On Friday morning, the cast of NBC’s Today show found themselves in what must have felt like an unwanted moment of déjà vu. The previous night, my former Vanity Fair colleague Sarah Ellison published an investigation in The Washington Post that detailed sexual misconduct allegations against NBC legend Tom Brokaw, as well as new allegations involving the inappropriate sexual behavior that had toppled former Today co-host Matt Lauer last fall.
Today had already been through this. On November 29, hours after NBC News chairman Andy Lack had fired Lauer for sexual misconduct, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb—who has since replaced Lauer in the 7 A.M. anchor chair—took to the air to break the news to viewers in a highly emotional and unscripted moment of television. Guthrie and Kotb appeared visibly shaken, almost tearful. “We are devastated,” Guthrie said.
Five months later, as the hosts segued into the Brokaw and Lauer allegations during Friday’s show, passing the mic to NBC senior national correspondent Kate Snow, the vibe was much more steeled. Snow’s four-and-a-half-minute segment was pure hard news, and it didn’t pull any punches. “Another former NBC anchor, Ann Curry,” Snow reported, “is also speaking out, along with others, criticizing the NBC News division for what they say is an atmosphere that enabled sexual misconduct, and made it difficult to report.”
For NBC News, the Post exposé reignited a P.R. crisis that executives had hoped was already behind them. But it’s not as though NBC News brass didn’t see this coming. In media circles, gossips have been whispering about the Post investigation for weeks. Talk of the impending feature had likewise trickled down to 30 Rock’s rank-and-file. They knew it was going to be a “biggie,” as one insider told me, but “of the people I was talking to, nobody predicted it was Brokaw.”
In Ellison’s article, Brokaw was accused by former NBC News correspondent Linda Vester of unwanted advances on two occasions in the 1990s, “including a forcible attempt to kiss her.” Vester also went on the record describing the alleged incidents in a video interview published by Variety. In one of the incidents, she claims, Brokaw pressured his way into her hotel room late one night and kissed her against her wishes.
A call to a number that was provided to me as Brokaw’s cell phone went unanswered. But he gave the following statement to the Post: “I met with Linda Vester on two occasions, both at her request, 23 years ago, because she wanted advice with respect to her career at NBC. The meetings were brief, cordial and appropriate, and despite Linda’s allegations, I made no romantic overtures towards her, at that time or any other.”
After the story ran, Brokaw sent a lengthy denial to friends and colleagues in which he seeks to discredit Vester, three people familiar with the note told me. One person who has seen the note recalled it beginning, “I write this letter at 4 A.M., the dawn of my new existence as an accused sexual predator.” These sources said it reads “more like an op-ed,” as one put it, and that Brokaw rebuts Vester’s allegations detail by detail. Brokaw also questions Vester’s motivation, and says he tried to help her in her career, they told me, recalling Brokaw saying that when Roger Ailes was launching Fox News in 1996, he encouraged Vester to reach out to Ailes about a job (Vester did get a job at Fox News), and that he hasn’t spoken to her since. One of these sources told me that some people who have read the note came away believing Brokaw "100 percent." (“My client stands by the allegations, which speak for themselves,” said Vester’s attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld.)
As this story was going to press, The Hollywood Reporter published the full contents of the letter. (The note in fact begins, “It is 4 A.M. on the first day of my new life as an accused predator in the universe of American journalism. I was ambushed and then perp walked across the pages of The Washington Post and Variety as an avatar of male misogyny, taken to the guillotine and stripped of any honor and achievement I had earned in more than a half century of journalism and citizenship.”)
Brokaw, now 78, was one of several heavyweight journalists who became the faces of TV news in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an anchor on Today and NBC Nightly News, but since 2004 has faded further into the background as a special correspondent, as well as a contributor on sister network MSNBC. He was in the field as recently as April 4, covering the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr from Memphis, sources noted. But Brokaw is no longer a part of day-to-day coverage, which is perhaps why the scuttlebutt on Friday was hardly as feverish as it was when Lauer, the Today show’s main attraction for two decades, was defenestrated. Nonetheless, Brokaw is a beloved and well respected figure at NBC, a resident elder statesman struggling with cancer in recent years; many of his colleagues are feeling sad about the whole situation.
Some insiders also told me that the reactions break down along age lines, as has been the case with other alleged #MeToo transgressions. There are older employees who know Brokaw well and aren’t shocked by workplace behavior that was common in less progressive eras, even if they do not condone such behavior. “They have a context that is by no means forgiving or accepting of bad behavior,” one source said, “but they just have a different view than the woke generation.”
As for Lauer, the Post story also included on-the-record comments from Curry, who had an acrimonious falling out with Lauer involving her ouster from Today in 2013, in which she said she approached two members of NBC management after a female NBC female employee told her Lauer had sexually harassed her in a physical way. “A woman approached me and asked me tearfully if I could help her,” Curry told the Post. “She was afraid of losing her job. . . . I believed her.” Lauer responded in a statement to the Post, “I fully acknowledge that I acted inappropriately as a husband, father and principal at NBC. However I want to make it perfectly clear that any allegations or reports of coercive, aggressive or abusive actions on my part, at any time, are absolutely false.”
As of mid-Friday afternoon, NBC employees were still waiting for some sort of internal communication on the matter. (NBC’s P.R. reps likewise didn’t yet have any comment when I reached them.) “People are more interested,” said one of my sources, “in what the official reaction of the company will be.”