In early 2011, Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts was asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe what he thought of NBC News as the Philadelphia cable giant was closing on its $30 billion deal for NBCUniversal.
“It is the crown jewel of Comcast,” Roberts told hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
Seven years later, NBC News still draws big television audiences to Nightly News, Today, Meet the Press, and Dateline, but NBC News strikes many observers as cubic zirconium.
The firing this week of Today co-host Matt Lauer, NBC News’ biggest star, over allegations of “inappropriate sexual behavior” at 30 Rock is the latest crisis, and has triggered an internal investigation by lawyers and human resources personnel while raising questions of a hostile work culture for women at NBC News.
Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, told NBC News staffers in a memo Friday that the organization has “begun a thorough and timely review of what happened and what we can do to build a culture of greater transparency, openness and respect for each other. At the conclusion of the review we will share what we’ve learned, no matter how painful, and act on it.”
This is hardly the first blowup. Chief anchor and managing editor Brian Williams‘ embellished accounts of his reporting also roiled the network, leading to an internal investigation and eventually to his suspension as an NBC News anchor in early 2015.
In 2012, Today co-host Ann Curry wept as she told the audience of her impending departure from the morning show, angering viewers who saw NBCU executives choosing Lauer over her.
Curry told People magazine Wednesday that she’s “still really processing” Lauer’s firing. She added: “The women’s movement got us into the workplace, but it didn’t make us safe once we got there. And the battle lines are now clear. We need to move this revolution forward and make our workplaces safe. Corporate America is quite clearly failing to do so, and unless it does something to change that, we need to keep doing more ourselves.”
Turmoil has roiled NBC News’ top leaders under Comcast’s ownership, including the hiring and departure of president Deborah Turness. NBCUniversal is headed by former Comcast executive Steve Burke.
Lack, who wrote Friday’s memo, has responsibility for NBC News and cable channel MSNBC.
Experts also are concerned with what some see as a lack of courage at NBC News. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Yorker have scooped NBC News with stories that NBC arguably should have aired first: the Access Hollywood tapes that emerged in 2016 featuring then-candidate Donald Trump talking about groping women, and Ronan Farrow’s piece on now-disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein this year.
“History shows that news organizations fall into and out of courage,” said David Mindich, chair of the journalism department at Temple University. “Part of it is choosing the wrong lawyers or listening to the lawyers too much. A good corporate parent will support the news endeavor in a company. That’s a big concern with NBC.”
NBC News said it was close to airing the Access Hollywood tapes but was waiting for final legal approvals. The news operation said it rejected Farrow’s Weinstein story because when Farrow showed it to news executives, he didn’t have any of Weinstein’s accusers on the record. The network has broken many investigative pieces on the Trump administration, NBC officials note.
But the issues keep coming.
Apart from Fox News, there “has not been a high-profile parade of these types of stories in other news organizations,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. With Lauer’s firing, “it may be time for a slate-cleaning.”
Of course, NBC News is not the only media organization battered by claims of inappropriate sexual behavior. Eight women told the Post that longtime television host Charlie Rose made unwanted sexual advances toward them. CBS, PBS, and Bloomberg fired him. And also this week, radio personality Garrison Keillor, creator and founder of A Prairie Home Companion, faced accusations from a woman of inappropriate behavior. Minnesota Public Radio said that it would no longer distribute Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and would stop broadcasting The Best of ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’
On Friday, Thompson noted, the Lauer story had been overtaken by events out of Washington that were distracting CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS and other news networks. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty Friday to charges of making false statements to the FBI. The charges mark the first known criminal case against a current or former official in Trump’s presidential administration as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 election.
“NBC ought to send Michael Flynn a basket of fruit because [Lauer] was the major story leading the newscasts, but now there is something bigger still,” Thompson said.