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Comcast rejects calls for outside investigation of NBC's handling of sexual harassment

Meg James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Comcast shareholders, led by Chairman Brian Roberts, rejected three proposals from investors, including a demand for an outside investigation into sexual harassment at NBC News.

The Philadelphia-based cable giant also tossed out shareholder requests to detail its lobbying efforts -- Comcast spent more than $15 million in lobbying in 2018 -- and a proposal that the company's board be led by an independent chairman. Roberts, the scion of Comcast's founding family, has served as the company's chairman and chief executive for more than a decade.

The company conducted its annual meeting of shareholders via webcast Wednesday, rather than the traditional in-person gathering because of COVID-19 social distancing recommendations.

The 43-minute affair included an array of questions from investors, including a request by an elderly couple for "senior discounts" offered to cable customers nationwide and allegations that certain MSNBC anchors have given tacit support to protestors instigating some of the violence gripping American cities. Protests have been sparked by police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

"It is truly heart-breaking and tragic that, in 2020, we find our society still struggling with issues that are so core to human dignity. Racism, injustice, violence have no place and cannot be tolerated," Roberts said. "By and large, I think the coverage continues to inform and educate our society ... But thank you for your comment."

However, Wednesday's forum shined a light on lingering frustration over NBCUniversal's decision not to seek an independent review of NBC News' culture following revelations of sexual misconduct by former "Today" show anchor Matt Lauer. NBC's internal investigation found that management was unaware of allegations of misconduct by Lauer before November 2017.

The review was conducted by NBC legal counsel with assistance from two outside law firms. They concluded that before a woman reported Lauer in November 2017, there hadn't been complaints to management or human resources regarding the former anchor, who had worked at the network for 23 years.

Other media companies, including CBS Corp. and Rupert Murdoch's Fox company, quickly turned to outside law firms to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by high-level employees.

The issue surfaced again last fall, when investigative reporter Ronan Farrow alleged that NBC brass covered up serious allegations against Lauer -- claims that NBC has consistently denied. Lauer has acknowledged having affairs but said they were consensual and criticized Farrow's reporting methods.

Farrow left NBC in August 2017 amid frustrations over NBC News' handling of his reporting on disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Farrow took his Weinstein story to the New Yorker magazine which published Farrow's blockbuster report in October 2017. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Since the Lauer affair, there have been other controversies, including over sexist comments made by former MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews and Simon Cowell, a judge on NBC's primetime show "America's Got Talent." In the case of the reality show, NBC hired an outside firm to look into allegations of whether there was a racist and toxic environment on set. Last week, the company announced that a review into Gabrielle Union's high-profile exit from "America's Got Talent" found that workplace issues had "no bearing" on her dismissal from the show.

 

One shareholder, Arjuna Capital of Manchester, Mass., requested the company conduct an "independent investigation and report on risks posed by failing to prevent sexual harassment."

The firm noted that NBC News' digital editorial staff voted to form a union with the NewsGuild of New York because staff members, among other things, have "serious questions" about management's handling of allegations of workplace sexual misconduct. Allegations about inappropriate comments by managers have been made by three Comcast call center employees, according to Arjuna.

"Workplace harassment can harm shareholder value," Arjuna Capital wrote in its proposal. "To avoid legal and reputational risk, as the employer of 184,000 workers, Comcast must create a culture and transparency, and protect employees from harassment and discrimination."

Comcast urged shareholders to reject the independent review, saying "our company has been built on a foundation of respect, integrity and trust, and we are committed to creating a work environment that promotes those values."

Comcast did not release actual vote totals. The Roberts' family controls 33% of its voting shares.

The company said it would provide a break-down of the votes in a Security & Exchange Commission filing within four business days.

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