Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is standing by Katie Couric in the face of mounting pressure on the company’s lead newsperson.
In a weekly company-wide meeting with Yahoo staff last Friday, Mayer expressed support for Couric, who at the time was beset by criticism over a documentary she produced independent from her role as Yahoo’s global news anchor, according to sources. That support has not wavered in the last day and a half, a company insider tells Variety, as controversy has surfaced over a second film.
On Wednesday, conservative website the Washington Free Beacon published an article that alleged that director Stephanie Soechtig’s 2014 documentary “Fed Up,” exec produced by Couric, had been edited to mislead viewers. Those claims echoed complaints raised last month by interview subjects from another Couric-Soechtig collaboration, “Under the Gun.”
“Yahoo was not involved in the creation and production of the independent documentaries, ‘Under the Gun’ and ‘Fed Up,'” a Yahoo spokesperson told Variety in a statement. “We’re confident in the work of the Yahoo News team, which adheres to the highest standards of journalism.”
Couric’s standing at Yahoo has been the subject of speculation as the company approaches a possible sale after struggling to better its fortunes under Mayer. Couric joined Yahoo in 2013 in a deal worth a reported $10 million a year — making her one of Mayer’s most high profile and most expensive hires. That deal afforded Couric the creative and professional freedom to work on non-Yahoo side projects such as “Under the Gun,” about mass shootings and gun-control efforts in the United States, and “Fed Up,” about the causes of obesity.
Though the films have been the subject of internal discussions at Yahoo, the company has launched no formal investigation into allegations that Couric violated journalistic norms.
Speaking to Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” Thursday morning, Dr. David Allison reiterated claims he made in the Free Beacon article that Couric, when interviewing him for “Fed Up,” had encouraged him repeatedly to stop at any time during the interview to collect his thoughts or rephrase an answer, and that one moment in which he did so was edited to make Allison appear unable to respond to Couric’s question.
“I wanted to carefully choose my words to convey what a randomized control trial was, and why it was valued,” Allison told Fox. “And I waited. I gave a very clear answer after that pause, and she denied the American public the chance to really hear the evidence and ideas, and showed only the pause.”
Allison, who has disclosed in the past financial ties to the American Beverage Association and Coca-Cola, is presented in the documentary as an expert countering the position that sugary beverages are linked more directly to obesity than other foods. The film shows Allison, after fielding a question from Couric about that link, asking to collect his thoughts, then taking a long pause. The movie then cuts to another interview subject and does not show Allison again.
After the Free Beacon article was published, the Weinstein Co., which picked up the movie at Sundance in 2014, had clips from the two scenes removed from YouTube through a copyright-violation claim.
Soechtig defended the film in a statement to Variety.
“‘Fed Up,’ which premiered at Sundance two and a half years ago, has had a profound impact on how Americans eat,” she said. “I have received countless testimonials from people whose lives, bodies and health have been transformed because of ‘Fed Up.’ Recently the FDA announced it would start labeling added sugar on nutrition labels — a solution specifically highlighted in this film.”
She added, “I am hopeful that any additional conversation around a problem that is crippling millions of Americans can only lead to positive change and that people will see this for what it is — special interest groups and their allies are worried about the substantive conversations these films have inspired about the issues. I stand behind ‘Under the Gun,’ and ‘Fed Up’ and all the decisions I made as the director.”
A spokesperson for Couric declined to comment, referring instead to the statements from Yahoo and Soechtig.
Couric apologized last week for an edit in “Under the Gun,” which premiered May 14 on Epix, that appeared to show a long, silent pause after Couric asked a group of gun rights advocates a challenging question about background checks. Audio released by the group revealed that there had been no such pause.
Speaking to Variety last week about the controversial edit in “Under the Gun,” Soechtig said, “I made the creative decision and I stand by it.” She characterized the edit as “pro forma” for documentary filmmaking and argued that the controversy had been engineered by the National Rifle Association and anti-gun control advocates.
“This is very textbook gun-lobby intimidation tactics, and I won’t be intimidated,” Soechtig said.