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NBC women’s big error with the Tom Brokaw sexual assault allegations

Tom Brokaw, news anchor/author
Tom Brokaw, news anchor/author

While our collective attention is elsewhere, another story is quietly slipping under the radar: allegations of sexual harassment against Tom Brokaw, one of America’s most powerful and respected television anchors.

A former colleague, Linda Vester, has claimed Brokaw “groped and assaulted” her in the 1990s. An unnamed former assistant has also alleged Brokaw made unwanted advances. Vester has provided journals to Variety that she says back up her account.

Brokaw indignantly denied the claim, likening the claims to a “drive-by shooting” and dismissing Vester as merely “a former colleague who left NBC News angry that she had failed in her pursuit of stardom.”

“I made no romantic overtures towards her at that time or any other,” he wrote. But in that same statement, he goes on to contradict himself: “As I got up to leave I may have leaned over for a perfunctory goodnight kiss, but my memory is that it happened at the door — on the cheek.”

Against the backdrop of our eye-opening national education on sexual harassment, this admission should have been reason enough to approach this story with seriousness and concern. Instead, his colleagues — his female colleagues, mind you — have inexplicably rushed to his defense.

Big mistake.

Despite their presumed respect for the 22-year “NBC Nightly News” anchor, few of Brokaw’s current colleagues were even at the network 25 years ago when the behavior was alleged to have occurred. Still fewer were at the NBC News bureau in Denver or London, where at least two incidents reportedly occurred. And presumably none were in Vester’s New York City hotel room, where she says another incident occurred.

And yet, that hasn’t stopped 115 of them, including big names like Rachel Maddow, Mika Brzezinski, Andrea Mitchell and Maria Shriver, from signing a letter attesting to Brokaw’s “tremendous decency and integrity.”

One notable absence? Megyn Kelly, who cautioned on her NBC morning show earlier this week: “You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s not in any way to impugn Tom, who I love and who’s been so good to me. Just saying, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Greta Van Susteren and Geraldo Rivera, who are both former Kelly colleagues, learned this the hard way. When Gretchen Carlson alleged harassment against Fox News head Roger Ailes, both were quick to defend him. Van Susteren insisted, “He just doesn’t do this stuff. If this were going on, I would have heard about it.”

Of course, Van Susteren didn’t even work in the New York headquarters where much of Ailes’ harassment took place, later acknowledging she worked “200 miles from the ‘scene of the crimes.’” Both she and Rivera eventually walked back their defenses.

Since the Brokaw letter was written, a third allegation has emerged, from a former reporter, Mary Reinholz, who claims that in the late ’60s, Brokaw (still then married) abruptly embraced and kissed her.

Now, it turns out some female staffers at NBC News are complaining. One anonymously told The New York Post, “We felt forced to sign the letter supporting Brokaw. We had no choice, particularly the lower level staffers.” And, “If more women come forward, that’s a big problem.”

Another in that same report said she felt intimidated by the powerful names on the letter: “When you have over 100 women like Andrea Mitchell signing a letter of support without knowing the facts, it’s pretty scary. ... The letter will have a chilling effect on other women coming forward.”

Banding together to sign a letter defending a top veteran newsman is exactly the kind of thing that creates a culture of intimidation. Who would feel comfortable coming forward about sexual harassment allegations now?

Rushing to the defense of an accused sexual harasser is just as bad as rushing to condemn one.

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