ABC News And NBC News Dealing With Turmoil In The Aftermath Of Unrelated Incidents

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 7, 2017 3:19 pm

Two major network news divisions are addressing problems at the organizations after unrelated incidents. ABC News President James Goldston denounced his own journalists on Monday for a botched story about the federal investigation of President Trump's inner circle. NBC News is facing skepticism from staff as the organization addresses the backlash over the Matt Lauer sexual harassment scandal.

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Let's catch up on how two major television networks are grappling with scandals in their news divisions. At ABC News, a star reporter botched a story about the federal investigation of President Trump's inner circle. And at NBC News, the backlash goes on over that network's handling of the Matt Lauer sexual harassment scandal. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been reporting on both those stories. And he joins us from our studios in New York. Hey, David.


KELLY: Start with ABC. This is this story from Brian Ross. He is ABC's chief investigative reporter. He broke big news on Friday, and then they had to walk it back. What happened?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you recall Friday morning was when we - news broke that the former national security adviser to President Trump Michael Flynn was accepting a plea deal, was about to be indicted. Here's what viewers of ABC News heard from Brian Ross.


BRIAN ROSS: He is prepared to testify that President Trump as a candidate - Donald Trump - ordered him, directed him to make contact with the Russians, which contradicts all that Donald Trump has said at this point.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, in fact, the indictment papers showed that Flynn was prepared to testify that it was as a president-elect, not as a candidate, that Donald Trump directed him to contact the Russians. That is very different legal implications. And there are very different justifications for Trump having him do that. It's a serious, serious error. You know, he cited a single source, a confidant of General Flynn, in doing that and later, as you said, had to walk that back - a clarification that evening - and done as a correction the next day.

KELLY: And he has been suspended. How is ABC News President James Goldston handling this? He came out and talked to staff yesterday morning. Is that right?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. Not only did he talk to them. He read them the Riot Act. He said this was a serious error. You know, Ross basically sat down and spoke to anchor George Stephanopoulos without having vetted that single source by editors. He didn't check with standards and practices - do the things that reporters are supposed to do in major news organizations to assure that even if they're relying on an anonymous source that they are getting it right and getting it fairly.

KELLY: That especially if they're relying on a single, anonymous source, they're getting it right and getting a fair.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. And Goldston said, let's get this right before we get it first. He said, you know, the network - this was a major failure. It offered the president an opportunity not only to hit the press generally for fake news but to hit ABC specifically, which he did over the weekend.

KELLY: OK. So that is a journalism scandal that they're dealing with at ABC. Meanwhile, over at NBC, they're dealing with this Matt Lauer fallout. And top network officials are holding meetings with staffers there. What are they saying?

FOLKENFLIK: They're promising a thorough review. They're promising to figure out if, as alleged in some press reports, that, in fact, some people did know of whispers at least of - that Matt Lauer had been harassing staffers at NBC, not simply engaging in extramarital affairs with people outside the network. You know, they - executives are telling people the process worked in that within 24 hours of receiving a formal complaint last Monday - that they fired Lauer.

And at the same time, they're acknowledging a failure of the culture - that it took the woman three years from the incident that occurred at the Winter Olympics in 2014 to report this and that it took a sea change in culture and society at large for her to feel comfortable doing so.

KELLY: Well, as you try to report this story, David, what are you hearing? How is that message being received in the newsroom?

FOLKENFLIK: I think there's a lot of skepticism. I think there's a lot of anguish over the fact that this activity was allowed to occur. There are now multiple complaints against Lauer, the network's largest star in its news division. And so I think it's going to take a while to rebuild trust.

KELLY: Worth noting - has not damaged "Today's" ratings. They are way up in the wake of the Matt Lauer scandal.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in the short term, an adrenaline jolt. I think it's a little bit like people turning their heads to look at a train derailment. I think the real question is what happens now. Are people able to rebuild? You know, the phrase was this was America's first family at "Today" show. That was a marketing slogan for a television show for a commercial network. I think what remains to be seen is whether they can rebuild the connection with their viewers - primarily female - as the show goes forward.

KELLY: And I want to mention NBC is one of several news organizations, including CBS, which we haven't even gotten to - that's a conversation for another day - and including NPR. Several newsrooms dealing with fallout from sexual harassment scandals right now. Thanks so much.


KELLY: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we say that Michael Flynn is prepared to testify that then-President-elect Donald Trump directed him to contact Russian officials. In fact, indictment papers state that it was a "very senior member" of Trump's transition team who did that in late December 2016.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.