Linda Vester had a reputation for covering tough stories. As a war correspondent for NBC News in the ’90s, she spent three tours of duty in the Middle East and took two assignments in Africa.
But as it turned out, her biggest battle at work wasn’t in the field. She says it was as a victim of sexual harassment by Tom Brokaw, the legendary newsman who manned the anchor desk for “NBC Nightly News” for 22 years and hosted “Today” and “Meet the Press.”
In a series of interviews with Variety conducted over several months, Vester alleged that Brokaw physically tried to force her to kiss him on two separate occasions, groped her in a NBC conference room and showed up at her hotel room uninvited. Two friends who Vester told at the time corroborated her story with Variety, and she shared her journal entries from the time period. Brokaw, who has been married to Meredith Auld since 1962, has never before been publicly accused of sexual harassment.
In a statement from him supplied by a NBC News spokesman, Brokaw said of the allegations, “I met with Linda Vester on two occasions, both at her request, 23 years ago because she wanted advice with respect to her career at NBC. The meetings were brief, cordial and appropriate, and despite Linda’s allegations, I made no romantic overtures towards her at that time or any other.”
Vester, who was 28 at the time of the alleged incident, says she didn’t report Brokaw’s conduct to the police or NBC human resources because she was scared it would end her career. She left NBC in 1999 and went on to anchor her own show on Fox News through 2006.
She’s speaking out now, because she believes her story sheds light on the culture at NBC News, where she believes male bosses treated their female colleagues as objects. After “Today” co-host Matt Lauer was fired for inappropriate conduct involving an NBC employee last November, NBC launched an internal review of its practices but didn’t bring in an outside firm to investigate — a step Vester believes is necessary to fix NBC’s culture.
“What Linda is doing, like others before her have done, is to give her truthful account in the hope that other women will not have to endure what she did,” says Ari Wilkenfeld, her attorney, who also represented one of the victims of Lauer’s sexual harassment. “Linda is literally seeking nothing for herself. She comes forward at her own expense and at her own peril. By her being willing to go on the record, perhaps this will embolden other brave women to tell their stories.”
Here’s Vester’s story in her own words and in the video above. (Note: the testimony below has been edited and condensed from several lengthy conversations with Vester, but does not include the video testimony posted here.)
Linda Vester: In September 1989, I was hired at NBC News to be groomed as a foreign correspondent. I had just finished a Fulbright in the Middle East, and I had been doing freelance work for CBS in Gaza. When I was interviewing at NBC, the network offered me a job where I could work my way up through the ranks. They started me as a researcher, then a field producer, then I was sent to the NBC Tampa affiliate to get more on-air experience. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and NBC said, “We need her to report from the Gulf.” I was there for the duration of the Gulf War.
After I returned to the United States, I continued working jointly for NBC and its affiliates, until I was made a full-time correspondent for “Weekend Today” in 1993. At this point, at 28, I’m one the youngest correspondents at the network. In August, I was assigned to cover Pope John Paul’s trip to Denver.
We were in the Denver bureau, and there was a conference room. I’m standing there, and Tom Brokaw enters through the door and grabs me from behind and proceeds to tickle me up and down my waist. I jumped a foot and I looked at a guy who was the senior editor of “Nightly,” and his jaw was hanging open. Nobody acted like anything wrong was happening, but I was humiliated. I didn’t know Brokaw other than to say hello in the hall. He was the most powerful man at the network, and I was the most junior person, reporting for an entirely different show. It was really out of the blue.
There was a culture at NBC News, in my experience, where women who raise questions about misconduct get labeled as troublemakers. It can torpedo your career. I already knew that, so I didn’t want to make any trouble. I had just been hired full-time, and I wanted to be able to do my job. I did my best to collect myself and get on with my work.
In terms of the next time I saw Brokaw, I can’t remember. But I know when he assaulted me, which was the first week of January in 1994. I was in New York on assignment for “Weekend Today.” I was preparing to go back to Washington D.C., where I lived. And I was sitting at a borrowed desk, when I received a computer message from Tom Brokaw asking me what I was doing that night.
I barely knew him and I didn’t work for his broadcast. But when the most powerful man at the network sends you a computer message, you answer him. So I replied that I had checked out of my hotel and I was going to catch the last shuttle back to D.C. before the snowstorm.
He wrote that it wasn’t a good idea. He asked me about staying in New York to have drinks. And then he wrote a second message that said, “Nah, too risky.”
At this point, my antennae went up. I was trying to use humor to signal that I was not interested in whatever he was suggesting, so I wrote, “I only drink milk and cookies.” It was the only thing I could think of at the moment, hoping it would jolt him into realizing that this was inappropriate and I was [nearly] 30 years younger than him.
Then I wrote a line that tried more pointedly to make him aware that what he was doing was questionable. This is in my journal. I said: “There is nothing I would like more than a great chat with someone I admire, but if appearances are a concern, that’s valid.” I was trying to say if you’re concerned this looks wrong, it’s because it is wrong. I immediately logged out of the system, because that shows you’re not longer available for discussion.
I got really scared, so I called my best friend, who was a producer in the Washington bureau, and I read her all the messages out loud. She said, “He’s hitting on you and you’ve got to get out of the situation.” I was quite shaken, as I made my way to dinner. I took a cab to the airport to catch the shuttle to D.C., but when I got to LaGuardia, I had missed my flight. So I took a cab back to the Essex House, checked back in, put the phone onto my lap and started returning calls. Every correspondent’s travel was kept in a central file that anyone can access, so anybody could tell where I was.
I received three calls that night. One was from a friend. Another was from a source. And the third was from Tom Brokaw. He said he was coming over to order milk and cookies.
I felt powerless to say no. He could ruin my career. I don’t recall saying, “Ok.” I just remember being frozen. I went cold inside and started shaking. And I felt trapped because he was undeterred by anything I had said before. It wasn’t a request. He was insistent.
I called my friend again, and I was scared out of my mind. She said, “Ok, I’m going to stay on the phone with you, and let’s hope he changes his mind and doesn’t show up.” About 30 minutes later, there was a knock at the door. She and I both realize that it’s Tom. I started shaking.
I open the door. I ask in an intentionally skeptical way, trying to slow this down, “What are you doing here?”
He answered that he was attending his stage manager’s retirement party and was in the neighborhood. He walked past me and sat down on the sofa in my suite. He puts his arm on the back of the sofa and he said, “I like our rat-a-tat-tat.” I thought it was a bizarre statement.
I said nothing to him. He was sitting, and I was standing across the coffee table from him approximately four feet away. Now I could feel myself trembling. As I stood there, I asked in a frustrated and scared tone, “What do you want from me?”
And he gave me a look of annoyance like he couldn’t believe I didn’t get it. He said, “An affair of more than passing affection.”
I struggled for what to say, trying not to offend a man that could end my career. So I protested, and I said, “But you’re married and I’m Catholic.”
And then he shot me another annoyed look and said in a condescending tone, “Don’t tell me you’re like Russert.” That was a reference to Tim Russert, who was famously Catholic.
I insisted, “I am.”
Tom patted the sofa, where he intended for me to sit. I sat down, and I was so afraid, I jammed myself up against the back of the sofa and I grabbed a throw pillow, because I was trying to signal to him with my body language that I was both frightened and unwilling. Just to be sure I was getting the message across, I brought up a case of sexual harassment that had happened in the Washington D.C. bureau. “That caused a lot of pain,” I said.
That’s when he leaned over, and pressed a finger to my lips. He said, “This is our compact.”
He grabbed me behind my neck and tried to force me to kiss him. I was shocked to feel the amount of force and his full strength on me. I could smell alcohol on his breath, but he was totally sober. He spoke clearly. He was in control of his faculties.
I broke away and stood up and said, “Tom, I do not want to do this with you. If I did, I would leave for London with a loss of innocence and I don’t want to go down that road.” I had just been promoted to foreign correspondent in the London bureau.
He sat there for what felt like minutes and he finally said, “I guess I should go.” I said, “Yeah.” And he got up and tried to kiss me again on the way out as he left.
I stood at the door shaking for a long time, and I called my friend and told her I was safe. I told her exactly what had happened — every word — and she stayed on the phone with me for a while. And then, eventually, I wrote down everything that had happened in my journal and fell asleep.
The next day, I got on a plane back to D.C. and Brokaw repeatedly sent me computer messages that I refused to answer. He finally sent me a message late in the afternoon that said something like, “I want to lower the temperature on this. Call me.” He put down his extension number. I felt like I had to call him, not because I wanted to, but because he was so powerful. I don’t remember verbatim what he said. But I do remember he was engaging in verbal gymnastics to try to revise what had happened the night before in such a way as to make it sound like it started out as consensual. I did not assent to this revision of events. I was disgusted.
Shortly after, I moved to London. In May 1995, it was the 50th anniversary of VE Day, and all the correspondents were working on reports for different coverage. Tom had come over to anchor “Nightly News” from London.
I’m out of the office, doing a story. When I get back, I found that Tom had left a small square post-it note on my desk that said, “Milk and cookies?”
My heart sank. I thought, “Oh god. Not this again.” I hoped that if I was just out of the bureau, I could avoid him. But I had my laptop with me, and I got a computer message from him asking what everyone was doing that night. This was inappropriate because we’re not friendly and he’d already attacked me. I tried to be polite, again signaling that I wasn’t interested.
I wrote back something like, “I don’t know what everyone else is doing, but I’m going out with friends.”
“Where?” he wanted to know.
Regrettably, I answered his question honestly. I said the name of the restaurant. I figured he wouldn’t be brazen enough to show up to a restaurant where I’m with other people who aren’t even in television.
But he did, and then he invited himself to my flat. He didn’t ask. He said. At this point, I’m heartsick. I can’t believe this is happening again. I can’t believe someone who is supposedly a decent journalist is being so coercive and disgusting. I remember unlocking my door to my flat and turning on the lights and Tom walking past me. He sits down in my living room and asks for drinks. I got two glasses of tap water and set them down on the table.
He started bragging about himself and particularly bragging about how he was such close friends with Bob Redford. I’m baffled that the anchor of NBC Nightly News is boasting about his movie star friends.
He pats the sofa. As I sit, reluctantly again, I look down at his hands and I made a mental note of how swollen his knuckles were, a reminder of just how much older than me he was.
In the same exact way as in 1994, he reached behind my neck and tried to force my head toward him and force me to kiss him. I broke away again. I said, “You need to go.” And incredibly, he said, “Can you walk me to a taxi?” I thought, “You just tried to assault me, but you expect me to walk you to a taxi?”
Even though I know I was not in any way at fault in what happened to me with Brokaw, I still suffered years of humiliation and isolation. I really do hope that by me telling my story and by shining this light, Comcast will understand why it’s so essential to hire outside counsel to investigate this deeply rooted problem.