NBC News' Harvey Weinstein Miss Wasn't Just About Being Cautious (Guest Column)

Ronan Farrow - 2015 Tribeca Film Festival - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

As unconvincing as NBC News president Noah Oppenheim may sound now, thinking back to last August, his rationale does sound plausible — even if lily-livered, writes a top news analyst.

NBC News stands accused of a scandalous cover-up for its failure to pursue Ronan Farrow’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual depredations.

Farrow, the onetime MSNBC anchor, then working as a contributing reporter, had assembled exclusive elements of a package on the Hollywood mogul. He had landed audio of an undercover police sting by a model wearing a wire whose breasts Weinstein had fondled, and video of starlet Rose McGowan, who had been paid a $100,000 settlement for his sexual abuse at the Sundance Film Festival.

Yet Farrow’s work was discontinued by network brass. He was told to take it elsewhere. Two months later it appeared in print, not on television but in the pages of The New Yorker.

In hindsight, it seems inconceivable that NBC News would have passed on a scandal that is now hogging so many headlines. Several dozen women, including the extremely rich and famous, have now come forward with graphic recollections of Weinstein’s gross misbehavior over the decades. Weinstein has been fired, stripped of his power, left by his wife Georgina Chapman and has become a household word: a synonym for sexual bully.

The decision to pass on such a scoop seems especially egregious on the first anniversary of the failure of Billy Bush, then an anchor on NBC’s Today, to land his own exclusive about then-candidate Donald Trump’s 11-year-old boasts to Access Hollywood about his prowess at genital groper of women.

So the excuse by NBC News president Noah Oppenheim that Farrow did not have “all the elements we needed to air it" seems journalistically wrong-headed at best, or shamefully unwilling to risk confrontation with a litigious bully, or, at worst, a corrupt corporate compromise. Did Comcast put show-business interests — possible future Weinstein deals with NBC’s Universal Studios — ahead of the public interest of NBC News?

As unconvincing as Oppenheim may sound now, thinking back to last August, his rationale does sound plausible — even if lily-livered.

First, parallels with the suppression of Trump’s groping boasts are not apt. Trump was a candidate for President of the United States; Weinstein is a private citizen. Furthermore, NBC produced and owned the Access Hollywood clip; Farrow was collecting material from others. NBC’s timidity a year ago was of another order of magnitude.

In addition, there were flaws in both of the exclusives that Farrow had succeeded in securing. His audio of the police undercover sting had been rejected by the Manhattan District Attorney as insufficient evidence to prosecute Weinstein; and the actress McGowan had retracted her permission to air the video under threat that it violated a non-disclosure agreement.

Farrow uses the term “reportable” to describe the state of his story at the time it was let go by NBC News. Yet “reportable” is a term of art referring to management’s green light that the underlying facts of the story are verified, thus enabling reporting on the story to proceed. It does not mean ready to air. Indeed, both Oppenheim and David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, agree that Farrow’s eventual story was fuller than it was when NBC News decided to pass on it. “He deepened the piece and made it publishable,” Remnick told HuffPost after it was published.

Crucially, in the interim between Farrow’s departure from NBC News and The New Yorker’s publication, the entire Weinstein story had changed status. Five days before Farrow, The New York Times broke the story and in doing so transformed it. On his own, Weinstein is a media industry figure, of interest to the readers of The Hollywood Reporter and The New Yorker — but not to the general audience that network television targets. The story crosses over to a mass-media sensation when celebrities are attached. Farrow offered no named on-camera celebrity to Oppenheim. The Times provided Ashley Judd.

Absent the most high-profile women in show business, the Weinstein exposé would target just another dirty old man in Hollywood, the type whose sexual enabling has been the signature hobbyhorse of Farrow’s reporting, starting with his family feud with Woody Allen. But when, following Judd, the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie publicly acknowledge that they have been the targets of Weinstein’s masturbatory fantasies, then, and only then, does the story become so obvious that Oppenheim would never think of turning it down.

Lastly, NBC News is fortunate that its defense against cowardice concerning the Weinstein story should happen to coincide with a major coup. On the same day that the Times gave us Judd, NBC’s DC bureau exclusively revealed that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called the President of the United States a “moron” — later elaborated as a “fucking moron” — after hearing Trump speculate about increasing the size of the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal by a factor of 10.

The “moron” scoop is not the sort of story that is aired by a news division that is squeamish about confronting the powerful.

The suspicion that corporate lawyers put pressure on news executives to be overly cautious is not ill-founded. After all, Gawker was driven into bankruptcy after telling the truth about Hulk Hogan’s sex life; Disney forked over a fortune when ABC News used “pink slime” to refer to low-quality hamburger meat; and Rupert Murdoch may be blocked from expanding his satellite TV empire because of reckless speculation about WikiLeaks by Fox News. All sorts of crises can happen at the head office because a newsroom sticks its neck out too far. But in this instance, NBC News’ decision to spike a story may not be craven. 

Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report.