NBC News raises eyebrows for keeping Lauer investigation in-house

NBC News’ two top executives are resisting calls for an outside investigation into who knew about – and didn’t report -- sexual misconduct by Matt Lauer, opting instead for an internal review that would likely spare the bosses from meaningful scrutiny.

Andy Lack and Noah Oppenheim, who have deep ties to Lauer from their many years at NBC, have insisted they had no idea the disgraced “Today” co-host was behaving inappropriately. This has raised eyebrows within NBC, and numerous media outlets have reported that “everybody knew” about Lauer’s proclivities.

“A team of the most experienced NBCUniversal Legal and Human Resources leaders have begun a thorough and timely review of what happened,” Lack told NBC employees on Friday in an e-mail that was obtained by Variety

That won't cut it, according to attorney Gloria Allred.

“NBC should hire an outside law firm to investigate what knowledge the network had, or should have had, about Matt Lauer’s alleged sexual harassment of female employees at NBC," Allred told Fox News. "An outside law firm hired to do an independent investigation is more likely than HR to be impartial and not subject to internal pressures and potential conflicts of interest."

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 22:  Attorney Gloria Allred speaks at a news conference on August 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Allred and Bronwyn Ingram, the former fiancee of embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, were responding to reports that a tentative agreement had been reached involving a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the mayor. Allred and Ingram in the past have called for Filner's resignation.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Gloria Allred thinks NBC should hire an outside law firm to investigate what knowledge the network had, or should have had, about Matt Lauer’s alleged sexual harassment.  (2013 Getty Images)

The New York Post reported that on Friday, Oppenheim told staff from NBC’s prestigious “Nightly News” program, “I can tell you, on a personal level, that if there is anyone who works here, who still works here, who knew about this and didn’t report it, this is going to be dealt with in the most severe way possible. And that is why we are conducting this review."

Lack had announced on Friday that NBC will investigate internally, with “Legal and Human Resources leaders” leading the charge. He labeled it a “timely review of what happened,” but experts don’t think NBC Universal employees should be responsible for the inquiry.    

Boston University professor and corporate ethics guru Susan Samuelson co-authored “Business Law and the Legal Environment,” which details how people should behave when faced with an ethical dilemma. The book explains that “we cannot be objective about ourselves,” a rule Samuelson said applies directly to the situation surrounding NBC’s decision to use internal employees to investigate. 

“No matter how hard they try, people can’t be objective about the organization they work for,” Samuelson told Fox News. “That’s why people get outside investigators.”

Samuelson said that research has shown that using internal Human Resources will be a “huge trap” for NBC because that practice “prevents people from doing the right thing.”

“HR is first place people go, but clearly that process didn’t work at NBC,” she said. “You might argue that the step has failed. The second step would be to go outside, which they’re not doing.”

NBC staff are expressing great skepticism at Lack’s and Oppenheim’s review.

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Matt Lauer seen out for the first time since his firing from the Today show from multiple sexual harassment allegations.

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“The most charitable way you can look at the situation is that Andy encouraged an environment where Matt got everything he wanted,” said one NBC insider. “Matt was king.”

Other NBC staff confirmed that under Lack, who is described as a largely disengaged manager, Lauer held absolute sway at NBC. And Oppenheim repeatedly told colleagues he had no say over talent issues, according to multiple NBC insiders.

Oppenheim has also told colleagues in recent months he is bored in his job and thinking about returning to the west coast, where he’s worked as a screenwriter of films such as “Allegiant” and “Maze Runner.”

Lack and Oppenheim have both declined repeated requests for comment.

Northwestern University Professor of Communication Studies Irving Rein is considered an expert in crisis management. He told Fox News that NBC should “absolutely” use an independent investigator if it wants to maintain credibility as a legitimate news organization -- because a third party wouldn't be beholden to Lack and Oppenheim.

“Their history of looking into this matter was really ambiguous, ambivalent and confusing,” Rein said. “Given the ambiguity and the issues, I don’t think they really have much of a choice. If they try to do it internally, they’ve already demonstrated that they don’t have the ability to do so.” 

Lack and Oppenheim have faced two serious scandals in the last year which could both be linked to Lauer. The network has yet to give a clear explanation of why it sat on the explosive “Access Hollywood” tape of Donald Trump making lewd comments about women, which was leaked to the Washington Post in October, 2016, just weeks before the presidential election. And NBC has also not been transparent about why it spiked Ronan Farrow’s bombshell  expose on Harvey Weinstein. Farrow published his finding in The New Yorker, helping to spark a national debate on the treatment of women in the workplace.

Hosts Savannah Guthrie (L) and Matt Lauer appear during NBC's "Today" show Summer Concert Series in New York City, U.S., August 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - S1BETXRJLEAB

In recent days, observers have asked if NBC’s reticence to expose other big stars’ bad behavior was linked to a “glass houses” problem.

It’s curious why NBC has now botched the handling of three separate stories that all involve some sort of sexual harassment angle, said University of North Carolina journalism professor and media ethics expert Lois Boynton, adding that “there is a concern about a conflict of interest since the two execs are friends” with Lauer.

Typically, scandals of the magnitude NBC is facing lead to an independent investigation that answers to the corporate level of the parent company. This weekend, New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera announced that it would launch an investigation with an outside law firm into allegations against star conductor James Levine, who was recently accused of sexual misconduct. 

Similarly, banking giant Wells Fargo recently used an independent investigator and an outside law firm to look into its scandalized sales practices.

During “Rathergate” in 2004, CBS hired former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh to investigate. And back in 1998, CNN launched an independent investigation led by legendary media attorney Floyd Abrams when the network botched a report on the Vietnam War's Operation Tailwind. Abrams decline comment when asked if NBC should take a similar approach because of personal interests with the company.

21st Century Fox hired an outside law firm in 2016 to investigate allegations of sexual harassment within Fox News. The investigators reported up to 21st Century Fox, which is Fox News’ parent company.

Walter Scott, clinical professor of strategy at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, told Fox News that having NBC News staffers do the investigation is a “major issue” because they have a “vested interest” in the results.

“There is a problem in terms of having HR do the investigation. The reputation of the company is very essential,” Scott said before adding that NBC’s parent company, Comcast, should “want to stay on top of what is happening.”

Lack and Oppenheim have already come under fire for the way they handled the situation, initially claiming there was only one complaint about Lauer in 20 years before backtracking and clarifying that only “current” management was in the dark. Even the second statement has raised eyebrows and the Variety reporters who broke the Lauer bombshell, Elizabeth Wagmeister and Ramin Setoodeh, have questioned the claim that current NBC staffers were unaware of Lauer’s misconduct.  

University of Maryland broadcast journalism professor Mark Feldstein, who has worked at NBC, CNN and ABC, is working on a book exploring various media scandals and journalistic malpractice. He’s spent months studying a how news organizations have handled misconduct over the past generation.

“It varies widely. Some appoint outside independent blue-ribbon commissions to investigate and issue a public report, others investigate internally with or without a public report and some clam up entirely,” Feldstein told Fox News.

A big reason Lack and Oppenheim have come under particular scrutiny is the executives’ close ties to Lauer. Lack is widely known to be personal friends with Lauer. According to Vanity Fair, the two men have vacationed together. It was Lack who promoted Lauer to “Today” co-host in 1994 and the two men remained close friends when Lack left NBC for several years. Oppenheim has spent most of his career at NBC, including a multi-year tour of duty as a senior producer on “Today” when he worked closely with Lauer. Prior to his promotion to NBC News president, he was the executive overseeing “Today.”

The New York Post reported late Friday that “NBC News insiders say they believe NBC News boss Lack is trying to blame his second in command Oppenheim, along with previous execs at the news network. ‘It’s like they’re turning on each other, when it was Matt who destroyed a lot of people.’”

NBC News and Comcast did not respond to repeated requests for comment.


Brian Flood covers the media for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter at @briansflood.