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For Democratic presidential candidates, this week’s debate in Atlanta comes with the political equivalent of home field advantage: a lead sponsor is the cable network MSNBC, whose liberal-leaning talk shows are as mandatory on the campaign trail as diners in Des Moines.
So what happens when the home team runs into trouble?
MSNBC is part of NBC News, a division of the Comcast-owned NBCUniversal that has faced a new round of criticism over its handling of sexual harassment and misconduct issues, including an on-air scolding from Rachel Maddow, the star MSNBC anchor.
On Tuesday, four Democratic candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, weighed in less than 48 hours before they are scheduled to appear on the debate stage. In a letter to Democratic Party officials, the candidates called for an outside review of the workplace culture at NBC News.
“We, the undersigned candidates, are very concerned about the message it would send to sexual assault survivors if our next debate is sponsored by MSNBC without clear commitments from Comcast, the parent company of NBC and MSNBC, to conduct an independent investigation into the toxic culture that enabled abusers and silenced survivors,” the letter reads.
Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris also signed.
NBC News has vehemently denied any mishandling of harassment matters. And the letter, organized by the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, stops short of any kind of ultimatum.
The candidates have not suggested that they would skip the debate Wednesday or stop appearing on NBC or MSNBC shows. Nor was it clear why the letter was addressed to the Democratic National Committee, which has no control over NBCUniversal, rather than Comcast itself.
Still, the candidates’ entry into the controversy marked an uncomfortable turn for NBC News during what is meant to be a marquee week for the organization. The network, which is co-sponsoring the debate with The Washington Post, had been looking to move past a public-relations battle with Ronan Farrow, the former MSNBC host whose book, “Catch and Kill,” is a sharp indictment of NBC leadership.
In the book, published last month, Mr. Farrow claims that NBC managers were aware that the “Today” show host Matt Lauer behaved inappropriately with colleagues before he was fired in 2017. NBC has maintained that Mr. Lauer was fired as soon as managers learned of a misconduct complaint against him.
After the firing, the network commissioned an inquiry overseen by NBCUniversal’s general counsel, Kimberley D. Harris. It led to a report clearing NBC News management of wrongdoing. Other media organizations that have dealt with accusations of workplace misconduct, including Fox News, CBS and NPR, hired outside law firms to conduct similar investigations.
Mr. Farrow also accuses the NBC News president, Noah Oppenheim, of smothering an investigation into the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, which Mr. Farrow later published to acclaim in The New Yorker. NBC has said that, at the time, Mr. Farrow’s reporting fell short of NBC standards and that the network was “profoundly disappointed” not to have aired his eventual findings.
The candidates’ letter, first reported by HuffPost, seems to embrace Mr. Farrow’s reporting and analysis. “It is critical that the Democratic National Committee make clear that they support survivors of sexual harassment and abuse by ensuring that Comcast and NBC News take steps to clean up the toxic culture that exists across their networks,” the letter reads.
The letter also asserts, without evidence, that network managers covered up incidents of abuse. Last month, Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News, sent a memo to the staff, saying that “any suggestion” that NBC News executives had known about Mr. Lauer’s behavior before the accusation or tried to cover it up “is absolutely false and offensive.”
The Democratic National Committee has no direct way to ensure that Comcast takes any action. UltraViolet’s executive director, Shaunna Thomas, who has organized protests outside NBC’s Manhattan headquarters, said in a statement on Tuesday that Democratic officials have “leverage as a critical media partner in the 2020 election” to “push Comcast and NBC to do the right thing.”
The Democratic National Committee said on Tuesday that it had not received a formal copy of the letter and had no further comment. Comcast did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
NBCUniversal referred to its previous statements that the news division was confident in the results of its internal review, and that network executives had taken swift and appropriate action to address accusations of misconduct.
In their call for an outside investigation, the Democratic candidates are echoing recent commentary from Ms. Maddow, who will serve on an all-female panel at the debate. On a recent edition of her prime-time show, Ms. Maddow described her colleagues’ angst over Mr. Farrow’s allegations and suggested that, without an independent investigation, the dispute would boil down to “NBC’s word versus Ronan Farrow’s reporting and assertions.”
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in this company since I’ve been here,” Ms. Maddow said at the time. “It would be impossible for me to overstate the amount of consternation inside the building around this issue.”
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