NBC News chairman Andrew Lack was forced out Monday as part of a broader reorganization. The surprise wasn’t in the announcement of Lack’s departure, but that it had taken so long.
In his more than five years in charge of NBC News, Lack had overseen more than his share of disasters. There was the fiasco in 2017 by NBC News not to broadcast Ronan Farrow’s #MeToo report on Harvey Weinstein, or even to pursue it further.
Farrow would win a Pulitzer Prize for The New Yorker for the project. Farrow’s book, Catch and Kill, devoted extensive attention to NBC’s decision. MSNBC’s top host, Rachel Maddow, invited Farrow on her show and gave his allegations serious treatment. They both criticized NBC for its handling of the story.
In November 2017, just a month after Farrow’s New Yorker article was published, NBC fired star Today Show host Matt Lauer over sexual assault and harassment allegations. The horrific specifics of those accusations — which Lauer denies, saying the relations were consensual — remained secret for two years, until the publication of Farrow’s book. Farrow reported that Weinstein threatened to reveal Lauer’s behavior toward women when NBC was weighing the piece on the Hollywood producer.
There was also the $69 million flop: the three-year contract Lack gave former Fox News star Megyn Kelly, whose arrival sidelined popular Today show anchor Tamron Hall. Kelly’s Sunday evening newsmagazine quickly evaporated while her daytime hour failed to make a dent in the ratings. When Kelly made remarks that seemed to defend wearing blackface, her Today colleagues shunned her and she was bought out of her contract.
All of these episodes happened on Lack’s watch and dominated the public’s understanding of NBC News. In the case of Kelly, the decision to hire her was exclusively his. And Lack’s own judgment and behavior came under scrutiny after Farrow reported on allegations that Lack had an extramarital affair with a subordinate decades earlier while he was an executive at CBS News.
Lack’s departure “is the right move, and while it is three years overdue, it is great news for the journalists at NBC News,” former NBC senior investigative producer Rich McHugh told NPR. He collaborated closely with Farrow on the Weinstein reporting.
“Let’s hope it’s a sign NBC has learned from the Weinstein and Lauer disgraces,” he said.
Farrow’s book included allegations that NBC News had sought to cover up women’s allegations against Lauer, who was close to Lack from the executive’s earlier stint at NBC. NBC News chief Noah Oppenheim denounced the accusations as a conspiracy theory and a smear, saying the network had nothing to hide. A 2018 review done by the legal department of NBC’s corporate parent, NBC Universal, found no wrongdoing by executives.
Telemundo chief Cesar Conde was elevated Monday to oversee NBC News, CNBC and MSNBC, in a restructuring announced by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell. Oppenheim had been seen as an eventual heir to Lack, who had earlier signaled he would stay on through the end of the general elections in November. Oppenheim will instead report to Conde.
When Lack took the helm of NBC News in 2015, he was supposed to be a steadying hand. He had led the NBC News division in the 1990s and subsequently headed the entire NBC network. He was also CEO of Sony’s entertainment group and Bloomberg’s media enterprises.
Lack was named to the top job at NBC News after then-chief anchor Brian Williams’ career collapsed. Williams had inflated claims of the risks he faced while in Iraq. Lack named Lester Holt to be anchor of the NBC Nightly News, and people anticipated a calming and assured presence at the top.
Lack also sought to make MSNBC less explicitly liberal. Along with hiring Fox’s Kelly, Lack de-emphasized several more ideological hosts, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, and unsuccessfully sought to move others, including left-of-center prime-time host Chris Hayes. And along with MSNBC President Phil Griffin, Lack elevated former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace to become a host in her own right. She proved to be a hit with MSNBC’s audiences as a former Republican who embraced outright opposition to the Trump presidency.
In the age of Donald Trump, a left-of-center sensibility proved more durable than Lack had suspected. The show given to former Fox host Greta Van Susteren lasted just six months. Lack’s appointment of Williams to become a late-night cable news host also went more smoothly than could have been expected postscandal.
NBC News also expanded its digital audience under Lack and vastly increased its potential global reach through the takeover of the European broadcaster Sky by NBC’s corporate owner, Comcast.
Lack posted an essay on NBC News’ website last week saying that journalism’s values had prevailed despite a stiff challenge from President Trump’s hostility and the current financial crisis:
“The heart of journalism has never been stronger,” he wrote. “Journalists are asking tough questions and going where the facts lead. Not looking to win any popularity contests — just doing what Woodward and Bernstein inspired my generation and the generations that followed to always do: seek the best obtainable version of the truth.”
Lack declined to comment Monday. His official last day is at the end of the month.