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NBC News president sharply rejects Ronan Farrow's claims that company covered up Lauer allegations

"We have no secrets and nothing to hide," Noah Oppenheim wrote in an email to the news department's staff.
Image: Noah Oppenheim speaks at a panel discussion at The Newseum in Washington in 2016.
Noah Oppenheim speaks at a panel discussion at The Newseum in Washington in 2016.Leigh Vogel / Getty Images file

NBC News President Noah Oppenheim on Monday sharply rejected claims by the journalist Ronan Farrow that the company had covered up sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Lauer, saying that Farrow was pushing a “conspiracy theory” wholly unsupported by the facts.

"We have no secrets and nothing to hide," Oppenheim wrote in an email to the news department's staff.

Oppenheim wrote that Farrow's reporting fell far short of proving that NBC News had tried to conceal anything.

"I feel absolutely terrible that these three employees were subjected to Matt Lauer’s horrific behavior, but the facts do not support Farrow’s allegation of a 'cover-up,' and he offers no further evidence," Oppenheim wrote.

Oppenheim denied the specific allegations that NBC had paid women to keep quiet about alleged harassment or discrimination at the company, saying in a statement that no paid severance or separation agreements were tied to the sexual abuse and misconduct allegations made against Lauer, a former anchor for “Today.”

The allegations against NBC News' leadership are detailed in Farrow’s upcoming book "Catch and Kill," in which he reveals the depths of his investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, as well as Weinstein's alleged efforts to prevent Farrow and other journalists from publishing their work.

Oppenheim called the allegations against NBC in the book a "smear," and said "the so-called evidence Farrow uses in his book to support the charge collapses under the slightest scrutiny." But he acknowledged some of the criticism directed at the network that Lauer's abuse went on for too long without being dealt with, expressing regret that some women did not feel comfortable talking to the company's management.

"We can all agree those misdeeds should have come to light sooner, and that we should have had a culture in which anyone who knew about his abuse would have felt comfortable telling management," he wrote. "And if anyone on any past management team knew, they should have taken action. But we cannot undo mistakes that may have been made by people who have long since left the company."

Farrow appeared on ABC’s “The View” Monday and responded to Oppenheim’s memo: “There is proof and a paper trail in this book.”

Farrow alleges in the book that NBC's own issues with workplace sexual misconduct led the company to avoid airing or publishing the Weinstein story, which Farrow would later publish in The New Yorker. Those issues center on allegations against Lauer, in particular that a former NBC News colleague told Farrow that Lauer had anally raped her. Lauer has denied this allegation, stating that they engaged in a consensual sexual relationship.

That colleague, Brooke Nevils, told NBC News officials of the incident in November 2017. NBC News fired Lauer within 24 hours of fielding the complaint.

Oppenheim and NBC News have denied that management knew of Lauer's misconduct before his firing.

"Without that, he has no basis on which to rest his second conspiracy theory — that his Harvey Weinstein reporting was squashed to protect Lauer," Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim also included a "fact sheet" that details a timeline of Farrow's reporting efforts while at NBC News, including the fact that Farrow asked NBC News in September 2017, while working on his article for The New Yorker, for a new freelance contract with the network, which it claims he pursued via his representatives through November.

In the book, Farrow said that at least seven women had reached nondisclosure agreements with NBC over harassment and discrimination, including former employees who brought complaints against Lauer.

Oppenheim wrote that the NBCUniversal legal team, led by Kim Harris, general counsel of NBCUniversal, reviewed the company's records and found only three instances of severance payments made to women who were mentioned or described in the book. None of the three employees had made complaints about Lauer, he said, and their departure agreements "were unrelated to Lauer and completely routine."

One woman who said she had told Ann Curry, the former NBC anchor, of an encounter in which Lauer exposed himself did not lodge a formal complaint, Oppenheim said, and her severance payment and separation agreement were "standard for departing employees at the time." He also said that the agreement did not prevent employees from reporting misconduct. The woman would later make a complaint to management about Lauer after his firing.

Lauer has denied exposing himself to anyone.

Farrow wrote that this woman begged Curry and another on-air personality not to report her name, "saying she knew Lauer would destroy her career,"

In the second instance, Oppenheim said that a woman who said she had received inappropriate messages from Lauer showed them to colleagues and not management, and that the company had no record of a complaint related to the matter. Oppenheim said her separation agreement was also "standard" and did not prevent her from reporting misconduct.

Farrow has reported that this woman did not report the messages to management because she "doubted the efficacy of the company's HR department and feared further harm to her career."

The third instance centers on a "senior member of the ‘Today’ show team" who Farrow said left the company in 2017 with a "seven-figure payout." Oppenheim said NBC News records indicated that there was only one person who matched that description and that the company found no claims related to Lauer or sexual harassment. He also said the "severance was commensurate with her salary."

Oppenheim added that the company's legal team has found that "nothing in Farrow's book undermines any of the conclusions of the May 2018 investigation conducted by NBCUniversal in the wake of Lauer's firing."

That report, which was based on a five-month internal investigation, found that senior leadership and the NBC News human resources department had received no complaints about Lauer prior to November 2017.

Oppenheim's email to the staff came three days after The Daily Beast published an article that resurfaced some newspaper columns he wrote while a student at Harvard University, including one that castigated NBC for firing a sportscaster accused of sexual assault.

"The trial was a sham and ... the network's action was an injustice," Oppenheim wrote in an October 1997 column about the company's dismissal of the sportscaster, Marv Albert, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault in a case that year. (Albert returned to the network a few years later.)

"All that we know for sure is that Marv liked his sex a little kinky," Oppenheim wrote.

In other columns for the Harvard Crimson resurfaced by The Daily Beast, Oppenheim derided feminist critiques of the university's male-only social clubs and celebrated the opening of a Hooters location near campus.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times published Monday, Oppenheim expressed remorse for the columns, telling the newspaper they did not reflect his present-day views.

"My reaction to seeing those excerpts is that I’m mortified by them,” Oppenheim said, according to the newspaper.

"I couldn’t be more sorry I wrote them. They are totally inappropriate. I wrote hundreds of columns for my college paper over 20 years ago, many of them meant to be satirical or intentionally provocative, and those idiotic, inappropriate excerpts in no way reflect what I actually believe in any way, and certainly don’t reflect the way I’ve conducted my actual life, professionally or personally."