Andy Lack is the NBC News executive who fired Matt Lauer. The 70-year-old chairman is now under fire himself.
NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, who came back to the network for a second tour to restore its reputation after the Brian Williams scandal, now faces questions about whether his own job should be safe.
Lack swiftly fired longtime Today show host Matt Lauer on Tuesday for sexual misconduct involving a colleague after an allegation arose Monday night. On Thursday, NBC News’ Stephanie Gosk reported on Megyn Kelly Today there may be as many as eight women who have come forward since Lauer was fired to accuse him of misconduct.
“What’s missing in coverage of most media scandals, sex harassment or otherwise, is a willingness to confront systemic causes that led to the scandal, including the culpability of management in allowing scandals to take place,” says Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a former news executive at NBC, CNN and ABC.
Lauer’s dismissal is only the latest of a recent series of problems facing NBC while Lack has been in charge, which include:
• NBC delayed airing, shortly before the 2016 election, an Access Hollywood tape of GOP candidate Donald Trump bragging to AH host-turned-Today host Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals, and was scooped by a leak of the tape to The Washington Post.
• NBC assigned reporter Ronan Farrow to investigate allegations of serial sexual predation by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, then declined to run his story on grounds it was incomplete. Farrow took the story to The New Yorker, worked on it some more and published it Oct 10.
• NBC announced just two weeks before Lauer was dismissed that it had fired Matt Zimmerman, its top talent booker with close ties to Lauer, for “inappropriate conduct” with more than one woman at the network. Until 2014 when he was promoted, Zimmerman was in charge of arranging guests for the Today show.
Lack ran NBC News from 1993 to 2001, and was brought back in 2015 to help restore the network in the wake of the Brian Williams fiasco. The evening news anchor, accused of fabricating stories about his experiences in Iraq, was suspended for six months, then demoted to his own show at 11 p.m. on MSNBC.
Also on Lack’s to-do list when he returned: Fixing Today, which had fallen to second place after the clumsy effort in 2012 to get rid of Ann Curry and pair Lauer with Savannah Guthrie. Curry’s messy, weepy departure (allegedly at the insistence of Lauer) was followed by a sharp drop in ratings and ad revenue.
NBC has denied knowing about any misconduct by Lauer before this week. “We can say unequivocally, that, prior to Monday night, current NBC News management was never made aware of any complaints about Matt Lauer’s conduct,” an NBC statement said Wednesday.
But others have questioned how that could be. Lack, 70, and Lauer, 59, are known to be close friends. Noah Oppenheim, 38, newly promoted to president of NBC News by Lack, also is close to Lauer, since he ran Today starting in early 2015. Oppenheim, who is also a Hollywood screenwriter, took heat for passing on the Farrow investigation, but kept his job.
Given that history, the questions are obvious. What did Lack know and when did he know it? Did he know that Lauer was allegedly a serial sexual harasser with a door-locking button under his desk, as Variety reported following a two-month investigation? If complaints were made about Lauer in the past, as Variety claimed, how come Lack and other managers didn’t know about it?
Lack and Oppenheim did not respond to requests for comment on the record. A spokesman reiterated the network’s statement that current top managers did not know about any prior complaints about Lauer.
Perhaps the biggest question is not one for Lack, but rather for Comcast, the NBC parent company: Does it need to bring in an independent panel to investigate the management and culture of NBC to ensure complete transparency?
“If what Variety reported is true, then NBC has a lot more disclosing to do and the question is: Has there been a cover-up or an active attempt to mislead the public about what NBC management knew and when they knew it?” says Feldstein.
The conflicting accounts of who knew what and when cries out for an investigation, and the network can’t investigate itself, says Feldstein, who is writing a book about media scandals.
“There really needs to be an independent panel brought in from outside NBC to investigate the management and practices of the news division in allowing on-air talent to serially harass and God knows what else,” Feldstein says.
Comcast did not respond to requests for comment.
Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN who also worked at CBS News, says media companies can’t credibly report on accusations against a public figure if their own employees face similar questions.
“The bar has been set higher by (media companies), to their credit,” Klein says. Harassment may be no more prevalent in media and politics than elsewhere, he says, but those fields “breed a kind of person who becomes invested with a lot more power than you see in most places, and there aren’t that many places where a person can become so powerful and so unaccountable as in media and politics.”
At least one other media scandal/firing resulted in a sudden change at the board level. After NPR’s chief news executive Michael Oreskes was forced to resign on Nov. 1 in the wake of accusations he had sexually harassed women at a previous job, NPR board chairman Roger LaMay announced two weeks later he was stepping down at the end of his second one-year term. He said he needed to devote more time to running his Philadelphia public radio station. And NPR’s CEO Jarl Mohn announced he would be going on a medical leave.
Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News chief who is now a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, says it’s entirely predictable that “the people who hate the media” would seize on media scandals as “a way to throw around that horrible term, ‘fake news.’ “
“But the cure is transparency, and we’ve seen examples of that, most recently at CBS,” Heyward says. “CBS handled the Charlie Rose story with openness, the anchors talked about it with appropriate candor and indignation. … If we found out that TV news operations were covering up their own sins while busily investigating others, (that would be a problem), but there’s no indication that’s happened.”
The Lauer firing comes amid several other recent media scandals: CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose fired last week after sexual harassment allegations; political journalist Mark Halperin fired last month from NBC and MSNBC after allegations of sexual harassment at his previous job; and lower-level staff have been fired at NBC, CNN and NPR.
According to Variety, which quoted more than a dozen unnamed employees, Lauer was known around the NBC newsroom for being preoccupied with sexual topics, making frequent lewd comments, talking about the female co-hosts he’d most like to sleep with, and engaging in crude and cruel behavior toward subordinates over a period of years.
The Lauer scandal also raises questions about decisions made in the other recent problems that Lack has faced.
“Did NBC suppress the (Access Hollywood) Trump tape because it knew its top talent had engaged in similar behavior? That becomes a really disturbing question,” Feldstein says. “Had the tape not been leaked to the Post, it might well have been covered up.”
The decision to pass on the Farrow investigation of Weinstein looks “more suspect” after the Lauer firing, Feldstein says.
“We can’t know for sure until we have more facts,” he says, “but if there was a culture that knew about and either encouraged or looked the other way about sexual harassment, how could they expose others for the same misbehavior? They couldn’t, and it would have made them vulnerable to do so.”
Contributing: Bill Keveney, Gary Levin
After his sudden firing for alleged sexual misbehavior in the workplace, Matt Lauer responded in a written statement read by his former co-anchor Savannah Guthrie on ‘Today.’