It’s Not Just Ronan Farrow: NBC News Killed My Rape-Allegation Story Too
Sil Lai Abrams writes about how her story detailing rape allegations against Russell Simmons and A.J. Calloway was killed by NBC News—mirroring Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein exposé.
In the days leading up to the publication of Catch and Kill, Ronan Farrow’s blockbuster account of his dealings with NBC News, I have been struck by the company’s insistence that Farrow didn’t have the Harvey Weinstein story in the bag. I don’t believe a word of what it says because in 2018, the network killed my #MeToo story that was being reported by MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid. Incredibly, a year after NBC botched Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein, it had the audacity to do it again.
In November 2017, I told Joy about my experience of being raped by Russell Simmons in 1994. I also shared that in 2006, former Extra co-host A.J. Calloway sexually assaulted me in his car and was subsequently arrested for his crime. When Joy and I first spoke, Russell had already been accused of rape by Keri Claussen Khalighi. In fact, she appeared as a guest on the now-defunct NBC show Megyn Kelly Today. However, I would be the first woman to allege being sexually assaulted by Calloway. When NBC chose to quash my story, it not only abdicated its obligation to report news; it provided cover for a man who would later be accused of serial rape and sexual assault when my story was eventually published by The Hollywood Reporter the following summer.
When I approached Joy, I had no idea that NBC had a reputation for not breaking news about men accused of sexual assault. Therefore, I had no reason to believe my story would be derailed by the network. After going through a thorough vetting process, an on-camera interview with Joy was taped on Jan. 7, 2018. While she’s a host on MSNBC, I was told that NBC was not taping it for the cable network but NBC itself, in order to get it a larger audience beyond Joy’s weekend show; also, it was to be paired with a lengthy print piece written by Joy for New York magazine. I was told the TV portion was scheduled to air on Jan. 13, 2018, but I received an email the day before from Joy asking me to reach out to her.
When we spoke a few hours later, she informed me that Russell Simmons’ attorney had gone ballistic and NBC was not going to air the segment, and the New York magazine story was also on hold since they were paired. She assured me the story wasn’t dead, but that NBC simply needed more vetting done in order to feel comfortable with moving forward.
I was disappointed, but still hopeful. As I would come to learn, my optimism was profoundly naive.
Over the next several months, NBC put me through an elaborate and bizarre vetting process. I provided legal documentation, hospital bills, and more than a dozen corroborating witnesses. Still, they stonewalled. I asked Joy repeatedly if NBC was going to do to her what it did to Ronan, and she said that she didn’t think so. We both agreed that it would reflect very poorly if word got out that the network had suppressed yet another story of alleged sexual assault.
To expedite the increasingly expansive vetting process, Joy’s piece was assigned to an investigative unit that was supposed to help her clear the hurdles that NBC kept throwing in front of her about my story. In mid-February, she emailed me an explanation about why it was taking NBC so long to pull the trigger:
“So basically the story got caught up in a couple of vices: the struggle to get comments from the principals (now mostly alleviated), threats from Russell’s lawyer that spooked NBC,” Joy told me via email. “So now NBC… is demanding that I do all of this additional reporting to meet a legal and standards review.”
Joy then said all that was left was for her to seek comment from people in Simmons’ camp who were aware of the assault, and corroboration of Calloway’s arrest.
I responded to her email by thanking her for the update. I added, “Still not clear why NBC is demanding more corroboration regarding A.J. [arrest]... his lawyer already confirmed the case, but I know this isn’t about you.”
Almost two weeks went by before Joy contacted me with an update.
“My team and I, my PA and senior producer helping me with the story met with the standards department rep today just to figure out what the heck’s going on,” she told me by phone. “I just have to get my company to have the guts to do the story,” she conceded. “I’ve never done a story that has this much evidence before. I have more evidence than the LA Times and The New York Times stories combined. So the whole thing is, if my company will trust the evidence that I’ve shown them, which is substantial, they will do the story.” (Reid declined to comment on this story.)
I then asked her if NBC was going to kill my story based upon the ongoing threats from Simmons’ and Calloway’s attorneys. “We have enough that we have satisfied the standards side, but this is now in the hands of lawyers who have to determine the likelihood of a lawsuit by two people now, and what is the likelihood that we will prevail.” She added, “This has now gone up past the attorneys I deal with to the head of NBCUniversal’s lawyers. I’ve never been through anything like this.”
Two more months of back and forth over email would occur before it became clear that NBC had no intention of airing my interview. The last time I spoke with Joy was on April 6, 2018, when she called to tell me that senior management had stopped responding to her inquiries about her piece on me. She said I should take the story elsewhere.
Just like that, NBC threw Joy and me under the bus. It killed her story and—at least temporarily—silenced me.
NBCUniversal declined to comment for this story. A New York magazine spokesperson said that they did not publish the written piece because Reid withdrew it.
Two weeks after my final call with Joy, I was referred to Kim Masters at The Hollywood Reporter. She and I communicated for the first time on April 26, 2018. Two months later, on June 28, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news of my allegations against Russell Simmons and A.J. Calloway, along with the cover-up of my story by NBC.
Masters provided the following statement: “Joy’s reporting was extremely thorough. While obviously I had to review everything, she laid out an excellent roadmap. Everything checked and we published. The story was ready to go.”
I am one of the many survivors that NBC silenced, and bore witness to how it treated one of their top talents for trying to break a story on sexual predators. Given what has been exposed thus far by Farrow and others, it’s clear that NBC thinks it can spin their way out of this—again. What it fails to recognize is that this is a much bigger issue than their cover-ups, payoffs, and excuses. The media is supposed to be a watchdog for abuses of power. Reporting on the behavior of alleged serial predators is more than news. It’s an act of social good.
Actions have consequences. Inaction does as well. In their response to the Hollywood Reporter piece, NBC claimed it didn’t have enough on one of my assailants to air my interview. Yet at the time my account was published, at least a dozen women had already accused Simmons of attempted sexual assault or rape. Despite what the network said, they had enough on Calloway and still held the story. Once my story became public, close to a dozen women reached out to tell me their own stories of alleged sexual victimization at the hands of Calloway. In the absence of publication, these women never would have known they weren’t the only ones he had assaulted. Each of these brave survivors would have gone to their graves thinking they were the only one he attacked, when in fact their assaults are part of a pattern of alleged sexual predation by Calloway that goes back decades.
Misogyny and protectionism of alleged serial rapists is not simply an NBC issue. I lobbied Calloway’s parent company, Warner Media, for close to a year before it took action. It took four other stories, including one by The Daily Beast, before it finally did an investigation into Calloway’s behavior.
After The Hollywood Reporter ran my story, Simmons sold all his U.S. properties and moved to Bali in Indonesia, a country without an extradition treaty with the U.S. Warner Media severed ties with Calloway, who is no longer employed by Extra. He is also currently under investigation for rape in two states.
The media is supposed to be a watchdog for abuses of power. Yet we keep learning how NBC uses its power to protect those in power. Initially, I thought that NBC failed to act on my story because I’m a black woman, and my assailants were black as well (it is well-documented that mainstream media outlets ignore accusations of sexual assault lobbed at black men unless their victims are mainly white, as in the case of Bill Cosby). I thought maybe it decided to pass on my story because Calloway’s show Extra aired on NBC affiliates and a negative story about someone whose program airs on their network could hurt NBC’s bottom line.
Recently, however, there has been a spate of stories about sexual misconduct in the upper echelons of the company: Noah Oppenheim’s misogynistic Harvard Crimson pieces, Andy Lack’s predation of underlings, MSNBC head Phil Griffin showing a photo of Maria Menounos’ genitalia in a staff meeting. The issue at NBC is larger than what I’d feared about its reporting policies on assaults committed against women of color. What we have seen over and over again with NBC is its use of its power to protect those in power. This entire sordid mess is solely about power and NBC’s choice to side with those in possession of it. NBC is a media conglomerate with tentacles that extend around the globe. It has the power to make or break careers and lives. It has shown that when it comes down to breaking news on the sexual abuse of women by men who also have power, it will protect assailants under the guise of “not meeting standards and practices.”
Oppenheim and Lack continue to make the rounds internally and externally claiming innocence and due diligence. The frat boy rape apologist. The serial sexual harasser. These are the people at NBC who are the arbiters of justice and injustice. Yet what is lost in this endless discussion about who knew what and when is a grave truth: NBC put women’s lives at risk. This is one of the darkest of NBC’s sins. By refusing to stand by their hard-working reporters’ work, it knowingly placed members of the public in harm’s way. By discrediting and minimizing the strength of allegations, NBC is complicit in maintaining structures of gender inequality and rape culture. The bottom line is this: It kept dangerous men from being held accountable.
Farrow’s PBS NewsHour interview last week sums up his former network’s failures succinctly: “The New Yorker looked at the same reporting as NBC had… and four weeks later it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. So people can decide if the reporting had valid journalistic grounds. I think it’s pretty clear.”