Ronan Farrow and NBCUniversal Keep Moving in Circles

Analysis: Neither side is willing to budge, which may ultimately benefit the company, not the correspondent

Ronan Farrow book Catch and Kill
Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

And so, here we are again.

In October of 2017, Ronan Farrow made an appearance on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” at a shaky time in his relations with NBCUniversal. Farrow, who had worked as a mid-afternoon host at MSNBC and a contributor working off a contract at NBC’s “Today,” had just published a blockbuster story in The New Yorker alleging horrible cases of sexual harassment by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.  His work was started during his time at the Peacock, so, Maddow asked at the time, why didn’t it end up being shown there?

“You would have to ask NBC and NBC executives about the details,” Farrow replied.

Many people have. But two years later, not much has changed.

Farrow appeared on Maddow’s program again Friday night, his latest stop in a publicity parade celebrating the release of his new book, “Catch and Kill,” a tome that  not only dredges up allegations about NBCU slow-walking his investigation into Weinstein’s behavior, but surfaces new and hard-to-listen-to accusations about the conduct of former “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer. Lauer, who was dismissed from NBC in 2017 for “inappropriate sexual behavior,” is accused of raping a colleague, which he has vehemently denied.

On the program, Maddow suggested employees at NBCU are less than satisfied with their company’s handling of these matters, and hinted strongly at a desire to see the situation adjudicated by a third-party investigation, something NBCU has resisted up to this point. “It would be impossible for me to overstate the amount of consternation inside this building,” she said during the broadcast. She also said her own reporting had determined NBCU asked Farrow to “pause” his Weinstein investigation. Last week, Chris Hayes, another MSNBC primetime host, delivered stinging remarks about NBC News and the Farrow claims during his program.

In that two-year interim – well, what has happened? Farrow’s allegations continue to stir outrage. NBCU continues to back the executives who oversaw the news division during his time there. Media-watchers, meanwhile, are getting a full view of the iron wills of a dogged investigator and the CEO of the media company for which he once worked.

NBCUniversal and Ronan Farrow are now essentially dancing in circles. Farrow’s book has details about how he feels NBCU stymied his efforts. NBC News has listed all of its efforts to help move his work along, suggesting that Farrow’s eagerness to trump a parallel Weinstein investigation by The New York Times clouded his judgement. None of this takes away from the fact that Farrow’s work for The New Yorker, started at NBC News, shared in a Pulitzer Prize.

Critics want more. And NBCUniversal seems largely unwilling to budge.

Advocacy groups like Time’s Up and Ultraviolet have protested NBCU’s reactions over the past few weeks. Megyn Kelly has found a new spotlight by taking to Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News as well as her own Twitter feed to call for better disclosure by the Comcast-owned media conglomerate.

The Peacock continues to parry. The succession plan in place at NBC News has current unit president Noah Oppenheim taking over for NBC News Chairman Andy Lack as soon as after the 2020 presidential election. And the company has in statement after statement made over the past two weeks shown that it considers the matter largely closed. Yes, Oppenheim and Lack have the faith of NBCU CEO Steve Burke. No, there will not be another investigation of how the company handled Farrow’s Weinstein work or its dismissal of Lauer. Yes, Oppenheim signed a new deal some months in the past.

NBCUniversal has little financial reason to back down. The news division’s top products, after all, continue to sell. Lester Holt’s “NBC Nightly News,” Chuck Todd’s “Meet the Press,” “Dateline,” and “Today” all continue to lead viewers in the category NBCU management prizes most: people between 25 and 54, the demographic most desired by advertisers in news programming. MSNBC is thriving in ratings and ad sales, after slumping in the last years of the Obama presidency.

For Farrow’s reportage to ultimately prevail, the allegations would have to hit NBCU in the wallet – something so horrible that people actually stopped watching not just NBC News, but much more of NBCU-backed television. No “Voice.” No “This Is Us.” No Maddow. No “Sunday Night Football.” No Kardashians. And no broadcasts of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Simply put, that is unlikely to happen.  No doubt, some people will not stop until it does.

On Maddow’s program Friday night, the two sides seemed to find some sort of short-lived rapprochement. NBCU said it would release former NBC News staffers who believe they were sexually harassed from confidentiality and non-disparagement arrangements, potentially allowing people who were victims at the company to speak about the situations that caused them to leave. And Farrow praised the move, noting that “it is new, and NBCUniversal executives deserve praise for it,” while adding: “It is significant, and it should be a model for other companies.”

Whether or not that ends the Ronan Farrow-NBCUniversal two-step remains to be seen. By the time these two finish their dance, technology will have changed the TV industry so radically no one will remember what it was they were fighting about. That’s probably what NBCU wants.