re being scammed, and then you get to Anna at the very end. Is that something you thought about building from the get-go? Does an editor help you think of telling the story that way?
It just sort of came out that way. I didn’t totally plan it. I think I had to sort of say what happened before I got into her personality. You had to understand what had happened before I got to her. So there almost wasn’t room for her as a character.
You didn’t want to start with her in jail because you wanted to tell the story of how she got there first.
Right, exactly. Yeah, so it just kind of came out that way.
So obviously, cinematic. Are you thinking, “I need to be pitching this to Hollywood while I’m writing it. I need to finish it and then pitch it.”? Presumably, other people are pitching it. How does that part of the process work?
I’m finding out now ... well, I’ve done this before. I sort of figured that somebody would be interested in potentially buying it, and that’s, yeah.
Do you go into a story thinking that? I know some writers ... it’s harder to just do this work ... but think I only want to do stuff that I think I could eventually option and turn it into a screenplay.
It’s definitely an interest of mine, but I’ve never written a screenplay before, so I’m sort of writing things that I hope other talented people can make screenplays of.
Let’s talk about stuff that isn’t the grifter story. I mentioned profiles. You write profiles for New York Magazine, GQ, Elle, glossy magazines. I’m fascinated by the glossy magazine’s celebrity profile. I’ve talked to Chuck Klosterman about it, Jason Gay about it. So if you’ve heard those interviews ...
Oh, Jason Gay is so good.
He’s so great. You can hear more of this. You said you like that work generally?
It can be really fun. It can be really enjoyable. I sort of do it as a palate cleanser between doing these more complex, heavily reported, ambitious pieces. There’s something really refreshing about just only being given two hours at the Chateau Marmont with somebody, or just going to a bartending lesson with a celebrity, which is a thing that I did, and it can be really fun.
And it seems that part of the trick is you get lunch with Javier Bardem, right? Or you get to do an activity with Channing Tatum.
Yeah, you sort of fight for more than lunch.
You want more, but that’s often what you get. One interview with them, hopefully it’s in an interesting place. The least good one, I talked with him during the photo shoot for this story, but then the trick often seems like teasing that out into a full-fledged profile without allowing that that’s all you got.
Yeah, it’s a little bit of a crazy thing to do, to assess somebody’s whole character based on this super-limited amount of time that you have. I have actually done a lot less of them lately, partly for that reason, because you just get less and less access. And then it’s not that fun, because it feels really weird to paint a whole picture of somebody that you’ve only spent like three hours with. Anyone can be a pleasant person in three hours. You really have no idea who it is, and stuff like that. I’ve been doing it a bit less.
How often do you feel like they’re hyper aware of the process and their role, and they’re already an actor, and they’re acting in this interview, and they know what they’re doing, and they know that I know what they’re doing, versus they’re relatively open about it, and you feel like you’re having closer to a real conversation.
It’s sort of both, right, like part of being an actor is being able to fake that intimacy. Some people are really charismatic. You’ll go to these lunches or whatever. You’ll be like, “Oh, my God. I just had an amazing experience.” Then you get back and you look at your transcript. You’re like, “Oh, no. This is total garbage. What have I done? This is nothing.” Yeah, that’s the bummer. That happens to me. I don’t know if it happens to everybody.
Every once in a while, you do actually genuinely connect with somebody. People are more and more so much more aware of their own image and of creating their own image with social media and everything like that. People are very aware of their packaging now. That’s made things a bit harder, I think.
What do you think about people who are ultra-famous and don’t do it? I was just having this debate with Kara Swisher about this. I can’t remember ever seeing a long-form Beyoncé piece. I can’t remember seeing a Beyoncé Q&A. Whether it’s Beyoncé or anybody else, do you think they’re hiding something, or they’ve figured out some way to exist without doing it, or there’s nothing there, and that’s why they don’t do it?
I feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot by saying this, but I just respect that so much. Kanye West had this great quote once. He’s like, “Doing a magazine article, it’s like giving somebody else all your beats and letting them make the song.” You’re like, “That’s exactly what it’s like, actually.”
I have a version of that where I’m like, “I don’t really know why anybody talks to me.” If I can’t figure out what the specific angle is that they have, I’m really confused. I wouldn’t talk to me.
Right, I fully respect people who don’t want to participate in that. I do think that the only and best way to do it, unless you have to, unless you’re an actor and you’re promoting something, you have to do it. You’re an actor, and you have a big movie coming out, and you have to do it. It’s part of your job. But the only other reason to do it is if you really want your story told and you trust the person, the reporter, and you have a relationship. You can talk openly, and you as a reporter get a ton of access to somebody and can go back to them multiple times and ask them questions and stuff like that. That’s the way to do it, I think.
What do you think about the idea of famous people using their own media, whether it’s Twitter, social media? You’ve got these things like the Players Tribune, which theoretically, it’s the athletes talking directly. Of course, they’re using professional editors and writers to help them tell that story, but it’s them saying, “This is specifically the story I want to tell in this form.” Do you think we’re going to see more of that? Do you think eventually that’s unsatisfying for audiences and/or people who are putting that out, because it doesn’t seem like a real thing?
Yeah, it’s definitely unsatisfying.
Yeah, some people are really good at it and have these incredibly fun, valuable social media presences and it’s super fun to follow them, but you’re definitely not getting the, what’s he really like? What’s she really like? What’s it like to be around that person? That perspective is really fun.
Yeah, I just wonder if they’re going to say, “Yeah, I understand that upsets you, Jessica, that you don’t get to write that story or you don’t get to read that story.”
“But too bad.”
“But I’m going to present this. By the way, I’m no dummy. I know if I have pictures that are cool, and by the way, I have full control over the pictures, that’s going to satisfy plenty of people.”
Sure, yeah. It does.
Or, “Here’s your 10-second clip. I know that some people would rather read a 4,000-word profile of me, but fuck them.”
It 100 percent does. Look at the Kardashians. They satisfy that need 100 percent. You’re not going to get anything from a Kim Kardashian profile that she isn’t in complete control of.
Yeah. I also have a disagreement with Kara. Kara and I have disagreements. She brought Kim Kardashian on stage for a whole extended interview a while back. It’s a half-hour interview, and I think there’s probably five minutes there.
Of actual substance.
Yeah, and I think, by the way, Kim Kardashian’s a fascinating figure who should be written about, probably just not interviewed directly.
Yeah, maybe. Yeah, I think that sounds right. Now I have to go and look that interview up, though. I didn’t realize you guys had that. That’s amazing.
Yeah. That’s the thing. It didn’t make that much splash. Now I’m just shit-talking Kara, really. Before I shit-talk Kara any more and get myself into more trouble — I like to shit-talk her in person, generally, instead of on the podcast. Jessica, this is great. Thank you for coming.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
We mentioned before, you’re super pregnant. You came all the way from Queens to the bottom of Manhattan for this. We’re very appreciative. This is such a great story. I just wanted to make sure that we had something that our listeners could consume while it was still fresh.
Thank you, guys.
Thank you for doing this.
Thank you for liking it so much. I appreciate it.
Enjoy your time off, because I hope you get time off.
Okay, good. I look forward to reading all your future stories.
And talking to you more in the future.
Thanks to Jessica again for coming on the podcast. We’re not done. We’ve got Ken Auletta coming up in just a couple seconds. First, we’d like you to hear from a sponsor.
This is still Recode Media. I am still Peter Kafka. I am still here in New York City. I am here with Ken Auletta from the New Yorker. Thanks, Ken Auletta, New Yorker media mogul profiler, for stopping by.
Ken Auletta: I thought you were going to stop at mogul.
Yeah, you’re a mogul. You’re mogul adjacent, right?
You’ve been talking to these guys for years. You’re part of the circle, at this point, I would say.
Whatever. We’re off to a good start. You are here to specifically talk about “Frenemies,” your new book, “The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else).” Not a small topic when you add the “everything else.”
Yeah. The argument in the book is that advertising is the ATM machine for all media, including digital media.
You’ve been writing about media for how long for the New Yorker?
For the New Yorker since ’92, and before that, I did a book called “Three Blind Mice,” which I started in ’85, which came out in ’91, so I’ve been writing about the media, really, since then.
I think you are the best-known chronicler of the media and the media mogul beat, what the New York Times calls corporate media these days. This is the first time you’ve focused, really, on advertising.
I guess Google, right, is fundamentally an advertising company as well? And that was a book as well.
Yeah, the argument was the old Watergate adage, follow the money. Here I am writing about the media, including Google and Facebook. If you look at Facebook, 97 percent of their revenues come from advertising, almost 90 percent for Google. Without advertising, there are no newspapers or television, much of television, and magazines. I said, let me follow the money. What’s happening to advertising? What I learned is that it’s being disrupted just as newspapers and music and magazines were.
There is this thing with people like you and me and other people who cover media. We tend to undercover the ad and really the money side of it, bizarrely, even though we’re covering the business of it. I think partly it’s because it’s been dry and unchanging for a long time. I think partly, at least for me now, on the tech side, the Google and Facebook side, this stuff is so arcane and so difficult to understand, so difficult to make understandable to a large audience, that it’s easier to ignore it.
That, and I think we who cover the media tend to want to write about media things and not about business things.
Fair enough. Guilty as charged. When you went into this, you said, “I’m going to dig in. I’m going to not only learn really about how ads work, but how digital advertising works.” What surprised you, once you got in there?
Among the many surprises were how disrupted the business really is, and how people or institutions that were friends and allies and partners of, say, ad agencies, have become their frenemies. PR agencies are now becoming ad agencies as they have fewer newspapers to peddle their wares to. The New York Times, Vice Media, Vox Media, your ad agencies as well as platforms that they advertise on. Clients increasingly take stuff in-house to create their own in-house operations, so the ad agency is being disrupted.
Then the other thing you find — I knew some of this, but I didn’t know it as acutely as I think I do now — that the real frenemy is the public. The public doesn’t like those shitty ads, and they particularly don’t like being interrupted on their mobile phones, which is a very personal device. Who gave you permission? Which gets into all kinds of privacy issues, which I try and address, too.
You worked on the book for how long?
Three years. I’ve got a galley here that I probably got early in the year. I don’t know, February-ish, March-ish?
About that, yeah.
You’re chronicling this big change over the last couple of years. Then March, April, Cambridge Analytica, the Facebook story, which had been boiling for a good year and half, breaks open completely. At that point, are you like, “Oh, man. I’ve got to go write another chapter for this book, because everything I’m writing about is now even more relevant than before, but plus, I’ve got to update a lot of stuff.”
I have a fair amount in the book about Facebook. I have Mark Zuckerberg saying it’s crazy to think that, and then apologizing for that. I actually am writing a book about change. I think if you read the book, you say that change is normal. You have things like Martin Sorrell being let go from WPP. He’s a major character in my book. I was able to put that in.
Able to jam that in?
I have more about it in the e-book that comes out simultaneously. In the second edition of the book, there will be more about that, but essentially, even that ... Martin Sorrell’s role in the world of advertising, whether he’s there or not, is established. Thirty-three years ago, he established the largest holding company, and how he operated and its values or failures is all part of the book.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I have been asking for a while, when is the ad business going to get disrupted? Like you said, when are we going to see what happened to newspapers and music happen to the ad business? For a long time, even though digital had become a giant deal, the ad agencies were still doing business the same way they were always doing it. They’re still buying ads, same way, they’re still doing it. By the way, this is still happening in TV. It has yet to be touched, but it seems like something tipped in the last year or so. What precipitated the tipping point?
I think a number of things. I don’t think any one thing did. The mobile phone, the introduction of the iPhone in ’07 is a huge thing, because as people increasingly do most of their work and computer work on the iPhone, an ad, it’s a small screen. You can’t do a 30-second ad on it. It eats up your battery life. You hate pre-rolls and banner ads, so how do they get through to people? There’s a huge question on that.
The second thing is, if you look at the growth of something like Netflix, coupled with things like HBO and Showtime, no ads. That’s a huge thing. People — a younger generation, particularly — are accustomed now not to be interrupted by ads. Creative people love the idea of not having to write shows for breaks.
It’s harder, in a lot of ways, it’s harder to reach people. There’s a counterpoint as well. Now that phone, by the way, makes it easier to track you than ever. We know more about what you’re doing, where you’re going. I was always waiting for the ad buyers, the P&G of the world, that go, “Wait. This whole idea that we’re going to give you $1 of advertising spent and you’re going to tell us that half of it is wasted is the old adage, and that’s just the way we’re going to do things.” For years and years and years, they seemed to go along with it. Again, only recently have you heard them saying, “No, no. We’re going to start actually really rethinking the way we do business.” Lots of various terms for this, but finally, they’re now saying, “Wait. We’re the ones spending the money. We want it to be spent differently. We want more accountability for our dollars.” Is there, again, is there something that pushed any of these guys over the edge?
I think, again, multiple things happened, including Facebook not having accurate measurements of video watching and usage where they say, and Proctor and Gamble, among others, as did Unilever, said, “Wait a second. I’m going to suspend my spending until you give me better data on this. You guys have this walled garden and you’re not sharing the results. You don’t allow Nielsen, for instance, or comScore, to measure your success.” That’s one thing that certainly happened.
The second thing is that clearly, the client is saying, “Wait a second. Is my ad really working? I’m spending more money for a smaller audience on television. With all that clutter, all those ads, are people really paying attention? What’s my ROI?”
By the way, I know that I’m not watching that stuff at home. I know I’m fast-forwarding through the stuff.
According to Nielsen, 55 percent of people who record a show on their DVR are skipping the ads.
For a while now, the only people who would tell you otherwise would be people who were in the business of selling the ads. They’d say, “No, no, people like the ads. We made them part of the content. It’s a branded experience.”
Then CBS, David Poltrack says the same number of people are watching CBS on all platforms multiple times over a 30-day period as 10 years ago, but the same number are not watching ads. When a show is sold to Netflix or Amazon, there are no ads.
Quite clearly goes away. You mentioned just now, and you’ve got an excerpt. We’re taping this a little bit in advance of when it’s going to come out, but you’ve got an excerpt in the New Yorker today where you talk about the public becoming, like you mentioned here, more opposed to the stuff than ever before.
They’re a frenemy.
What’s the best way to qualify that? There was a rash of news stories around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. If you walk up to somebody on the street and say, “How do you feel about Facebook?” They might be more inclined to be more negative than they were in the past. Exactly why they feel negative might depend on who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to Ted Cruz, he’s upset about Diamond and Silk, Diamond Silk? Nodding? Whoever they are. Everyone’s got a different critique of Facebook. If you ask them if privacy’s important, they’ll say yes, but their behavior doesn’t indicate that privacy is important. By the way, they probably don’t know that Instagram is owned by Facebook, that WhatsApp is owned by.
Certainly, members of Congress don’t.
They certainly don’t. I’m wondering if you really think the American public is actively against digital advertising, modern advertising in the way that we think about it.
I think they’re against ... A large number of the public is against being interrupted, more so than are against the worry about privacy. I think the privacy issue is bubbling up. You saw it in the members of Congress. It’s not as intense as it is in, say, Western Europe, where a new rule is just about to come into effect which allows people to say you have to opt in rather than opt out, which is what everyone here wants, in the advertising world. I see it growing as an issue. That is growing as an issue. The other issue that’s growing is the concern about duopolies, about the monopoly power of the Facebooks and the Googles and the Amazons.
Again, it seems like the people who are concerned about that are people like my employer, Vox Media. It’s a very, very narrow subset of the world that thinks about the duopoly and the problem that causes. It’s the people who listen to podcasts like this and read my coverage and your coverage. It seems like the broader public has no idea what we’re talking about.
I think you’re probably right, broader public, but I think if you ask, do you think the percentage of the public that is concerned about the power of these companies and the privacy issues that relate to these companies, that number is growing.
I guess my counterpoint is Amazon, which dominates commerce, has put out lots of companies, has put them under, directly. You don’t hear anyone other than Donald Trump going after them. It doesn’t seem like that has any political resonance. People are begging Amazon to build a new headquarters there. Amazon then creates a listening device that you have to pay for to put in your room. I’ve gone out and bought five of these now. When it came out, I said, “No one is going to buy a listening device, a speaker that’s actually a listening device for Jeff Bezos that you can put out in your room.” Turns out it’s an enormously successful product.
It’s a listening device that listens to a lot of things and retains that data.
Yeah. I’m sure there are people who say, “I will never, ever put that thing in my house.” There’s lots of other people, millions and millions, “Yeah, that seems convenient.”
No, but is there a point at which Alexa, concerns about that listening device called Alexa or Google and Apple all doing that, and the data that these people have on you, and no one has better data than Amazon, which is now getting aggressively into the advertising business. Is there a point at which the public says, “Hey, wait a second. How come you know that about me?” When you think about it, you go forward. You spin forward. The advertiser, advertising agencies and clients are saying, “The answer to the public being concerned about our interruptive ads, we have to give them targeted ads that give them something they want.”
We have to know more about them than ever before.
Precisely. At what point do they say, “How do you know that about me?”
There’s a version of this you see all the time, I hear all the time anecdotally from both people like my dad and then people who I know who cover technology, saying,””I think Google or Facebook,” and they’ll explain a conspiracy theory. “They were able to figure out what I was doing even though I wasn’t logged in.” You say, “Yeah, actually, they have cookies.” They don’t really understand that.
They’ll say, “I think.” People I work with at Vox Media believe that Facebook is listening to their conversations. This is a story that pops up every couple of months. Facebook has to bat it down. People who are pretty sophisticated about technology believe that Facebook is actually listening to them via their phone and serving up ads based on that. Yeah, there’s a root of that.
Think about the data. If you think about the data, Google has your search history, what you’ve searched and read and dwelt on. Facebook has your friends and the communication you have, but who has the best information? Amazon, because Amazon knows what you’ve bought and therefore, what your real interests are.
Which is freaking out Google. Again, I think Amazon ...
By the way, half the people who do a search for a product don’t do it on Google any more. They do it on Amazon. That’s a big deal.
Amazon, I think, has tread lightly in advertising for that reason. They’re concerned about customer reaction. All these guys, again, you’re seeing Facebook go through acts of contrition and, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to GDPR. We’ll fix things.” But they’re still fundamentally doing the same business.
Last week, we had Lyor Cohen come in from YouTube to explain the new YouTube music app. He was boasting about how YouTube and Google will know what you’re doing, where you’re going, what kind of mood you’re in, whether you’re going on a plane or not, and they will serve you music based on that. They’re holding this up as a great idea. They’re very proud of it. I said something to the effect of, “Aren’t you worried about creeping people out?”
What did he say?
It doesn’t even occur to them. Of course, you can opt out, etc. It’s just built into their mindset that of course we want to know as much about you as possible. In this case, we’re not showing you an ad. We’re just showing you a product that you’d like.
What you’re getting to is the reason that they are unconcerned about privacy is because they’re concerned about their business. They see the data they get from you as a lucrative vehicle for their business to grow. At some point, are they compelled to say, “Wait a second. We’ve got to worry about privacy.” We’re looking at a seesaw here. As targeting data goes up, privacy goes down. As privacy goes up, targeted data goes down.
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I’m back here with Ken Auletta. How was that untargeted ad?
Excellent, really good.
I think I read that one, too.
You’re a model.
Yeah, I was great. I want to ask you a little bit more about “Frenemies.” I was surprised you picked a couple different characters in this book. One of the main characters is Michael Kassan.
Who you wrote about some years ago and called the Godfather.
Yeah, Recode did.
No, you did. It was your byline. I actually quote you in the book.
I’ve got to skim the book again. I remember, the piece that I remember that we wrote that he didn’t like was one about his role at CES, where he was the grand facilitator/tour guide.
That’s the one where you call him the Godfather. That’s the CES.
I worked on that one, but it wasn’t my byline. He was upset about it.
We’ll fact-check it.
What surprised me was, you’re doing a book about the change that data is causing in the ad business. I think of Michael Kassan as sort of an old-world guy, not in a derogatory sense at all, but just, he’s a guy who’s a facilitator. He’s a guy who’s a schmoozer. He’s a guy who makes his money connecting other people in a very hand-to-hand, tactile way. Why is he an important character in this book?
If you think about connector, or another way to say that is power broker.
If you look at his client list, who does Michael Kassan represent?
Everyone. All the ... New York Times, Washington Post.
Murdoch, Fox, Wall Street Journal, Vox Media, Facebook, Google.
They all pay him.
They all pay him. They’re clients.
Some of them will tell you privately, “We’re not sure why we pay him,” by the way.
They will say that, but they pay him in part because he’s a connector. For instance, if you’re ...
Just as a backup, MediaLink is a, what do we call it formally? It’s a consulting agency?
They’re a consulting company.
And a bank.
But they’re hired by everyone in this ecosystem to represent them. If you know that he represents the clients and you’re an ad agency, you wonder, “What is Michael Kassan whispering in the ear of your client? Will he support or oppose you becoming the ad agency for that client?” If you’re a client, the New York Times, Murdoch, etc., and you want ads, you want him — the facilitator or connector — to connect you to the various people who would, actually the clients who will put ads on your platform.
Is there something about this era that makes a Michael Kassan possible or was there always a version of him in the media business for decades and he just happened to be around when you ...
I don’t think there’s been a version of him in the ad world and marketing world for a period of time. There are people like Shelly Palmer who do some of the things that he does, but he’s a mom-pop person. Michael Chase has scale, he has 150-60 people working for him, so that’s the difference. If you look in the political world, he’s a power broker the way people in the political world ...
Right, we get that idea in politics and media was a newish idea, and he is the reason, again, if you’re not following the media world that closely, probably weird that you’re listening to this podcast, but the reason that CES is now a media event, at least as much as go look at a fancy TV event, that’s Michael Kassan. He has helped bring these groups of people together. I go every year to meet people who I could probably see in New York in a 15-minute cab ride, a 10-minute Uber ride, Cannes Lions, the schmooze-fest in France, in June, that’s now a Michael Kassan event, and he sort of has created these things, more or less by himself.
Yeah, he’s an extraordinary guy. When a client once said to him that, “Michael, why should I hire you? You represent everybody and how do I know that you’re going to represent my interests?” He said, “Look, I’m a good kisser. If you want a good kisser, you want to hire me.”
That’s a very Michael Kassan line.
It’s a very Kassan-like line and he’s a funny guy. If you’re writing a book, I’m not writing an essay for three people to read, you’re looking for a narrative.
Michael Kassan and MediaLink, they’re a link with all of these participants in the ad and marketing world, so he became a natural narrative through line for me.
I find one of the frustrations about writing, about ads, and modern ads and digital ads and ad tech, is there aren’t many, really, at least that we’re aware of, that I’m aware of, really interesting characters in that world really, but we don’t know ... We haven’t figured out who they are and how to tell their story. A lot of them are engineers that work at Google and Facebook.
Do you feel like you’ve got insight into the nuts and bolts, and bits and bytes, and zeros and ones of that world? Like who those people are that you should be paying attention to?
Well, the characters I chose to highlight in the book and tell their stories were people who represent something beyond themselves. So, when I wrote about Facebook, I chose Carolyn Everson, who’s the head of sales and advertising.
Yes. Again, sort of a traditional role. She’s the one who goes out to Pepsi or whomever and says, “This is why you should spend money with us.”
But she’s also the person who has to battle sometimes with the engineers who are zeroes and ones, and she’s saying this is a people business, and it’s not just about algorithms and artificial intelligence. It’s also a way, by doing that, to talk to the engineers at Facebook and Google and Explorer.
Google and Facebook are interesting, right? Because they’re, as you said, almost their entire revenue is from the ad business. They don’t think of themselves as media companies, but they clearly are. Within the hierarchy of Google and Facebook, the people who sell ads are several rungs down from the engineer. They’re engineering companies, product companies, and they sort of tolerate the people who actually bring the money in.
But one of the things that’s happened, Facebook started with the slogan, “We connect everyone,” and that’s no longer really true. What they’re really about is connecting you to ads, otherwise they have no income. Actually, they’re parallel companies, Google and Facebook, in the sense it took each of them about five years to figure out how to generate ... “What’s our revenue source?” They didn’t know. Google first came to, in 2001, AdSense and AdWords, and they said, “Oh my God, those ads on the right-hand side, it’s great,” and Larry Page, while I was doing my Google book, said to me that half the people who do a search click on the ads because they see the ads as informational, not as advertising. Nevertheless, it is advertising. Same thing with Facebook, when Sheryl Sandberg came five years in, in 2008, she had to figure out a revenue model and she figured out advertising.
Right. They were playing around with ads, but they hadn’t really gotten into it.
In fact, they had disdain for ads, initially.
Yes. That’s the thing, they still do. Both Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are not excited about advertising, they’re happy to hand it off to somebody else. Larry Page isn’t even running Google anymore, sort of handed it off, “Sundar, you take care of this stuff.”
On the other hand, when they get in trouble with the advertisers, as happened with Cambridge Analytica, etc., the engineers rush in, directed by their bosses, to fix this problem. This is embarrassing, this is hurtful, this threatens our business.
Speaking of characters, speaking of moguls, I said at the beginning of the interview, I think of you as the guy who writes the definitive books about the big media moguls. We’re in spring of 2018 and to me, the most interesting media mogul story is that all the media moguls are either leaving or trying to leave. Jeff Bewkes wants to sell Time Warner and he’s been walking out the door for a full year. Rupert Murdoch, empire builder, basically said, “I’m selling.” He’ll tell you otherwise, but he’s really selling most of his empire. The Shari Redstone versus Les Moonves fight is about a bunch of different things, but in the end, they’re fundamentally trying to figure out how to position those companies to be sold. Are you surprised to see all these characters trying to leave the stage?
Well, what they’re trying to do is figure out ... Let’s take Murdoch, for instance. Murdoch, it surprised me that he would sell a large part of his business, not all of it, basically, but he basically made a judgment that, “I don’t know how we can compete with the Netflixes of this world or the deep pockets of the Googles and the Facebooks and the Amazons, it’s just going to kill us, and so we really have to get out of that business.”
Jeff Bewkes made the same judgment that, “I have to sell this content company because I don’t have a distribution arm to do it, but AT&T does with DirecTV and the telephone, maybe they can make it go.” But they’re all shitting in their pants because of the digital giants Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix, who have such value, stock market value, they can buy anything.
They can buy anything. And by the way ...
And pay anything for talent.
The media moguls who are leaving are not being replaced by new media, they’re not selling to other media moguls for the most part. Murdoch wants to sell to Bob Iger but Bob Iger wants to retire, as well, it’s a pretty small list of people who are running big media companies who are acting as if they want to continue running big media companies.
I think that’s right, but think about it. Brian Roberts, if he gets in the game, of Comcast, gets in the game against Disney, and Disney, I think, has the same interests. They see Sky, for instance, as a real distribution platform, as they see the Indian arm of Fox as a real distribution platform. They also see Hulu as a real distribution streaming platform to compete against Netflix. So, they see a future.
Again, Iger’s been trying to retire now for a year, but he says he’s going to leave in 2019.
Now he said he’ll stay longer. If the deal goes through with Fox, he agreed to stay until ’21, I think.
You’re right, he’s going to keep kicking around. And Roberts is running a family business and is relatively young by media mogul standards. Everyone else is saying, “I’ve gotten paid for a long time, I’ve gotten really well paid, I’m going to leave.”
Well, interesting, though, if you take a look at Shari Redstone and trying to put together Viacom and CBS, she basically believes that size or scale is the answer to compete in this world, but she doesn’t really have a distribution platform.
No. Even if she combines the ... We did this great map, you can find it on recode.net, that groups all the big media and distribution companies by market cap, and even if you combine Viacom and CBS, they’re small players, they’re going to get acquired by someone else. She wouldn’t tell you this on the record, but the plan is not to combine CBS and Viacom and say her work is done, it’s to find then someone else to buy the entire package.
I don’t know.
I’m not sure that that’s really her game plan, as opposed to a kind of a faith that if I combine these two content companies, like my father, Sumner Redstone has always said, “Content is king.” Well, of content, but here you have the bundle being disrupted in cable, which Viacom is very much a part of. I just think it may be a false god she’s worshiping.
Again, the other part that I find interesting is not only are the media moguls not being replaced by newer media moguls, the people they’re selling to aren’t in the media business, media is a thing they do or maybe it’s actually the core of what they do, but they don’t think of themselves that way. Mark Zuckerberg does not think of himself as running a media company, Larry Page does not think he is. Randall Stephenson runs a telephone company and thinks that maybe media is a useful thing for him to own, but it’s not what he wants to do. These powerful ...
Maybe that’s what they think they have to do, that, “I need content if I’m going to have DirecTV and I’m going to have streaming over my telephone wires, I have to be in that business. Otherwise, I’m a dumb pipe.”
I hate to say this as a media guy, but I’d rather own pipe than content right now. I think if you have that connection to the home ...
His argument is that, “I have both.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think he’s actually buying Time Warner because it’s something to do with his money, rather than return to shareholders.
Yeah. It’s still not ... He’s not saying, “Now I’m a media company.” He’s saying, “I am a phone company that now has media assets.” There isn’t a younger generation of moguls that we can see coming up. Are you wistful for that? It seems like we’re leaving the end of the mogul era. This is something that has sort of defined your career for decades.
I don’t feel wistful about it. My view is that I visit planets and after I visited and met the natives and written about them, I’ll find some other planet to write about. If the natives and their planet disappears, sorry, some of them were nice people, but I’ll go on.
You’re like Captain Kirk. I like you visiting planets. Who do you want to write about next?
My rough thought, though I won’t give serious thought until the fall, is to do a biography, which I haven’t done yet, just to use a different muscle. I do long profiles for the New Yorker, but to write a whole ... When I think about it, I think about, I don’t want to do a historical biography because I like to interview people and if they’re dead, I can’t interview them, but I ...
You think it’ll be a media person or do you think you’d go out of the comfort zone?
I don’t know. I literally don’t know. Your life takes different turns, I have a graduate degree in political science and so I thought that’s what I’d be doing, and my first several books were not about media at all.
How did you come to this beat?
I had written “Three Blind Mice” about disruption of the television industry, which was totally reliant on advertising back when it started. Tina Brown, when she took over the New Yorker, my book comes out and at dinner with her, she says, “Would you consider writing Annals of Entertainment for the New Yorker?” She was just taking over the New Yorker. I said, “No,” I was actually thinking of a book about Bobby Kennedy then, and I said, “But also you’re thinking about it too narrowly, it’s really not Annals of Entertainment, but Annals of Communication.” Because at the time, Microsoft was buying into the studio business, publishers were doing CD-ROMs, everyone was looking to expand, and they’ve all expanded ...
You see these waves of content company, plan the distribution, distribution of the company’s deployment content, and then going their separate ways and coming back again.
As I thought about it, after saying no, I said, “You know, this might be fun,” and so that started ... This was ’92.
I’ve written about the story you’ve written about, I haven’t gotten to ask you directly, so I’m excited to ask you about Harvey Weinstein. There are two really great Harvey Weinstein stories published up until last year when the Times and New Yorker got to it. David Carr did one in 2001, you did one in 2002, I wrote about this. You were both trying to get at what we now know as Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive ways but weren’t able to publish what you thought to be true. Can you talk about chasing after that story and what you got and what you didn’t get?
I wrote a story about Harvey being a bully with people, and actually his bullying with women or sexual predation was a natural outgrowth of ... That’s the way he treated everyone, male or female, but I knew of some instances of his behavior, including some payoffs to get people to sign nondisclosure agreements during the making of “Shakespeare in Love” and some others.
So, I had a catalog ... I confronted him and he basically said these were consensual affairs, “If you publish it, you’re going to ruin my marriage to Eve,” who was then his first wife, “And I’ve three little girls,” I think he had, and then ... No, three daughters, I think it was, and he started to cry. He stood actually at first and clenched his fists, we were sitting just the two of us in a small conference room, and I thought we were going to get into a fist fight.
You’d been reporting this for months and months.
He knows you’re ...
I had spent time with him, but these questions I saved for this final interview about his sexual predation.
He knew they were coming. I would assume, no?
No, no. I don’t know, maybe he did. I don’t know. But basically, I confronted him with it. This is like a four-hour interview, finishing up, he knew his final, I had questions, he knew probably some aggressive questions I’d be asking. Anyway, when I stood up, face to face with him, thinking again, he might take a swing at me, and actually, part of me was kind of hoping he would, and he started to cry. That’s when he said, “Ken, you would destroy my marriage, these were consensual,” blah, blah.
So then the question became, do we, in the New Yorker, who’s all anonymous, I couldn’t get a single woman, or man, to go on the record with their name.
And you thought there were settlements, but you couldn’t get your hands on those.
No. One of the things I learned, because I went to the courts in England, France and the U.S., is there are no court records, because what Harvey would do, if you made an accusation to him about behavior, and I tracked down one of them and it’s now come out, Zelda Perkins, who was then in Guatemala, I tracked her down, she was his assistant, and she wouldn’t talk, she had a nondisclosure agreement. What he would do is, he went to the person, his lawyer went to the person, and said, “Mr. Weinstein will pay you a sum of money, but you must sign a nondisclosure agreement, and by the way, we keep the agreement, you don’t get a copy,” so it remained in the lawyer’s office, so it wasn’t a public document, it was a private document. He did that countless times.
Anyway, we had a question in the New Yorker, “Do we publish it with names?” My next question was, “How did you pay these agreements? Did it come from Disney, which was then your corporate parent? Did it come from Miramax, which was your company? Or was it personal?” If it came from a company, someone was going to jail, I had a great story. And he produced private checks, they were private checks.
So you knew that he’d been making these payoffs, he showed you documentation off the record.
Off the record he showed me the canceled checks.
Then do you go back and have a discussion with ...
So, David ...
David Remnick, who was running the New Yorker.
David was in the meeting, that final meeting, not the one where I confronted him, but the check meeting, and David said to me, “Ken, you know, when I was at the Washington Post, we did an expose of Senator Bob Packwood, we had 10 or 11 women on the record saying, ‘He sexually harassed and abused me.’ We have zero women. This is The New Yorker.” I agreed with David, we didn’t have the goods, I couldn’t get a woman ...
Couldn’t write the story you wanted to write.
That’s right. David Carr, who I talked to about it afterwards, we commiserated, he had the same problem.
Right. You might hear my computer whirring loudly here, this line in the New Yorker story, you know the line I’m going to quote you here. So, you don’t reference any of this directly, but you do have this quote and it stuck out like a sore thumb in the story at the time, I noticed it, lots of people in Hollywood noticed it, this is the quote: “Weinstein doesn’t want to share the costs of the movie or trade half an interest in a Miramax film; instead, his partners, the studio head said, feel raped. A word often invoked by those dealing with him.”
The way I read that, and I talked to folks who agreed with me, said, this is Ken Auletta in the New Yorker saying Harvey Weinstein is sexually assaulting people, we just can’t say so. That was your intent there.
David Remnick allowed you to do that.
Oh, yeah. David had the same passion I did to expose this guy, and it took a decade before Ronan and the two reporters for the New York Times were able to do it. Ronan, when he came to interview me, I gave him my ...
This is Ronan Farrow.
Ronan Farrow, sorry. Last spring, he said, “Ken ...”
He’s working at NBC at the time.
MSNBC, and he comes to me and he says, “Ken, I have ... Can I get access to your ...” My papers and tapes are at the New York Public Library, and I just donated them, and, “Could I just have access on Harvey Weinstein?” I said, “Sure.” So, after he has access, he says, “Can I come and interview you?” I said, “You have to come out to Long Island because I’m writing a book and I’m out there in July.”
He comes out and does a three-hour interview with me. He tells me in the course of that interview, as I remember, “I have eight women, three of them on camera, accusing Harvey of ... Five of them, off camera. So, I have eight women and I have the tape of the police tape of Harvey grabbing the breast of the Italian model.” I said, “Oh my God, that’s unbelievable, that’s great.” I was so impressed with the interview he did and how careful he was, and empathetic he was. So I said, “What’s the next step?” He said, “I take it to NBC the first week in August to see Noah Oppenheim,” who’s the president of NBC News. I email Ronan the second week in August, I said, “So, how’d you do?” Thinking, “This finally is happening.”
“I can’t wait to see this.” Was there a little bit of you that said, “Oh man ...”
Oh, no, no, no.
“I wish I would have got this.”
No, no, I was thrilled.
You were rooting for him.
I was rooting for him. He says, “They turned it down.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, they don’t want to do it.” He said, “But I can take it elsewhere, but I feel defeated.”
Why did he tell you they had turned it down?
He just said that, “They didn’t think I had ...”
Or what did he tell you they had said?
“I didn’t have the goods.” Which is unbelievable when you think about it. I’m pretty sure my memory’s correct on the eight and three on camera and five background, and the Italian model audio tape. So, I called Remnick and I said, “This guy’s the real deal and he’s great,” and Remnick says, “Have him call me Monday morning,” and he took off from there.
So that was your role in shepherding the story from NBC to the New Yorker.
Yeah, and it was all Ronan after that.
So you don’t want a tiny bit of the Pulitzer he won for that story?
I don’t deserve it, no.
What was your reaction? Again, you knew what was going on with the Ronan Farrow story, I’m assuming at some point you learned about the Times story coming like the rest of us did.
Actually, I kept on calling Ronan and Remnick, and I said, and I knew about the Times story, I said, “Guys, you’ve gotta rush, get this thing ...” Remnick’s attitude, he says, “I’m not a newspaper. We’re going to get this right. It’ll be fine.” Then my friend, Dean Baquet, the editor of the [New York Times], we’re fellow judges of the Livingston Journalism Award, so we talk from time to time, and he calls me up and he’s trying to find out what I know about the New Yorker and of course I’m not going to tell him anything. I just said, “There’s room for everyone in this.” The truth is, when both stories came out, it proved there was room. The Times were generous towards Ronan, Ronan was generous towards them, they did a terrific job ...
They both came out within a day or two.
Within a week.
Yeah, within a week of each other, and they both have shared credit. In some ways, I think just the amount of work they had to do to get that story, I guess they both got it within a year, there’s something about the fact that they were able to get the story in 2017, where you and David, both very, very good reporters, were unable to get it.
And I went back at it in 2015, twice, to get Harvey, because I thought this guy was a predator and a menace out there, and he had to be stopped. So, in 2015, when I read that Ashley Judd said that some Hollywood producer went to massages and stuff on his heavy ...
You know what she was talking about.
I knew immediately it was that, but she wouldn’t talk and go forward. Then when the Italian model came forward, I thought, “This was a great story,” and I couldn’t get the police tape. Then Cyrus Vance, the DA, decided not to prosecute, and I found that stuff about the Italian model that undermined her credibility. She had been kept by a car dealer in Rome and he paid her annually, and he paid her more if they had a relationship.
These are almost unbelievable stories. Did I miss it or did you not write a backstory for this in the New Yorker.
I did not write a story.
Why not? I think it’s fascinating, that’s why we’re talking about it right now.
Yeah, I’d talk about it, but I didn’t. I don’t know.
All right. Well, thanks for sharing with me.
Again, thanks for taking the time to talk about “Frenemies,” which you can buy ... Do you care if they get the ... Maybe the audiobook, right? No, the e-book.
It comes out, all of it comes out, June 5th.
But the e-book has bonus stuff in it.
The e-book has some additional material, Martin Sorrell being fired, and some about Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the Congress.
All right. That’s the version I’m going to suggest because I want the updated version. Whatever version you buy, go ahead and buy it. Ken, thanks for joining us.
My pleasure, Peter.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.