Over the last several years, I have somehow found myself obliged to defend some of the country’s most unpopular men due to what appear to be flimsy or even false allegations of sexual abuse. As a father of two young daughters, and someone who abhors abuse of women of any kind, I have developed an extreme loathing for this topic and now have an almost physical aversion to ever wading into it again.
Since no one else seems to have the guts to do so, and because the issues at stake are so important, I once again feel forced to do so. Specifically with regard to the explosive allegation in Ronan Farrow’s new book, in which former NBC Today show host Matt Lauer is accused of rape.
For context, I have been interviewed by Lauer three times on the Today show and we have had a significant amount of very-telling interaction. He is not a friend, and he did me no favors at all in those interviews (even politely declaring on-air that my last appearance, alongside Jerry Sandusky’s wife Dottie, was a career-ender for me). But I found him to be intelligent, professional, and of a higher journalistic integrity than just about any other major media figure with whom I have dealt.
However, having spoken to someone close to him during this period, I am also of the belief that Lauer was a notorious womanizing cad who inappropriately used his position of extreme power to seduce multiple women in the business into affairs. At the time, everyone just pretty much looked the other way, until #MeToo and other circumstances radically altered the equation.
None of this is directly relevant to whether Lauer raped Brooke Nevils, a former NBC producer, while covering the 2014 Olympics. But it is critical to understanding the political climate which provoked the series of events which would cause all of this to become public. It may have also had a dramatic impact on how the core allegation has been portrayed and is currently being perceived.
It is this political environment which creates the first of many serious problems with Farrow’s reporting here. Based on his own words, Farrow has a couple of troubling conflicts of interest on this subject.
In his book, Farrow accurately describes how NBC News had killed his original Harvey Weinstein expose. It is my opinion, as well as that of those very close to Lauer at the time, that this event provided motivation for NBC to throw Lauer under the bus, to show they were treating #MeToo allegations seriously.
Farrow also had a short-lived MSNBC show which was unceremoniously canceled. This creates, at the very least, the appearance that Farrow has a significant axe to grind with NBC News. Consider also the reality that Farrow has effectively become an invested #MeToo activist, making interviews he does with sex abuse accusers to be suspect for possible manipulation.
This leads us to the accuser herself. Her current story, which Lauer vehemently denies, is that the host raped her as she was too drunk to give consent and repeatedly declined his request to have anal sex. “It was nonconsensual in the sense that I was too drunk to consent,” she told Farrow. “It was nonconsensual in that I said, multiple times, that I didn’t want to have anal sex.”
Nevils said that the two of them continued a “consensual” sexual relationship long afterwards, which she described as “transactional” in nature.
Is this account plausible? Sure, but there is no evidence for it, no criminal or even civil charge and, as Lauer himself argues, it is contradicted by basic common sense.
An adult woman voluntarily participating in a long-term consensual relationship with a man she believed at the time had raped her, while plausible, certainly detracts from her credibility.
One of the most confusing parts of the reports on Farrow’s book is that he claims that Nevils’ story was an open secret within NBC News because she told people about it long before anything was done. But here is where it smells like Farrow is doing a bait and switch which is common in these types of allegations.
Based on what I have been told by a person close to the situation at the time, the “it” that was “known” within NBC may very well have been an “affair,” not what the allegation, for whatever reasons, eventually became, which was “rape.” This would be far more consistent with the initial, fairly supportive reaction from Lauer’s female co-hosts back when he was fired, compared with their self-serving horrified reaction at the seemingly new allegation of rape.
To be clear, I am not defending Lauer. At best he played with fire far too long and got burned. And at worst, he may have committed rape.
I am arguing here that the standards for reporting a rape allegation against a public figure matter. If this case is the new normal it will create a potentially perilous precedent that will lead to innocent people to being falsely accused.
The bottom-line is that the more we learn about the story the worse everyone involved in this saga, including NBC management and staff, and including the news media which has covered it in an extremely biased fashion, appears to be. As for Lauer, he may have deserved to be fired, but to declare him a rapist based on the current factual record is both wrong and dangerous.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.