People in and outside NBC are raising questions about the network’s assertion that it had never received complaints about fired “Today” show co-anchor Matt Lauer before Monday, pointing to shifting language in the network’s own statements about the fired star.
The initial Wednesday morning memo on Lauer’s firing, signed by NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, referred to a woman who had come forward to complain about Lauer on Monday night, saying that it was “the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News.”
NBC’s second statement, released later Wednesday, said, “We can say unequivocally that, prior to Monday night, current NBC News management was never made aware of any complaints about Matt Lauer’s conduct.”
Employees at NBC News especially noted the wording shift from “in 20 years” to “current NBC News management,” according to a network staffer. Lack’s current tenure at NBC News began in 2015, though he had previously headed the news division from 1993 to 2001. The tweak raised questions over whether NBC brass was suggesting that past executives may have heard of inappropriate behavior.
At least one, CNN president and former “Today” executive producer Jeff Zucker, addressed the issue on Thursday. At Business Insider’s Ignition conference, he denied any knowledge of bad behavior by Lauer.
“No one ever brought to me, or to my knowledge, there was never, there was never a complaint about Matt,” Zucker said. “There was never a suggestion of that kind of deviant, predatory behavior. Not even a whisper of it, nothing like that.”
The wording of Lack’s statement — specifically, his focus on it being the first complaint against Lauer — also drew criticism from sexual harassment experts, as many other women began coming forward with accusations against Lauer.
“ ‘Well, we’ve never received a complaint.’ OK, that’s not really the question,” said Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the McKinney School of Law at Indiana University and an expert on sexual harassment. “The question is, did you know Matt Lauer was a problem, whether or not someone complained?”
Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor who studies sexual harassment, said the statements also left ambiguous whether NBC was referring to official HR complaints, or simply an employee complaining to a manager.
A story by the trade publication Variety on Wednesday stated, “Several women told Variety they complained to executives at the network about Lauer’s behavior, which fell on deaf ears given the lucrative advertising surrounding ‘Today.’”
An NBC insider said that when the network became aware that reporters were probing Lauer’s behavior, senior leadership, HR officials and Lauer himself were called in for questioning, and all denied any knowledge of sexual harassment.
NBC declined, though, to offer further comment, or to clarify the change in language between its previous two statements.
Drobac credited NBC for acting swiftly and decisively on Lauer, but said that focusing on not having received complaints does not present the full picture, even if the statement is accurate.
“That may be true,” she said, “And I think it’s important for lawyers to counsel their clients to provide information that’s true, but the question is: Is this information also misleading? It may be irrelevant that there hasn’t been a complaint, if they knew that they had a harasser or a molester in their building.”
Tuerkheimer said that there are legal reasons to focus on not receiving complaints.
“If you want to talk about an employer’s liability, much does turn on the knowledge that was had about these kinds of incidents,” she said. “In terms of trying to think through what was going on at a workplace and draw some reasonable conclusions about what the environment may have been for the women there.”
Tuerkheimer, a former New York County prosecutor, also said that the shift in wording between NBC’s two statements caught her eye.
“When you have statements that are evolving, you want to ask, ‘Why the change?’” she said. “It does seem as if they’re [now] focusing on the current employees in a way the first statement doesn’t.”
As star media figures continue to lose their jobs amid sexual harassment allegations, a trend has emerged of news organizations prominently proclaiming that they received no complaints about the deposed star.
ABC News said the same about Mark Halperin, as did PBS, CBS and Bloomberg about Charlie Rose.
Drobac said, though, that those statements should be viewed critically.
“The fact that these companies are saying we never before had a complaint doesn’t mean they didn’t know,” she said. “It’s a flag that we need to be more discerning. It’s a flag that they are casting the discussion to their advantage and setting the parameters of the conversation around complaint.”
“Ironically,” she said, “that focuses back on the target women” by putting the onus on them to report to HR, instead of on employers to ensure that they have a safe workplace.
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