It’s been a bad week for NBC. The news network came under scrutiny not only from the usual suspects, like the president and conservative pundits, but from its own peers in the mainstream media.
The peacock network has been criticized for what appears to be the spiking of the story of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s systematic and nauseating sexual harassment of aspiring actresses, along with allegations of rape.
Both the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast ran detailed articles this week explaining how one of NBC’s own reporters, Ronan Farrow, started his investigative work with an on-camera interview with the actress Rose McGowan in which she said Weinstein sexually assaulted her. Although McGowan later retracted her permission for NBC to air the footage, by March Farrow had also obtained a recording of Weinstein begging Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez to come to his hotel room. She apparently was wired by the New York Police Department after reporting that Weinstein had sexually assaulted her on a previous occasion. (Read the full transcript here.)
Despite the recording and reports from a growing number of alleged victims, NBC producers and executives told Farrow in July that the story, according to sources inside and outside NBC, was not ready for broadcast. The Huffington Post reported that Farrow was told to stop investigating the story, and denied him the use of an NBC crew to do additional on-camera interviews. Eventually, Farrow received permission to shop the story to other news outlets. This week, the New Yorker published his detailed piece after the New York Times broke the story the week before.
But even after the story was picked up widely, NBC barely included it in its nightly newscast when competitors ABC and CBS did.
The real reasons for NBC’s reluctance to break and report the story are varied.
Speculation has circulated about Weinstein’s business relationship with NBC (i.e., the company owns Bravo, for which Weinstein produced Project Runway). Pressure on NBC from Weinstein’s lawyers and publicists has also been widely reported. Some published reports have even referenced NBC insiders who say the company has become “an old boys’ network” since the firing of Today anchor Anne Curry and the departure of some female executives. Conservative media have insinuated that some high up in NBC did not want to alienate Weinstein, a prolific Democratic fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton, among others; and that NBC’s parent company, Comcast, has close ties to powerful Democrats and has heavily funded them.
Whatever the real motives, NBC’s decisions are troubling for two reasons: ethics and credibility.
Business relationships or the promise of future ones should not drive coverage decisions in the news. Individual reporters should recuse themselves from reporting stories in which they have a financial interest, but the news operation should not ignore that story. For example, Weinstein’s company advertised in the Times, but the paper still broke the story.
Additionally, NBC did not shy from reporting on sexual-misconduct charges against Bill Cosby and others, including those made by women at Fox News against now-deceased chairman Roger Ailes and pundit Bill O’Reilly, and the multimillion-dollar payouts for the silence of the alleged victims.
One might ask NBC: Isn’t coverage of Weinstein’s behavior at Miramax and the Weinstein Co. just as newsworthy as that of those of its competitors at 21st Century Fox?
This selective coverage of allegations of sexual misconduct depending on whose ox is being gored is the kind of decision-making that plays into the hands of the conservative media, politicians, and the public who claim the mainstream news giants are biased.
Indeed, the public’s trust in the American media is eroding. According to a 2016 study by the Gallup Organization, it is at an all-time low. In that survey, only 32 percent of those who responded said they had a “great deal” or even “fair amount” of certainty that the news is reported “fully, fairly, and accurately.” In May, a Pew Research study found that only one-fifth of American adults say news organizations “do a very good job” as a watchdog for the public interest.
A full vetting of concerns and constraints on the media is not possible here. This writer does not pretend to have the answers.
However, NBC’s choices demand attention. The time is ripe for realistic self-examination by the practitioners in the media, often owned by vast corporate enterprises. So is a truthful reflection by those of us who are educating future journalists about best practices in coverage. Journalism and the search for the truth is a noble calling, protected by the First Amendment. We owe it to the public, who rely on our work to make decisions about their own lives, to practice it fairly, accurately, and thoroughly.
Francesca Viola is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and an attorney. She is working on a book about the state of the media today.