Analysis: NBC News can't seem to shake Ronan Farrow and scandal he uncovered
Despite the network's efforts to defend itself, allegations from the former correspondent keep resonating.
NBC News just can't seem to escape the talk of scandal at NBC News.
For weeks, the network has been rebutting allegations by a former correspondent, Ronan Farrow, that it suppressed his reporting on sexual assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein and covered up harassment and assault accusations against its former star Matt Lauer.
The story has been propelled by Farrow's best-selling book, "Catch and Kill," which asserts - over NBC's strenuous denials and allegations of "a smear" - that NBC stopped Farrow's reporting on Weinstein in mid-2017 after Weinstein threatened to reveal Lauer's misconduct. Farrow published a blockbuster story about Weinstein in The New Yorker seven weeks later.
On Friday, Oct. 25, the call for NBC to come clean on the Weinstein episode came from inside the house. In an extraordinary segment on her MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow urged NBC News to undertake an independent investigation of the network's conduct.
"The allegations about the behavior of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are gut-wrenching," said Maddow, MSNBC's biggest star and the second, after MSNBC host Chris Hayes, to call out her bosses on an NBC-owned platform. "But accusations that people in positions of authority in this building may have been complicit in some way in shielding those guys from accountability - those accusations are very, very hard to stomach." Maddow said she had independently confirmed that NBC had halted Farrow's reporting, a key claim in the book.
Farrow, who was a guest on Maddow's Friday show, was booked weeks in advance. NBC News's parent company, NBCUniversal, tried to get ahead of Maddow's commentary by issuing a statement releasing former NBC News employees from any "perceived obligation" not to speak publicly about sexual harassment at the network during their time of employment. The edict covers employees who signed severance agreements that contain nondisparagement clauses.
Her booking of Farrow caused consternation inside the building, given that NBC executives had so vehemently attacked Farrow and his book, according to three current NBC staffers.
NBC's statement was more of a public clarification than a new policy: In the run-up to the release of Farrow's book, NBC News officials emphasized that no employees were ever prohibited from discussing allegations of harassment after leaving the network. Farrow claims otherwise; he reports that NBC had at least seven such nondisclosure agreements with former employees, including several Lauer accusers, that helped NBC cover up widespread harassment.
In any event, the statement seemed to backfire. Critics immediately seized on a caveat - that women who wanted to speak about their experiences had to check with NBC's legal department for clearance first, apparently giving the network veto power over any public statements.
"If NBC Universal is truly committed to letting survivors and employees speak out about sexual harassment at the network, it should simply release them from their nondisclosure agreements," said Tina Tchen, the incoming chief executive of Time's Up, an anti-harassment advocacy group. "There is no reason to place the burden on those who choose to speak to reveal themselves in advance to NBCUniversal."
Ari Wilkenfeld, an attorney who has represented several former NBC employees, called the language in NBC's statement "vague and intimidating." Wilkenfeld's clients include Brooke Nevils, a "Today" show producer who in Farrow's book accuses Lauer of raping her. While he would not comment on Nevils's case specifically, he said, "Given the company's conduct to date, I'm not sure how many people are going to feel comfortable reporting to NBC and asking permission to tell their stories. We'll have to wait and see if NBC is truly interested in reconciling with its past and present problems."
NBC says it essentially has.
In interviews, network officials deny any pattern of harassment complaints or "hush-money" settlements, and say Lauer was fired just hours after Nevils came forward with her accusation in late 2017 - the first such accusation against Lauer the officials said they'd heard. Lauer's conduct, they add, was investigated internally, and a report of that investigation was made public. Since then, the network has improved its training and workplace reporting practices, they said.
But NBC has resisted calls for the kind of independent investigation that other news organizations have undertaken in the wake of harassment scandals. Among others, CBS, NPR and Fox News have employed outside law firms to look into allegations against their senior executives.
Nor do NBC's ongoing PR troubles appear to have threatened the careers of the two men at the center of it, NBC News President Noah Oppenheim and NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. Farrow points a finger repeatedly at both men in "Catch and Kill," characterizing them as duplicitous, arrogant and untruthful in managing and then effectively killing the Weinstein story.
However, both appear to have the backing of a third powerful figure, NBCUniversal chief executive Steve Burke, their boss. "It's clear Andy and Noah have [Burke's] support, and that has allowed them to ride this out as long as the evidence is in their favor," said a person familiar with NBC's management. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity, deferring to NBC's official statements on the matter.
Of the two, Lack's continued hold on the top spot seems the most remarkable.
Since returning to the network as chairman of its news division in 2015, he has overseen high-profile controversies and missteps: anchor Brian Williams's suspension and demotion for exaggerating his reporting exploits; the network's apparent suppression during the 2016 presidential campaign of the "Access Hollywood" recording from 2005 in which Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women; Lauer's firing for sexual misconduct in 2017; Farrow's accusations about Weinstein and Lauer; and the signing of Fox News host Megyn Kelly to a huge contract that resulted in a low-rated talk show and her eventual departure from NBC.
For Lack, the adverse publicity generated by these episodes has been counterbalanced by NBC News's ratings and financial performance during his tenure, his supporters at the network say.
Over the past four years, NBC News's three most important programs - "Today," "Nightly News" and "Meet the Press" - have led the ratings among viewers ages 25 to 54, the key category for advertisers, although competitors often have more total viewers. In addition, MSNBC's ratings and revenue have increased to record levels in each of the past four years.
In fact, NBCUniversal gave Oppenheim a strong vote of confidence by renewing his contract earlier this year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Lack is expected to retire after the election next year, and Oppenheim is expected to succeed him.
An NBC News spokesman and Farrow declined to provide on-the-record comment.
Inside NBC News, journalists say they have been watching the drama surrounding Farrow's book with a mixture of bafflement, resignation and some anger. Others dispute Farrow's characterization of events, saying they stand by Oppenheim and a team of producers at NBC who have said his Weinstein story didn't meet NBC's reporting standards at the time Farrow walked away in frustration.
"Should NBC have worked harder and published his reporting in a web story, even if all the women [accusing Weinstein at that point] were unnamed?" asked one NBC journalist who is supportive of Lack and Oppenheim. "Arguably so. But that's an easier call in hindsight than at the time."
This article was written by ____, a reporter for The Washington Post.