How Top NBC Executives Quashed the Bombshell Harvey Weinstein Story
In mid-August, Ronan Farrow, an NBC News contributor, had secured an interview with a woman who was willing to appear on camera, in silhouette, her identity concealed, and say Harvey Weinstein had raped her, according to four people with close knowledge of the reporting. It was a pivotal moment in a testy, months-long process of reporting a story that had bedeviled a generation of media and Hollywood reporters.
Farrow had a lot of material already. In March, he had acquired a damning and much-coveted audio recording in which Weinstein admits to having groped an Italian model. He had interviews with former executives and assistants who’d worked closely with Weinstein who spoke about the culture of harassment and abuse he perpetrated. And now he had someone ready to accuse Weinstein of rape, on camera.
But at that moment Farrow was also caught in the pincers of an NBC News edict. He had been told by executives at NBC News that he didn’t have enough reporting to go on air with his Weinstein story, according to four sources, and he had been told by the network to stop reporting on it. NBC tried to put a stop to the interview with the woman accusing Weinstein of rape. The network insisted he not use an NBC News crew for the interview, and neither was he to mention his NBC News affiliation. And so that was how Ronan Farrow wound up paying out of his own pocket for a camera crew to film an interview.
As a project for NBC News, Farrow’s story was effectively dead. Later that month, he received permission to take his reporting to another news organization. The story that resulted, published Tuesday by The New Yorker, was a blockbuster: multiple women accusing Weinstein of rape and other sexual misconduct, accompanied by the au
At an NBC News town hall Wednesday, NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said: “The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive to all of us. We were on that long list of places that chased this thing, tried to nail it, but weren’t ultimately the ones who broke it.”
Then he struck a rueful tone, suggesting that the NBC iteration of the story had died of natural causes. “We reached a point over the summer where we, as an organization, didn’t feel that we had all the elements that we needed to air,” he said.
Yet interviews with 12 people inside and outside NBC News with direct knowledge of the reporting behind Farrow’s story suggest a different cause of death. All of the sources who spoke to HuffPost asked not to be named, either because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media about the story or because they were fearful of retribution from NBC News executives. These sources detailed a months-long struggle within NBC News during which Oppenheim and other executives slow-walked Farrow’s story, crippling it with their qualms and irresolution.
Toward the end, the concerns seemed to take on a personal tone, and it became difficult to tell where the Weinstein team’s attempts to discredit the story left off and NBC News’ editorial forbearance began. According to multiple sources inside and outside of NBC News who worked on the aborted story, Oppenheim related to Farrow what Weinstein’s lawyers had said in complaint to NBC: that Farrow had a conflict of interest because Weinstein had helped revive the career of Farrow’s estranged father, director Woody Allen. Weinstein’s representatives would later use a similar line of attack when the story landed at The New Yorker. The magazine, known for its rigorous vetting process, saw no conflict of interest.
Oppenheim’s statement and the pushback that NBC News has been sharing on background to reporters conflicts significantly with the accounts of people who worked on the story inside NBC News and elsewhere, according to several sources with close knowledge of the reporting.
Farrow, who began reporting the story in January and by late July had interviewed at least eight women, some on the record, had been told twice that the story was “reportable,” meaning it had passed the network’s stringent fact checking and legal process, according to four people with detailed knowledge of the process. A separate NBC investigative journalist was also asked to re-report his work, and her review raised no flags, these people said.
In March, Farrow obtained audio in which Weinstein admits to having sexually assaulted Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. The audio was recorded a day after Gutierrez had gone to the New York Police Department and told officers that Weinstein had groped her breasts and attempted to put a hand up her skirt.
The NYPD fitted Gutierrez with a wire, and she recorded her conversation with Weinstein at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York.
Weinstein is heard on the recording pressuring Gutierrez to join him in his hotel room, and toward the end of the tense exchange he admits he’d sexually assaulted her. When Gutierrez asked Weinstein why he had groped her breasts the day before, he answered, “Oh, please, I’m sorry, just come on in,” and “I’m used to that. Come on. Please.”
Gutierrez asked, “You’re used to that?”
“Yes,” Weinstein said, adding, “I won’t do it again.”
For two years, reporters from numerous publications had been attempting to obtain that damning audio. To many publications, the audio on its own would have merited a stand-alone news story. And even if the network had deemed it unworthy of television, NBC News could have published the story online, which Farrow, along with Rich McHugh, an NBC News investigative producer, also pursued. In fact, Farrow was said to be eager to get some of their reporting out in hopes that it would break the dam and other sources would come forward.
By April, NBC News had two big scoops in its pocket: an on-record interview with McGowan and the explosive audio of Weinstein admitting to sexual assault. But Farrow was told by multiple NBC News executives and producers that the reporting and interviews he had conducted weren’t sufficient for a televised story. According to four sources, Farrow and McHugh also prepared a lengthy text story to run on the NBC News website, but Farrow was told it wouldn’t run.
By July, Farrow was ready with a bombshell story about Weinstein that included on-camera interviews with accusers and interviews with four female and male former Miramax and Weinstein Co. executives.
At this point, Farrow and McHugh were ready to move forward with the story but were told by NBC executives that the story had to go up to NBC News Chairman Andy Lack for approval and that the story would be under review by Steve Burke, executive vice president of Comcast and president and CEO of NBCUniversal, and his office. Communication reviewed by HuffPost confirms that this message was communicated to Farrow, McHugh and others, but HuffPost cannot independently confirm that Burke reviewed the story. Three NBC News staffers that spoke to HuffPost said that they had never heard of Burke’s office needing to review a story and said it was highly unusual. An NBC Universal spokeswoman denied that Burke ever reviewed the story and said that he does not interfere in NBC News editorial decisions.
In August, according to four sources familiar with the conversations, Farrow was repeatedly told by the network that he didn’t have enough reporting done to go to air but that he should also stop reporting on Weinstein’s story, putting him in an untenable position.
One of the people Farrow had interviewed on camera for the story was veteran media reporter Ken Auletta. Earlier in his career, Auletta had tried to break the story of Weinstein’s predations. According to two sources familiar with the interview, and as reported in slightly different form by the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Auletta, after having reviewed Farrow’s reporting, said on camera something along the lines of, “If NBC News sits on this evidence Ronan has, it is a black eye for the organization and a huge scandal.”
Farrow ultimately brought his reporting to The New Yorker, which published his blockbuster account on Monday after putting his piece through its gauntlet of editors and fact checkers.
“Ronan Farrow, who came to us about two months ago, had very serious reporting already accomplished,” said David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker. “And with extremely hard work, and with work with a lot of my colleagues here at The New Yorker, he deepened the piece and made it publishable. And it is something that exemplified great investigative journalism.”
NBC had initially been reticent about reporting on other news outlets’ stories on Weinstein as well. Last Thursday, when The New York Times first broke the story of Weinstein’s long history of alleged sexual abuse, both CBS and ABC carried the Weinstein story on their evening broadcasts. But NBC was conspicuously absent among its competitors and didn’t air a Weinstein piece that evening on “NBC Nightly News,” despite having had seven hours to put together a story (the Times article was published at 11 a.m. EDT).
Some NBC sources said that the broadcast was jam-packed with breaking news, including reporting on the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting and the NBC News report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called President Donald Trump a “moron.” But the broadcast also had room for a segment on NFL player Cam Newton’s sexist remarks to a female reporter and a segment about Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees.
Two sources familiar with the production told HuffPost that Oppenheim made the final decision not to include a Weinstein story in the broadcast, telling staff that Weinstein wasn’t a nationally recognizable figure. That weekend, when “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels was criticized for not including any Weinstein jokes, he told The Daily Mail that “it’s a New York thing,” suggesting something similar. NBC insiders have told HuffPost that this has led some employees to wonder if this was an internal talking point that NBC executives were using to justify the lack of coverage.
The next morning, NBC was, once again, bested by its competitors when ABC’s “Good Morning America” ran a segment that was 10 minutes long and CBS’ “This Morning” ran a five-minute segment. NBC’s “Today” show simply had anchor Craig Melvin read off a teleprompter part of a story that largely included Weinstein’s pushback as opposed to the detailed allegations made in the Times.
The news that NBC had the audio of Weinstein admitting to sexual assault shocked and frustrated NBC News employees who spoke to HuffPost, saying that the mood in the newsroom had grown dark over the missed opportunity to break a big story.
Yashar is a contributing writer for New York Magazine and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York. Lydia Polgreen is Editor in Chief of HuffPost. She was named to that post in December 2016 after spending nearly 15 years at the New York Times, where she led an initiative to expand its audience outside the United States, with an initial focus on Latin America.
It reminded several people who spoke to HuffPost of another time that NBC lost the chance to break a story involving a man admitting to alleged sexual misconduct.
In October 2016, NBC News had the now infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump saying he liked to grab women “by the pussy.” While the footage was owned by NBC, it was ultimately published by The Washington Post.
This article has been updated with more information about the story review process and Burke’s office, including that HuffPost was not able to independently verify whether Burke reviewed Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein.