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NBC Couldn't Change Its Toxic Workplace Culture. But a Union Might

After Matt Lauer's ouster, my coworkers and I tested the company's attempts at reshaping our environment. But the only thing that gave me hope was our own.
December 20, 2019, 2:58pm
A pedestrian walks past the NBC News studios, November 29, 2017 in New York City. It was announced on Wednesday morning that long time Today Show host Matt Lauer had been fired for sexual misconduct.
Photo via Getty

By November of 2017, it was starting to feel commonplace to see stories of bad behavior by men in power flash on the television screens above our desks. But when the Matt Lauer scandal broke at 30 Rock at the end of the month, it was not just another headline. The allegations of Lauer’s sexual misconduct against multiple former employees were coming from inside the building, distressing those like me who had spent time working directly with Lauer on the set of The Today Show, as well as every journalist in the building who, like Lauer, represented NBC News.

The months following were eerie. Lauer’s face was swiftly taken off of The Today Show website header following the announcement of his firing; soon after, the black and white photos of him smiling out on the plaza were removed. There was a heaviness in the hallways as you passed the empty frames on the way to the 9th floor cafeteria, a discomfort with knowing that the kind of news you'd typically cover elsewhere was happening in our own building.

What could we do about it, though? I have been to dozens of protests during my video-journalism career, but I always held a camera, never a sign. Sure, we were allowed to report on the Lauer scandal just like any other story, but with this one, that didn't seem like enough.

For a while, the only channel for our frustration was hushed conversations in the hallways, disconnected networks of complaint. But the more I talked without action, the more helpless I felt.

#MeToo was not the only storyline involving newsrooms that year—a series of media union campaigns were filling the headlines as well. While 30 Rock was the home to multiple unions—covering camera people, scriptwriters, electricians, cafeteria workers, and prop managers—there had never been a union for NBC News Digital, where I had worked as a video journalist for, at that point, five years. As my coworkers and I started looking for options to respond to the state of affairs at NBC News, a group of us began to wonder whether a union could be the answer.

We chased down some answers in a series of conversations with reps at the News Guild, a major media union that represents employees at The New York Times, The New Yorker, and BuzzFeed, among others.

As we haltingly began talking, I had many questions. NBC News was different from many other newsrooms that had unionized around concerns such as poverty wages and crushing hours. NBC was my dream job—it paid OK, had good quality of life, and working in such a storied building every day was exciting. What does it mean to unionize, though, when your concerns are not just about wages and benefits, but also about building a newsroom culture that was more equitable, fair, transparent and—most pressingly—s__afe ?

So our small group of concerned workers began our listening tour.

By spring, NBC News management had begun their own “listening tour.”

On the morning of May 9th, 2018, my co-workers and I received a company-wide email as we were heading into work. It was from NBC News’ chairman, Andy Lack. The subject line: “Comments on the Investigation and How We Go Forward.”

Five minutes earlier, with practiced corporate choreography, NBCUniversal’s general counsel emailed to share that the company had completed its internal investigation into the events that had led to the dismissal of long-time Today host Matt Lauer. The investigation, NBC’s lawyers asserted, “found no evidence indicating that any NBC News or Today Show leadership, News HR or others in positions of authority in the News Division received any complaints about Lauer’s workplace behavior prior to November 27, 2017.”

Attached to the general counsel’s email was a seven-page report detailing the internal Lauer investigation, concluding with a “Cultural Assessment” of our newsroom. It found that “although most employees understand that a number of channels exist both inside and outside of the News Division to report concerns (including anonymously), more work needs to be done to ensure that all employees have this information, feel comfortable reporting concerns and do not fear retaliation if they do.”

Lack’s follow-up email echoed this sentiment—“we have already begun to turn the page to establish a safer and more respectful environment,” he wrote. This change “requires strong, specific steps in a sustained manner to transform the culture.”

Around the same time as the emails came a series of listening sessions where we were called into conference rooms, 15 or so at a time, given a series of prompts about how we felt working at NBC, and told that our answers would be transcribed, anonymized, and transmitted to management. Given the heaviness in the building, the dozens more #MeToo stories that came out in newsrooms across the country in early 2018, and the six months of relative silence from higher-ups at NBC, you could guess that these efforts were met with widespread skepticism. An office full of journalists were not going to be reassured by emails and interventions that looked a lot like the bland crisis management tactics we often saw in our outside reporting.

The internal investigation and Lack’s email left me among the skeptics. I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter what response was enacted after any given abuse of power, we as employees still, in the end, did not have ownership over that response—it remained behind the corporate curtain. A lack of ownership meant lack of trust. And without that trust, I felt that we were back at square one: We wouldn’t be able to, as the NBC general counsel said in her email, “feel comfortable reporting concerns” and “not fear retaliation” when we did.

Ironically, the corporate listening tour made it easy for our worker-driven listening tour. At the company roundtables, myself and my fellow organizers simply took note of anyone who seemed particularly disgruntled—and sent them a followup email to meet for coffee. Many took the opportunity to expressed frustration beyond the Matt Lauer scandal, including feelings of concern around race and gender disparity in the newsroom.

When I met up with these frustrated colleagues—a group whose ranks were growing by the day—I would let them know that we were thinking about unionizing and wanted to get their thoughts. The conversations flowed more freely than I'd expected. When I shared what we were doing, most coworkers were excited to learn more; some wondered why there was not a union already. Many shared their private workplace frustrations and felt relieved to know others felt the same way. Some even shared my particular desire to create new resources outside HR. Few of us trusted the integrity of an internal investigation, and many doubted that the new reporting channels would be any different than those currently in place.

The process led us to understand the fundamental fact of a unionized workplace versus a non-unionized one: In the former, you have some power to make your workplace what you want it to be, and in the latter you have hardly any. In our non-unionized status quo, getting a significant raise without moving into management was already difficult and opaque. We had little control over our job duties, especially as we chased an endless series of new media trends. Mass layoffs were always a looming threat, the severance packages that could come alongside them likely relatively meager.

But what inspired me the most about our organizing drive was the potential it had to build channels over which we had control that could prevent and respond swiftly to harassment and assault. I knew we needed a reporting structure that didn’t have to weigh the company’s interest in deciding how to respond when those in power acted unethically or behaved inappropriately—or worse, criminally.

Reporting structures that we had control over felt like the best way for our coworkers to, as the general counsel’s report had mentioned, “not fear retaliation.” The report recommended “considering whether additional independent reporting channels should be established for the News Division specifically until the level of comfort with existing internal channels improves.” We agreed. And we had a better idea: Why not have those independent reporting channels stick around?

During public organizing drives, companies will often point to a variety of available feedback channels for employees to “raise their concerns” and “participate” in reforms. An hour after Andy Lack sent his “How We Go Forward” email, I decided to test one out. This experiment wasn’t cynical—I was genuinely hoping that my and my colleague’s distrust of NBC in the wake of the internal investigation might prove unfounded.

A few months earlier, The Cut had released leaked footage of NBCNews journalist Chris Matthews making a rape joke about Hillary Clinton prior to an interview with her in January 2016. In the clip, as a young female associate brings what is presumably Clinton’s water glass towards the set, Matthews jokes about needing a “Bill Cosby pill” to place in the “Queen’s precious water.” I was as bothered by the content as anyone, but also particularly troubled that the incident and leaked tape was, to my knowledge, never recognized by management as something they were addressing with any public disciplinary action. Matthews did apologize in a statement to The Cut, but it felt like NBC had perhaps hoped the story would just blow over with little notice and without any further actions required of Matthews. So I sent the following email to ombudsman@nbcuni.com, the reporting channel that management had recommended us to use:

From: Rebecca Davis Date: Wednesday, May 9, 2018 at 10:20 AM To: "Ombudsperson (NBCUniversal)" < ombudsperson@nbcuni.com > Subject:

Hi — following up on Andy’s email this morning regarding NBC’s desire to create a safer and more respectful environment — was curious if anything had/is being done to address this?

https://www.thecut.com/2018/01...

Was deeply troubled to come across it and surprised it was never address [sic] by the company with any sort of email to employees about what action NBC was taking.

Appreciate any info you may have about this matter.

While my email was not a complaint like the more serious claims that got Matt Lauer fired, it represented concern over a work culture that was counter to the one my fellow organizers would tolerate going forward. We knew that something like a rape joke in a newsroom creates an unhealthy working environment—most especially for those like the young workers in the clip with Matthews, who might feel like they have too much at stake to speak up. More seriously, the environments where rape jokes like this are permissible often go hand in hand with behavior that goes beyond the jokes. As Time’s Up, the anti-harassment organization founded in Hollywood in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, recently said in a statement, "Egregious behavior like Lauer’s is often only possible in a toxic work environment."

But no one responded. So after management dropped “contact us!” cards on our desks later in the month, I followed up, emailing a VP in the Compliance department at NBCUniversal as directed:

From: "Davis, Rebecca (NBCUniversal)" Date: 5/26/18 1:23 PM (GMT-05:00) To: "Zwerling, Susanna (NBCUniversal)" Subject: FW:

Hi Susanna —

Never heard back on this note below, but saw your name on the cards that were recently dropped on our desks.

Do you have any info on the below?

Thanks,

Rebecca

This time, I got a response, with two other people I'd also never heard of or met but who appeared to be in Compliance cc'd:

From: "Zwerling, Susanna (NBCUniversal)" Date: Saturday, May 26, 2018 at 3:33 PM To: Rebecca Davis Subject: Re:

Thank you Rebecca. I hadn't seen this. I'll check on it and get back to you.

Since others were CCed in the response, I thought: Okay, perhaps the ombudsman email was just a false start. But, again, none of the three on my follow-up email ever got back to me. I waited another month for them to respond, and sent one more note:

From: Rebecca Davis Date: Tuesday, July 17, 2018 at 2:29 PM To: "Zwerling, Susanna (NBCUniversal)" Subject: Re:

Hi Susanna—

Any updates on this? Have been talking to others on my team about this and nobody seems to have heard anything from the company.

Thanks for any info you’re able to pass our way.

Rebecca

I never got an answer.

Sure, my inquiry regarded an incident that could be chalked up as “only a joke”—and no employee was directly harmed in the clip (although more serious claims have been leveled against Matthews). But I couldn't stop thinking about the shocked expression of the young woman carrying that water towards Matthews. How would it feel to be her, working for a seasoned journalist—someone who should be a role model—and hear him joking about drugging the person seeking to become the first woman president?

To me, this small moment, captured in video that was never meant to be aired publicly, represented an off-camera culture that needed changing. And in it, NBC’s corporate channels appeared to still be ineffective and opaque.

As the one-year mark of the Lauer scandal passed, organizing continued apace. And as we grew, the conversation deepened: What had started with questions directly related to the Lauer firing broadened to include other plans for what a future NBC could and should look like. And as the allegations that NBC management may have hindered Ronan Farrow and Rich McHugh’s Harvey Weinstein investigation—that they had told Farrow and McHugh to “stand down,” that they had discouraged reporting trips, that they had been resistant throughout the pair's eight-month investigation—came to light, our campaign took on increased significance. If we had a union when Farrow and McHugh were initially investigating Weinstein, we thought, perhaps we could have put added pressure on management to defend their journalism. Our future union, I realized, did not have to limit itself to protecting NBC’s employees; it could also be mobilized to protect NBC’s journalistic mission.

There was also a growing desire for the type of transparency for which a union could advocate. As one co-worker, discouraged by NBC’s choice in conducting an internal investigation of Lauer, told me, “if the company has nothing to hide, why are they refusing an external investigation?”

At the time, we were also seeing other unions push for transparency and being able to course-correct with the information they learned. In April 2018, journalists at the just-unionized _Los Angeles Time_s negotiated for the release of pay data on some 300 employees at the company. Their report found women and journalists of color were underpaid by thousands of dollars a year. Eventually, we decided to create our own makeshift pay study, inviting those across the various departments in digital at NBC to share salaries in an anonymous spreadsheet. Though our findings could only be anecdotal without direct access to the full data set, we were nonetheless finding gaps of $20 to 30,000 among people with very similar qualifications, experience, and job descriptions.

I was out on a shoot one day while a coworker read through the salary spreadsheet that we were sharing around the newsroom. In that moment, discovering that they were being underpaid and mis-titled, they went back to the office with new resolve. They succeeded in getting a raise. And this was before our union campaign had even gone public.

And this is all without mentioning the concrete benefits that NBC has reportedly given employees in the last few months—more vacation and a comp day policy for weekend work, in what looks like either a response to our organizing drive or a classic union avoidance campaign, take your pick. (Maybe I should mention that they also started encouraging NBC employees to take lunch breaks, and not work more than 40 hours a week, but I’m averse to giving credit to NBC for simply following the law.)

I ended up moving to another newsroom halfway through our union drive, and the move showed me how organizing spreads like fire. When my new workplace began the same process, I was ready to sign up immediately. A union campaign doesn't just transform one workplace. It transforms the people involved no matter where they go, and unites them with a larger labor movement that started decades before they entered the workforce.

Late last week, after their ballots were counted in a federal building in downtown Manhattan, digital employees at NBC News got word that they had officially won a union. After the news came in, I spoke with a few of them, and they shared with me how hopeful they were. One told me they were happy to have a new channel through which they could “publicly comment on NBC moves and policies”—that before the union, speaking out was “risky at best.” Another said she felt safer because she now had “a completely independent structure that exists to safeguard our interests, not the interests of the company.” If the employees who knew about Lauer’s misdeeds had a union, she told me, “they would have felt safer going to management with a union rep on their side.” One staffer said she would “rather speak with a union representative over HR in a similar situation” since “HR's loyalties lie foremost with the company.”

This is the beginning of the fight, not the end. “I’m excited to have a union in place to pressure NBC News to do everything it can to keep its workplace healthy for employees,” one worker told me. ”We can only begin to heal as a workplace once we know how deep our wounds go—and looking at our culture and righting its wrongs is the first step.”

The results of the vote represent the desire of the roughly 150-person NBC News Digital newsroom to build a better NBC. In the words of Andy Lack’s email from May 2018, change in the wake of the Lauer scandal “requires strong, specific steps in a sustained manner to transform the culture.”

Amen, Andy. That’s exactly what we did.

VICE reached out to Susanna Zwerling for comment but did not receive a response by press time; a spokesperson for NBCUniversal declined to comment.

Rebecca Davis is a former Senior Producer with NBC News Digital.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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