NBC’s dark history of sexual misconduct puts Chris Matthews’ grilling of Elizabeth Warren over Bloomberg’s NDAs in context
Update (3/2/20 7:00 p.m. EST): Matthews announced he is leaving MSNBC, effective immediately:
MSNBC host Chris Matthews came to the apparent defense of Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg while interviewing rival Elizabeth Warren about her criticism of Bloomberg and his company’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. Matthews’ line of questioning is troubling considering MSNBC’s parent company NBCUniversal has been embroiled in a years-long scandal regarding cultivating a toxic culture of sexual harassment and misconduct, including its use of NDAs to silence women who had come forward with stories of abuse.
In the debate itself Tuesday night, Warren had repeated a report that Bloomberg had mistreated a pregnant employee. During the network’s post-debate spin room coverage, Matthews asked: Why would Bloomberg lie about it?
The pregnant employee sued Bloomberg in 1998, saying he had told her upon learning of her pregnancy to “kill it” and also expressed in frustration, “Great, number 16,” an apparent reference to the number of women employees who were either pregnant or had newborn children at the time.
This past month, The Washington Post interviewed a former Bloomberg company employee, David Zielenziger, who told the paper that he had witnessed the conversation but had not previously spoken publicly about it. The paper also noted that Bloomberg has denied the allegation and that the case was resolved through a confidential settlement.
Matthews repeatedly asked Warren such questions as “You believe he's that kind of person who did that?” and “You believe he’s lying?”
Warren answered each time that she believed the woman in the case, and she also registered her own protest: “We have gone on and on and on, where people say, ‘Oh, I can't really believe the woman.’ Really? Why not?”
Matthews’ rhetorical crescendo reached its apex when he asked: “And why would he lie? Because just to protect himself?”
“Yeah,” Warren responded bluntly. “And why would she lie? I mean, that's the question, Chris.”
There have already been calls for Matthews to be fired.
Matthews has a long history of on-air sexism, especially regarding inappropriate comments about Hillary Clinton. Recently, Matthews generated controversy by comparing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Nevada caucuses to the Nazi invasion of France. (Many of Sanders’ relatives were killed in the Holocaust.) He subsequently delivered an on-air apology.
But Matthews’ seeming defense of Bloomberg harkens back to a broader problem within NBCUniversal and how the corporation has handled sexual harassment and misconduct complaints. In 2017, the network fired longtime Today star Matt Lauer after he was accused of raping a co-worker and faced other allegations of misconduct. Since then, at least seven NBCUniversal employees have been publicly named for sexual misconduct or gender-based harassment, including Matthews himself.
The right-wing Daily Caller reported in 2017 that MSNBC had paid a $40,000 settlement in 1999 to an assistant producer on Matthews’ show over inappropriate remarks he had allegedly made. USA Today then reported that “the network's investigation into the incident found that the remarks were inappropriate and sophomoric and in poor taste, but not meant as propositions,” and Matthews received a formal reprimand. But the network would not elaborate further on the employee’s departure and compensation package.
NBC News has been pilloried for creating a “‘boys’ club’ that ignored a culture of sexual misconduct,” which included covering up incidents of misconduct with strict NDAs that prohibited the women from speaking publicly about their experiences. (In October 2019, NBC announced it would release women from their NDAs.)
The network also famously killed high-profile stories of sexual misconduct, passing on Ronan Farrow’s months-long investigation into multiple reports of harassment and assault by movie executive Harvey Weinstein. (Farrow’s piece eventually ran in The New Yorker and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.) Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, sparked the #MeToo movement and resulted in Weinstein being convicted of rape and criminal sexual assault.
And back in fall 2016, the network sat on Access Hollywood footage depicting now-President Donald Trump bragging about committing sexual assault, which was eventually scooped by another outlet. NBC subsequently waffled on whether to fire its own employee, Billy Bush, for his participation in the damning exchange. (Ten days after the footage emerged, Bush was fired and offered a multimillion-dollar severance package that included a non-disclosure agreement.)
It is this context that makes Matthews’ exchange with Warren even more troubling and again calls into question whether NBC has learned any lessons at all.