The long-awaited publication of Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” has unleashed a furor within NBC News.
“Catch and Kill,” set for release Oct. 15, portrays NBC News and its leaders as compromised while Farrow pursued the story of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein — because of the division’s own history of misconduct claims and settlements.
The accusations against now-disgraced former “Today” anchor Matt Lauer were so potent that Weinstein sought to use them as leverage to pressure NBC News to kill Farrow’s investigation of him, according to “Catch and Kill.”
NBC News has vehemently denied many of Farrow’s assertions. The reporter parted ways with NBC News over the Weinstein story in mid-August 2017, when he relocated his reporting to The New Yorker, which published his first Weinstein exposé on Oct. 10, 2017.
On Oct. 14, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim issued a detailed memo offering the division’s rebuttal to central claims in Farrow’s book. “Farrow’s effort to defame NBC News is clearly motivated not by a pursuit of truth, but an axe to grind,” Oppenheim wrote. “It is built on a series of distortions, confused timelines and outright inaccuracies.”
The facts around the state of Farrow’s reporting and his interactions with Oppenheim and others are in dispute. But there is no doubting the damage that Farrow’s account has done to the credibility of Oppenheim and his boss, NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack. NBC News insiders are still questioning the wisdom of letting Farrow leave the network with months of reporting on a story that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize.
“How do you lead a [news] organization after something like this?” says a longtime NBC News staffer. Even if others at NBC News corroborate the company’s assertion that Farrow’s story was not ready for broadcast at the time he left, “it’s still devastating,” the source says.
For now, Lack and Oppenheim are not believed to be in danger of losing their jobs, according to multiple sources close to the situation. Management at NBCUniversal and Comcast are “not the types to react to something like this,” says one source. There has been internal speculation at NBC about Lack, 72, stepping down after the 2020 presidential election.
Oppenheim earned credit from some NBC insiders for being willing to address the controversy head-on with staffers last week, as advance reports on “Catch and Kill” were published by Variety and other outlets.
Oppenheim is a central figure in the book. “Catch and Kill” paints him as reluctant to stand up to the legal blowback that came with taking on Weinstein, and ultimately losing interest in the story. Farrow asserts that Oppenheim began throwing up roadblocks as the reporter closed in on sources that would accuse Weinstein of being a sexual predator.
Farrow recounts that in his last conversation with Oppenheim, after the story was published by The New Yorker, the exec blamed the obstruction on Lack. When Farrow asked where the blocks had come from, Oppenheim said, “My boss! OK? I have a boss. I don’t run NBC News exclusively,” then added, “You know, everyone was involved in this decision.”
Farrow also accuses NBC leadership of shading the truth in its internal communications about the incident that led to Lauer’s firing and what it knew about his alleged history of workplace-related sexual misconduct. “Catch and Kill” details for the first time the alleged incident that got Lauer fired — a brutal anal rape of NBC staffer Brooke Nevils. Lauer denied Nevils’ account in a statement that asserted his encounters with Nevils were consensual. NBC News maintains it wasn’t aware of complaints about Lauer’s behavior until Nevils came forward on Nov. 27, 2017. Farrow and others, including Variety, have questioned the credulity of this claim given the rumors that surrounded Lauer at “Today” for years.
“Catch and Kill” probes into the backgrounds of Lack and Oppenheim. The book details Lack’s history of work-related affairs in the 1980s and includes excerpts from columns Oppenheim wrote in the late 1990s for The Harvard Crimson. As an undergrad, Oppenheim defended NBC sportscaster Marv Albert after he was fired in 1997 for sexual misconduct and made assertions that seem ham-fisted when viewed through a 2019 lens. “Like most heterosexual men, the sight of a big-busted blonde tickles my fancy,” Oppenheim wrote to herald the opening of a Hooters restaurant.
In total, the book portrays Lack and Oppenheim as alpha-male executives who were ill-equipped to handle an explosive story about sexual assault. Farrow and his former producer at NBC News, Rich McHugh, say Oppenheim ordered what Farrow has called a “hard stop” multiple times to their reporting on Weinstein as the pressure mounted. NBC News maintains that its support of Farrow’s work ended on Aug. 17, 2017, after Farrow informed it he was taking the story to another outlet. That same day, NBC News asserts, two seasoned “Dateline” producers — Allison Orr and Liz Brown — were poring over Farrow’s work and drafting a “next steps” memo to help get the story ready for broadcast.
In anticipation of the release of “Catch and Kill,” NBC News assembled a vigorous defense of its actions, complete with a timeline of events, excerpts from text messages and emails, and explanations for assertions that Farrow cites as evidence of NBC’s failure to support his work.
The fight over questions of who did what, when, will probably persist for some time. But NBC News’ bigger challenge will be to recover from a self-inflicted wound that has yet to stop bleeding.
Kate Aurthur contributed to this report.
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