NBC News was in October of 2017 where most news outlets want to be: sitting on a juicy scoop. Now its decision in to let journalist Ronan Farrow take that exclusive to a rival has developed into a tremendous pain in the rear – and one that isn’t likely to subside.
New scrutiny of the situation sparked last night after Rich McHugh, NBC News’ former supervising producer of investigative reporting, accused top NBC News executives in an interview with The New York Times of trying to block him and Farrow from reporting on sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Farrow’s work was eventually printed in The New Yorker and awarded a Pulitzer. NBC News faced similar opprobrium in the fall of 2016 when it was scooped by The Washington Post on the existence of a tape from “Access Hollywood” – a show that is part of its parent, NBCUniversal – featuring a younger Donald Trump making lewd remarks about women and acknowledging he felt he had carte balance to grab them by their genitals.
The producer’s decision to speak out is being taken seriously by other journalists. McHugh “is a very deliberate fellow, very conscientious, not a hothead,” says one person who has worked with McHugh in the past. “For him to come out like that is just completely out of character. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”
McHugh referred a query to his attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, who says McHugh hired a lawyer “because he sees first-hand what NBC can do what it doesn’t want something reported, and he is appropriately scared.” Wilkenfeld has also represented Linda Vester, a former Fox News and NBC News journalist who made allegations of harassment against NBC News’ Tom Brokaw, as well as an unnamed woman whose allegations of unwanted behavior by former “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer played a role in his termination from NBC News. He says McHugh is not contemplating a lawsuit against NBC News.
NBC News declined to comment on the attorney’s statement. NBC News late Friday night said any assertion that it tried to kill Farrow’s story while he worked on it at NBC News or after he left was “an outright lie.”
“In August of 2017, after NBC News assigned Ronan Farrow to investigate Weinstein and supported his reporting efforts for eight months, Farrow believed his reporting was ready for air. NBC disagreed because, unfortunately, he did not yet have a single victim of — or witness to — misconduct by Weinstein who was willing to be identified. Dissatisfied with that decision, Farrow chose to leave for a print outlet that he said was willing to publish immediately,” the statement said. ”NBC News told him ‘we will not stand in your way,’ and allowed him to take his reporting to The New Yorker, where, two months later, he published a strong piece that cited the following victims by name: Asia Argento, Mira Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette, Lucia Evans, Emma de Canes, Jessica Barth, and Sophie Dix. Not one of these seven women was included in the reporting Farrow presented while at NBC News.
The back-and-forth over the Weinstein story is just another eddy in a vortex of chaotic activity at the NBCUniversal-owned division. Since early 2015, when Brian Williams was taken off “NBC Nightly News” for embellishing a story about a past reporting trip aboard a Chinook helicopter in Iraq, NBC News seems to get enmeshed in the headlines nearly as often as its journalists break exclusives.
During that time, the bulk of MSNBC’s daytime schedule has been overhauled; Tamron Hall departed; Megyn Kelly arrived; Lawrence O’Donnell’s contract was speculated upon; and NBC News’ aforementioned decisions to not pursue what would have been landmark stories in the age of #MeToo have continued to generate questions.
At the center of the swirl is NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, a colorful executive who has long thrived on a willingness to shake up old ways of doing business. During his recent tenure, NBC News has had much to celebrate. Its three flagship programs, “NBC Nightly News,” “Today” and “Meet the Press,” are the most-watched among the viewers advertisers want most, people between 25 and 54. Ad volume committed to MSNBC in TV’s recent “upfront” market soared 30%, and Rachel Maddow has on some recent days offered the most-watched program on cable. And NBC News has made new digital strides, hiring investigative journalists whose scoops are more likely to show up first in a smartphone headline, and launching a Snapchat news program, “Stay Tuned.”
It was Lack who injected new life during an earlier tenure at NBC into a news division that had been demoralized after an infamous 1992 “Dateline” report about pickup trucks being vulnerable to gas-tank blow-ups failed to disclose producers had attached devices to a General Motors truck to ensure the vehicle would detonate. After the automaker filed a defamation lawsuit, NBC broadcast an apology by hosts Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips.
Lack, who took the top spot at NBC News after the imbroglio, thrived. He added an hour to “Today,” put “Today” in a new street-side studio, and managed a transition from Bryant Gumbel to Lauer without a hiccup. By 1997, Lack, then overseeing NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC’s primetime schedule, was crowing, telling The New York Times, “I am America’s news leader,” in a boast that is still recalled today.
His second time atop the news operation – now part of Comcast – has been full of different kinds of jolts. He has most recently had to supervise a new human-resources process in the wake of the Lauer accusations. The revival of the Farrow story has prompted new speculation over whether Lack or NBC News President Noah Oppenheim might depart. Some executives at NBC News see the business performance – demo ratings have long been important to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke – as outweighing the scandal and social-media outrage.
In 2018, however, optics and outrage often fuel the news cycle. McHugh and Farrow are likely to be talking about their Weinstein story again. McHugh’s voicemail on Friday was full, a sign that current media interest in his account is high. Meanwhile, Farrow is working on a book , “Catch and Kill,” that has been billed as a personal account off how he got the Weinstein story to publication. This story has yet to reach its denouement.