NBC News was plunged into new turmoil on Wednesday as bombshell excerpts from Ronan Farrow’s book roasted top executives Andy Lack and Noah Oppenheim—and the rank-and-file questioned whether the network had deceived them about anal-rape allegations against former Today show anchor Matt Lauer.
Details from the long-awaited book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, triggered a round-robin of finger-pointing, with NBC trashing Farrow in an internal memo, Lauer smearing accuser Brooke Nevils in an “open letter,” and both Farrow and Nevils firing back.
“His open letter was a case study in victim-blaming,” Nevils, a former NBC producer, said in a statement that, remarkably, first aired on NBC’s Nightly News.
That came hours after a one-two punch for the peacock: a report in Variety that Nevils alleged Lauer had sex with her when she was too drunk to consent, and a Hollywood Reporter article that aired new details about Harvey Weinstein’s interactions with Lack and Oppenheim as the movie mogul tried to bury Farrow’s expose of his sexual misdeeds.
For instance, The Hollywood Reporter says that some time after NBC told Weinstein it wasn’t running an investigation that Farrow and his reporting partner Rich McHugh worked on for months, Weinstein sent a flattering email to Oppenheim—who responded with a cheery thank you. Weinstein then sent him a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.
Staffers at NBC News greeted the cascade of revelations with sadness, anger, frustration and disgust.
“I honestly want to throw up,” said one NBC News employee who, like others quoted in this story, asked for anonymity out of concern for possible retaliation for criticizing the news division’s leadership.
Another network staffer said NBC’s reputation “took a serious hit” from the day’s events. “The initial response was as good as could’ve been expected,” they said. “It’ll take more to recover, though.”
Nevils’ account of being sexually assaulted in Lauer’s hotel room at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014—“It was nonconsensual in that I said, multiple times, that I didn’t want to have anal sex,” she told Farrow—left some employees feeling network bigwigs whitewashed the seriousness of the accusations when they fired their morning star in 2017.
“Women are furious and feel Noah lied to them when he said ‘no assault,’” a network insider told The Daily Beast. “Noah and Andy knew all of this [about Lauer] and lied about it.”
A veteran employee angrily remarked: “I shouldn’t be hearing about this [anal rape allegations] from Variety. We should have heard it from the bosses. I hope that there are pitchforks outside the executive offices.”
Farrow’s book doesn’t hit stores until Oct. 15, but the bits that have dribbled out portray Lack and Oppenheim as capitulating to an aggressive campaign by Weinstein to quash Farrow’s reporting. Farrow claims Weinstein even used as-yet-unreported accusations against Lauer as a bargaining chip with the network.
The book also says that when allegations against Lauer did ultimately become public in the wake of the Weinstein-fueled #MeToo movement, Nevils was appalled to learn that Lack and Oppenheim were emphasizing it was not “an assault” or “criminal.”
After Nevils’ on-the-record allegation broke Wednesday morning, Lack issued a statement that said: “Matt Lauer’s conduct in 2014 was appalling and reprehensible—and of course we said so at the time.”
But at the time, NBC News actually used far more neutral terminology, referring to “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace” that was “a clear violation of our company’s standards.”
In a memo to the newsroom later on Wednesday, Lack claimed the network wasn’t covering up a rape claim, saying: “We chose those words [“sexual misconduct”] carefully to precisely mirror the public words at that time of the attorney representing our former NBC colleague.”
“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,” Lack wrote in response to Farrow’s assertions.
He said the NBCUniversal legal department “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,” he continued.
Lack also personally attacked Farrow for his account of NBC’s handling of the Weinstein story. Farrow left the network in August 2017 after NBC refused to air the investigation that he and his reporting partner, McHugh, worked on for months; Farrow later published his reporting in the New Yorker, and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service—an honor he shared with the New York Times for its own Weinstein reporting.
“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,” Lack wrote in the memo. “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.”
A representative for Farrow fired back: “The claims by NBC’s senior management about Ronan Farrow’s reporting are simply not true, as his book will methodically demonstrate. In fact, relevant sections of the book confirm not only how many [Weinstein accusers] were named, but also how much proof Ronan had gathered. Importantly, it documents the lengths to which NBC executives went to thwart the reporting efforts of Ronan and his producer Rich McHugh and why they did so. That is why it is called Catch and Kill, out on October 15.”
After Lauer was fired in November 2017 and the The New York Times and the New Yorker published their Weinstein stories, NBC News opted to conduct its own internal study of its actions—instead of hiring independent outside investigators—and cleared top NBC News executives of all wrongdoing and mistakes.
Network higher-ups have been privately concerned about Farrow’s book for months, fearing it could reopen years-old wounds within the network over the company’s handling of the Weinstein investigation and the Lauer accusations.
The excerpts happened to come out on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day, when several key NBC News executives, including Lack and Oppenheim, were out of the office. On a morning network-wide call, staffers were told they could expect the memo from Lack that came later in the day.
During a regular morning meeting between MSNBC President Phil Griffin and the executive producers of all the cable network’s programming, Griffin brought up the Farrow revelations, described the allegations as serious, and essentially said that MSNBC would be covering the story like any other, with each show making its own determination about how to handle it.
The network’s evening news show addressed it head-on, running with the statement from Nevils blasting NBC’s one-time highest-paid star.
“There’s the Matt Lauer that millions of Americans watched on TV every morning for two decades, and there is the Matt Lauer who this morning attempted to bully a former colleague into silence,” Nevils said.
She said Lauer’s denial—in which he suggested former lovers were accusing him of misconduct because they felt guilty about having affairs—would not scare her.
“I’m not afraid of him now, regardless of his threats, bullying and the shaming and predatory tactics I knew he would (and now has) tried to use against me,” she said.