NBC News’ special correspondent Tom Brokaw’s now public email of April 27th ferociously attacked former NBC News correspondent Linda Vester’s account of several encounters they had. Vester, 52, in the pages of both the Washington Post and Variety the day before, on April 26th, had accused Brokaw of sexually harassing her on two occasions over two decades ago.
As vigorously as his email condemned Vester, Brokaw, 78, also impugned the journalistic judgment of the Post and Variety. The attacks are reminiscent of President Trump’s incessant salvos targeting the Post and other media outlets, only Brokaw has a better vocabulary.
“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 wrote in his April 27th email.
A “perp walk” is, literally, “an occasion when police officers take a person who has been arrested for a crime through a public area so he or she can be seen and photographed by the media,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary.
Brokaw’s use of the phrase is an indication of how he felt reading Vester’s account of his behavior. But he clearly wasn’t “ambushed” by seeing the stories in print, as both the articles in the Washington Post and Variety carried statements by him in their stories responding to Vester’s allegations.
Neither did the stories strip him “of any honor and achievement” Brokaw has earned in his career. What the articles did – as good journalism does – was present two sides of a story. In both stories, Vester’s account was more detailed than the account found in Brokaw’s statements. Interestingly, it wasn’t until this email of April 27th was published the day after the Post and Variety pieces appeared, that Brokaw chose to counter the details as Vester recalled them with details of his own recollection. [Furthermore, both the Post and Variety then wrote about this email when it came out.]
Brokaw also writes in his April 27th email, “Linda Vester was given the run of the Washington Post and Variety to vent her grievances, to complain that I tickled her without permission (you read that right), that I invaded her hotel room, accepted an invitation to her apartment under false pretenses and in general was given a free hand to try and destroy all that I have achieved with my family, my NBC career, my writing and my citizenship.”
Again, this is a dramatic rendering of how Brokaw felt, but it unfairly mocks the serious, expository narrative of both the Post and Variety pieces.
The Post’s piece in particular, by staffer Sarah Ellison—who’s also written for Vanity Fair for years—is a very thoughtful, lengthy essay of about 3650 words that carried the headline “NBC News faces skepticism in remedying in-house sexual harassment.” Brokaw isn’t even mentioned in the piece until 500 or so words into the story, and the parts about Brokaw and Vester – including Brokaw’s denial of her version of the events – take up about a third of the article.
Ellison’s piece talks a great deal about Matt Lauer and the accusations against him as well as the way NBC management has handled the complaints, and whether NBC News should use outside help to investigate sexual harassment complaints as opposed to just using people inside the company.
In fact, comments Brokaw previously made are also included by Ellison in her article: “Brokaw, now 78, who left the anchor chair in 2004, addressed the topic of sexual harassment while appearing on a panel on MSNBC in December. He was talking about U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who had just resigned.
“He said the culture needs to decide ‘where are the lines about all of this, because it’s not going away. . . . Not easy to arrive at these conclusions because so many of them are subjective. It’s in the minds of the violator or the recipient, or even the people who are on the left or the right. But I do think we need to have a healthier, well-defined dialogue, if you will, and I’m not sure how we launch into it.’”
Here’s how Ellison concludes her exceedingly fair examination of the issue:
[Deborah Rhode, a gender expert and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School] “said that even without formal complaints, higher-ups have a responsibility for workplace conditions. But they are rarely the right people to investigate wrongdoing.
“If there was this kind of information circulating in the hallways, a good investigator could find that out,” she said. “The reason that experts think the best practice is to hire outside investigators is those people will be much more likely to be disinterested and appear disinterested. They don’t have an ongoing relationship with a company that may have a desire to protect their reputation and keep the dirty linen out of public view.”
[Former NBC newswoman] Ann Curry said she understands reticence to report harassment.
“This is one of the problems when we talk about corporations with an HR department being under leadership of someone who might or might not be accused,” she said. “How are they going to complain about it if they are accusing someone who is overseeing the department that is supposed to protect them?”
Variety’s story, “Tom Brokaw Accused of Sexual Harassment By Former NBC Anchor,” which was also published on April 26th, was written by Elizabeth Wagmeister and Ramin Setoodeh. Wagmeister has been at Variety since 2014, writing about TV from L.A. Setoodeh, who joined Variety in 2013, is the pub’s New York bureau chief.
In their story, Wagmeister and Setoodeh write, “In a series of interviews with Variety conducted over several months, Vester alleged that Brokaw physically tried to force her to kiss him on two separate occasions, groped her in a NBC conference room and showed up at her hotel room uninvited.”
The story explains why Vester says she is coming forward now: “…she believes her story sheds light on the culture at NBC News, where she believes male bosses treated their female colleagues as objects. After ‘Today’ co-host Matt Lauer was fired for inappropriate conduct involving an NBC employee last November, NBC launched an internal review of its practices but didn’t bring in an outside firm to investigate — a step Vester believes is necessary to fix NBC’s culture.”
The Variety piece also carries the same very brief denial from Brokaw that was given to both publications from NBC News: “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 a paragraph in which Vester’s lawyer is interviewed and says, among other things, that Vester doesn’t want anything for telling her story, the Variety article says, “Here’s Vester’s story in her own words….” A video of Vester telling her story also accompanied the piece. Variety also noted that “the testimony below has been edited and condensed from several lengthy conversations with Vester, but does not include the video testimony posted here.”
The bulk of the Variety piece is a long monologue of about 2000 words wherein Vester tells her story, uninterrupted.
Importantly, the Variety story also says, “Two friends who Vester told at the time corroborated her story with Variety, and she shared her journal entries from the time period. Brokaw, who has been married to Meredith Auld since 1962, has never before been publicly accused of sexual harassment.”
Likewise, the Washington Post story says it talked to one friend of Vester’s who confirmed her story. The paper also saw the diary entries Vester made 23 years ago.
In other words, both publications did what journalists do in trying to verify information that they are told.
Nonetheless, Brokaw writes in his next day email, “…as I write this at dawn on the morning after a drive by [sic] shooting by Vester, the Washington Post and Variety, I am stunned by the free ride given a woman with a grudge against NBC News….”
Brokaw offers no evidence that Vester has a grudge against NBC News.
Brokaw concludes his April 27th email with this: “I am proud of who I am as a husband, father, grandfather, journalist and citizen. Vester, the Washington Post and Variety cannot diminish that. But in this one woman piece of sensational claims they are trying.”
As for the Post and Variety, that’s just not true and Brokaw knows it. In their respective stories Ellison, Wagmeister and Setoodeh have done what good journalists always have done. They have presented, as best they could, both sides of a controversy, as they attempt to share with their readers what good journalists always want to share with their readers: in the words of Carl Bernstein, “the best obtainable version of the truth.”