NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack’s long-predicted retirement, just days short of his 73rd birthday, was confirmed Monday with a press release from newly installed NBC Universal CEO Jeff Shell, who named Telemundo head honcho Cesar Conde as the new executive in charge of Comcast-owned NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC.
The move—which brings the CNBC financial network under control of the news division, having been outside Lack’s purview and reporting to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke—effectively reverses a core personnel decision by Shell’s predecessor, who publicly tapped Lack’s deputy Noah Oppenheim for the top news job even amid a storm of criticism both inside and outside NBC News.
NBC News staffers had been critical of Oppenheim—occasionally to his face at staff meetings—over his handling of Ronan Farrow’s reporting on disgraced and now-imprisoned movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Oppenheim’s boss, Lack, was also widely blamed for perceived journalistic failures at the news division.
People familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that Lack was blindsided by Shell’s announcement. An NBC News spokesperson declined to comment.
The re-shuffle gives a vote of limited confidence to NBC news president Oppenheim, who had reported to Lack and was long expected to succeed him in the executive echelons of NBC. One highly placed company insider speculated that Oppenheim, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who has been privately musing with colleagues about returning to his first love, might not stay long at NBC News.
“He’s the big loser,” this person said.
Burke had publicly broached his plans for succession at the network this past January, leaving many to believe Oppenheim would succeed Lack as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Burke told Variety: “I still have full faith in [Lack], and Noah is extraordinary. He’s going to end up running NBC News after Andy retires.”
Shell, who had been conducting a “listening tour” of various NBCU subsidiaries, including NBC News, made no secret in his conversations with news division staffers of his unhappiness with the way Lack and Oppenheim had handled various #MeToo issues at the network.
“This is a slam to Noah—we all thought he was getting promoted but they are finally doing the right thing,” one NBC News insider told The Daily Beast.
“This is the happiest I’ve been about our company in years,” another senior staffer said.
“Good riddance to Andy,” said a third NBC News employee, adding that Lack’s divisive and imperious leadership style was a source of anxiety, insecurity, and resentment among many of his underlings.
In a tersely worded announcement that did not even include a quote from Lack, much less Oppenheim, Shell announced that the widely liked Conde would report to him alongside Mark Lazarus, who now oversees all of NBCUniversal’s entertainment television.
“This is the right structure to lead NBCUniversal into the future during this transformational time in the industry,” Shell, NBCU’s CEO, said in the statement.
Rumblings about Lack’s corporate demise have circulated internally in recent weeks. Several people who spoke to Shell directly told The Daily Beast that he seemed to telegraph that Lack’s influence at the network was waning.
And Lack’s tenure as the top boss at NBC News was defined by multiple high-profile controversies.
In one of his first major moves as chairman, Lack—who was recruited in early 2015 by NBCUniversal’s then-CEO Burke to calm the NBC News division badly shaken by the Brian Williams scandal—decided not to fire the star anchor of the flagship network news broadcast after Williams was caught lying about his various journalistic adventures, especially his experience embedding with U.S. military units in the Middle East.
After William’s six-month suspension without pay and a carefully orchestrated mea culpa interview with, of all people, Matt Lauer, Lack instead moved the former Nightly News anchor to MSNBC. Lack also faced questions about how the network handled sexual-harassment allegations against former Today host Lauer and network stalwart Tom Brokaw, the once-powerful anchor of NBC Nightly News.
Lack also spent $69 million of Comcast’s money to lure Megyn Kelly from Fox News primetime in 2017 to her own NBC morning show, the Today show’s third hour titled Megyn Kelly Today. That ruinously expensive experiment—in which Kelly’s ratings sagged and she engaged in damaging controversies with celebrities, movie stars and even Fox News communications chief Irena Briganti—ended in tears after a mere 17 months, with Kelly pocketing the balance of her three-year contract.
In October 2018, The Daily Beast published an exhaustive investigation that detailed how Lack had a decades-long history of covering up for sexual harassers in both his previous role running Sony Music where he ignored serious allegations against executive Charlie Walk and his tenure at NBC News. Lack himself had his own harassment issues with women. The Beast uncovered a secret settlement paid out to former CBS news correspondent Jane Wallace, who had an affair with Lack, when he was running the newsmagazine show West 57th. And as Farrow reported in his bestselling book Catch and Kill, another woman who worked on the show, Jennifer Laird White, described a hostile working environment with Lack.
“After a career of enabling sexual abusers, preying on women in the workplace, and silencing stories from survivors, Andy Lack’s name is synonymous with NBCUniversal’s toxic workplace culture," UltraViolet executive director Shaunna Thomas said in a statement.
“Today’s announcement that Lack will be stepping down and that his chief ally Noah Oppenheim, who similarly silenced abuse survivors, has been sidelined, is a positive development that suggests NBC is beginning to take issues regarding its workplace culture seriously.”
Oppenheim had come under criticism for his role in the mishandling of the Weinstein investigation for which Farrow ended up winning a Pulitzer prize at The New Yorker—a story that he began digging in on at NBC. There were also questions about Oppenheim’s handling of the infamous Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape of Donald Trump that NBC News had but he and Lack decided not to air and which ultimately and somewhat curiously was published by The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, a former college roommate of Oppenheim’s.
Billy Bush, who was fired by Oppenheim and Lack from his high-profile Today show gig after the recording leaked, posted on Instagram shortly after the news broke of Lack’s departure: “Just checking my news feed here and I heard a ‘ding dong’ that must mean the wicked witch is dead. [Lack] won’t be missed. By anyone.”
Farrow’s producer Rich McHugh, who left NBC News shortly after the Weinstein debacle and has publicly accused Oppenheim and Lack of pulling their punches regarding the Hollywood mogul turned convicted rapist, told The Daily Beast that Lack’s departure is cause for optimism.
“It is the right move,” McHugh said about Lack’s exit and Oppenheim’s denied promotion, “and while it is about three years overdue, it is great news for the journalists at NBC News.”
A second former NBC News staffer told The Daily Beast that it’s justified that Oppenheim—who was the target of bitter criticism from many of his journalists for his handling of the Weinstein and other stories—didn’t receive the bigger job that earlier press reports claimed he was in line to get.
“He doesn’t deserve it,” this person said. “He blindly followed that miscreant [a reference to Lack]. A leader doesn’t do that. Journalism stands a little taller today now that this sack of manure is off its shoulders.”
A current NBC News insider offered a more nuanced view regarding the significance of the reshuffling, especially as it affects Oppenheim: “I think it gives Noah a last chance to lead the organization without Andy over him. If he can excel and win people back over, that could be a long life. It’s neither a vote of no confidence nor obviously is it a vote of full confidence and a promotion. It’s much more about him holding on.”
Internally at NBC News, the insider added, “there are people who say Noah has lost a lot of the newsroom.” On the other hand, “there are also people who view the limitations of NBC as above his paygrade.”
The move also raises questions about whether Oppenheim will remain in his role at the helm of NBC News for the long term. Network higher-ups highly rate Rashida Jones, who was recently promoted to head up MSNBC’s daytime lineup, and her name has been mentioned as a possible replacement.
The news comes as NBC News staffers brace for what two people with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast will be a “bloody” round of layoffs expected to come next month with the news division to be hit hard.
Key executives in charge of different departments were given targets last week on how much money they must cut from their budgets, the people familiar with the matter said.
In the months before the spread of coronavirus kept staff from physically coming to NBCU offices, Shell embarked on a listening tour of the various NBC networks. The company head has also attempted to offer support to the skeleton crew that continues to commute to the company’s offices in New York and New Jersey. Over the past week, Shell has visited the network’s newsrooms in those two locations thanking staff who have continued to come in during the pandemic.