Should NBC News be cut any slack for passing on the Harvey Weinstein story?

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A pretty big miss

NBC News is being pilloried for having a knockout story on Harvey Weinstein and letting employee Ronan Farrow take it about four and a half miles south to to The New Yorker.

Whether Farrow's mode of transport was Uber, a Yellow Cab or the subway, the road to ultimate public relations ignominy for NBC likely included vaguely defensible ambiguity.

"How Did NBC Miss Out on a Harvey Weinstein Exposé?" asks The New York Times. "Why did NBC News let the Weinstein blockbuster get away? Once again, questions mount," was The Washington Post's thrust.

Farrow is explicit about believing he had a story that was in good shape after months of obvious labor. NBC News boss Noah Oppenheim demurred and told staffers, “The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive to all of us. Suffice to say, the stunning story, the incredible story that we all read yesterday, was not the story that we were looking at when we made our judgment several months ago.”

To exhibit a firm grasp of the obvious: One of the finest publications on the planet took a look at whatever Oppenheim took a pass on and felt it was worth the effort. New Yorker chief David Remnick, a polymath with formidable news instincts and an even superior track record, decided there was an irresistible tale to be told. No doubt, there was the not inconsiderable challenge of turning a television piece into a print piece for a magazine whose strength is exactly the nuance and depth that can be incompatible with the structures of TV. But the magazine pulled it off.

There's a lot of righteous harrumphing but this point of personal privilege, having been both reporter and editor during such meetings as played out at NBC: outsiders, even in a newsroom, are generally clueless in trying to fully understand the truth in what's now a he-said (Farrow), she-said (Oppenheim) situation.

Reporters are routinely miffed at being told something needs more work. They are routinely frustrated at company lawyers who throw cold water on a thesis. A reporter's passion and huge investment in time can understandably prompt a sense of victimization. And then there's the possibility that editors just don't buy a thesis. It can reflect spinelessness, for sure, but also legitimate doubts.

I remember long ago, as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, convincing Esquire magazine to let me profile an unknown and insurgent coal miner turned union attorney running for presidency of the then-scandal-tainted United Mine Workers of America. After traveling with him, and discerning rank-and-file unease, I realized both that he was the unfair target of red-baiting by both the incumbent and the American labor establishment — and that he would pull a huge upset.

Esquire didn't ultimately believe my conclusion. It was defensible but I went away believing they were wayward. So I took the piece to The Washington Post, which ran it in its Sunday Outlook section. I was proven correct and the insurgent, Richard Trumka, won. He's now the longtime president of the AFL-CIO.

I also recall collaborating on a Chicago Tribune expose about a young man, who was no saint, and found dead in an alley. Our conclusion was that it was indefensible, cold-blooded murder by a cop. The piece was slated for the Sunday front page — until the last of several editors, namely the editor-in-chief, raised a question late on the Friday about one small matter. It involved the positioning of the body in the alley.

Everybody else had missed it. The two of us actually got on the floor of the editor's office to recreate the scene and only then realized we'd erred. Something didn't wash. We didn't have the goods. But at least that was a consensus (grudging on my part).

So what's the bottom line with NBC and Farrow's Weinstein epic? As a prominent media lawyer, who's been in tons of newsroom meetings over content, agrees, "At best, they failed to follow up on a big, important story. At worst, they were cowards. Most likely, they simply decided to see how the story would drop before taking on the big man."  

So it was a pyrrhic victory for Weinstein's legal team as NBC didn't proceed. Then the New Yorker did. So, given what we now know about Weinstein's hideous behavior, it's appropriate to stipulate that NBC didn't seize this saga by the throat.

As Woody Allen, Farrow's estranged father, put it in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), "In reality, we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn't go on living." That's NBC right now.

Stand by your man (in anonymity)

"When National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell is under attack," notes The Wall Street Journal, "as he so often is these days, @forargument is there to fight back." Especially in recent months, the Twitter account has gone after unflattering media accounts (and there are many reasons to be unflattering to Goodell), including taking swipes at Goodell criticism from Journal reporter Jason Gay.

Well, the paper figured out who was behind the Twitter account: Goodell's wife, Jane, a former broadcaster. Shortly after the paper sought comment from her and the league, "the account was made private. Later, it was taken down completely." The league spokesman said, "Sounds like what she did is what every spouse in America would want to do.”

Seriously? Some wouldn't be quite so spineless as to hide their identity. That's standing behind a wall, then your husband. But the husband's $30-million-a-year contract is up for renewal with the owners he so obediently serves. Perhaps she's nervous about the mortgage payments.

Amazon's harassment problem

"Amazon.com Inc. put Roy Price, the head of its film and TV unit, on a leave of absence after a producer told the Hollywood Reporter he sexually harassed her, days after a series of similar accusations led to the ouster of Harvey Weinstein as head of the production company he co-founded."

As the Reporter reveals (in rather large typeface): "'You will love my dick,' Price allegedly said to Isa Hackett, a producer on 'The Man in the High Castle,' who details a July 2015 incident at Comic-Con in San Diego."

Vox on the real Puerto Rican death toll

The federal and local governments have understated the impact of the hurricane, concludes Vox reporting by Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell:

"At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing."

Shameful

"Every year, the American Society of News Editors announces the results of its diversity survey," writes Maria Carrillo,  Assistant Managing Editor for Enterprise at the Tampa Bay Times. "And every year, I click anxiously on the link, hoping for some good news. And every year, I am disappointed."

"Every year, I see the inevitable quotes from top editors — about how we’re moving the needle (okay, yeah, slowly, a bit, here and there) and how committed they are to making progress (really?) and how important it is that we reflect our communities (without a doubt)."

Minority journalists comprise 16.6 percent of the workforce in U.S. newsrooms, says the new survey.  Get this: That’s “'only a half-percentage-point decrease from last year's figure,' the ASNE release said." Yes, the good news: everybody could be white!

There was a three-year period around 1990 when I covered media for the Chicago Tribune. Nothing's changed. 

A Consumers Union for news?

It's not a new idea and now surfaces in Foreign Policy, of all places, where Suzanne Nossel, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department, opines on the state of fake news everywhere and concludes:

"Ultimately, the power of fake news is in the minds of the beholders — namely, news consumers. We need a news consumers’ equivalent of the venerable Consumers Union that, starting in the 1930s, mobilized millions behind taking an informed approach to purchases, or the more recent drive to empower individuals to take charge of their health by reading labels, counting steps, and getting tested for risk factors."

She's with Pen America, which released "Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth," a report that says while fake news "may be  protected by the First Amendment, it is still corroding our discourse and, ultimately, our democracy," as put by journalist Alicia Shepard, primary reporter and author of the report.

Tom Boswell shares Nats' fans pain

The great Washington Post baseball writer Tom Boswell, who just turned a very young 70, was of necessity scribbling as most of America slept, given the early morning conclusion of a series-deciding Cubs win over the hometown (and historically vexed) Nationals.

"If you can win baseball fans in the process of suffering a brutally bitter season-ending loss, perhaps the Washington Nationals did it in their exhilarating, exhausting, 9-8 donnybrook against the World Series champion Chicago Cubs on Thursday night at a jam-packed Nationals Park that never knew what hit it."

"Time will tell whether so much pain, administered in a nearly five-hour battle full of so many pleasures, will be considered by those lucky and miserable enough to attend as a thing they wish to experience much more. Or never again."

A Weinstein take from the right

The Weekly Standard is unconvincing as to why the Weinstein story wouldn't have seen the light of day if Hillary Clinton were president. But there's this more defensible, if still not fully persuasive claim:

"That’s why the story about Harvey Weinstein finally broke now. It’s because the media industry that once protected him has collapsed. The magazines that used to publish the stories Miramax optioned can’t afford to pay for the kind of reporting and storytelling that translates into screenplays. They’re broke because Facebook and Google have swallowed all the digital advertising money that was supposed to save the press as print advertising continued to tank."

A Weinstein vis a vis Trump take

David Israel was a great Chicago Tribune sports columnist (actually a swashbuckling and engaging hero to a fair number of aspiring journalists) who left the business in his early 30s and headed to Hollywood, where he's had a long and successful career as a writer-producer. He knows Washington, having made an earlier mark at the long-defunct Washington Star. He knows Hollywood. Ditto New York, having grown up in northern New Jersey. He's a politics junkie, too, and had this to say me:

"This has nothing to do with show business, or Hollywood, and everything to do with a personality disorder. Weinstein is a sociopath."

"He is very much like Trump, another twisted, deviant Mama’s boy from Queens. The only reason other people exist in Weinstein's world is to provide service for him or to boost his ego. His religion is power and he uses it only for purposes of self-gratification. After reading the stories and watching interviews with the victims, I don’t believe a dollar of his political donations was genuine. They were dollars donated to create a persona of civic responsibility where there only resides wanton, craven disrepute."

"It is no accident that they have both spent more than 40 years trying and failing to buy their way out of Queens."

"It’s weird to say, but Weinstein’s revolting activity and what happened politically the last two years are irrefutable evidence that you can construct, own and operate a movie studio, you can be elected president of the United States, and you still can be the consummate creep."

Meanwhile, our finest practitioners of celebrity snooping, TMZ, last night offered us the images of Weinstein dining at at Uncle Sal's restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, in "what we're told will be his last supper before checking into a nearby rehab facility. The restaurant is in a strip mall 15 minutes from the Phoenician Resort, where he checked in Wednesday night after flying from L.A."

A potpurri amid the morning Babel

"Trump & Friends," CNN's "New Day" and "Morning Joe" all went heavy with Fox's  guy ditching billions in federal payments deemed critical to Obamacare (the president was tweeting on the topic even before the shows began, around 5:40 a.m.). "Trump & Friends" also gave what it deemed a journalism tutorial amid Chief of Staff John Kelly surfacing at the White House briefing room podium: "Kelly to Media: Develop Better Sources" was the chyron. There was even a clip of Oliver North exhibiting his inner J-school prof and lecturing the press last night (on Fox) on the use of anonymous sources. "Morning Joe" also heralded NBC's Kasie Hunt getting her own Sunday evening show, "Kasie DC."

As for the Obamacare health care move, STAT's Megan Thielking's own newsletter this morning offers this: "What happens really depends on the regulations that get written. That'll take some time. But there’s concern that encouraging the expansion of association health plans and short-term insurance could put the ACA markets on shaky ground by exempting more plans from the health law’s requirements. If younger, healthier people leave the ACA markets for cheaper, skimpier plans, it could result in higher premiums and fewer options in the markets.

Question of the week

"Why Are Tuesdays Big Opioid Overdose Days on Cape Cod?"

The conservative NewBostonPost reports, "Figures provided by the Barnstable Police Department, the largest police force on the Cape, reveal a massive spike in opioid overdoses this past August compared with August 2016 (41 overdoses this year as opposed to 8 overdoses last year). Through the end of September, opioid-related overdoses in Barnstable, which at about 45,000 people is the largest town on the Cape, stood at 148. During the same period last year that number was 82. Overdoses for the combined two months of August and September (61) were the highest for back-to-back months since January and February 2015 (51), when the Barnstable police first began keeping opioid-specific records. That’s when things seemed really bad. In many ways, now they’re worse."

The ignominy of U.S. soccer

I'm still pissed at the United States men's team losing to a horrible Trinidad and Tobago team and thus not making the 32-nation World Cup in Russia next year. The team is worse than 10 or 15 years ago. And, somewhere in the mix, is lack of media interest in the sport and the lack of public pressure to perform well that one sees in most other countries.

So I tracked down Franklin Foer, former editor of The New Republic and now a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He's author of the very good ''How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization."

"There will be pressure to reform — but it's going to come from corporate sponsors that have invested billions in the fate of U.S. Men's Soccer. They have the most to lose from the decline of our men's soccer program. But that pressure will be applied quietly and perhaps not with the force required. Unfortunately, (soccer federation chief) Sunil Gulati has skated by for many years — a total mediocrity, who acceded to FIFA corruption and who has treated our women's team terribly. He's morally questionable and ineffectual. I'm not sure why the press has given him such a free pass over time. "

"Part of the problem is that we've invested so much hope in MLS (the primary professional league in the U.S.), which is not a first-rate product. When we spend so much time celebrating a lesser-quality league, it's hard to complain when the national team performs with lesser quality. Our standards are not high enough." 

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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