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Opinion An untouchable Rachel Maddow busts her bosses at NBC News

MSNBC television anchor Rachel Maddow moderates a panel at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 16, 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)

Ronan Farrow couldn’t do it, even with the publication of his new book, “Catch and Kill.” A busload of media-savvy reporters, columnists and editorializers couldn’t do it. But MSNBC host Rachel Maddow managed to pull it off.

On her Friday night program, Maddow brandished a statement that she’d extracted from her bosses at NBC News. “We very much wanted to break this story, which is why we assigned it and supported it editorially and financially for seven months. We are profoundly disappointed that we weren’t able to do so,” recited Maddow. “This story,” of course, was the story of the sexual harassment and abuse of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — an investigation that Farrow had tried to complete under the roof of NBC News, but the network either blinked (Farrow’s version) or couldn’t broadcast the weak tea that was presented to it (NBC News’s version).

Until Maddow knocked on the doors of her own bosses, however, the public received nothing from NBC News that approached the candor of “profoundly disappointed.” Instead, we heard cover-your-butt explanations about Farrow’s alleged shortcomings. Here’s how NBC News Chairman Andy Lack put it in a memo to staff earlier this month: “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.”

After those seven months, Farrow took his Weinstein reporting to the New Yorker, which published his investigation less than two months later. He shared a Pulitzer Prize with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times, who published their Weinstein story days before the New Yorker.

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As Maddow teed up the statement on her show, she said, “I think this might be an unprecedented statement from them.” It makes sense that the suits would cook up something special for Maddow. She, after all, is the face of MSNBC, a go-to moderator of high-profile Democratic debates and a talent capable of holding her own in competition with Fox News.

In recent weeks, Maddow has turned her talents on her employer. In “Catch and Kill,” Farrow writes that at several key points in his reporting, NBC News officials told him to “pause” his reporting or “give it a rest.” The logic behind those commands wasn’t always clear, though Farrow’s supervisors returned time and again to concerns that his reporting would interfere with hush contracts that women had signed with Weinstein — so-called tortious interference. Serious journalism outfits cackle at legal threats so hollow.

On her show, Maddow reported, “As to whether or not Ronan Farrow was told to hit pause on any new reporting at a time when NBC didn’t think there was enough to go to air with, we have independently confirmed that NBC News did that. That that did happen. He was told to pause his reporting.”

To chew through such issues, Maddow welcomed a relevant guest: Farrow himself. Right there on MSNBC, Farrow charged that NBC News President Noah Oppenheim ordered him and his producer “on six occasions” to halt their reporting. On eight occasions, said the guest, the head of NBC News’s investigative group issued that instruction. “That eventually escalated to ordering us to cancel interviews,” said Farrow.

He continued: “And, look, you can judge for yourself. It’s laid out in the book, whether what we had was enough. We had a tape of Weinstein admitting to sexual assault. We had multiple named women in every version of this story. But that actually is not the point. The order to stop was un-journalistic.”

Turning to the new NBC News statement, Maddow said, “I will say, inside the building, that expression of profound disappointment that the story didn’t get broken here is meaningful to me because I feel like I’ve been waiting to hear that.” The anguish among NBC News journalists over the Weinstein failure — as well as NBC News’s fumbling of the “Access Hollywood” scoop — was “impossible for me to overstate."

Farrow’s presence on the set was news unto itself. As he’s made the rounds promoting his book, Farrow had chatted with every major network save NBC, until Maddow invited him on air. The move communicated Maddow’s consistency on this topic: Not long after Farrow’s original New Yorker story was published, he also appeared on Maddow’s show, where he said that “there were multiple determinations” that his Weinstein story “was reportable at NBC.” That led to a moment of grand commotion at the top of NBC News. Farrow writes in his book that right after the interview, MSNBC President Phil Griffin was on the phone with Maddow, “his raised voice audible even at a distance.” Oppenheim dialed up Farrow himself: “I cannot account for Rachel Maddow’s behavior,” he said.

Good! Because Maddow’s behavior aligns with the public interest.

In addition to pressuring her supervisors on the Weinstein disaster, Maddow has pursued the other prong of “Catch and Kill” — that the sexual harassment situation with Matt Lauer was more extensive than NBC News officials have acknowledged. Multiple women had raised such allegations against Lauer and received payouts to keep quiet about them, Farrow reports in his book. Current NBC News management holds otherwise: “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,” wrote Lack in a recent memo to staff. NBCUniversal conducted a probe of the situation finding “no claims or settlements associated with allegations of inappropriate conduct by Lauer before he was fired.” Lauer has denied any coercive behavior. On the question of the alleged Lauer complainants, Oppenheim in a recent memo told colleagues that following a review of Farrow’s book, “The only three examples we can find that Farrow alleges are Lauer-related before 2017, with even minimal detail, involve employees who by their own admission made no complaint to management, and whose departure agreements were unrelated to Lauer and completely routine.”

Former NBC News employee Megyn Kelly called upon the network to release women from their nondisclosure agreements to clear the air, if indeed there was nothing to hide. Maddow appears to have procured something approaching that outcome. She read a statement from NBCUniversal on her Friday night show: “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 the separation agreement should contact NBCUniversal and we will release them from that perceived obligation.”

Perhaps the announcement will prompt some more revelations, prolonging a scandal that NBCUniversal bosses have wanted to dispatch for years now. In May 2018, NBCUniversal General Counsel Kimberley Harris fielded calls from investigative journalists at the network for an independent review of the Lauer situation, with one claiming that such a step would make the mess “go away quicker,” according to Farrow’s book.

“Well if the press would stop covering it, it will go away,” responded Harris.

Someone in the meeting responded, “But we are the press.”

Read more from Erik Wemple:

The ‘specious’ legal worry that dogged Ronan Farrow at NBC News

What did NBC News know about Matt Lauer?

‘If I threaten someone, you’ll know it’: Kellyanne Conway is sounding like Donald Trump

Tucker Carlson’s hypocrisy, in side-by-side display