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NBC News faces skepticism in remedying in-house sexual harassment

Matt Lauer and Tom Brokaw have been accused of seeking inappropriate relationships with younger women at NBC. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Charles Sykes/The Washington Post)

NBC News Chairman Andy Lack had barely slept. Late the night before, he had walked from the art deco headquarters of NBC Universal in Midtown Manhattan to the Upper East Side to fire his most famous employee and longtime friend, “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer.

Early the next morning, Lack was back in the office, holding a series of meetings to try to explain to shell-shocked employees what precipitated such an unprecedented move. The week had started with a detailed and serious complaint Monday evening from an NBC staffer about Lauer’s inappropriate sexual behavior toward her. A day later, Lauer was gone. In the following morning’s meetings on Nov. 29, Lack took pains to point out that the complaint about Lauer was the first of its kind in the anchor’s more than 20 years with the network.

Others disagree.

During her last year on the “Today” show, in 2012, Lauer’s co-host Ann Curry said she approached two members of NBC’s management team after an NBC female staffer told her she was “sexually harassed physically” by Lauer. “A woman approached me and asked me tearfully if I could help her,” Curry recalled recently, in her first public comments about the episode. “She was afraid of losing her job. . . . I believed her.”

The woman, she said, implored Curry not to reveal her name to anyone, and she obliged. But Curry specifically named Lauer as a person of concern. “I told management they had a problem and they needed to keep an eye on him and how he deals with women,” she said.

The NBC staffer confirmed to The Washington Post that she went to Curry with her complaint. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation.

Curry declined to name the management officials she says she approached. An NBC spokesman said the company has no record of her warning and added that there was no mention of it in Lauer’s personnel file. NBC noted that Lack was not at the network at the time.

Curry, who left NBC in 2015, has a non-disclosure agreement with the company and has been reluctant to talk publicly about her experiences at the network. NBC removed Curry from her role as co-host of “Today” in June 2012 amid foundering ratings and acrimony with Lauer.

Curry, who in an interview said there was “pervasive verbal sexual harassment at NBC,” worked on “Today” for 15 years, most of that time as a news reader, and co-anchored alongside Lauer in 2011 and 2012.

In the news business, “I think people generally did not care” about women’s stories of sexual harassment, said Soledad O’Brien, who worked at NBC for 12 years, went on to CNN for another decade and now runs her own production company. “I don’t think that people who were victims would feel particularly supported by going to someone and asking for help, whether that person was in HR or that person was a colleague.”

O’Brien added that she did not experience sexual harassment at NBC but said that within the industry, “People were mostly concerned they would lose their jobs if they complained. I think those concerns were valid.”

Matt Lauer is not the only prominent anchor at NBC who allegedly sought inappropriate relationships with younger women. Linda Vester, a former NBC correspondent, told The Post that legendary anchor Tom Brokaw made unwanted advances toward her on two occasions in the 1990s, including a forcible attempt to kiss her. Vester was in her 20s and did not file a complaint.

Brokaw denied anything untoward happened with Vester. “I met with Linda Vester on two occasions, both at her request, 23 years ago, because she wanted advice with respect to her career at NBC,” he said in a statement issued by NBC. “The meetings were brief, cordial and appropriate, and despite Linda’s allegations, I made no romantic overtures towards her, at that time or any other.”

Another woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also told The Post that Brokaw acted inappropriately toward her in the ’90s, when she was a young production assistant and he was an anchor. He said no such incident happened.

NBC acted quickly to dismiss Lauer, but it is facing a wave of internal and outside skepticism that it can reform a workplace in which powerful men such as Lauer were known to pursue sexual relationships with more junior women. In interviews, 35 current and former NBC staffers said that while some of these relationships were consensual, some were not. Twelve women interviewed said they were sexually harassed but did not report it.

Three of the 12 told The Post about sexual advances from Lauer. One woman said that the anchor exposed himself in his office and asked her to touch him, and a second said he had sex with her in the middle of the day in his office — alleged incidents that have not been previously reported. A third woman told The Post that Lauer gave her a sex toy, as first reported by Variety at the time he was fired.

Lauer denies abusive actions

In the wake of his firing from NBC, people are remembering cringe-worthy Matt Lauer moments from the "Today" show and beyond. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post, Photo: Lucas Jackson/The Washington Post)

Three former NBC staffers, who support Lauer but would not speak for attribution, say that Lauer’s relationships with women were consensual. Lauer told two people who worked with him, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, that his relationships at work were nothing more than evidence of a troubled marriage. But NBC News chairman Lack, in memos to staff, described Lauer’s behavior as “reprehensible” and “appalling.”

In a statement to The Post Wednesday, Lauer said, “I have made no public comments on the many false stories from anonymous or biased sources that have been reported about me over these past several months . . . I remained silent in an attempt to protect my family from further embarrassment and to restore a small degree of the privacy they have lost. But defending my family now requires me to speak up.

“I fully acknowledge that I acted inappropriately as a husband, father and principal at NBC. However I want to make it perfectly clear that any allegations or reports of coercive, aggressive or abusive actions on my part, at any time, are absolutely false.”

Scores of companies across various industries are grappling with how to end the sort of harassing behaviors that have been highlighted in the rapid rise of the #MeToo movement. The star factories of media organizations such as NBC, CBS and PBS have come under scrutiny by the movement.

“The question is, did the company take reasonable measures to prevent this type of behavior,” said Deborah Rhode, a gender expert and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School. “What did they know, and what did they do?”

Brokaw, now 78, who left the anchor chair in 2004, addressed the topic of sexual harassment while appearing on a panel on MSNBC in December. He was talking about U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who had just resigned.

He said the culture needs to decide “where are the lines about all of this, because it’s not going away. . . . Not easy to arrive at these conclusions because so many of them are subjective. It’s in the minds of the violator or the recipient, or even the people who are on the left or the right. But I do think we need to have a healthier, well-defined dialogue, if you will, and I’m not sure how we launch into it.”

At NBC News, officials viewed the prompt firing of Lauer as sending a clear message. In a memo to staff in December, Lack said a review was already underway to determine “why this was able to happen, why it wasn’t reported sooner, and what we can do to make employees feel more empowered to report unacceptable behavior.”

NBC also pledged to conduct a “culture assessment” that involved small groups of employees gathering with a facilitator from parent company NBC Universal to solicit anonymous feedback on how employees feel about their work environment, whether they are comfortable raising concerns, and what might prevent employees from coming forward.

The company did not hire an outside firm to conduct the investigation — a step many other companies have taken — but it did bring in a sexual harassment training firm to conduct in-person trainings on workplace behavior and sexual harassment prevention. Lack promised to share publicly the results of their findings, “however painful,” at the conclusion of the review. That was five months ago. No announcement has yet been made about the findings, but the network said the review is nearing its conclusion.

Other missteps

By the time Lauer was fired last year, NBC was already smarting from a series of missteps that have put it on the wrong end of some of the nation’s biggest news stories. NBC News held back the “Access Hollywood” video in which Donald Trump talks about groping women. (The video first appeared on the website of The Washington Post.) Similarly, NBC did not air Ronan Farrow’s investigation of Harvey Weinstein, which later ran as a bombshell in the New Yorker, accompanied by audio that had previously been in NBC News’s possession for months.

When Lauer was fired abruptly, many inside the building said they were surprised that the action came so swiftly given his vaunted status.

In one of Lack’s meetings the morning after Lauer’s firing, according to a person briefed on it, an employee expressed incredulity that NBC could have thoroughly investigated allegations against the “Today” show host in a single day.

In response, Lack offered details about the complaint. He said that the improper relationship with Lauer started at the Sochi Olympics, which took place in 2014, and it continued in New York. One NBC staffer who attended a meeting with Lack that morning said that Lack provided the Sochi detail and timing to underscore that the complaint hadn’t been for a mere flirtation, but rather was an offense that went on for months. Another executive noted that Lack wanted employees to know that the complaint was for recent behavior, not for historical misdeeds.

Whatever its intention, the briefing also accomplished something else: It dramatically narrowed the circle of women who could have made the accusation against Lauer. With that one detail, the guessing game inside NBC accelerated. Who was she? What had happened? What could have been so serious to have warranted the firing of NBC News’s most valuable name?

“My client came forward in good faith to her employer with the promise of confidentiality — something that took tremendous courage,” said lawyer Ari Wilkenfeld, who represents Lauer’s accuser. “Almost immediately, NBC broke that confidentiality by revealing specific details of her complaint without her consent, and has in fact disclosed information which led many to deduce her identity.”

But the NBC spokesman said the network has “protected the employee’s anonymity all along” and noted, “There were several hundred female NBC employees in Sochi.”

Hours after Lack’s initial memo to staff on the firing, Variety published an article on Lauer anonymously quoting women who said they had approached NBC management about Lauer’s behavior toward them and that they had reported his behavior to senior management. Following the publication of that story, NBC clarified Lack’s statement to say that NBC’s “current management” had not ever received a complaint about Lauer’s alleged misconduct.

But Lauer’s alleged behavior with women had become tabloid fodder years before. The National Enquirer had assigned a team to follow him in hopes of catching him in a compromising position. (A National Enquirer spokesman said the paper does not comment on its investigative reporting.) A former colleague noted that that level of scrutiny outside the building made Lauer more likely to carry on affairs inside the building and when he traveled internationally.

Only one of Lauer’s accusers who worked at NBC has been willing to speak publicly, even though several other women have made complaints behind the scenes. The one public face, Addie Zinone, a former production assistant on “Today,” said she had a consensual but damaging one-month relationship with Lauer in 2000. She was 24, and he was in his 40s. She first told her story to Variety and repeated it, in detail, to The Post.

Zinone recently asked pointedly: “Where are the other victims, and why haven’t they come forward?”

The answer might be evidenced by looking at Zinone’s inbox, where she has received scores of messages from strangers castigating her for speaking out. (Others were supportive.) But the answer also lies in the fear cited by two of the women who spoke about Lauer to The Post: They feared retaliation at NBC if they spoke out publicly. (Zinone said she left NBC shortly after the relationship with Lauer.)

A former colleague of Lack’s from his time before NBC said that when questioned about Lauer’s rumored extramarital affairs, Lack responded, “He just loves people. He genuinely loves people.” Lack, through a spokesman, denied saying this, calling it “a ridiculous statement.”

Allegations against Brokaw

Linda Vester, who began a promising career with NBC News in the early 1990s, can still recount alleged incidents with Tom Brokaw from nearly 25 years ago that anger her to this day. She said she did not report them to management out of fear of retribution. Even if such incidents are reported through internal channels, she told The Post, NBC is not willing to hire an outside arbiter.

“I am speaking out now because NBC has failed to hire outside counsel to investigate a genuine, long-standing problem of sexual misconduct in the news division,” said Vester, now 52.

Several high profile reporters and television personalities have lost their jobs over recent sexual harassment and abuse allegations. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

A Fulbright student fellow who had pursued graduate studies in Arabic and the Middle East, Vester had reported for NBC from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the first Gulf War. She was hired in the 1990s to work on “Weekend Today,” based in Washington, the lowest-ranking correspondent at the least-important program.

One day in January 1994, Vester remembers being in New York on assignment, staying at the Essex House, the regular hotel for NBC staff. As she was preparing to return to Washington, she received a “top line” message from Brokaw, the managing editor and anchor of “NBC Nightly News.” Top lines were short internal messages within NBC’s system that allowed staff to communicate easily with one another.

At the time, Brokaw was the network’s biggest star. Lauer had just started as the news reader on the “Today” show. NBC News’s new president, Andy Lack, was not a year in the job.

Vester said Brokaw asked her where she was staying and what she was doing that night. “I replied that I had checked out of my hotel and was going to catch the last shuttle back to D.C. before the coming snowstorm,” Vester remembered recently. Every correspondent’s travel and hotel plans were kept in a group file available to anyone on NBC News’s computer system.

Brokaw wrote back that that wasn’t a good idea, Vester said. “My gut told me his intentions were not good,” she wrote in her diary later that night, and which she supplied to The Post. So she called her best friend and mentor at the network, a producer in the Washington bureau, who has corroborated to The Post the principal aspects of Vester’s account.

Vester said Brokaw wrote that it would be better for Vester to stay in New York. They could have a drink.

Vester, at a loss, replied, “I only drink milk and cookies,” according to her diary.

“It was the only thing I could think of at the time, hoping the reference to milk and cookies would make him realize I was 30 years his junior and not interested,” Vester said in an interview. In her diary she wrote that her final note to Brokaw was, “There is nothing I would like more than a good chat — a great talk with someone I admire. But if appearances are a concern . . . that’s valid.”

Vester said, “I was trying to suggest that if he was worried that what he was suggesting might look wrong, it was wrong.” Vester’s friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she signed a non-disclosure agreement when she left NBC, urged Vester to sign off quickly from the system to limit further communication.

As the snow began, she missed the last shuttle, stranding her in New York. She returned to Essex House and updated her whereabouts. In her diary entries, made around 3 in the morning after the encounter, she wrote, “Once in my room . . . I received three phone calls. One from a friend, another from a source; the third was Tom Brokaw. He said to order milk and cookies and he was coming over.”

Vester said she was terrified that if she refused to meet with him, “my career at NBC would be over before it even got going.” She called her producer friend, who agreed to stay on the phone with her.

Soon, Vester heard a knock on the door. The friend in Washington told Vester to call her back in 30 minutes or she would alert the front desk to come to her room. Vester said she opened the door, and Brokaw walked past her and sat on the sofa in her suite.

Brokaw has a distinctly different recollection of the evening. He remembered being invited over to Vester’s room that evening, a characterization that Vester rejects, as does the friend who was on the phone with Vester that night.

“What do you want from me?” Vester said she asked him. She recalled him looking at her with mild exasperation. “An affair of more than passing affection,” Brokaw told her.

“But you’re married,” she said. “And I’m Catholic.”

Then Brokaw patted the sofa next to him, she said, while she sat down on the opposite end of the couch. She brought up a sexual harassment case that had been uncovered at NBC just recently, to try to signal she was not interested in what she felt was about to happen.

Brokaw leaned over, “pressed his index finger to my lips and said, ‘This is our compact,’ ” she wrote in her diary at the time. “My insides shook. I went completely cold.”

Then, “very quickly,” Vester said later in an interview, Brokaw put his hand behind her neck and gripped her head. “Now let me show you how to give a real kiss,” he said, in Vester’s recollection, and jerked her head toward him. She remembers tensing her neck muscles and using all her strength to wriggle free and stand up. She wrote, “I said ‘Tom . . . I don’t want to do that with you.”

Brokaw sat silent for a few minutes, then finally said, “I think I should go.” Vester nodded vigorously.

The next day, Vester said, she and Brokaw spoke, and he attempted to make the interaction seem consensual. Vester didn’t agree. Later, she met with another friend who corroborated in an interview that Vester was “rattled” by the episode and “disappointed” in what had happened given her respect for Brokaw.

A second incident unfolded in London more than a year later, Vester said. She saw no way to extract herself from being in Brokaw’s company because she feared alienating the anchor, she said, but again warded off his advances.

“Linda has shown incredible courage and conviction coming forward to share the details of her experiences working at NBC,” said her attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, who also represents the initial Lauer accuser. “She does so at her own expense and peril. She wants nothing for herself.”

Vester, who later worked at Fox News and left the business, said she has no intention of filing a legal claim against Brokaw or NBC.

A second woman, a former production assistant at NBC News who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Brokaw stopped her in the hallway just as she arrived for work. It happened in the mid-1990s, and she was wearing her winter coat. He beckoned her into a small enclave to the side of the hallway.

The production assistant, then 24, had been looking for a more permanent role as a researcher on one of NBC’s shows. He took her hands in his and commented on how cold they were, the woman recently recalled. “He put my hands under his jacket and against his chest and pulled me in so close and asked me, ‘How is your job search going?’  ”

She looked up at the man she had habitually called “Mr. Brokaw,” and mumbled a reply, she said. Then he said, in her recollection, “Why don’t you come into my office after the show and let’s talk about it.”

She said the implication of his invitation was clear, and that he was inviting her to his office for more than advice. She never went to his office and left the network shortly after the incident. Like Vester, she did not report it.

How to investigate

Rhode, the Stanford scholar, said that even without formal complaints, higher-ups have a responsibility for workplace conditions. But they are rarely the right people to investigate wrongdoing.

“If there was this kind of information circulating in the hallways, a good investigator could find that out,” she said. “The reason that experts think the best practice is to hire outside investigators is those people will be much more likely to be disinterested and appear disinterested. They don’t have an ongoing relationship with a company that may have a desire to protect their reputation and keep the dirty linen out of public view.”

Ann Curry said she understands reticence to report harassment.

“This is one of the problems when we talk about corporations with an HR department being under leadership of someone who might or might not be accused,” she said. “How are they going to complain about it if they are accusing someone who is overseeing the department that is supposed to protect them?”

The ultimate question, Curry added, is: “Do you have a system that allows those who feel they have been victimized to air their complaints without fear they will lose their jobs? I don’t know a company that does.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that NBC News had possession of video relating to Harvey Weinstein. It was audio.