In recent weeks, NBC has made a loud and clear statement about its values:
Profits matter more than journalism, ratings more than truth.
The official words, of course, say something different. But actions — actually lack of actions — are doing the shouting.
The top guns at the network and its news division (news division chairman Andy Lack, president Noah Oppenheim and corporate CEO Steve Burke) have decided, by all accounts, to ride out the storm over the NBC’s botched handling of Ronan Farrow’s reporting about movie producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017.
Farrow and others credibly claim that the network suppressed his reporting on sexual assault allegations against Weinstein and covered up harassment and assault accusations against NBC’s former star, Matt Lauer.
NBC’s brass has no intention of hiring an outside firm to lead a new investigation of what happened, relying instead on an internally led investigation that concluded last year and found little cause for concern.
They will not listen to the brave voices on their own staffs — notably Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow — who are raising questions.
You might think heads would roll for what happened: That Farrow was told to stop reporting a blockbuster, culture-changing story and was encouraged to take it elsewhere. That he was told to stand down for reasons Farrow and his producer, Rich McHugh, blame on the network’s effort to keep its own soiled laundry hidden: that insiders knew of sexual misconduct allegations against Lauer and hadn’t taken action. (Lauer was later fired, and Oppenheim has called “Catch and Kill,” Farrow’s new book, “a smear.”)
But no heads have rolled. In fact, with profits and ratings high, Oppenheim — who is at the center of this saga — has a new contract and is expecting to be promoted to NBC News chairman when Lack retires in a year or so.
It’s a dangerous approach.
“You have to rebuild the bond of trust” when a journalistic screw-up happens, said American Press Institute Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel.
“That bond is more important than any individual. When you don’t do that, you’re putting a lot at risk.”
There’s really only one proven way to accomplish it, as we’ve seen on many occasions in modern journalistic history: deep, honest digging into what happened, followed by transparently airing the results.
In 1981, when The Washington Post was confronted with the disastrous results of the fabricated and mishandled story about a child heroin addict, “Jimmy’s World,” by Janet Cooke, it turned its ombudsman, Bill Green, loose on the newsroom and quickly published a damning 18,000-word report that began on the front page and continued for four pages inside.
Much more recently, CBS hired two outside law firms to investigate charges of sexual misconduct at its highest levels. Although the full results of that investigation were never released publicly, the network cleaned house.
NBC itself did a better — though imperfect — job of investigating itself in 2015, making the results public, and taking action after NBC News anchor Brian Williams exaggerated his experiences, including while covering the Iraq War in 2003. (Williams was demoted and apologized on air.)
All news organizations, their management and their journalists make mistakes, sometimes very damaging ones. The ones who are committed to the truth — and to their own all-important credibility — swallow hard and do the right thing: They dig out the facts, relentlessly publish them and, when appropriate, punish the miscreants.
“You can’t just say ‘trust us,’ and expect that to be enough,” Rosenstiel told me.
What happened at NBC News has the stench of mendacity.
The honchos say they did nothing wrong — that Farrow’s reporting simply didn’t meet their standards for sourcing and that they judged he couldn’t get to those lofty heights with more work.
Their shutting him down had nothing to do, they say, with protecting ratings-rainmaker Lauer or those who were covering for him, or with outside pressure from Harvey Weinstein or anyone else.
We’re supposed to believe that and to move on with faith in NBC News’s journalism.
Some “indisputable” facts, though, get in the way, as MSNBC host Chris Hayes said on air last month:
“Ronan Farrow walked out of NBC News after working on the Weinstein story and within two months published an incredible article in The New Yorker that not only won a Pulitzer but helped trigger a massive social and cultural reckoning that continues to this day.”
At a time when the credibility of American mainstream media is under constant attack from President Trump and his cynical allies, the right response becomes more vital than ever.
On Monday night, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt received the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism from Arizona State University. According to AZ Central, he called for members of the news media to be “bold but transparent.”
“Rather than lick our wounds, this is journalism’s time to shine the light in dark places as we never have before, and to hold individuals and institutions of power accountable.”
Holt’s words are important.
If they are to be taken seriously, his own bosses need to live up to them.