For NBC of late, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Yes, the TV news organization where I occasionally appear has been involved in a Dickens of a controversy — actually, several of them. They involve two men who have much in common; they both have faced charges of sexual brutality: Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.
In the case of Weinstein, the stories of assault seem to have suddenly toppled him into ruin. Trump, on the other hand, was able to slough off his recorded bragging that he would grab women by their private parts without permission. After the disclosure of that, he became president of the United States.
For many, that would be enough power, but this president wants more. He’s an autocrat wannabe. He constantly tries to destroy anything that stands in his way, any institution, like, say, the judiciary or Congress, or the media that would dare perform their functions in this carefully balanced system that the founders created. That certainly includes his constant attempts at controlling the news by intimidation.
His current target is NBC News for having the audacity to break well-reported stories about the inner workings of the Trump White House. That’s what would be the “best of times” for NBC as it engaged in practicing good journalism. That is guaranteed to get under his thin skin, because he doesn’t like it when someone raises the possibility that this emperor has no clothes. So naked Donald (what a repulsive thought) is now suggesting that he will bring heavy pressure on media who fail to amuse him with their sycophancy. “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake,” he tweeted “that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” In other words, he’s suggesting that news organizations need to be whipped into Trump propaganda machines or lose their ability to exist. Not to worry, NBC and all the rest; he can’t really pull that off. But it certainly reveals his mindset, mindless though it may be. The “disgusting” media, which is how he described them in another rant, need to abandon their skeptical reporting.
And speaking of “disgusting,” that would describe the accusations being disclosed in several publications about the alleged sexual assaults by Hollywood powerhouse Harvey Weinstein. That gets us to NBC’s “worst of times,” the complaints that the network resisted covering the explosive charges against Weinstein, refused to report the story when it had the information and has downplayed it since The New York Times and New Yorker magazine thoroughly covered the serial assaults.
NBC News executives say that when reporter Ronan Farrow, who works for them, provided them the goods, they felt, as responsible journalists, what he had wasn’t yet good enough, wasn’t provably airtight enough to be reportable. Farrow asked for and received permission to offer it to the New Yorker, which after several months went with the story.
That explanation hasn’t stopped Trump supporters from torching NBC News, which they consider a part of a Democratic cabal that was and is trying to lessen the damage to Weinstein because he was a big contributor to party candidates and liberal causes. And in fact, those on the left are stumbling over each other as they publicly condemn their benefactor and come up with ways to get rid of his suddenly tainted money — a lot of charities are getting a windfall.
Unfortunately, the Weinstein story will hold our attention for just a while and then we’ll capriciously move on to the next tarnished object. I’m talking about those of us in the media, which is the real scandal. We have very short attention spans, except for covering Donald Trump, and that’s only because he comes up with something new and utterly ridiculous almost daily.
“A man in public life expects to be sneered at,” says Charles Dickens. “Some deserve it,” says me.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.