More Maddow-Mania—and an Update on the Cuomo Scandal

Chris Cuomo
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
September 24, 2021

So Rachel Maddow plans to exit MSNBC primetime next year and, as I reported this week, Nicolle Wallace is the most likely candidate to assume her mantle and become the new face of the network. From first blush, of course, it seems like a strange decision. After all, Wallace was working for the Dubya administration when Maddow was a rising star on Air America. But media realities can scramble political realignments. Wallace is now the face of a sober, Never Trump brand of practical centrism that could open up MSNBC’s primetime aperture. Just as importantly, she’s “producible” and Maddow likes her, presumably suggesting that the star would signal her followers to give her successor a chance. There’s no fear of a LenoConan situation. 

At least that’s the picture taking shape at the executive levels of 30 Rock. The news of Maddow’s departure has not gone over particularly well among some rank and file at the network. Sources there tell me that MSNBC President Rashida Jones held a town hall Wednesday and fielded a question from an employee who wanted more clarity on the show’s future. Jones told them that Maddow had addressed the matter directly with her show’s staff—there’s some disagreement about whether that was actually true—and declined to say more. (An NBC spokesperson declined to comment).

Meanwhile, a few high-level NBC sources have told me that Maddow’s departure will likely have ripple effects across the network, and could precipitate an overhaul of the entire evening lineup. Their thesis: MSNBC primetime is currently built entirely around Maddow and her brand of progressivism, with liberal warriors Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell as the undercards to Maddow’s main event. Wallace’s brand of television is decidedly different—the Never Trump ex-Republican, the champion of reason and competency, the D.C. insider and political animal—and would thus require a different supporting cast.

Who might that be? It’s not hard to imagine MSNBC seizing this opportunity to diversify the primetime lineup—diversity being a top priority for both Jones and NBC News Chairman Cesar Conde, who has set a goal for making women and people of color each account for fifty percent of the NBC News Group. MSNBC has no shortage of talented female anchors on dayside: Stephanie Ruhle, Katy Tur, Hallie Jackson. Jones is also said to be quite fond of Zerlina Maxwell, the political analyst and Clinton 2016 alum, and Al Jazeera alum Mehdi Hasan, although neither one of them seems suited for primetime yet. (Both have shows on Peacock.)

The other big question mark at MSNBC coalesces around Brian Williams, whose contract is up in December. I would caution you not to believe most of what you read or hear on this front. For instance, there’s a rumor going around New York that he’s in talks with CBS to take over Norah O’Donnell‘s spot on the Evening News. I understand why this rumor is tempting to believe—it would pit the famed NBC Nightly News veteran against his former network at 6 p.m.—but it’s not going to happen. There’s also a rumor that he might go to CNN to do… what, exactly? I guess it’s not out of the question, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.

The other rumor is that Williams might hitch up with his friend Richard Plepler and do something under his umbrella at Apple. This is also unlikely to happen, sources close to both men say, but it at least gets you closer to what Williams’ future might look like: special projects on a part time basis, befitting a 62-year-old man who, but for one disastrous error in 2015, has had quite a storied run in television news. 

Another very possible outcome: Williams stays in his current 11 p.m. slot at MSNBC, or at least stays long enough to let MSNBC avoid the embarrassment of losing both its 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. anchors at the same time. He is, after all, a company man. Whatever the case, Jones and Conde are doing everything they can to keep him, sources with knowledge of the negotiations tell me.

Another note from the world of television news: I can confirm via sources familiar with the matter that Disney TV chief Peter Rice did not grant ABC News president Kim Godwin her request for an independent investigation into the network’s handling of sexual assault allegations against Michael Corn, the former executive producer of Good Morning America. (Corn has previously denied allegations, noting “I have never touched any work colleague in a sexual manner.”) 

Godwin, who joined ABC from CBS earlier this year, told her staff on a conference call last month, “We can’t have us investigating us. We need an independent person.” Per the Wall Street Journal, new G.M.A. executive producer Simone Swink told employees, “Peter said it was beyond his sphere of influence to ask for an outside investigation of the Walt Disney Company.”

Setting aside the question of whether or not an outside investigation is warranted, Rice’s statement, relayed via Swink, appears to be a direct message to Godwin: If it’s beyond my sphere of influence, it’s certainly beyond yours. Do not put me in that position again. (A Disney spokesperson declined to comment).

Lastly, I got a text from a colleague on Thursday night saying that the usually jocular handoff between Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon on CNN seemed off. Cuomo, normally uproarious and back-slapping, was notably more emotional than usual. Something was amiss. 

This morning, The New York Times published a guest essay by Shelley Ross, the trailblazing television news producer, accusing Cuomo of groping her in 2005. Notably, the article also included an apologetic email that Cuomo sent her on the evening of the incident, acknowledging the inappropriate contact. Cuomo’s behavior was indisputably appalling, and Ross deserves credit for having the bravery to discuss it openly. She also rightly notes the hypocrisy in Cuomo advising his brother, Andrew Cuomo, on the management of his own sexual harassment allegations. (In a statement to the Times, Cuomo said, “As Shelley acknowledges, our interaction was not sexual in nature. It happened 16 years ago in a public setting when she was a top executive at ABC. I apologized to her then, and I meant it.”)

In the piece, Ross noted that she did not want Cuomo to lose his job over the revelation of the incident—“I hope he stays at CNN forever,” she wrote—but, for a moment at least, his future seemed in doubt. Sources very close to Cuomo, however, tell me he isn’t going to lose his job. He’ll be on his show tonight, in fact. 

Meanwhile, several people in the industry have pointed out that Ross’ career in TV news was not scandal free—some pointed to a 2008 Times article about how she “alienated” staff at CBS and was subsequently fired—and many suggested that she helped to create a toxic culture that Cuomo contributed to. (Ross responded to an email requesting an interview, but did not respond to a subsequent email regarding specific anecdotes and claims about her management style.) But some of these comments, reminiscent of victim-shaming that often follows allegations of harassment, also struck me as a sign of how much television news remains a male-dominated culture. As a female leader in broadcast news, Ross was certainly more harshly judged than her male counterparts—some of whom were surely guilty of the same behavior without being called out for it. 

One last thing: Ross says in her op-ed that she was moved to write about the incident because she saw a photo of Cuomo wearing a T-shirt with the word “Truth,” which she described as a provocation “in this era of personal accountability.” For the record: the “Truth” on Cuomo’s shirt refers to Truth Training, his gym in East Hampton.

A few other things on my radar:

– The Journal reports that Barry Diller‘s IAC/InterActiveCorp is in advanced talks to acquire Meredith, the publisher of magazines like People, InStyle and Better Homes & Gardens. The $2.5 billion deal is a scale play for IAC’s publishing arm Dotdash.

– In Menlo Park, Mark Zuckerberg has promoted his hardware chief Andrew Bosworth, better known as Boz, to the role of chief technology officer. The move is yet another sign that “Facebook is serious about being a long-term player in hardware,” and specifically AR/VR, per The Verge’s Alex Heath.

– Finally, Kara Swisher is hosting her annual Code Conference next week here in Los Angeles. Notable speakers on the media front include Ari Emanuel, Ted Sarandos and Jason Kilar. Plus Swisher’s biggest get this year: Elon Musk.