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NBC Investigation Finds Employees Did Not Feel Comfortable Registering Complaints

May 9, 2018
Originally published on May 9, 2018 5:52 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NBCUniversal has released a report evaluating NBC News and its handling of the Matt Lauer sexual harassment scandal. The report says employees were reluctant to file formal complaints in part because Lauer frequently engaged in sexual banter and flirted with female colleagues. Yet the report also says there's no proof executives knew of his misconduct and that there's no broad acceptance of sexual harassment at the network.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been reporting on this. He's on the line from New York. And, David, we'd heard many times in news reports that Lauer's behavior was essentially common knowledge. So how were executives unaware?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, the report says that there was a lot of widespread discussion and gossip about Lauer's reported extramarital affairs. He was often linked to people in the New York tabloids, some of them quite famous, and, with perhaps one exception or two exceptions, that they were always people outside the NBC umbrella and therefore not considered workplace issues. They said there was no credible evidence to show that current news leadership - and they'd also interviewed some past executives - had any knowledge of the kind of sexual harassment that came to light last fall.

CORNISH: The network's critics noted this report was generated by the company itself - right? - NBCUniversal. How much credence should we give it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well - so NBC kind of chartered a middle course here. They assigned NBCUniversal - that's the parent division of NBC News. They appointed NBCUniversal's general counsel. Her name's Kim Harris. She's a former senior Justice Department official. She did this review, and then it was in turn looked at and deemed appropriately done by two outside law firms according to the network. NPR, you may recall, hired an outside law firm. CBS has just done the same in the wake of the Charlie Rose accusations. Fox News, which was replete with all these scandals, doesn't seem to have done anything much of the sort at all.

CORNISH: What else did you find striking about this report?

FOLKENFLIK: The report found that sexual harassment was not accepted. But it seemed to be fairly accepted that Matt Lauer would engage in flirtation and at some times quite explicit sexual banter with female colleagues and that in retrospect and perhaps even at the time, it was seen as him hitting on them. The report found that no one was punished for not responding positively to them and that, in the cases they found, that he didn't persist but nonetheless that this was something that because there were no consequences to this kind of conversation, that people didn't feel comfortable reporting.

They also said they thought HR was perceived as working hand-in-glove with news leadership and that one symbol of that was the fact that HR executives were located near news executives in glass-walled offices - that is, not offices conducive to private or confidential conversations.

CORNISH: So this report is essentially saying that there is not a cultural problem at NBC when it comes to abuse. And at the same time, they have a second major figure, retired NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who was just accused of sexual harassment by three former colleagues. So what's going on here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, these accusations came up very late in the review. They're very recently lodged, two of them on the record, all of them dating back decades, one of them 50 years. Brokaw vigorously denies it. The woman who's the former NBC correspondent making the most serious accusation has declined so far to cooperate with the - look at it by the network itself. So it's just left dangling there against the network's most legendary figure.

CORNISH: Does any of this pave the way for Matt Lauer's return in some manner?

FOLKENFLIK: Nope. There is no series of conditions I can envision from having talked to people up and down the hierarchy at NBC at which Matt Lauer would be welcome back at the network. Let us recall that Lauer was accused, among other things, of sexual acts with a more junior colleague that were so severe she was sent for immediate medical care afterward. He has denied some of these allegations, but the review found those accusations to be credible against him. I don't see it happening.

CORNISH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik speaking to us from New York. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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