As the political world ponders whether the past 72 hours have delivered a fatal knockout blow to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the nation’s media observers have been bedeviled by a separate question: Why did NBC News hold its story about the uncouth video starring Trump so long that the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold ended up getting the scoop?
Recorded in 2005 for the NBC-owned Access Hollywood entertainment show, the video captures backstage sexual boasting by Trump to the show’s co-host, Billy Bush, who goads him on. Once NBC News learned that its Trump tape had been leaked to the Post and the paper was preparing a story, the network aired its own story, getting beat by about 10 minutes.
The story has upended the Trump campaign and dominated the opening minutes of Sunday’s presidential debate.
NBC doesn’t look good here, and no amount of finessing will make it look any prettier. The NBC News tick-tocks published by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN portray the network as an overly cautious, lawyer-dominated entity, more interested in protecting its employee Bush—who has recently joined NBC’s Today show—than performing like a hard-charging news outlet. It was, after all and in retrospect, the biggest story of the general election. When a secular organization blames the Jewish holidays for its tardiness, as an unattributed NBC News source does in the Times story, somebody is blowing smoke. When the Washington Post, no libel and invasion-of-privacy mill, can turn around the same story in five hours indicates that NBC’s frets of legal problems were more imagine than real.
But let me express a little sympathy for NBC News, even if the blind-sourced excuses appearing in the press turn out to be so much ass-covering. Let’s remember that Access Hollywood’’s producers initiated the search for the coarse tape last Monday, their memories jogged reading a separate account of Trump’s sordid behavior. Having looped in NBC News on its discovery, the two outlets had every reason to believe that they “owned” the story and could break it at their leisure, as nobody else had the tapes. Remember, the material had never been aired, so the chances that an archive archaeologist like CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski was going to find it and beat them to the story were almost nonexistent. So NBC News obviously thought it controlled the story and could dictate the timing of its publication.
Lawyers—bred like laboratory rats to be circumspect—relish potentially thorny stories like the Trump tape story if their news organization has the sort of exclusive NBC News did. They can mull. They can explore case law. They can ponder the ethics of airing video of a then-employee that was not explicitly shot for broadcast. They can kick the can down the road, and make sure the onus will fall on the producers and executives if the segment airs. How many media lawyers have been fired for excess caution?
This has not been my experience with media lawyers. To a one, their philosophy has been, “How can we get your story published?” But in a media conglomerate like Comcast, which owns NBC and a string of federally licensed television stations, the corporate lawyers have more internal constituencies to serve than a free-standing newspaper like the Post, which is owned by one man.
Successful condemnation of NBC News would require us to believe that the network wasn’t just dragging its feet on the Trump tapes story, but intended to suppress it semi-permanently. Nobody has suggested this—yet—because by the time the tapes were shared widely within NBC, there too many people were aware of their existence to keep them smothered. Even if an NBC News employee hadn’t leaked the tapes, as is presumed, it’s highly likely that the existence of the tapes would have been leaked, forcing NBC News’ hand.
I’m not convinced that Access Hollywood planned to do its Trump tapes story on the Monday after Sunday night’s presidential debate, an unattributed fact expressed without challenge in the Times story. But it could be true.
Stories get held at every news organization. I’ve held them when I was an editor, seeking a last comment or fact-check, and gotten beaten by the competition. The Times had the Pentagon Papers for three months in 1971 before publishing. In 1988, the Post held its story about the Ivy Bells spy operation at the insistence of the CIA’s Bill Casey, only to be scooped by NBC News. In 1992, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie was widely criticized for publishing a story about the groping ways of Sen. Bob Packwood after the election, rather than before. Today, Downie stands by that decision. “I published the Packwood story as soon as it was completed, including getting more women on the record,” he tells me. “The election was not a factor for me.” (For what it’s worth, Downie thinks NBC News should have published its Trump tape “immediately.”) And in 1998, Newsweek held its story alleging that President Bill Clinton had told a White House intern to lie about whether they had had an affair, and got scooped by Matt Drudge.
The most spectacular bit of modern story-holding went down in 2004, when New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller held for an entire year material about the National Security Agency monitoring unearthed by reporter James Risen. Critics blamed the Keller spike for the reelection of President George W. Bush. As Keller tells me, he held the story because the White House claimed it would damage national security and put lives at risk. Over the next year, the paper added additional reporting about the legality of the NSA program and the administration’s claims. “The evidence … that the program had prevented serious attacks” was “scant,” Keller says. In 2005, satisfied he had the story right, he published.
There are plenty of stories that should have been held for additional reporting. The Post’s piece about Jessica Lynch’s heroics in Iraq turned out to be, as media scholar J. William Campbell asserted, “embarrassingly wrong in all important details.” In 2004, Dan Rather’s botched CBS News piece about George W. Bush’s military service is another example of a story that was served prematurely. That 2014 New York magazine story about the high schooler who had earned $72 million investing? Rolling Stone’s story from the same year about rape at the University of Virginia? The media’s rush to judgment in the 2006 Duke lacrosse story? This American Life’s “exposé” of working conditions at an Apple factory in China? Had editors behind these stories set their engines to idle instead of full throttle, oceans of newsroom regret could have been avoided.
Granted, the set of editorial decisions NBC News faced last week were simpler than those faced by most of the outlets named above. As the creator of the video, NBC never had any doubts about its authenticity. A news organization its size should have been able to resolve the legal and ethical issue in a couple of days at most. But what’s the greater journalistic sin? To take a couple of extra days to make sure a big story that might swing the election is bulletproof, or to break every story at high speed?
Slow news or fast news? Edgar Allan Poe preferred what he called the deployment of the “light artillery” to break stories—“journalism in lieu dissertation,” as he put it. In principle, I’m with him. In practice, I cherish every extra moment of contemplation the news cycle affords me before my editor presses the “publish” button.
My friend Jeff Riggenbach fed me that Poe quotation about 35 years ago and this must be the third time I’ve used it. Send recyclable quotations via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have a tell-tale heart, my Twitter feed soars like the raven, and my RSS feed wears a masque of red death.