Freelance NBC News correspondent Ronan Farrow, whose months-long investigation into reports of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct was spiked by the network but morphed into a journalistic blockbuster at The New Yorker, initiated a scuffle with the Peacock Network on Tuesday night.
Appearing on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show—which, like NBC, is a property of NBC Universal and its parent company Comcast—Farrow disputed what sources said was NBC News President Noah Oppenheim’s judgment this past summer that Farrow’s reporting on the movie mogul and the women he allegedly harassed and assaulted wasn’t ready for prime-time.
Addressing a controversy that has been percolating for the past several days in the media ecosystem since The New York Times published its own Weinstein exposé—including questions about whether NBC executives caved to the well-connected Weinstein and his formidable lawyers, Charles Harder, Lisa Bloom, and David Boies—Maddow brought it to a boiling point by telling Farrow: “NBC says that the story wasn’t publishable, that it wasn’t ready to go at the time that you brought it to them.”
Farrow fired back: “I walked into the door at The New Yorker with an explosively reportable piece that should have been public earlier. And immediately, obviously, The New Yorker recognized that. And it is not accurate to say that it was not reportable. In fact, there were multiple determinations that it was reportable at NBC.”
Farrow’s blunt claim highlighted an uncomfortable debate among NBC News insiders, and beyond, concerning the quality and status of his investigative reporting and the reasons why a respected television network would kill a sensational scoop about a famous, influential, politically wired, and undeniably newsworthy figure like Harvey Weinstein.
Rumors about the iconic producer’s alleged misconduct with women have fueled journalistic curiosity for decades. But the 65-year-old Weinstein somehow managed to keep his alleged misdeeds from public exposure—until now.
He was supremely hooked up in the worlds of media, entertainment, and politics. (Former first daughter Malia Obama recently interned at the Weinstein Co.) He had enjoyed a long business relationship with NBC Universal, and Universal Pictures produced both his seven-Oscar Shakespeare in Love in 1998 and 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, for instance, while he had co-produced the hit reality-TV show Project Runway for the NBC-owned Bravo channel.
When it came to shaping his public image, Weinstein was at once meticulous and relentless—forever calling in chits and wielding leverage like a weapon. He alternately flattered and bullied reporters (including this one), while occasionally attempting to entice journalists and gossip columnists with offers of book and movie deals.
More than a decade ago, when this reporter was doing a gossip column at the New York Daily News and politely declined Weinstein’s request to kill an item about his recent divorce, he wheedled that he was my most loyal fan and had advised the paper’s owner to give me a raise; when that didn’t work, he angrily threatened to ban me from his screenings and premieres, and finally erupted: “I’m the scariest motherfucker you’ll ever have as an enemy in this town!”
NBC declined to respond officially to Tapper or to Farrow, a former MSNBC anchor and NBC correspondent whose four-year contract with the network recently expired.
But an NBC source promptly contradicted Farrow’s late-night claim, telling The Daily Beast in a statement: “Ronan has had a non-exclusive relationship with NBC News for the last year. He brought NBC News early reporting [on Weinstein] that didn’t meet the standard to go forward with a story; it was nowhere close to what ultimately ran in The New York Times or The New Yorker—for example, at that time he didn’t have one accuser willing to go on the record or identify themselves.”
The NBC source continued: “He asked if he could bring it to a print outlet (presumably sources might be more willing to cooperate vs. going on camera), NBC agreed, with the understanding that if he got the story published he would come back and talk about it. The story he published is radically different than what he brought to NBC News.”
Months ago, however, the 29-year-old Farrow, a lawyer and member of the New York Bar, did indeed secure for his investigation an incriminating audio recording made by the New York Police Department in March 2015 and which now accompanies Farrow’s article on The New Yorker’s website. It’s essentially a sting tape for which the Special Victims Unit had wired 22-year-old Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who’d formally complained to the cops that he’d groped her breast and tried to put his hand up her skirt the previous day, and sent her to meet the movie mogul at the Tribeca Grand Hotel.
After initially refusing Weinstein’s invitation to join him in his hotel room—and resisting his entreaties to come in, sit down, and have a drink while he took a shower—Gutierrez had a fraught back-and-forth with Weinstein on tape as she asked him why he’d groped her breasts.
“Oh, please, I’m sorry, just come on in,” Weinstein answered, in The New Yorker’s account. “I’m used to that. Come on. Please.”
“You’re used to that?” Gutierrez asked, disbelieving.
“Yes,” Weinstein said. In an apparent admission, he added, “I won’t do it again.”
The cops were thwarted in their attempt to question Weinstein when he demanded his lawyer, and in the end, no charges were filed.
Ironically, despite the fact that NBC News had access to the recording for several months and certainly could have used it as part of Farrow’s report, both NBC and MSNBC were at pains on Tuesday to credit The New Yorker in their repeated replays of the bombshell tape.
And despite his public row with the powers that be, Farrow was booked on the Today show Wednesday along with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, to discuss his 8,000-word New Yorker article, which landed with a bang on the magazine’s website Tuesday morning, and immediately dominated television coverage.
Farrow also was booked for appearances on ABC’s World News Tonight, Nightline, and Good Morning America, the CBS Evening News, the PBS NewsHour, CNN, and NPR.
Sources inside and outside NBC, meanwhile, challenged the network’s assertion that Farrow had obtained no usable on-the-record, on-camera interviews with Weinstein’s alleged victims. By several accounts, at least eight women claiming to have been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted by Weinstein had agreed to go on camera—most of them anonymously in shadow, but two alleged victims with their names and faces. A third alleged victim was willing to allow her name to be used, but not her on-camera image, according to sources, and at least two of the women who spoke to NBC News ultimately ended up in The New Yorker piece.
Those claims, however, were heatedly contradicted by other network insiders, who said Farrow had not arranged a sufficient number of usable on-camera interviews with Weinstein’s alleged victims, especially on-the-record interviews, to produce a story that could legitimately be broadcast by a major television network. Meanwhile, it was decided that the sting tape, absent context, could not be the basis for a stand-alone story.
Sources said Rose McGowan, a well-known actress who went before NBC’s cameras in January to describe how Weinstein allegedly forced sex on her years ago, was compelled to withdraw her participation because it could have a provoked a lawsuit and threatened a non-disclosure agreement and financial settlement she’d made with the powerful and litigious co-chairman of the Weinstein Company.
Without identifying McGowan by name, Farrow’s article reported: “One actress who initially spoke to me on the record later asked that her allegation be removed. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she wrote. ‘The legal angle is coming at me and I have no recourse.’”
According to a television-industry insider familiar with Farrow’s NBC News project, however, “Farrow and his producer had been working this for 10 months. They had eight interviews on camera, with a mix of silhouette and not-silhouette—so eight women speaking. They had an NYPD audio tape, and they had enough for a story. And NBC did everything they could to delay it, complicate it, and ultimately Noah [Oppenheim] killed it. NBC shut it down.”
This person continued: “It is what it is, and everybody can see it. It’s crazy. There’s no reason, journalistically, for the story to have been killed. Obviously, there was some other reason—and I don’t know what that is.”
By the time Farrow pitched New Yorker Editor in Chief David Remnick in August, according to multiple sources, he and NBC News investigative unit producer Rich McHugh, among others, had been pursuing Weinstein’s alleged serial groping—and worse—of young actresses and female staffers since the previous December.
Over the course of several months, scripts were prepared and vetted, and Farrow’s and McHugh’s reporting was subjected to various layers of both fact-checking and legal reviews, insiders said, and at one point a senior producer on NBC News’ Friday night show Dateline carefully re-interviewed many of their sources and witnesses, and concluded they were solid.
The vetting process lasted weeks and weeks, through much of the summer, but ended shortly after Kimberley D. Harris, executive vice president and general counsel of NBC Universal, subjected the material to her own review. Since Harris oversees the in-house lawyering of all the company divisions, an NBC source said it would not be unusual for her to review news division material for potential exposure to litigation. And although Harris reports to NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke, a source insisted Burke wasn’t involved in the decision to spike the Weinstein story.
Indeed, according to this account, Harris never formally weighed in, because NBC News had already pulled the plug by the time she finished examining Farrow’s work.
With two such wildly contradictory versions of why and how NBC News spiked Farrow’s Weinstein story, it’s difficult to determine what objectively occurred.
But author and New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, who has been covering Weinstein for decades and is among the legions of journalists who’ve tried and failed to document his casting-couch behavior, also sat for an NBC interview; at one point, according to witnesses, he turned to the camera and declared: “This evidence is so overwhelming that if NBC News sits on it, that will be a scandal.”