NBCUniversal releases former staffers from confidentiality agreements about sexual harassment

The decision was first reported by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow minutes before an interview with Ronan Farrow on Friday night.

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By Daniel Arkin

Former NBC News employees who signed nondisclosure agreements with the network and believe they experienced sexual harassment are free to tell their stories, NBCUniversal said in a new statement Friday.

The statement was first reported by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow minutes before an interview with Ronan Farrow, the investigative journalist who chronicles his reporting on sexual misconduct allegations against former film mogul Harvey Weinstein in a new book, “Catch and Kill.”

“Any former NBC News employee who believes that they cannot disclose their experience with sexual harassment as a result of a confidentiality or non-disparagement provision in their separation agreement should contact NBCUniversal and we will release them from that perceived obligation,” a spokesperson for NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, said in a statement.

In his book, Farrow wrote that NBC reached nondisclosure agreements with at least seven women who alleged harassment or discrimination at the company, including former employees with complaints about former “Today” host Matt Lauer. NBC has denied that these agreements were intended to silence the women from speaking out about assault or harassment, saying that they were standard severance agreements with departing staff members.

In the interview with Maddow, Farrow said NBC executives “deserve praise” for the decision to release former staff members from confidentiality agreements, adding that he was aware of women who believed that they were effectively barred from speaking about misconduct claims.

“The fact that they are ending that and releasing these women is significant,” Farrow said, referring to company executives. “It should be a model for other companies.”

Maddow’s interview with Farrow was broadcast after weeks of charges and counter-charges between Farrow and senior executives at NBC News, whom he has accused of stymieing his reporting before he left the network in August 2017. He continued his reporting, which was eventually published by The New Yorker, where he won the Pulitzer Prize.

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NBC News has insisted that while he was at the network, Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein did not meet its journalistic standards as he had no alleged victim on the record, so they deemed it not ready for broadcast. Two weeks ago, NBC News President Noah 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."

In a new statement on Friday, NBC News said it “very much wanted to break this story, which is why we assigned it and supported it editorially and financially for seven months. We’re profoundly disappointed that we weren’t able to do so.”

Maddow said Farrow’s inability to publish his Weinstein reporting while at NBC News has produced widespread disappointment among staff members.

The “amount of consternation this has caused among the rank-and-file people who work here would be almost impossible for me to overstate,” she said.

She also said there was “consternation” inside the company over its decision to conduct an internal investigation rather than allow a third party to look into allegations against Lauer and related matters.

In his interview with Maddow, Farrow said he knew of women who felt “constrained” and “agonized” over their nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements with NBC News, adding that he expected the company’s new statement “would go a long way” toward encouraging other women to come forward with claims of misconduct.

The network has said that during an internal investigation it "uncovered no claims or settlements relating to allegations of inappropriate conduct by Matt Lauer that pre-date his firing" in November 2017.

NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said in a memo to the news department's staff earlier this month that the network's leaders and managers were not aware of Lauer's alleged misconduct until a former NBC News producer who says Lauer raped her, brought a formal complaint to human resources.

Lauer has vehemently denied the allegation. He says the relationship was consensual and the two met on multiple occasions to continue the affair.

In his book, Farrow wrote that over the course of 2018, "I was also beginning to learn of a pattern surrounding women with complaints."

"Several of the women who signed the nondisclosure agreements had complaints that were unrelated to Lauer, about other men in leadership positions within NBC News," Farrow wrote, though other agreements "called into question the network's claim that it had known nothing about women's allegations against Lauer.”

NBC News has denied any knowledge of Lauer's misconduct prior to his termination.

Farrow described four agreements with women, including at least one unnamed on-air personality, who said they were harassed by Lauer. At least two of the women reached agreements before he was fired, according to Farrow.

NBCUniversal said Friday that “NBC News has only two agreements with women relating to complaints of sexual harassment by Lauer — both entered into after his termination — and both women are free to tell their stories about Lauer.”

A spokesperson for the network has previously said: "Any suggestion that we knew prior to [Lauer's firing], paid any 'hush money,' or tried to cover up any aspect of Lauer's appalling behavior is absolutely false.”