With its egregious lack of representation and cliquey chains of command, is there any wonder big outlets like NBC are covering up for predators?
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On a late October day in 1997, the president of NBC News Andrew Lack was growing impatient with all the media men pushing back on his conference call hawking his latest brainchild, a weeklong program series called, “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women.” The series on the then-popular “battle of the sexes” trope would examine topics from “The Finer Art of Flirting,” to how women fare in the workplace, to sexual harassment.
Lack, then 50 and pegged the “most powerful person in network news,” seemed oblivious to the fact that he’d only invited male NBC executives on the call to discuss the so-called “Sex War,” as the male participants later reported in their various publications around the U.S. In fact, Lack acted shocked when the TV Guide reporter pointed out the irony of the absence of women execs.
No, Lack responded, “a lot of women” were involved in the series, even if they weren’t called executive producers. “I don’t think there’s any prestige, title, or money tied up in being an executive producer,” he schooled.
A New York Post writer then asked Lack if he was saying women at NBC didn’t want to be executive producers. At the time, women were topping out as senior producers on Lack’s watch, as Howard Rosenberg later explained in the Los Angeles Times.
“I think it’s one of the most thankless jobs in this business,” Lack continued about the high-level, better-paying, coveted position of executive producer. “I think these titles are kind of silly.” He then played the wife card that many men pull when feeling cornered over sexism, first asking if the Post reporter was married. He wasn’t.
“Then,” Lack retorted, “I think you probably don’t understand that [women] are in charge.”
Except women weren’t in charge then at NBC News, and they aren’t now that Lack is part of a triumvirate of white men—with Noah Oppenheim and Phil Griffin—running the division.
In his new book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, former NBC investigative reporter Ronan Farrow meticulously reveals his case for a network coverup of a series of sexual harassment and assaults allegedly committed by powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and possibly covered up by NBC executives including Lack, now chairman of NBC News. Along with Lachlan Cartwright in the Daily Beast a year earlier, Farrow chronicled secretive non-disclosure payouts that NBC execs approved over the years to keep women quiet—including a now-named victim, Brooke Nevils, accusing Matt Lauer of rape at the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.
Lack has a history of sexual harassment and subsequent non-disclosure payoffs to women, Farrow and Cartwright report, dating back to the late 1980s when Lack was still married to his first wife and was the executive producer of CBS’s West 57th news magazine. There, Lack pursued correspondent Jane Wallace to go out with him, “almost relentlessly,” in her words to Farrow. “If your boss does that, what are you gonna say?” When the affair ended poorly, Lack demanded a non-disclosure agreement, Wallace added. He later followed the same pattern with a younger associate producer, Jennifer Laird, Farrow wrote.
The 1990s, in particular, kept coming up in Farrow’s book like some halcyon era when sexual vultures deserved immunity. At one point, Weinstein shouted to his assistants: “Get me Andy Lack, now! And Phil Griffin!” Griffin is the president of MSNBC News and the man who recruited a young Noah Oppenheim after seeing his columns in the Harvard Crimson when out drinking in Cambridge. Oppenheim, now president of NBC News, was tasked with telling Farrow to stop reporting the Weinstein exposé. So Farrow took it to The New Yorker—and his reporting on the story earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
Farrow and his sources report the kind of ongoing, systemic environment for women that makes sense from a boss who didn’t think just two decades ago that top-level titles and salary matter to women. Lack perpetuated a “permissive atmosphere” where mostly men are in charge, especially in coveted hard-news positions, and women are afraid they’ll be fired if they speak up or report abuses, the book alleges. NBC execs seem willing to pay out millions over internal harassment and even assault cases rather than actually do what it takes to make it stop. They reportedly hire and promote men who won’t take the problem seriously—like maybe a Harvard misogynist who thinks that “apparently women enjoy being confined, pumped full of alcohol and preyed upon,” as Oppenheim indicated in the Crimson the same year Lack introduced “Sex War.”
“They feel desired, not demeaned,” Oppenheim wrote then.
Linda Vester, a former war reporter who, in 2018, accused NBC veteran Tom Brokaw of groping and trying to kiss her in the 1990s, which he denies, says Lack’s return to the network, replacing a woman, had made the NBC climate horrific for women again. “The problems had deepened under Andy Lack’s leadership,” she told Farrow. In Lack’s first tenure, in the 1990s, Vester said the network had a “tolerance for abusive behavior” that included “degrading, humiliating talk, mainly to women.”
“And that became the climate under Andy Lack. It was just—it was very stark,” she told Farrow.
Vester described a culture of disrespect that, in turn, affected NBC’s coverage of women. “He would spike stories about women,” Vester told Farrow about Lack. “And this happened regularly.” If any message is clear from Farrow’s book, it’s that respect of women, and our work and opinions and safety, has to come from the top in organizations. The rot spreads downward, and must be repaired at every level and under women’s watchful, non-enabling eyes. Otherwise, all-male management may both ignore abuses and demean women managers who try to stop it.
But NBC still refuses the kind of external investigation Farrow’s findings demand to root out the poison, even though network star Rachel Maddow called out the executives on her Oct. 25 show, with Farrow as a guest. “It would be impossible for me to overstate the amount of consternation inside the building around this issue,” she said.
In the meantime, the New York Times reported on Oct. 30 that NBC digital employees are forming a union to demand both the ability to criticize executives and to a safe workplace free of harassment. Instead of such an investigation, though, Margaret Sullivan wrote Nov. 5 in the Washington Post that NBC is circling the wagons, relying on high ratings, with a new contract in place for Oppenheim to take Lack’s position as chairman when he retires after the 2020 presidential election.
But here’s the thing: With his track record, Lack does not need to lead the network through another election, especially with serious women contenders. He has been roundly criticized for NBC’s uneven coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign as NBC gave a constant open microphone to birther Donald Trump. That included Lauer’s hostile treatment of Clinton during an NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum, in which the Today Show host questioned the former Secretary of State’s judgment. Lack helped plan and execute the forum and later praised Lauer for his performance.
After the election, Lack said at a 2017 appearance in Mississippi that the network’s failure wasn’t over-saturation of Trump, but in under-reporting Clinton’s unlikeability. “The point was (Trump) was so accessible, and he wanted to tell his story. … I think the biggest story that we missed, certainly NBC, we underestimated the dislike of Hillary in the country,” Lack said at the University of Mississippi, as reported by a nonprofit media outlet he founded in the southern state. It, like NBC, is run by three top male editors.
Lack’s dismissive comment about the woman who drew almost 3 million more votes than Trump, and the second-highest number of popular votes in history, proves that he hasn’t exactly done a serious self-examination of his disrespectful approach with women. Such insolence was apparent when he pursued younger women employees on his staff and then discounted women’s ambition on that ill-fated “Sex War” phone call, and there is little public evidence that much has changed in the 22 years since then.
Andy Lack continuing to lead NBC News is a clear hindrance to his own newsroom, but his influence over campaign coverage also presents a serious threat to women candidates forced to endure another uneven gender glare from NBC in a vital election. He needs to retire, sooner rather than later.
Neither women at his network, or throughout the country, can risk more NBC déjà vu all over again.
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