NBC and MSNBC are also home to the majority of the men with large media platforms who, as Jill Filipovic argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, helped caricature Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. It’s no secret that Lack began filling slots at MSNBC with commentators such as Hewitt and Brian Williams, known for, shall we say, lax reputations for speaking truth to power just as Trump was ascending. It’s no surprise that Lauer infamously treated Trump and Clinton in markedly different ways during a 2016 town hall during the campaign. And it’s no surprise that Halperin was one of Lack’s boys.
UPDATE, December 7, 9:15 a.m.: As The Intercept reports this morning, “Sam Seder will be offered his MSNBC contributor job back and plans to accept, according to multiple MSNBC sources.” This is an important step and came about due to public pressure to ensure media accountability.
Melissa Harris-Perry. Ronan Farrow. Greta Van Susteren. Hugh Hewitt. Sam Seder. Matt Lauer. Mark Halperin.
What do all of these people have in common? They’ve all been employed in one way or another in the past several years by NBC and MSNBC, both of which are under the chairmanship of media executive Andy Lack. Each of these names tell a very different story about Lack’s leadership, his willingness to undermine good journalism, his desire to transform a leading network known for producing fact-based journalism into Fox-Lite, and his apparent willingness to protect sexual predators for the sake of profits.
As a group, they tell the story of why Lack should resign immediately.
You might have heard of Lack most recently in the case of Sam Seder, who was fired by MSNBC this week a day after conspiracy theorist, misogynist, and rape apologist Mike Cernovich started a campaign to smear Seder based on a seven-year-old tweet. As Jeet Heer wrote in the New Republic, the 2009 tweet by Seder about filmmaker Roman Polanski—who pleaded guilty in 1979 to statutory rape of a 13-year-old and then fled to France to avoid sentencing—was “clearly [a] sarcastic jibe directed at [Polanski]’s apologists.” However, Cernovich used it to target MSNBC’s and Seder’s advertisers with the claim that Seder was himself promoting child rape.
Cernovich and his allies ginned up a controversy, writing to advertisers at both Seder’s podcast and at MSNBC. The campaign against Seder was clearly done in bad faith, not only because it twisted the meaning of his words but also because Cernovich has a history of making genuinely sinister comments on rape. (Cernovich was accused of rape in 2003, but the charge was dropped and he was convicted of battery.)
In this case, MSNBC, a network ostensibly devoted to professional journalism, not only failed to conduct its own investigation into the matter before firing Seder, it also quickly capitulated to Cernovich, a liar, a propagandist, and one of the central characters in a movement—not coincidentally led by the president of the United States—to discredit legitimate evidence-based journalism. (A petition started by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim urging MSNBC to reinstate Seder is here.)
You may remember Lack as the man in charge when Melissa Harris-Perry’s show was abruptly canceled after she criticized both MSNBC’s treatment of her show and of her as a Black woman at the network. Or you may remember him as the man in charge of the network that killed Ronan Farrow’s explosive story about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of raping, abusing, and sexually harassing untold numbers of women (later published by the New Yorker). You may remember Lack as the guy who downplays The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, even though it draws the second-largest audience at MSNBC after Rachel Maddow.
On the other hand, you may know him as the guy who seems bent on wrecking one of the country’s leading evidence-based networks by making it, as Graham Vyse put it at the New Republic, “whiter and more conservative.” Lack is the odd news executive who appears to actually be angry that his network is making good money from excellent, fact-based journalism and commentary that speaks truth to power in an era of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and false equivalencies. As Ryan Grim wrote earlier this year for HuffPost:
Lack … has an unusual problem for a TV executive: sky-high ratings. Since the election of Trump, MSNBC’s liberal primetime programs hosted by Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell have surged not just in ratings but in the share of the cable news audience they’re capturing. In its earnings call on Thursday, NBCUniversal specifically cited the boost in ratings to “The Rachel Maddow Show” for a spike in profits. Maddow has been the top show on cable news in the key demographic for two months running, an inconceivable achievement at MSNBC.
Despite the ratings and the earnings, Lack moved this year to replace existing shows with Fox News hacks and conservative sycophants. Lack brought in Greta Van Susteren, for example, to lead a show that quickly tanked, in part because people don’t tune into MSNBC to hear partisan lies and falsehoods of the kind that are endemic to Fox News, and those were really all Van Susteren seemed able to deliver. Likewise, Lack brought on Hewitt, a GOP apologist who sometimes sounds very smart but who has a tenuous relationship with the truth when it does not suit his agenda and has gone out of his way to make clear he is a Trump sycophant.
MSNBC’s journalistic success appears to actually rankle Lack. As Grim reported:
“Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell—the entire primetime lineup is doing record numbers and Lack can’t stand it. It makes him furious,” said one senior MSNBC source, echoing the sentiment of many other insiders who spoke to HuffPost only on the condition of anonymity. (An NBC spokesman said Lack is happy with the high ratings.)
Lack is the boss and also “dear friend” of Matt Lauer, who was similarly found to be sexually harassing interns, producers, and other anchors. Lack and Lauer vacationed together and otherwise interacted daily. Lauer’s alleged sexual abuse and harassment—and what appears to be at least one alleged rape—took place in the NBC offices and on sets. If Lack did not know about this, it appears he was alone in his blissful ignorance. In the words of one high-level industry source quoted by Vanity Fair, “I don’t know what everyone is so surprised by … everybody knew it and it was just going to be which girl came forward, and who reported it first.” Given all of this, it seems absurd to assume that Lack did not know about Lauer and that they didn’t share their own “locker room talk.” In fact, as Sarah Ellison noted in her piece, “Insiders at NBC remained incredulous that NBC’s top brass was not aware of Lauer’s behavior with women … [because] Lauer has been prized and protected by a succession of NBC News presidents.”
Lack moved swiftly to fire Lauer after hearing of a soon-to-be-broken major investigative piece. At that point, the jig was up. Unfortunately, the optics are no better now that NBC is investigating itself to determine (or cover up?) who knew what, when—rather than having a more impartial outside source investigate what happened. This is a major breach of accountability for all the executives and people involved.
“Post-factuality is pre-fascism,” writes historian Timothy Snyder. ”
The function of the press, as the Founding Fathers understood, was to generate the common knowledge on which citizens could understand and debate policy, and to prevent rulers from behaving tyrannically. Whether from the far right or the far left, the regime changers of the twentieth century understood that the media had to be bullied and deprived of importance. When Steve Bannon refers to the press as the “opposition,” or Mr. Trump calls journalists “enemies,” they are expressing their support for the demolition of the historical, ethical, and intellectual bases of the political life we take for granted. Indeed, when Mr. Trump calls journalists “enemies of the people,” he is quoting Joseph Stalin.
And when Lack capitulates to people like Cernovich, with long track records, as Media Matters has noted, of racism, misogyny, conspiracy theories, and misinformation, he is doing the work of fascists, taking us one step further down the road to tyranny. He threatens the safety of journalists and the viability and credibility of journalism, strengthening online vigilantes, and threatening our democracy.