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When Rachel Maddow called out her own bosses Friday over their handling of Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein reporting, she opened a new chapter in a two-year saga that has buffeted NBC News since Farrow took his Weinstein reporting to The New Yorker, where he would go on to share a Pulitzer Prize.
Privately, Maddow earned cheers from her MSNBC colleagues. “It was amazing! God bless her and Ronan,” one staffer tells The Hollywood Reporter, asking for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak by the company. Her lengthy report, which unspooled over three segments and included an interview with Farrow, initiated fresh scrutiny about NBC’s use of confidentiality agreements in cases involving harassment accusations against ousted Today star Matt Lauer.
During Maddow’s top-rated show, the network issued a statement that appeared to release employees from such agreements.
“Any former NBC News employee who believes that they cannot disclose their experience with sexual harassment as a result of a confidentiality or non-disparagement provision in their separation agreement should contact NBCUniversal and we will release them from that perceived obligation,” the company said in a statement that Maddow aired.
Maddow characterized it as “some news.” In fact, this is the same information that NBC News legal sources provided THR several weeks ago. But the statement drew immediate criticism from legal and advocacy experts.
“There is no reason to place the burden on those who choose to speak to reveal themselves in advance to NBCUniversal,” Tina Tchen, president and CEO of TimesUpNow, wrote on Twitter. “This is an example of the burdens that perpetuate fear and silence, no matter what new policies and trainings may say.”
An attorney who has represented several former NBC employees noted that the statement appears to be a qualified release from confidentiality.
“If this is a full release, and everybody can flood the gates, we should expect to see a decent number of women coming forward and talking about their experiences of sexual harassment at NBC. If we don’t see that, it means either it’s not a full release, or people are still terrified, or NBC was running the only clean shop on the block,” this attorney tells THR. “And I don’t think it’s No. 3.”
Maddow also reiterated the call for an independent outside investigation — as did Tchen in her tweet — and noted that NBC executives have also reiterated that that is “not going to happen.”
In its defense, NBC once again pointed to the findings of its own investigation into accusations against Lauer. The network’s position is that the November 2017 complaint from former producer Brooke Nevils that triggered Lauer’s firing was the first time the company had received a formal complaint about the Today star. That position contradicts assertions in Farrow’s new book Catch and Kill that nondisclosure agreements and severance payments to women with allegations against Lauer and other men at NBC News were common and were designed to silence women. (NDAs and severance payments are routine at news organizations. But they are also routinely used to shield from public view unsavory circumstances.)
Several employees at NBC News and MSNBC who have spoken to THR since the publication of Catch and Kill have expressed skepticism that NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack and NBC News president Noah Oppenheim killed Farrow and producer Rich McHugh’s Weinstein reporting in order to protect Lauer. But those same employees also have conveyed deep reservations about the network’s handling of the Weinstein reporting and its internal Lauer probe. In recent days, sources tell THR, there has been an internal discussion among several employees about airing this frustration publicly in an open letter. But many employees are loath to stick their heads up for fear they’ll be lopped off.
“People are still angry,” says one NBC News employee. Others just want to move on. And Oppenheim does have his supporters, particularly among the networks’ top anchors. Today co-hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb are known to have voiced support to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, and Burke himself has publicly supported Lack. (Guthrie has penned children’s books with Oppenheim’s wife.)
Current executives can also point to a string of business successes: All four of NBC’s flagship news programs — Today, Nightly News, Meet the Press and Dateline — have been No. 1 in the advertiser coveted 25-54 demographic for the past four years; MSNBC also has notched several years of record ratings and profits; and there are new deals with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi and European telecom giant Sky for a global news channel.
But Maddow is arguably the biggest star in the NBC News orbit, the anchor of MSNBC’s primetime lineup and perhaps the only talent with the currency and leverage to publicly take on her bosses. At the end of the third block of Maddow’s lengthy segment Friday, she put a statement onscreen from NBC News that appears to be an acknowledgement of past mistakes.
“We very much wanted to break this story,” the statement read. “We are profoundly disappointed that we weren’t able to do so.”
Maddow then said to Farrow, and her audience, “It’s meaningful to me, because I’ve been waiting to hear that.”
Sources have told THR over the last several weeks that there were indeed internal debates early on about issuing such a statement of contrition. Whether, at this point, it’s meaningful enough remains to been seen.
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