Inside Disney’s Handling of the ABC News Sexual-Assault Allegations

When writer

Jay Carson

was doing research in the fall of 2017 to develop “The Morning Show,” an

Apple

TV+ drama about a scandal at a morning newscast, he spoke to ABC News producer

Kirstyn Crawford.

Mr. Carson wanted to know about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the TV news business, as it was going to figure into the plot of the show. In the course of those conversations, Ms. Crawford told him she had been sexually assaulted two years earlier by her boss,

Michael Corn,

the top producer of ABC’s biggest revenue earner, “Good Morning America,” people familiar with the discussion said.

Mr. Carson passed that information to his friend, “Good Morning America” anchor

George Stephanopoulos,

the people said. Mr. Stephanopoulos told people he then informed key company executives.

What happened next is the subject of a legal battle that has raised questions about how ABC and parent

Walt Disney Co.

DIS -0.67%

handle sexual-assault allegations. At issue is whether the company executives who allegedly knew of Ms. Crawford’s claims discouraged her from officially coming forward, and whether they failed to investigate the matter promptly.

For Disney, which cultivates a family-friendly image, the accusation that an executive got a pass for sexual misconduct is especially serious.

In a suit against ABC and Mr. Corn filed this August, Ms. Crawford alleged that senior Disney and ABC officials learned of her allegations in 2017 through Mr. Stephanopoulos, but failed to probe them—along with other claims of misconduct against Mr. Corn—for several years. ABC says it fired Mr. Corn after Ms. Crawford and another accuser,

Jill McClain,

registered formal complaints at the company early this year. Ms. McClain isn’t a plaintiff in the lawsuit but is supporting Ms. Crawford’s case by providing her own allegations against Mr. Corn, according to the lawsuit.

On Sunday, a Disney spokeswoman said ABC News disputes the claims made against it and will address the matter in court.

In a statement earlier this year, the spokeswoman said, “When Ms. Crawford first came forward in February 2021 with allegations against Michael Corn, they were immediately investigated independently of ABC News by Corporate legal and HR. Following a thorough investigation, Mr. Corn’s employment with ABC News ended.” She added, “we will defend against the remaining claims that ABC failed to take appropriate action against Mr. Corn or retaliated against Ms. Crawford.”

In a legal filing in response to the lawsuit, ABC said, “Notwithstanding ABC’s swift and severe action against Corn, Ms. Crawford nevertheless seeks to hold ABC liable for his conduct.” The legal filing doesn’t address any events of 2017.

Mr. Corn has denied the allegations, calling the claims in the suit fabrications. Neither Mr. Corn nor his lawyer responded to a request for additional comment. Mr. Corn is now president of news at

Nexstar Media Group Inc.’s

NewsNation channel. “We have no comment on anything that may or may not have happened prior to Mr. Corn’s employment with Nexstar,” a company spokesman said.

ABC and Mr. Corn have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, but no ruling has taken place.

ABC News rivals NBC,

CBS

and Fox News have all faced scrutiny over their handling of allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace. ABC’s news division was already trying to counter a perception by staffers that it was a toxic workplace after firing a top executive last year for allegedly making racially insensitive remarks.

Pedestrians in front of the ‘Good Morning America’ studio in New York last week.



Photo:

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

ABC tried to handle the situation with Mr. Corn quietly: When it forced him out in April, its statement didn’t say why. ABC and Disney held talks with Ms. Crawford and Ms. McClain to explore a settlement that would keep a lid on the story, people familiar with the matter said. There were also discussions over whether Mr. Corn would contribute to any settlement, the people said. The settlement talks broke down before the lawsuit was filed.

Within ABC News, the suit and its fallout have posed a cultural challenge. The company’s decision on how to deal with a sensitive personnel and legal matter—to say almost nothing—has clashed with employee demands for an open flow of information. Many producers and reporters expressed a sense of betrayal that they were kept in the dark about the circumstances of Mr. Corn’s exit.

“As journalists, we also want to know the answers to some of these questions about how this happened, when we knew about it, why it happened and what’s happening with the people who were involved,” said ABC News White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega at a virtual town hall meeting on Aug. 26, the day after the suit was filed, according to a recording of the event.

The saga created tensions between Disney and

Kim Godwin,

who was named the network’s news president around the same time Mr. Corn left. She was hired away from CBS News in part to address the cultural problems at the network and raise morale.

She told staffers in that same town hall that she was calling for an independent investigation of how the network handled the allegations against Mr. Corn. “We can’t have us investigating us. We need an independent person,” Ms. Godwin said, according to the recording. “The truth has to come out.”

Those remarks put Ms. Godwin at odds with senior Disney officials at the company’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters, people familiar with the situation said. Nearly a month later,

Peter Rice,

the chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, who oversees ABC News, decided not to pursue an independent investigation, according to Simone Swink, the executive producer of “GMA,” who told staff in a recorded meeting. She added that “Peter said it was ‘beyond his sphere of influence’ to ask for an outside investigation of the Walt Disney Company,” according to the recording.

Allegations in TV news

In the lawsuit, Ms. Crawford alleges that Mr. Corn assaulted her during a 2015 reporting trip to Los Angeles. He forcibly touched Ms. Crawford during an Uber ride, kissing her head and rubbing her legs, according to the lawsuit. At the hotel, she brought Mr. Corn some Advil at his request and agreed to sit on his bed, fearing her boss would “lash out” if she said no, the suit says. Mr. Corn grabbed her arm and pulled her head onto his chest and began kissing the top of her head, Ms. Crawford alleges.

The suit’s claims center on what ABC and Disney did in 2017 when Ms. Crawford’s allegations began to surface and several prominent employees learned of the alleged incident.

That year, the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct in the workplace was gaining traction, and the TV news business was at the center of the storm. NBC News fired “Today” anchor Matt Lauer for inappropriate sexual behavior. CBS parted ways with Charlie Rose after harassment allegations surfaced against him. Earlier that year, Fox News had ended its relationship with on-air personality Bill O’Reilly after disclosures of harassment allegations and secret settlements. Mr. Lauer has apologized for his actions while saying some of the allegations weren’t true; Mr. Rose called the allegations without merit; and Mr. O’Reilly has denied allegations.

Former ABC News producer Kirstyn Crawford.

Under Disney’s policies, company officials are supposed to investigate allegations of sexual harassment or assault regardless of whether a formal complaint has been filed, according to current and former employees. ABC and Disney failed to do that in Ms. Crawford’s case, according to the suit.

After he heard from Mr. Carson, ABC’s Mr. Stephanopoulos notified

Derek Medina,

who at the time was senior vice president of business affairs at ABC News;

Heather Riley,

then a publicist for the program; and

Tanya Menton,

a Disney lawyer who works on sensitive employment matters, according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Stephanopoulos said the details in the lawsuit about him were accurate.

Mr. Medina told Mr. Stephanopoulos that Ms. Crawford should talk to Ms. Menton directly, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Stephanopoulos “urged Crawford to call Menton and tell her about the assault,” according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Crawford ultimately didn’t call Ms. Menton. In the suit, Ms. Crawford alleges that Ms. Riley told her reporting the incident might get “messy.” Ms. Crawford feared a formal complaint would “do more harm than good or even result in losing her job,” the suit says.

Some ABC staffers say Mr. Stephanopoulos didn’t take sufficient action in 2017. His “GMA” co-host,

Robin Roberts,

was critical of him in a meeting with staffers, saying if someone who worked for her had raised such disturbing allegations she would have “burned the place down,” people familiar with the situation said.

Soon after Ms. Roberts’s remarks, ABC issued a statement saying they weren’t directed at her on-air colleague and that “Robin and George are fine.”

Other staffers say Ms. Menton and Disney’s human-resources department failed to pursue the matter aggressively. “It’s the lack of trust in HR,” one staffer said at a “GMA” staff meeting, according to a recording.

Ms. Roberts and fellow anchor George Stephanopoulos on the set of ‘Good Morning America’ in October.



Photo:

Jeff Neira/ABC

Diane Sawyer call

Disney and ABC didn’t investigate the allegations in 2017, according to people familiar with the matter, and it faded away for several years.

On New Year’s Eve in 2020,

Diane Sawyer,

a veteran ABC anchor, had a catch-up call with Ms. McClain, who had been a producer for her on “World News Tonight” years earlier. Ms. Sawyer asked why her mentee had left the network in 2013. Ms. McClain said she had been sexually assaulted by Mr. Corn, who was then the producer running the nightly newscast, according to the lawsuit and people familiar with the conversation.

According to Ms. McClain’s account, as detailed in the lawsuit, Mr. Corn assaulted her twice. The suit said Mr. Corn groped her on a flight in 2010 when she was trying to sleep. Then, on a trip to London in 2011, he forced his way into her hotel room, pushed her onto the bed and “grabbed the top of McClain’s jumpsuit as well as her bra and pulled them both down,” the suit said.

Separately, Ms. McClain had learned of Ms. Crawford’s claims through a former colleague, and relayed the details to Ms. Sawyer.

Ms. Sawyer urged Ms. McClain to report the incidents to ABC. Ms. Sawyer herself called Ms. Menton, the Disney lawyer, to sound the alarm about the alleged incidents, according to the suit.

Former ABC News producer Jill McClain.

In February 2021, Ms. McClain and Ms. Crawford filed formal complaints at ABC.

As executive producer of “Good Morning America,” the most-watched morning show, Mr. Corn oversaw a program that brings in more than $300 million a year, according to people familiar with its finances. “GMA” is a huge promotional platform for not only ABC, but other parts of the Disney empire, including ESPN and the streaming service Disney+.

Mr. Corn was also a member of the office of the president of ABC News, an ad hoc group put together to run the unit after the departure earlier this year of ABC president James Goldston. Mr. Corn was viewed by some inside the network as a potential successor to Mr. Goldston.

After ABC investigated the allegations against Mr. Corn, the network announced his departure with no explanation. Its written statement on April 15 said, “Michael Corn no longer works for ABC News.”

ABC staffers were stunned, and some were angry about his removal for no stated reason, people inside ABC News said. The moment was painful for Ms. Crawford, who was upset that her colleagues didn’t know the real reasons behind Mr. Corn’s exit, people familiar with her thinking said.

Tone change

After Mr. Corn’s departure, Disney’s tone toward the accusers changed markedly, people close to the two women say. Ms. Menton was initially warm after they filed their formal complaints, thanking them for helping to make the network a better place, the people said.

But Ms. Menton took a tougher posture in the settlement negotiations, they said. The company wanted a strict nondisclosure agreement so that the allegations regarding Mr. Corn or Disney’s handling of the matter would never surface, the people said. That was a nonstarter for the two women.

At one stage of the talks, one of the people said, company officials brought up Ms. Crawford’s father, Jay Crawford, a former anchor at Disney’s ESPN network who was accused of sexual harassment by a makeup artist in 2007. Ms. Crawford read that as Disney making a threat to humiliate her family if she continued to pursue the matter, the person said. Mr. Crawford, who was laid off by ESPN in 2017 in a broad round of staff reductions, has denied the allegations, and ESPN said at the time they were without merit.

Disney balked at the initial settlement figure floated by the women’s legal team of about $10 million, people with knowledge of the talks said.

In the lawsuit, Ms. Crawford also alleged ABC retaliated for her coming forward by failing to renew her three-year contract, which expired in July.

ABC has denied it retaliated against Ms. Crawford.

After the suit was filed, ABC offered a long-term contract to Ms. Crawford, according to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Crawford rejected the latest offer and resigned from ABC News this month.

Write to Joe Flint at [email protected]

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