NBC’s aggressive response to Ronan Farrow’s new book demonstrates that the company’s talent for producing great fictional TV may be spilling over into its management practices. It also reveals why victims stay silent in the face of misconduct.
Farrow’s New Allegations
In his book, Catch and Kill, Farrow alleged that while working at NBC, his investigation into Harvey Weinstein was derailed by senior management after Weinstein threatened that he would divulge Lauer’s misconduct if Farrow’s work was not stopped. Farrow left NBC for the New Yorker, where he published his explosive allegations and, along with reporters at the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for detailing the decades-long abuses committed by Weinstein.
Farrow’s book details new allegations against the network’s handling of Matt Lauer. Farrow reports that Lauer’s behavior was known to NBC executives and resulted in secret settlements long before the 2017 allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault became public and resulted in the Today Show host’s termination.
In a detailed memo to staff, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim derided Farrow’s book as a smear. Oppenheim claims that NBC’s own investigation identified “only three” pre-2017 departures involving settlements that were unrelated to Lauer and employees who had never complained to management about him. Oppenheim stated that the women signed “standard” separation agreements with “routine” confidentiality provisions designed to prevent the disclosure of proprietary information, not allegations of misconduct. Generally, however, sophisticated lawyers and business executives only refer to an agreement as “standard” and “routine” when they want to deflect attention away from troublesome provisions that the other side won’t like.
Farrow also reported that a woman assaulted by Lauer had confided in on-air talent Ann Curry, who subsequently warned two executives about Lauer. Oppenheim seemed to think it significant that Curry did not file a complaint nor specify details. But Curry was asked not to disclose the terrified victim’s specific experience, so she reportedly did what bystanders do in such circumstances. She provided enough information to senior personnel in the hope that a further investigation would follow.
The Investigation Illusion
Oppenheim’s communication to NBC employees relies on an internal review conducted after Lauer’s termination that supports the company’s ignorance of Lauer’s behaviors. It is not surprising, however, that an investigation by NBC personnel would exonerate the company and its leadership. In cultures where employees at all levels fear retaliation, silence reigns, particularly during an internal investigation.
Fear and secrecy do not disappear because management finally asked questions. In fact, confirmation bias thrives in an atmosphere where leaders investigate themselves and then rely on information that confirms their own view.
Inhabiting a Parallel Universe
Oppenheim further argued that it would be “illogical and absurd” for the network to treat Farrow’s story about Weinstein different from its aggressive reporting of other major sexual assault scandals over the years. But it is not illogical that some at NBC would react to protect the reputation of its top Today Show talent who was reportedly paid more than $20 million per year.
The company’s vociferous denials reveal the parallel universe which managers can inhabit, allowing them to hide behind the illusion that their organizations are run fairly and misconduct is not tolerated, no matter who the accused may be. These denials can also allow a culture of unchecked behaviors to thrive.
Since Lauer’s firing, Oppenheim touts that NBC has implemented training, increased reporting systems, and promoted more women into leadership roles. These measures, however, will not transform a culture where denial dominates. NBC’s response to Farrow’s book seems to reveal more concern about defending itself and senior management than in protecting its employees.
The network’s controversial management of its problems has not stemmed the ongoing criticism. More recently, the company offered to release any woman bound by its nondisclosure agreement who wanted to speak publicly about sexual harassment experiences at NBC. According to the statement, however, the women must first contact the company about the release, a step that may continue the silence of those who do not want to interact with NBC or who fear being subject to their questioning.
Only the highest echelons of NBC can bring about a true cultural shift. Until its key leaders engage in honest self-reflection and cease their resistance to an external investigation, victims and bystanders will continue to feel silenced.
As president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, Lauren Stiller Rikleen provides speaking, training, and consulting services on such workplace culture issues as diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias, strengthening multi-generational teams, and women’s advancement. Her newest book is, The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace. She is also the author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams.