How NBC Finished Second on the Trump Video Story

2016-10-10 00:32:12

 

How NBC Finished Second on the Trump Video Story

Days after a blockbuster video emerged capturing Donald J. Trump, then a reality television host, making vulgar remarks about aggressively kissing and groping women, a question was still reverberating around media and political circles:

Why was NBC not the first to report its own story?

The footage of Mr. Trump came from a 2005 segment for “Access Hollywood,” the syndicated entertainment program owned by NBCUniversal. The video was discovered last Monday by an “Access Hollywood” producer, and Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News, learned of the tape’s existence the next day, according to two people briefed on internal network discussions.

Yet on Friday afternoon, it was The Washington Post that posted the video to its website, rocking the political world and earning the envy of journalists across the country.

The delay stemmed from a combination of factors, including a legal review, intranet work fiefs and the slow-turning wheels of a sprawling corporate infrastructure, according to several people familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the internal discussions.

The Post reporter who obtained the tape, David Fahrenthold, received a copy late Friday morning. When NBC’s news division learned that The Post was working on the story, it moved quickly: Within about 10 minutes of the Post’s publishing its version, the NBC News correspondent Katy Tur went on MSNBC with a story about the video, showing the footage.

On Saturday, NBC officials said that they had acted responsibly in vetting the Trump video and that a three-day delay was a short amount of time to prepare a story of such magnitude and sensitivity.

Interviews show that NBC lawyers, erring on the side of caution, examined whether the network could be vulnerable to a lawsuit for airing the recording, and discussed whether it was ethical to use live-microphone audio from a private moment with Mr. Trump — who was inside a van, off-camera — that was not intended to be broadcast.

Executives at NBC’s news division, meanwhile, deferred to their corporate cousins at “Access Hollywood,” giving them first crack at airing the footage that was theirs — even as the entertainment show, unaccustomed to stories of such gravity, took its time. NBC officials, believing that the footage was closely guarded, did not think it was in danger of leaking.

Complicating matters was the presence in the tape of Billy Bush, one of NBC’s most important on-air personalities, who can be heard ogling a woman’s legs and laughing along with Mr. Trump as he jokes about kissing women, and grabbing their genitalia, without their consent.

Mr. Bush, who said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” by his behavior, is facing an online backlash. But NBC has no plans to discipline him, and he is expected to be back on the “Today” show on Monday morning, where he will address the matter, according to a person briefed on the plans.

Mark Kornblau, a senior vice president of communications for NBC News, said that throughout the process the news division was always prepared to run with the news and that it applied rigorous journalistic standards in approaching the story.

“The only filter we looked through this story was: Is it newsworthy? Yes,” Mr. Kornblau said. “And then how can we, as quickly and as responsibly as possible, get it to publication? We did exactly what you want and expect from great news organization to get there.”

NBC employees have speculated on who might have leaked the “Access Hollywood” video to The Post, wondering if someone inside the network believed the due diligence was taking too long.

The timing is unfortunate for NBC, which has faced criticism throughout the presidential campaign. The anchor Matt Lauer, for instance, was castigated for his less-than-aggressive questioning of Mr. Trump at a town hall forum last month.

NBC also invited Mr. Trump to host “Saturday Night Live” during the Republican primary; CNBC held a widely panned Republican primary debate that prompted a backlash from the party; and even Jimmy Fallon, the “Tonight Show” host, was dinged by fellow comedians for playfully rustling Mr. Trump’s hair during an interview.

This latest episode began last Monday, when “Access Hollywood” producers read about Mr. Trump’s treatment of women on “The Apprentice,” and recalled their own 2005 segment featuring Mr. Trump and a trip to a soap opera set.

After unearthing the footage of Mr. Trump making crude remarks, Rob Silverstein, the executive producer of “Access Hollywood,” informed NBC News executives of the discovery, according to two people familiar with the timeline.

But conversations about how to handle the bombshell moved slowly, in part because of the Rosh Hashana holiday. On Tuesday, Mr. Lack found out about the tape, as two NBCUniversal lawyers, Kimberley D. Harris and Susan E. Weiner, began considering a variety of legal questions. Did NBC have the right to broadcast the tape? Could it be sued?

The legal back-and-forth — and the huge corporate infrastructure at NBC, which is owned by Comcast — slowed down the process, even though everyone involved acknowledged the tape’s newsworthiness, several people said.

Still, a plan was put in place: Once the lawyers gave a green light, “Access Hollywood” would report the story first, and NBC News could quickly follow up. “Access Hollywood” and NBC News were not working in concert on their reports, according to several people.

By Friday morning, lacking comment from some principals — including the Trump campaign — and with Hurricane Matthew dominating the news cycle, “Access Hollywood” producers decided to push their broadcast to this Monday, after the second presidential debate, scheduled for Sunday night.

But then The Post called for comment early Friday afternoon. “Access Hollywood” and NBC News producers were blindsided. NBC News rushed to pull together a story. On MSNBC’s initial report that afternoon, Ms. Tur described the contents of the video, but referred to The Post only once, citing a comment from the Trump campaign that the network had not yet obtained.

There is unlikely to be another bombshell from “Access Hollywood.” A spokeswoman for the show said in a statement: “We have combed through every interview we have done with Mr. Trump over the past 20 years and at this time, we have not uncovered any other footage that rises to this level.”

Rival syndicated entertainment shows like “Extra!,” “Inside Edition” and “Entertainment Tonight” are searching for their own newsworthy footage of Mr. Trump, though there are no indications that they have found equally explosive material.

As for Mr. Bush, his Facebook page has been flooded with critical comments, many from women, a major viewership for “Today.” A call to his office line at NBC headquarters went to a voice mail message, apparently recorded by an assistant.

“You’ve reached Billy Bush’s office,” the message says. “He’s busy making America great again.”

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