NBC staffers harbor doubts about network's leadership over handling of Weinstein, Lauer cases
Posted October 27, 2019 9:20 a.m. EDT
CNN — Rachel Maddow is far from the only one.
Her extraordinary MSNBC segment on Friday — covering the allegations in Ronan Farrow's "Catch and Kill" that are roiling NBC News — gave voice to other staffers who have concerns about management.
Maddow also interviewed Farrow on Friday night, ending a two-year period when he wasn't booked on any NBC-owned channels. Questions about NBC are coming back to the forefront. Chiefly: Why won't the network open itself up to an external investigation?
The concerns are about two separate but possibly related issues: NBC's handling of Ronan Farrow's reporting about Harvey Weinstein in mid 2017, and the Matt Lauer sexual misconduct scandal that erupted later that year.
NBC News says the two subjects are not related. But Farrow's new book makes the case that Lauer's alleged treatment of women, NBC's "wider use of nondisclosure agreements with women who experienced harassment," and a "precarious culture of secrecy" made the network "more vulnerable to Harvey Weinstein's intimidation and enticement."
In his book, Farrow never accuses anyone of being blackmailed. But he connects the dots in such a way to leave readers wondering what went on in NBC's executive suite. And in interviews he has accused the network of a "corporate coverup" for halting his investigation into Weinstein.
"The amount of consternation this has caused among the rank-and-file people who work here would be almost impossible for me to overstate," Maddow said on the air Friday night.
Some staffers backed that up by sharing and retweeting stories about her coverage.
"This is a growth moment, not a burn-it-down moment," said a senior NBC staffer, expressing hope that the newfound scrutiny will redound to the network's benefit.
NBC has consistently said that Farrow's reporting did not meet standards for broadcast at the time he was allowed to take it to The New Yorker magazine. The magazine published his bombshell story nearly two months later, hot on the heels of The New York Times' own investigation into Weinstein.
The criminal sex crimes case against Weinstein is expected to begin in New York in January. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, and he maintains that all sexual encounters he's been involved in have been consensual.
As "Catch and Kill" has commanded headlines this month, NBC News executives have been on the defensive. NBC News president Noah Oppenheim said in a memo that Farrow "is clearly motivated not by a pursuit of truth, but an axe to grind."
Journalists at the network have been torn over the executive team's response. Some point out that yes, Farrow had his MSNBC show canceled in 2015, so he may have harbored ill will toward management. Some also say there were legitimate journalistic questions about whether his Weinstein story was ready for air.
"People just want to move on from this," an NBC News source told CNN Business on Saturday.
But there's also a pro-Farrow camp that says management should have kept working with him, to get the story ready, rather than let him walk out the door. These journalists wonder if someone in the chain of command put the kibosh on Farrow's reporting for unethical reasons. And they've been bothered by management's fierce criticism of Farrow.
"This has taken a serious toll on morale," said a veteran staffer, disagreeing with the sentiment that people want to "move on."
Multiple staffers said that they harbor doubts about the leadership of Oppenheim and his boss, NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack.
One of MSNBC's other prime time hosts, Chris Hayes, aired some of these concerns on his show earlier in the month.
Farrow's Weinstein report is "the kind of journalism that you want to do as a journalist, that everyone who works in this business should want to facilitate," Hayes said. "Of course, there's a reason it took so long for the true story about Weinstein to be told, for the many allegations of him to stay locked in a vault. And that's because time and again the path of least resistance for those in power was not to cross Weinstein or his army of friends and lawyers. Same goes for the many, many, many other powerful predators that we've come to know about."
"The path of least resistance is always there," Hayes said, "beckoning seductively, with an entirely plausible cover story, you've got bigger fish to fry, this isn't the hill to die on, the story isn't ready. But, of course, it's the very ease of that path that makes it the enemy to the kind of work we, as journalists, are supposed to do."
Maddow and Farrow made a similar point on Friday night. One of the interview segments was titled "aggressive reporting requires protections from outside pressure" on MSNBC.com.
"I know it's fraught to be here," Maddow said to Farrow.
He commented that she was "brave" by confronting the network's issues on the air.
Until Friday, Farrow had appeared on every major network except those owned by NBC. But Maddow — who booked him personally — felt no corporate pressure to avoid covering "Catch and Kill," two sources said.
Her show's requests for comment to the network also seemed to provoke a significant change.
Maddow broke the news that NBC News employees who signed nondisclosure agreements can come forward with their stories of sexual harassment at the network.
In a new statement, NBCUniversal said that "any former NBC News employee who believes that they cannot disclose their experience with sexual harassment as a result of a confidentiality or non-disparagement provision in their separation agreement should contact NBCUniversal and we will release them from that perceived obligation."
The group TIME'S UP responded on Saturday by saying that this offer is not sufficient.
"If NBC Universal is truly committed to letting survivors and employees to speak out about sexual harassment at the network, it should simply release them from their non-disclosure agreements," rather than placing the burden on them, the group's incoming CEO Tina Tchen said.
Maddow's segment pointed out that Farrow has alleged a "pattern of women at the company making allegations" against Lauer and other powerful figures at NBC.
"As far as we can tell, there has never been an independent investigation of that," Maddow said. "So until there is an independent investigation of that, if there is ever going to be one, that remains NBC's word versus Ronan Farrow's reporting."
Lauer has categorically denied the rape allegation contained in Farrow's book. "I have never assaulted anyone or forced anyone to have sex. Period," he said in an open letter.
Lauer also said he regretted staying silent while "false and salacious allegations" have been leveled against him. He admitted to extramarital affairs but said that "by not speaking out" he has "emboldened those who continue to do me harm with false stories."
With regards to the Weinstein probe, Maddow's Friday night coverage also prompted a second new statement from her parent network, one that may be more meaningful inside the building than outside. NBC News "very much wanted to break this story, which is why we assigned it and supported it editorially and financially for seven months," the statement said. "We're profoundly disappointed that we weren't able to do so."
"Profoundly disappointed" is new language from the news division -- a sharp contrast to the previous statements that impugned Farrow's integrity. This was a step in the right direction, the senior staffer said.
Maddow said her show's journalists were told there are no plans for an external examination of the events around the stymied Weinstein story. But she made a case for why such a review would be valuable to the news organization where she works.
She commented that an "external journalistic review" would "try to restore some confidence that the company isn't just further investigating itself and clearing itself on issues like this."
The news division's position is that it published a "transparent accounting" of its handling of the Weinstein story last year and "once again, we stand by it."
NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke has been standing by NBC News management amid weeks of scrutiny.
"The top leaders of NBC News still have the confidence of senior leadership within the company," a corporate spokesperson told NPR earlier this month.
And the Wall Street Journal reported that Oppenheim recently had his contract renewed. The newspaper said that Oppenheim is "expected to succeed" Lack after the 2020 election.