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NBC’s investigation into Matt Lauer and the culture at NBC News that enabled the erstwhile Today show star’s misconduct paints a picture of a news organization unaware of the “appalling behavior” — in the words of NBC News chairman Andy Lack — of its biggest star.
In the report, which was released Wednesday, four women who filed complaints about Lauer late last year “confirmed that they did not tell their direct manager or anyone else in a position of authority about their sexual encounters with Lauer.” Current and former leadership at NBC News and Today, as well as the news division’s human resources department, “never received a complaint about inappropriate workplace behavior by Lauer, and we did not find any contrary evidence.”
The investigation was conducted by NBCUniversal general counsel Kim Harris, while two outside law firms — Proskauer and Davis Polk — reviewed the methodology, findings and conclusions of the report. There has been much debate — in the press, and internally at NBC — about the veracity and fullness of an investigation that originates inside the company.
Employees who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in recent days were divided on the issue. Many thought the company should have outsourced the investigation, if only to neutralize any criticism. Others believed that an outside investigation can just as easily be window dressing since it is the company which ultimately decides what gets released publicly.
“I thought to myself, this is really compelling and credible, imagine if it was from a third party,” says a former staffer. “As long as [NBC] employees see it as credible, that’s all that matters. The rest is just noise.”
Adds a current NBC staffer, “I don’t feel like the investigation is not being taken seriously because it’s being run by NBC. Hiring a third party to investigate is often done for effect.”
Another source adds that while no one went to HR, other “alarm bells” should have been heeded. Ann Curry — who worked at NBC News for nearly 20 years and had a famously chilly relationship with Lauer — told The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison that “verbal sexual harassment” was “pervasive” at NBC. And Linda Vester, a former correspondent at NBC and MSNBC, who in the same piece lobbed an accusation of harassment against Tom Brokaw, told Ellison she came forward with allegations from more than two decades ago “because NBC has failed to hire outside counsel to investigate a genuine, long-standing problem of sexual misconduct in the news division.”
However, the report noted that many of those interviewed — investigators conducted nearly 70 interviews with current and former employees — said that they were aware of “rumors about Lauer’s personal life, including tabloid stories about the troubled state of his marriage and the possibility of extramarital affairs, but [they] believed, with limited exceptions, that the rumored extramarital affairs were with women outside of [NBC].”
The report also revealed that Lauer was known to make jokes with “sexual overtones” and “openly engage in sexually-oriented banter in the workplace.” And several women told investigators of “sexual overture(s) from Lauer in which he complimented them on their appearance in sexually suggestive ways.” However, they said “Lauer did not pursue them further when they deflected or ignored [him], and they did not experience any retaliation.”
Ari Wilkenfeld — the attorney representing Vester as well as the first woman to accuse Lauer of sexual misconduct — points out that “innocent-seeming sexual banter in the workplace by someone powerful can chill women from coming forward. The report tells us something important — that a number of employees feel they cannot come forward with harassment allegations. It also makes an important point of why we need an independent investigation — so that there won’t be any seeds of doubt about what really happened.”
Many in the industry believe that the problem is not a few apparent bad apples like Lauer and Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin, but the antiquated star system at TV news divisions that allows anchors — be they men or women — to behave badly toward junior employees.
Lack seemed to allude to this in a note to employees after the release of the report: “The review, of course, focused specifically on sexual harassment, but it also broadened the lens — through the culture assessment — to examine other inappropriate workplace behavior like bullying.”
But, says one industry insider, “I wonder if they have a little more understanding of why men who we pay a lot of money to act like the king of the castle? Because that is the one things that isn’t addressed. It’s more about the celebrification of news people. It’s the haves and have nots. And that is something nobody talks about. They [anchors] are different than you and me. But they’re not always held to acceptable behavioral standards, and that’s the real issue. Snitch on your colleagues? No, that’s not the answer. It’s the talent, they need to be managed a little better, clearly.”
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