News organizations are staffed by human beings — rickety creatures who are slow to come to grips with their failings. Corrections, clarifications and retractions, accordingly, take weeks or months to process as editors and reporters realize that, yeah, they screwed up. Just last week, for example, Bloomberg Law retracted a story published on Sept. 3 whose fatal infirmity was clear to everyone else on … Sept. 3.
But NBC News has had two years to process a different sort of failing: its inability to land the Harvey Weinstein story in 2017. Ronan Farrow, who took his reporting on it from NBC to the New Yorker, ended up sharing a Pulitzer with New York Times reporters for the investigation.
In his new book, “Catch and Kill,” Farrow details his travails in attempting to reel in the story under the roof of a corporate TV news enterprise. As detailed in pre-publication summaries, Farrow reveals how Weinstein pounced upon the pluralistic NBC conglomerate, working the phones, proposing deals and otherwise exploiting the many pressure channels available to a famous and well-funded Hollywood producer. The end result: NBC News bailed on the story.
In a memo to staff on Wednesday, NBC News/MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack provided a rebuttal not only to the Weinstein-related allegations but also to claims from a former NBC News employee that Matt Lauer had raped her during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Lauer was fired in 2017 after allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior toward female NBC staffers. He has forcefully denied the rape allegation and has insisted that “any allegations or reports of coercive, aggressive or abusive actions on my part, at any time, are absolutely false.”
Here’s the text of the memo:
Dear Colleagues,This morning, reporting around Ronan Farrow’s new book revealed deeply disturbing details related to the incident that led to Matt Lauer’s termination from NBC. I want to take a moment to communicate with you about this.First, and most importantly, in reading today’s news our hearts go out to our former colleague.Matt Lauer’s conduct in 2014 was appalling and reprehensible – and of course we said so at the time. The first moment we learned of it was the night of November 27, 2017, and he was fired in 24 hours. Any suggestion that we knew prior to that evening or tried to cover up any aspect of Lauer's conduct is absolutely false and offensive.Following Lauer’s firing, NBCU's legal team did an exhaustive investigation of available records and conducted dozens of interviews of past and present staff. They uncovered no claims or settlements associated with allegations of inappropriate conduct by Lauer before he was fired. Only following his termination did NBCU reach agreements with two women who had come forward for the very first time, and those women have always been free to share their stories about Lauer with anyone they choose.Today, some have questioned why we used the term “sexual misconduct” to describe the reason for Lauer’s firing in the days following. We chose those words carefully to precisely mirror the public words at that time of the attorney representing our former NBC colleague.In the past two years we have taken significant steps to improve our culture and ensure we have a workplace where everyone feels safe and respected, as well as protected in raising claims. Since then, we’ve required all NBC News employees to complete in-person workplace behavior trainings and we’ve significantly increased awareness of the ways employees can report concerns – anonymously or otherwise.In addition to his reporting on Lauer, Farrow’s new book also includes his telling of the NBC News investigation of Harvey Weinstein.As you know, our news organization is filled with dedicated, professional journalists, including some of the best and most experienced investigative reporters, as well as others who support our reporting with exceptional talent, integrity and decency. It disappoints me to say that even with passage of time, Farrow’s account has become neither more accurate, nor more respectful of the dedicated colleagues he worked with here at NBC News. He uses a variety of tactics to paint a fundamentally untrue picture.Here are the essential and indisputable facts: NBC News assigned the Harvey Weinstein story to Ronan, we completely supported it over many months with resources – both financial and editorial. After seven months, without one victim or witness on the record, he simply didn’t have a story that met our standard for broadcast nor that of any major news organization. Not willing to accept that standard and not wanting to get beaten by the New York Times, he asked to take his story to an outlet he claimed was ready to publish right away. Reluctantly, we allowed him to go ahead. Fifty-three days later, and five days after the New York Times did indeed break the story, he published an article at the New Yorker that bore little resemblance to the reporting he had while at NBC News.Let me remind you of who we really are. Our journalists have been at the forefront of blockbuster investigations into sexual harassment and abuse on many stories – many pre-dating Weinstein – including USA Gymnastics, Silicon Valley, Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, and more. To get across the finish line on big stories like these takes exceptional work, collaboration, patience, and a commitment to a set of standards and practices that ultimately lends our work great credibility.If you have any questions about the journalistic decisions that were made, please don’t hesitate to ask. Similarly, should you have any questions about the decisions surrounding Matt Lauer’s termination, please do exactly what we all do best here, ask the tough questions.Thanks for your thoughtfulness and consideration.As ever,Andy
Bolding inserted for telltale grammatical purposes. Observe how Lack refers to “we” — the NBC News team! — when the topic is how the Weinstein investigation was supported and nurtured at NBC News, allegedly. Then observe how the pronoun switches to “he” when this collaborative venture somehow comes up short.
In 2018, NBC News addressed many of the criticisms with a timeline and memo recounting the twists and turns of Farrow’s work on the story. It was met with pushback from key players.
How hard is it, at this point, to merely concede that NBC News botched this one? If leadership requires taking ownership of institutional failures, it’s in short supply in the corridors of NBC News.
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