As months go, this has been a terrible one for NBC News. Among the low points:
The ace reporter whose work the network’s management couldn’t seem to support adequately — Ronan Farrow — broke another huge story for the competitor he fled to. Namely, that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was accused of physical assault by several of his romantic partners; Schneiderman resigned last week just hours after Farrow and Jane Mayer published their investigation in the New Yorker.
The network’s thinly sourced sensational story — that federal agents were wiretapping Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s phone — had to be walked back and corrected.
And the network’s internal investigation of the circumstances surrounding deposed star Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct was seen by many as a whitewash. It gave a pass to NBC brass and didn’t seriously engage with Ann Curry, the former “Today” show anchor who, as my colleague Sarah Ellison reported recently, might have provided critical information.
An observer might be tempted to see these three problems as entirely separate and unconnected.
But these aren’t mere coincidences.
They’re symptoms of a larger malaise — and they are not the only ones.
“Props to NBC for being so consistent in its terrible handling of everything from Brian Williams to Matt Lauer to Joy Reid to Hugh Hewitt to Tom Brokaw,” wrote Andrew Kirell, senior editor at the Daily Beast. (Anchor Brian Williams is back on the air, though in a diminished role, after glorifying his reporting history. MSNBC host Joy Reid suffered not a single disciplinary consequence after her dubious claims that some of her anti-gay statements from years ago were the result of her being hacked. And NBC brass gave only a tap on the wrist to a serious conflict of interest by Hewitt, and seemed to shrug off accusations of misconduct by network icon Tom Brokaw.)
They point — as clearly as any flashing neon sign outside a roadhouse blues bar — to a leadership problem.
Something is wrong at NBC, and by the traditional standard that the person at the top sets the tone and bears ultimate responsibility, it’s hard to absolve NBC Chairman Andy Lack.
Asked to comment on these issues and what they might say about NBC’s leadership, NBC News spokesman Mark Kornblau responded that Lack returned to “a hurting NBC in 2015, and under his leadership, all four flagship news programs are now number one.” MSNBC is having its best ratings year and Lack has “built an investigative team that has broken hundreds of exclusive stories on politics, national security, technology and more.”
Taken separately, some of the problems mentioned here have plausible explanations. When NBC News decided last year that Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein wasn’t solid enough to air, or even to keep pursuing, that could have been a too-timid-but-well-intentioned editorial decision. (NBC is quick to note that he was a freelancer and was not working for the network exclusively at the time.)
But it turned out to be a blunder for the ages — akin to Decca Records rejecting the Beatles — considering that Farrow went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Harvey Weinstein begun at NBC but brought to fruition at the New Yorker. And it reminded some observers of NBC’s failure to deliver its own scoop in 2016 when The Washington Post broke the news that Donald Trump could be heard bragging about sexual assault on an NBC “Access Hollywood” recording.
As for that Cohen screw-up, every news organization makes mistakes, and it is to NBC’s credit that it quickly copped to the problem — but it was a serious mistake nonetheless and, like so many of its ilk, based on anonymously sourced reporting.
As for NBC’s see-no-evil investigation of who knew what about Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct, it should never have been led internally. Even Fox News, no bastion of best practices, used a law firm to lead its investigation into charges of rampant sexual harassment.
It’s possible, of course, for an internal investigation to be rigorous. (The New York Times’s self-investigation of the 2003 Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication fiasco, for example, was not only unsparing but also resulted in sweeping restructuring.)
Still, an internal investigation is less likely to be tough-minded, and certainly lacks the appearance of objectivity, especially when its findings turn out to be so benign.
In a statement, NBCUniversal called the investigation thorough and objective, and it emphasized that it was conducted at the corporate level, led by the company’s general counsel, independent of the news division, and that two outside law firms validated the process and its conclusions.
NBC remains a leading news organization. Its biggest news star, Lester Holt, has real credibility and reporting chops (after all, he managed to get President Trump to admit that he fired FBI Director James B. Comey because of the Russia investigation). Its national security reporter Pete Williams is highly respected, as are many of its other journalists.
But the network’s credibility is on the line. To critics it would seem that network leadership isn’t taking that seriously enough, believing perhaps that the public is mostly unaware, and that advertisers don’t mind.
But a news organization’s reputation builds — or fades — over time. Does NBC really want to be seen as a place where stars are protected too vigorously, and where ratings and profits reign supreme?
Given NBC’s prominence, its foibles hurt not only the network itself, its own journalists, and its viewers.
Such self-sabotage also hurts American journalism overall at a time when there are more than enough external enemies waiting to pounce.