NBC News Rolls the Dice on Tom Brokaw Defense: "This Is Not Black and White"
"We all signed the letter knowing that more women could come forward. If more women come forward we’re going to revisit this," says an insider.
When allegations of groping first surfaced about Sen. Al Franken last November, more than two dozen women who worked with the Democratic politician at Saturday Night Live circulated a letter of support. “What Al did was stupid and foolish, and we think it was appropriate for him to apologize,” the letter began. The women faced backlash on social media, and Franken eventually resigned as more allegations emerged.
Now a similar effort is being waged on behalf of Tom Brokaw, a towering figure at NBC News who remains a special correspondent at the network. Approximately 100 women — current and former employees of NBC — have signed a statement carefully worded so as not to dispute the accusations of Linda Vester, a former correspondent and anchor at NBC News and MSNBC who, in a Washington Post story published April 26, relayed a detailed account of alleged misconduct by Brokaw more than two decades ago when he was the Nightly News anchor. (The report also included a claim, from around the same time in the 1990s, from a production assistant who alleged harassment. On May 1, a third claim in a first-person account in The Villager by writer Mary Reinholz alleged Brokaw "made a pass at me 50 years ago.")
Like those who supported Franken, the approximately 100 women who signed the Brokaw letter have been taken to task on social media. And on April 30, NBC News management circulated a memo with guidance about covering the Brokaw accusations that advised NBC News anchors and producers to “include relevant portions of Brokaw’s denial, his email and the email in support of him.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to several women who signed the letter in support of Brokaw, though none of them would speak on the record. “If there’s somebody people are going to stick their neck out for, it’s Tom,” says a signee of the letter.
Another letter signee adds, "Everyone is afraid to say that this is not black and white. My hope is this is the moment that defuses #MeToo. And the silver lining is that it took someone like Tom."
Brokaw, 78, vehemently disputed Vester’s account in his own email, which he sent to a handful of colleagues, saying that he had been “taken to the guillotine.” The memo raised eyebrows among some at NBC News who viewed it as overly critical of Vester; Brokaw claimed she had “trouble with the truth.” And the letter of support has caused some internal discord at NBC News.
Several women who have signed the letter, including longtime NBC executive Elena Nachmanoff, are influential figures in the news division. And many of those who did not sign the letter — Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Stephanie Gosk and Kate Snow — are said to have abstained because they must keep covering the #MeToo movement.
On her 9 a.m. program on April 30, Megyn Kelly sounded a note of skepticism. Discussing the Brokaw story with NBC anchors Snow and Gosk (who also are covering accusations against Matt Lauer), Kelly noted that putting forth such “character reference(s)” can often be “dicey” because “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and that several women at Fox News came forward in defense of Roger Ailes — though she stressed that she does not feel the same way about the Brokaw accusations.
NBC News chairman Andy Lack released a statement April 27 noting that the company takes “allegations such as these very seriously, and act[s] on them quickly and decisively when the facts dictate.”
But news analyst Andrew Tyndall notes that Brokaw’s status and position coupled with the charges are likely ameliorating factors in his future. “His position is emeritus at this stage. He hasn’t really got a job from which he can be fired. They’ve got no salary to save and no ratings to maintain,” Tyndall says.
Vester’s lawyer, meanwhile, has said she’ll have “more to say very soon” but did not elaborate.
NBC News insiders, who at press time were awaiting the results of NBC’s internal Lauer investigation, know the risks of vouching for Brokaw. Says an insider, "We all signed the letter knowing that more women could come forward. If more women come forward we’re going to revisit this."
A version of this story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
May 2, 8:00 am Updated with an additional claim by writer by writer Mary Reinholz.