NBC is launching a counterattack against investigative journalist Ronan Farrow's upcoming book "Catch and Kill," which accuses the network's news division of a coordinated effort to shut down his reporting on disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in order to protect fired "Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer.
"Now that we've read Farrow's book, it's clear - his smear rests on the allegation that NBC's management knew about and took steps to hide Matt Lauer's misconduct before his firing in November of 2017," according to a memo sent to employees Monday that was obtained by the Los Angeles Times. "Without that, he has no basis on which to rest his second conspiracy theory - that his Harvey Weinstein reporting was squashed to protect Lauer."
The defense comes as NBC News President Noah Oppenheim tries to calm employees roiled by the revelations from excerpts of the book that comes out Tuesday. Staffers are said to be angry they were not told that Brooke Nevils, the former "Today" employee whose complaint led to Lauer's firing, had alleged that she was raped by the morning show star in a hotel room in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympics.
NBC News did not disclose Nevils' accusation when Lauer was terminated after a 24-year run at the network. NBC News executives said it had agreed with Nevils' attorney on categorizing the incident as "sexual misconduct." Farrow's book also said that Nevils did not describe the incident as rape when she met with NBC's human resources department but revealed it in her interview with the author. Lauer has denied the rape allegation but admitted to having an extramarital affair with Nevils.
"My only goals in the days after Matt's firing were to convey to our employees how reprehensible, horrific and appalling his actions were, and to not go into any detail beyond what Brooke's attorney was saying publicly in terms of characterizing what happened to her," Oppenheim said Sunday in an interview.
But Oppenheim's efforts to explain those circumstances to employees in a series of meetings last week were hampered by disclosures in Farrow's book that he had written a series of newspaper columns as a student at Harvard University that were unsympathetic to sexual assault victims and expressed a regressive attitude toward women in general.
One column blasted NBC for firing sportscaster Marv Albert in 1997 after he was convicted of misdemeanor assault of a woman he was sexually involved with. Oppenheim was critical that the victim was able to remain anonymous during the coverage of the trial while Albert's personal reputation was decimated.
"The trial was a sham and ... the network's action was an injustice," Oppenheim wrote in the October1997 column, which was first reported on by the Daily Beast.
One longtime NBC News employee not authorized to discuss the matter publicly believed the columns would be problematic for Oppenheim even if he were not dealing with the fallout of a #MeToo scandal in the company.
Oppenheim expressed regret for the columns and emphasized that they did not reflect his current views.
"My reaction to seeing those excerpts is that I'm mortified by them," Oppenheim said. "I couldn't be more sorry I wrote them. They are totally inappropriate. I wrote hundreds of columns for my college paper over 20 years ago, many of them meant to be satirical or intentionally provocative, and those idiotic, inappropriate excerpts in no way reflect what I actually believe in any way, and certainly don't reflect the way I've conducted my actual life, professionally or personally."
Several high-ranking women at NBC News speaking on the condition of anonymity vouched for Oppenheim as a boss who has had a positive effect on the workplace since taking the job in February 2017.
Under Oppenheim's watch, the division has named four female executive producers to its programs - including Libby Leist, the first woman to run "Today" on a permanent basis. He also elevated the role of "Today" co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and eventually made her part of the first all-female anchor team in the program's 67-year history when Hoda Kotb was named to replace Lauer.
NBCUniversal has not given a formal statement on Oppenheim, but three people inside the company who were briefed on the matter said Chief Executive Steve Burke has read Farrow's book and continues to support Oppenheim. He is in line to succeed NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, 72, whose contract runs through next year.
In the employee memo, NBC News disputes Farrow's claim that there were multiple employees who complained about Lauer's behavior before he was fired, which contradicts the finding of an internal investigation on the matter issued by NBCUniversal General Counsel Kim Harris in May 2018.
Farrow's book said the network had "brokered nondisclosure agreements with at least seven women who experienced alleged harassment or discrimination within the company. The agreements also alleged harassment or discrimination within the company ... in most cases, the women received substantial payouts that parties involved in the transactions said were disproportionate to any conventional compensation for departing the company."
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NBC contends none of those payouts directly involved Lauer.
"Farrow alleges there were employees who reported Lauer's behavior prior to November 2017 and were paid settlements to silence them," the memo said. "Not only is this false, the so-called evidence to support the charge collapses under the slightest scrutiny."
Harris has reviewed the book and said the separation agreements that Farrow refers to were standard, according to the memo. The nondisclosure agreements included in them were meant to protect proprietary information about the company and not prevent the reporting of misconduct.
But one of the women Farrow cites in his book said she did not make a formal complaint about Lauer because she "doubted the efficacy of the company's HR department and feared further harm to her career."
Farrow's book provides a detailed account of how he believes NBC News executives and producers blocked his efforts to report on Weinstein, which led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series he published in the New Yorker.
"Discouragement was one thing, but there was no rationale, journalistic or legal, for ordering us to stop reporting," he writes.
Farrow's book portrays Oppenheim as being dismissive of his reporting on Weinstein, leading to his conclusion that the network wanted no part of the story.
He writes that when Oppenheim heard a partial police recording of Weinstein admitting that he had groped an Italian model, he said: "My view is that the tape and Harvey Weinstein grabbing a lady's breasts a couple years ago, that's not national news."
According to Farrow, Weinstein met with Dylan Howard, chief content officer of American Media Inc. - publisher of the National Enquirer - in September 2017 to go over material gathered by the supermarket tabloid about Lauer's behavior.
"Weinstein made it known to the network that he was aware of Lauer's behavior and capable of revealing it," Farrow writes.
Farrow had already taken his reporting to the New Yorker by the time the meeting between Weinstein and Howard is said to have taken place, NBC executives have said.
Oppenheim agreed to allow Farrow to take his reporting to the New Yorker when he grew impatient with delays at it was under review by the company's legal department and the news division's investigative unit.
Former NBC News producer Rich McHugh backed Farrow's claims last week that NBC News told him to "stand down" when they tried to schedule an interview with one of Weinstein's victims and cited it as further proof that the network wanted to quash the story. "They behaved more like members of Weinstein's PR team than the journalists they claim to be," McHugh wrote in Vanity Fair.
NBC News has maintained that the command came after Farrow had decided to take the story to the New Yorker and was no longer working on it for NBC News.
Oppenheim disputes the claims that he did not care about the Weinstein story or tried to impede its progress.
He maintains that Farrow and McHugh failed to get a victim or witness to Weinstein's behavior speaking on the record while on camera and not in shadows.
"We gave Ronan every resource he asked for over seven months," he said. "Even as our relationship with him was breaking down in those last two weeks we continued to devote additional resources to the effort because we believed in every step of the way from inception to the day he walked out the door that if he could prove that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator and had the underlying reporting that could meet our editorial standards, specifically a victim or a witness on camera, then it was a worthy story. He never met that standard while he was here."