For the second time in a year, NBC News has given away a major scoop to another news outlet. And just like the first time, the reasons for the network's hesitation are in dispute.
Despite months of reporting, NBC declined to move ahead with reporter Ronan Farrow's blockbuster story involving harassment and rape allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Farrow wound up taking the story to the New Yorker magazine, which published it on Tuesday, eliciting a wave of outrage and shock.
Almost exactly a year ago, NBC took a pass on another story involving sexual assault allegations; it declined to air footage of Donald Trump bragging about groping women, prior to a 2005 appearance on "Access Hollywood." The video was leaked to The Washington Post, which broke the story ahead of NBC.
NBC News said Tuesday that Farrow's story wasn't ready for airing in August when the reporter asked his bosses to release him from further reporting on the piece for the network. At that point he had spent months investigating Weinstein.
NBC has not explained why it did not object when Farrow asked to take the story to a competitor.
Farrow took exception to NBC's characterization on Tuesday. "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 was not reportable," he told Rachel Maddow in an interview on MSNBC. "In fact, there were multiple determinations that it was reportable at NBC."
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim on Wednesday defended the decision to let the story go and addressed criticism — "the noise," he called it — that NBC had given a pass to another powerful man.
"The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive to all of us," he said at an employee meeting, according to a transcript made available by NBC. He added, "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 the picture is complicated by several facts. On at least one occasion during the course of Farrow's reporting for NBC, Weinstein's attorneys contacted NBC's news division with their concerns about what he was finding, people at the network confirmed. Although the exact nature of their issues couldn't be determined, their inquiry could be read as an implied threat to sue, people at the network acknowledged. In any case, the news division referred Weinstein's lawyers to the network's in-house attorneys.
What's more, Farrow's background could have presented NBC with a conflict of interest. Farrow is the son of actress Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (although Mia Farrow has suggested that her son's father may actually be her former husband Frank Sinatra).
Although Farrow's background and connections to Hollywood figures may have been an advantage in reporting the story, he was personally involved in another story involving alleged sexual misconduct — namely, Allen. As recently as last year, Farrow continued to publicly accuse Allen of molesting Farrow's sister Dylan when she was a young girl, and he criticized the news media's reporting of the episode (Allen has denied the charge, and he wasn't prosecuted for it).
Farrow, who joined NBC in 2014 and formerly hosted an MSNBC program, appears to have been well along in his reporting about Weinstein at the time NBC decided to drop the story. He tweeted on Tuesday that his New Yorker article had been in the making for 10 months.
According to people close to him, Farrow had already taped several interviews with Weinstein's accusers, although it's not clear if any of the women allowed their full identities to be shown on camera. He also had conducted interviews with people who had worked for Weinstein at his production companies, Miramax and the Weinstein Co. who described his methods for luring women to private locales. The story had reached a "rough cut" phase, and had been reviewed by Oppenheim at the time NBC released its claim on Farrow's reporting.
These pieces of information suggest Farrow's story was starting to bear fruit at the moment NBC decided it no longer wanted to pursue the story.
Farrow did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
In his interview with Maddow, he declined to say why his reporting didn't end up on NBC. "You would have to ask NBC and NBC executives about the details," he said. "I'm not going to comment on any news organization's story that they did or did not run."
Farrow also told Maddow that he was threatened personally with a lawsuit by Weinstein during the course of his reporting. "I will say that over many years, many news organizations have circled this story and faced a great deal of pressure in doing so," he said.
Through his spokeswoman, Sallie Hofmeister, Weinstein has denied wrongdoing. "Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein," she said in a statement. "Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances."
Last year, NBC came in for criticism for withholding the Trump "Access Hollywood" tape until after The Post broke the story during the presidential campaign. NBC said its lawyers had needed several days to review the footage before it could publish the story.
The tape featured Trump speaking to reporter Billy Bush about his encounters with women. "Access Hollywood" is owned by NBC, and Bush had recently joined NBC News as a "Today" co-host. Bush eventually lost his job.
In his remarks to employees, NBC's Oppenheim expressed few regrets. "We launched [Farrow] on that story, we encouraged him to report that story," he said. "We supported him and gave him resources to report that story over many, many months . . . [Today] we couldn't be prouder of him."