NBC News Is Facing Internal Rebellion Over Mishandling Sexual Misconduct

Current and former staffers are calling out NBC's troubling history of protecting powerful men — and some say president Noah Oppenheim should step down.

Certainly by now it’s clear that Me Too has not gone too far in canceling powerful men. Harvey Weinstein is popping up at industry networking events in New York City. Louis C.K. just announced tour dates.

Perhaps the most glaring sign that the boys’ club is still alive — and somewhat well — is flashing at NBC News. At its 30 Rock headquarters, NBC News President Noah Oppenheim and his boss NBC News Chairman Andy Lack are still running the show.

They remain at the helm despite the explosive reporting in Ronan Farrow’s new book “Catch and Kill,” which reveals how Oppenheim and Lack not only shut down the investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s predatory and abusive treatment of women, but how NBC News silenced or ignored multiple allegations of sexual misconduct inside the company ― including overlooking the behavior of “Today” show host Matt Lauer for years before finally firing him in 2017.

Matt Lauer on the set of the "Today" show in 2013. He faces new allegations of sexual misconduct.
Matt Lauer on the set of the "Today" show in 2013. He faces new allegations of sexual misconduct.
zz/Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

What Farrow’s book, and other reporting, shows is a news outlet more concerned with protecting powerful men than reporting the truth ― or protecting its employees from sexual predation. The tactics the company used to silence women — Farrow reports on nondisclosure agreements used to keep women silent — were not unlike the ones employed by Weinstein himself, or so many other sexual harassers.

However, there are some recent signs that those methods are failing the news outlet: On Wednesday, 150 staffers at NBC News’ digital arm announced plans to unionize, in part because they wanted more transparency over how sexual misconduct is handled at the company.

“Recent weeks have highlighted serious questions as to how NBC News has handled incidents of sexual misconduct in the workplace as well as the opaque processes and procedures for reporting on and exposing powerful predators,” said the announcement from the organizing workers.

Management responded supportively. “I want you to know we are deeply committed to a fair and healthy workplace for all our employees. We welcome this dialogue from within our digital organization,” said Chris Berend, the executive vice president of digital at the NBC News Group, in a memo to staff.

At the minimum, the unionizing workers, plus many more current and former NBC News employees who spoke to HuffPost and other outlets, want an independent investigation into what happened at the network. Many say Lack and Oppenheim need to go.

“I can’t tell you how many current and former NBC people have been emailing me and saying, ‘how is it that heads aren’t rolling yet?’” said Linda Vester, a former NBC news anchor, who in 2017 accused legendary NBC anchor Tom Brokaw of sexual misconduct.

Vester said there’s more to the story than what’s been reported so far. More than 10 current and former NBC employees have reached out to her recently, through her organization Silence Breakers Alliance, detailing more accusations of sexual harassment and other problems at the company that have yet to come to light, she said.

“More perpetrators, more information on retaliation and silencing, and more important stories that appear to have been on powerful outside perpetrators that appear to have been killed,” said Vester.

Cracks In The System

Farrow’s book opened the floodgates for critics of the news network over the past few weeks.

In an article for Vanity Fair in October, Rich McHugh, the NBC producer who worked with Farrow on the Weinstein investigation, called out Oppenheim and Lack’s handling of the story.

“They not only personally intervened to shut down our investigation of Weinstein, they even refused to allow me to follow up on our work after Weinstein’s history of sexual assault became front-page news,” he writes. “As the record shows, they behaved more like members of Weinstein’s PR team than the journalists they claim to be.”

MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes have criticized NBC management on-air.

When asked for comment, NBC News referred HuffPost to statements Oppenheim and Lack made before Farrow’s book came out on Oct. 15.

In an October note to staff, Oppenheim said that Farrow’s claims about how NBC delayed the story are wrong. He said Farrow didn’t have enough solid reporting to go public with the Weinstein story at NBC, and detailed what he saw as Farrow’s shortcomings in a bulleted list.

“Farrow’s characterization is fundamentally deceptive in several critical ways,” Oppenheim wrote, adding, “Farrow’s effort to defame NBC News is clearly motivated not by a pursuit of truth, but an axe to grind.”

But Farrow’s reporting motivated people inside the company, said Christine Nguyen, a producer at NBC News Digital who is part of the unionizing effort. “The last few weeks have been really animating for people,” she said. “It sped up the process.”

Ronan Farrow's new book contains damning allegations against NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, pictured on the right.
Ronan Farrow's new book contains damning allegations against NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, pictured on the right.

Nguyen and others say their plan to unionize was hatched in the wake of Lauer’s firing in 2017 when it became clear that there was a problem with reporting sexual misconduct at the network.

“There is apparently a culture where people who might have known about this felt uncomfortable or unwilling to go to HR or to go to management,” Nguyen said. “That is something that needs to be addressed.”

A Pattern Of Overlooking Sexual Misconduct

“[H]ow serious is this stuff really?” That’s what Oppenheim repeatedly asked about the allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual misconduct levied against Weinstein, according to Farrow’s book.

Pretty serious, it’s now overwhelmingly clear. More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of rape, assault and sexual misconduct. He’s also facing criminal charges.

That the head of a major news organization downplayed ― and killed ― the story is a big deal, especially when considered alongside another inside account of how the Weinstein story was reported.

In their new book “She Said,” New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey recount their own investigation into the Hollywood producer. Their’s was nurtured and supported by editors at the Times, including Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who, the reporters write, fiercely fought Weinstein’s efforts to shut down the story.

The contrast between the two outlets in the two books is stark.

Some Employees Say Oppenheim Must Go

Earlier this month, old articles penned by Oppenheim when he was at Harvard in the late 1990s resurfaced, igniting more fury. In the pieces, a young Oppenheim mocked feminists and criticized NBC’s firing of sportscaster Marv Albert after he pled guilty to sexual assault. (The network rehired him a few years later.)

Oppenheim has since apologized for the columns, saying he was “mortified” by them.

But he has to go, one current NBC staffer told HuffPost, echoing similar calls reported by The Wall Street Journal. (Some employees are still defending Oppenheim, according to The Washington Post.)

“As a sexual assault survivor and someone who cares very deeply about this stuff, I feel as though NBC has not considered how its employees would feel about working for a man like Noah Oppenheim,” another NBC reporter told HuffPost. “A man, by Farrow’s account, who completely dismissed the fact that multiple women were accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault as not a news story.”

Andy Lack, left; Nicolle Wallace, center; and Noah Oppenheim, right.
Andy Lack, left; Nicolle Wallace, center; and Noah Oppenheim, right.
MSNBC via Getty Images

This reporter said she did not believe NBC News would ever have the courage to publish sexual misconduct allegations against a truly powerful man.

Top brass at NBC insist that the network does go after hard stories.

“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,” Lack wrote in a note to staff in October. “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.”

Among NBC staff, there’s growing discomfort with Lack, as well. In his book, Farrow includes reports of the longtime media executive’s history of sexual relationships with staffers ― and alleges that when those entanglements ended, Lack retaliated.

“Honestly, the allegations against Andy Lack are really chilling,” Nguyen, the producer at NBC Digital, told HuffPost. “He’s like in every one of our Monday 2:30 meetings.”

NBC did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the Lack allegations, which date back to before his time at the network.

Looking For A Real Investigation

Current and former employees say they want a true independent investigation of what happened at NBC News regarding Lauer, the Weinstein story, and any other incidents of internal sexual misconduct. Time’s Up, the organization founded in the wake of the Me Too movement, has also called for NBC to conduct an external investigation.

Other women’s groups are pushing for change, as well. “The business and the moral case is clear,” said Shaunna Thomas, the cofounder of women’s advocacy group UltraViolet. “NBC’s credibility as a news organization and culture-shaper is on the line as is the safety and security of their employees.”

Both CBS News and Fox News brought in outside lawyers to look into sexual misconduct at the companies after accusations were levied against top-level executives. Uber hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an investigation when it faced a scandal about its broader company culture.

So far, in the wake of the Lauer incident, NBC has only conducted an internal investigation, ultimately putting out a report written by its own lawyers, who claimed there aren’t problems at the company.

“Doing an internal investigation is like asking the fox with feathers hanging from its mouth to investigate the missing chickens. I mean, come on,” said Liz Stapp, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business who studies corporate boards.

Recently, the network announced that any former employees bound by nondisclosure agreements could speak publicly about their sexual harassment experiences — as long as they got approval from the company to talk. Vester and others immediately criticized the move.

“Why is NBC making victims, who have already endured trauma, come crawling on their hands and knees to ask the company to release them from confidentiality agreements?” she wrote in The Daily Beast.

NBC did not respond to HuffPost’s question about whether or not it was considering an independent investigation.

Other Stories Weren’t Told

The Weinstein story wasn’t the only time Oppenheim’s news organization declined to air a story about a powerful man preying on women. NBC famously sat on the “Access Hollywood” tape in which now-President Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women, which The Washington Post ultimately published.

NBC News also slow-walked and killed reporting on rape allegations against the music mogul Russell Simmons, said Sil Lai Abrams, an author and domestic violence advocate, who alleges Simmons raped her in 1994. In November 2017, Abrams took her story to NBC News host Joy Ann Reid, who planned to air an interview with her and publish a piece about the incident concurrently in New York Magazine. All of that was killed.

Abrams eventually took her story to The Hollywood Reporter, which published a piece on the allegations within two months, with much of the same information. NBC told the magazine that the story did not meet its standards.

She told HuffPost that Oppenheim and Lack need to go. “Where is their courage?” Abrams asked. “You’re talking about a corporation that’s supposed to protect and also report abuses of power and they refuse to do it. And it’s unconscionable. It’s an abdication of their moral and journalistic ethics.”

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community