President Trump on Wednesday morning slammed NBC News for a story about his position on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He attacked NBC News for a story earlier this month about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson contemplating resignation. He attacked NBC News in April for polling that he considered “fake news.”
That’s the way it goes for NBC News these days: It commonly gets attacked by President Trump for something it has published.
The past 24 hours, however, have added a twist to the pattern. NBC News is now under siege for something it did not publish. The New Yorker on Tuesday published Ronan Farrow’s extensive investigation on Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Hollywood colossi Miramax and the Weinstein Co. Following just days after a groundbreaking New York Times investigation documenting Weinstein’s pattern of sexual harassment of female colleagues. Three women, according to the New Yorker story, allege that Weinstein raped them, and the story included an audio recording of Weinstein bullying an unwilling Filipina-Italian model named Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.
On-the-record testimony? Check. Lucia Stoller (now Lucia Evans) tells Farrow how Weinstein behaved during a meeting in 2004 at the Miramax office in Tribeca. They talked about some projects.
“At that point, after that, is when he assaulted me,” Evans said. “He forced me to perform oral sex on him.” As she objected, Weinstein took his penis out of his pants and pulled her head down onto it. “I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t,’ ” she said. “I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.” In the end, she said, “He’s a big guy. He overpowered me.” At a certain point, she said, “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
Classic accountability journalism. The New Yorker is now basking in the renown that comes with standing up to a powerful and vengeful man. And to think, the glory could be the property of NBC News, which is where Farrow began his 10-month investigation of Weinstein’s workplace conduct. The 29-year-old Farrow has a non-exclusive deal with NBC News and gathered a great deal of information on Weinstein under the notion that it would appear on NBC News.
So what happened? It depends on whom you believe. On Tuesday night, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asked Farrow about the situation. He responded, “You would have to ask NBC and NBC executives about the details of that story.” When Maddow mentioned the NBC News officials had said that the story wasn’t “publishable,” Farrow went off: “I walked into the door at the New Yorker with an explosively reportable piece that should have been public earlier. And immediately, obviously, the New Yorker recognized that and it is not accurate to say that it wasn’t reportable. in fact, there were multiple determinations that it was reportable at NBC.”
Now for the official NBC News position, as outlined by its president, Noah Oppenheim, at an internal meeting on Wednesday. From a transcript provided by NBC News:
One of the consequences of choosing, as a news organization, to invest and lean into investigation journalism, is that we are going to often times, chase and touch upon stories that we are unfortunately not the ones who end up breaking. So, on that note, I wanted to come up here and proactively address some of the noise that has been circulating regarding Ronan Farrow’s great Harvey Weinstein scoop. Because, it would pain all of us who were involved in that, and involved in investigations, if anyone at this organization, thought there was anything to be ashamed of in that decision making process. In fact, quite the contrary. Ronan, who was not working for us exclusively, began reporting on that story for NBC. We are proud of that. We launched him on that story, we encouraged him to report that story. We supported him and gave him resources to report that story over many, many months. The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive to all of us. Like pretty much every newspaper and magazine in LA and New York, the New York Times up until last week, New York Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, you name it, we were on that long list of places that chased this thing, tried to nail it but weren’t ultimately the ones who broke it. We reached a point over the summer, where as an organization, we didn’t feel that we had all the elements that we needed to air it. Ronan very understandably wanted to keep forging ahead, so, we didn’t want to stand in his way and he took it to the New Yorker and did a ton more extraordinary work. He greatly expanded the scope of his reporting. Suffice to say, the stunning story, the incredible story that we all read yesterday, was not the story that we were looking at when we made our judgment several months ago. But we couldn’t be prouder of him, and I think all you need to know about our feeling about the importance of the story is that we have been putting him on our air throughout the day yesterday, and this morning, ever since. And booking accusers and covering the story really aggressively. So, what I would say, is that we are going to keep digging, we are going to keep pursuing these stories, we are not always going to be the ones that get it to the finish line, but I think more often than not, we will be. And I think we should all be proud of being an organization that is at least in the hunt on these things. So, thank you.
Credit NBC News/MSNBC for allowing the frank Maddow-Farrow discussion of internal matters on live television on Tuesday night. Also: Oppenheim is correct to highlight the important fact that the network launched Farrow on the story — which would be strange behavior for a news organization that’s out to protect a Hollywood producer.
According to HuffPost, however, Farrow had already bagged that horrific audiotape of Weinstein and Gutierrez. A source confirmed as much to this blog. That tape came about after Gutierrez went to the New York Police Department Special Victims Division with a report that at a meeting in March 2015, Weinstein “lunged at her, groping her breasts and attempting to put a hand up her skirt while she protested.” So Gutierrez wore a wire for an encounter with Weinstein at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. When Gutierrez asked why he’d grabbed her breasts, Weinstein responded, “Oh, please, I’m sorry, just come on in. I’m used to that. Come on. Please.”
We asked top New Yorker editor David Remnick if, indeed, Farrow had “explosive” stuff upon taking the story to the magazine. His response: “Ronan came to me and, yes, he had a lot of material. He is an honest person who has worked extremely hard, and it was a privilege to work with him,” writes Remnick via email. And what sort of resources did the magazine plow into the project? “Ronan worked together with me, a wonderful editor named Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, rigorous fact checkers, our lawyer, and many other editors and staff people here to get the piece to where it came out. But it was Ronan above all who did the hard work of talking with his sources, particularly these woman, who did such a brave thing. I couldn’t admire him more.”
Are the standards at NBC News that much higher than those at the New Yorker? Nah. Just scroll back a few weeks to the time that NBC News published a half-baked investigative piece about the notes of Trumpite Paul Manafort during a key meeting relating to the investigation into the Trump campaign’s relations with Russia.
Another possibility: Did Farrow just turn on the heat once he started working under the magazine’s leadership? Or something else? More detail from the NBC News leadership on this front would be helpful. A network source did tell Grove that Farrow “didn’t have one accuser willing to go on the record or identify themselves.”
Okay, but so what? Were the accusers close to going on the record? Was the project headed in the right direction? If you’ve got an audio recording, why give up? Pressed on that last question, an NBC source responded, “What NBC News and others were after was a story about Weinstein’s serial pattern of abuse, not a single incident.” That’s a strong imperative, indeed. The New York Times and the New Yorker, after all, landed with heft precisely because their stories had several accusers and deep corroboration. Here, good journalism protects the victims of sexual harassment, who don’t have to stand alone in making their accusations about one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.
Still: NBC News is a remarkably profitable news outlet. Why the lack of patience?
The best explanation is that NBC News succumbed to the same forces of intimidation and self-doubt that plagued so many other organizations that bounced off the Weinstein-as-sexual-predator story. Those would include the New Yorker itself (in 2002 via a story by Ken Auletta), New York magazine, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Farrow said on MSNBC Tuesday night that he was personally threatened with legal action by Weinstein — a guy who is famous for currying favor with the media via inducements as well as bullying tactics. Remember: NBC News sat on the “Access Hollywood” tape in which then-candidate Donald Trump talked about his own assaultive behavior toward women, yielding the scoop to The Washington Post.
There’s a rah-rah tone to Oppenheim’s message. “[W]e are not always going to be the ones that get it to the finish line, but I think more often than not, we will be,” he told his colleagues. Such mumbo-jumbo doesn’t work with a roomful of journalists. There’s precisely no consolation in citing other news outlets that failed. NBC News made a big mistake; admitting it would be a wise move.