From The New York Times | NBC’s Digital Journalists Say They Are Forming a Union
The following article originally appeared on The New York Times:
Employees of NBC’s digital news division announced on Wednesday that they intend to form a union representing about 150 workers, saying it would allow them to fight for better job protections as well as publicly criticize NBC News executives without fear of retaliation.
Leaders of the network’s news division have come under renewed scrutiny this month with the publication of Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill.” In the book, the author paints a damning portrait of the NBC News chairman Andrew Lack and the division president Noah Oppenheim, accusing leadership of interfering with his reporting on Harvey Weinstein and mishandling the allegations against the former “Today” anchor Matt Lauer, who was fired in 2017.
Last week, Rachel Maddow, the highest-rated anchor on MSNBC, confronted her bosses live on air as part of an episode that had Mr. Farrow as a guest, questioning their handling of his reporting when he was a contributor to the network. She also raised the issue of why NBCUniversal had not commissioned an independent review of Mr. Lauer’s workplace behavior and the company’s response to it.
The digital employees seeking to form a union referred to the internal strife in a letter to NBC management that noted “serious questions” on how the news division has handled workplace sexual misconduct and its “opaque” procedures for “exposing powerful predators.”
It continued: “Forming a union will afford us a collective voice in decisions that will benefit the entire company, providing much-needed transparency and ensuring a safer workplace.”
In a memo to NBC staff members on Wednesday, Chris Berend, the executive vice president of digital at the network’s news division, said, “I want you to know we are deeply committed to a fair and healthy workplace for all our employees. We welcome this dialogue from within our digital organization, and any constructive conversation aimed at building the future of NBC News Digital and ensuring that we’re the best we can be.”
The workers involved in the organizing campaign write articles and produce videos for several websites, including NBCNews.com and Today.com. They said they hoped to win a number of concessions, including eliminating pay disparities between white men and women and minorities, an improved severance policy, better job protections and more guidance about the company’s long-term plans for the digital division.
They also want to speak publicly, without concern for their job security, about controversies at the news division. Being part of a union, they say, would allow them to go public with criticisms of their bosses.
“It’s been painful for a lot of people to see headlines and feel like they don’t have the space to talk about what’s going on in their own workplace,” said Nigel Chiwaya, a data journalist who is involved in the organizing campaign.
Mr. Farrow reported on Mr. Weinstein for up to seven months for NBC. Mr. Farrow said that he was told by his bosses on several occasions to stop reporting. Mr. Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, said his story was not ready for broadcast because it did not include any of Mr. Weinstein’s accusers on the record, a point the reporter has disputed.
As a result of the impasse, Mr. Farrow took his reporting to The New Yorker. Less than two months later, he published the first of his articles on Mr. Weinstein that would win the Pulitzer Prize in public service.
On Nov. 29, 2017, the network fired Mr. Lauer after receiving a complaint of sexual misconduct against him. In a memo to the staff, Mr. Lack wrote, “While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over 20 years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”
Christine Nguyen, an online video producer involved in the organizing campaign, who joined the network the month before Mr. Lauer’s firing, said, “I remember the feeling from employees was that management wasn’t telling the truth.”
Several months later, NBC Universal released the findings of an investigation that absolved its news executives. “We found no evidence indicating that any NBC News or ‘Today’ show leadership, News H.R. or others in positions of authority in the News Division received any complaints about Lauer’s workplace behavior prior to Nov. 27, 2017,” the report said.
The publication of Mr. Farrow’s book — with its step-by-step account of what he went through while reporting the Weinstein story at NBC News and its new details concerning accusations against Mr. Lauer — gave new life to the complaints that had begun in 2017.
“It felt like a reiteration of, ‘This is why we decided to do this,’” said Becky Bratu, a social media producer for the NBC website Left Field.
Leaders of the union campaign said the company’s response to the allegations against Mr. Lauer prompted them to talk with colleagues about general workplace problems. As workers on separate teams started to speak with one another, they found that they shared concerns about job security, scheduling and pay.
They circulated a spreadsheet in which staffers anonymously disclosed salaries, job titles and years of experience, which appeared to reveal disparities between white men and people of color and women performing similar jobs. The network has told digital employees it does not believe that diversity is a problem in their division.
NBC Universal has several thousand union employees, though in the newsroom it covers mostly production and technical personnel, such as camera operators. Digital workers at most other networks are not unionized, although there are exceptions, including people working at CBS’s digital news streaming service.
Earlier this year, NBC managers held discussions with employees about what they could improve, which workers saw as a response to the organizing effort. That was followed by changes that many employees welcomed, including an additional week of vacation for newer workers.
The changes only validated the decision to organize, many employees said, showing that acting as a group could lead to improved working conditions. A large majority of eligible digital employees have signed on to the union effort, those involved in the campaign said.
Mr. Oppenheim met with digital employees on Oct. 10. During the meeting, the NBC News president was asked whether the network would release the script of the Weinstein story that Mr. Farrow had submitted. Mr. Oppenheim suggested he was reluctant to release the script, because it contained unsupported assertions. That answer did not sit well with some digital employees.
“You have Ronan Farrow taking this story to The New Yorker where it gets published two months later as a print story,” Ms. Bratu said. “We are technically the outlet for all of that at NBC News. None of our editors were looped into the editing.”
Ms. Nguyen and others also expressed frustration that Mr. Lack had largely disappeared from view since the excerpts from Mr. Farrow’s book started to circulate, pointing to his recent absences from three Monday afternoon editorial meetings that he typically attends.
The workers have chosen as their bargaining representative the NewsGuild of New York, which also represents employees at The New York Times, The New Yorker and several digital properties, including BuzzFeed.
They may be in for a fight. This week, NBC informed about 10 digital employees eligible for the union that they would be laid off, effective January. At the same time, the network has said that it will add another 60 or so digital employees, meaning that the staff will include a large number of people who were not around during the time of dissension.
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