A bombshell lawsuit against the former top producer of Good Morning America has ignited a firestorm behind the scenes, with co-hosts George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts allegedly at each other’s throats over the handling of claims that their former boss sexually assaulted multiple women at the network, four people with knowledge of situation told The Daily Beast.
The fallout from the lawsuit has engulfed ABC News, with staffers furious about the company’s handling of the matter. As such, recently installed news president Kim Godwin, who came into the job promising to clean up the culture, is now in her fourth month in the position and already dealing with the significant challenge of quelling internal dissent over the situation, according to sources.
Last week, Kirstyn Crawford, a producer who works closely with Stephanopoulos on the top-rated morning show, filed a lawsuit against Michael Corn, the former senior executive producer of GMA, alleging he sexually assaulted her and cultivated a toxic work environment. Corn has vehemently denied the allegations, and ABC disputed the claims and vowed to fight them in court.
GMA staffers discussed the lawsuit on a team-wide call, during which a clearly emotional Roberts declared, “If this happened to someone on my team, I would have burned the place down,” according to multiple people who were present for the meeting.
Staffers who heard the remark said it was unsubtly directed at Stephanopoulos, who, according to the lawsuit, had been informed of Crawford’s sexual assault allegations almost four years ago and continued to work with Corn. ABC News employees who spoke with The Daily Beast asked to do so anonymously out of fear of retaliation.
The comment quickly made its way back to Stephanopoulos, who was “livid,” according to the people familiar. The GMA co-host and This Week moderator has been off the air in recent days, self-isolating after his daughter was diagnosed with COVID-19. His rep, Alan Berger of Creative Artists Agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
But ABC News staffers are questioning whether Stephanopoulos, a former political operative who gained notoriety as a Clinton White House aide and is now one of the most powerful people at ABC News, did enough to sound the alarm or intervene after he was informed of the allegations against Corn.
As an example of the power and influence Stephanopoulos wields within ABC News, insiders pointed to a situation earlier this year in which he threatened to defect to a rival network over tensions with colleague and bitter rival David Muir. The network was so eager to please the famed anchor that Disney executive chairman Bob Iger and Peter Rice, chairman of general entertainment content, reportedly flew across the country to offer him a lucrative contract extension.
Meanwhile, Roberts remains “incensed” about ABC’s handling of the allegations as well as her co-host’s actions (or lack thereof), and has made her feelings known to bosses, according to colleagues who have spoken with her in recent days. Her agent, Jon Rosen of Endeavor, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Robin and George are fine,” ABC News spokesperson Caragh Fisher said in a statement to The Daily Beast, declining to address other questions including whether other women had come forward with allegations about Corn. “She told him personally that she wasn’t referring to him and called the team the next day to reiterate that her comment was not about any one individual.”
But the environment at ABC News in the wake of the lawsuit has been “chaotic,” according to staffers, who pointed to a series of hastily organized calls with news executives that only raised more questions about who knew what and when about the allegations against Corn. Other staffers objected to the network’s statement on the lawsuit, which neglected to express support for the women who accused Corn of misconduct.
“I’d say if so many weren’t already working remotely, I’d recommend a walk-out or all declare a mental health day off until management, Disney management promises to publish a full accounting of who knew what and when, who followed up and who didn’t, what was done and what should have been done,” former Good Morning America executive producer Shelley Ross, a veteran news staffer, told The Daily Beast.
The allegations against Corn were first raised in November 2017, the same month NBC fired Matt Lauer and CBS forced out Charlie Rose over sexual misconduct allegations at the height of the MeToo movement’s sweep across multiple industries—from Hollywood to New York media.
During this period, according to the lawsuit, Stephanopoulos spoke with Crawford in his office and told her he heard she was allegedly assaulted by Corn in Los Angeles in 2015 during a trip to the Academy Awards.
“He grabbed Crawford’s head and pulled it into his chest and kept telling her to ‘just relax’ and kept asking ‘why are you so tense?’” the lawsuit stated, detailing an incident in which Corn and Crawford traveled together in an Uber back to their hotel. “Corn then began kissing Crawford on the head and rubbing her legs. He accused Crawford of being ‘insecure’ and asked her if she had ‘daddy issues.’”
Knowing that his producer had been sexually assaulted, the suit claimed Stephanopoulos disclosed the matter to Heather Riley, then-senior director of publicity for GMA, Derek Medina, then-senior vice president for business affairs, and Tanya Menton, vice president of litigation. Crawford subsequently discussed the sexual assault with Riley but, fearing retaliation from Corn, did not proceed with a formal complaint, the lawsuit stated.
The suit also alleged that Jill McClain, who worked for Diane Sawyer at World News, where Corn was previously executive producer, was sexually assaulted by him. ABC is also named in the suit as a defendant, with Crawford alleging the network ignored several complaints from women about Corn’s behavior for years and failed to take any action.
Staffers this week expressed dismay at ABC News management’s handling of the claims and the lack of consequences for Corn, echoing the lawsuit’s charge that, “According to ABC’s policies, whenever it is put on notice of alleged misconduct, it must conduct a meaningful, thorough investigation. But neither Menton nor anyone else from ABC’s litigation or human resources department conducted such an investigation.”
Corn continued to run GMA until earlier this year, when both Crawford and McClain reported the incidents to management. He departed the network soon after and is now president of news at Nexstar Media Group’s cable-news upstart NewsNation. Both Riley and Medina were subsequently promoted by ABC. (On Sunday, ABC announced that Simone Swink, the current producer of GMA’s 8 a.m. hour, will replace Corn as the breakfast show’s executive producer. The promotion was made public after The Daily Beast contacted ABC and Disney to confirm Swink was set to be named to the top position.)
Corn, once one of the most powerful people in television news, has retained Clare Locke, the aggressive husband-and-wife legal team who’ve boasted about “killing stories” and have previously represented Lauer and former 60 Minutes boss Jeff Fager over sexual harassment allegations. The firm issued a statement on Corn’s behalf: “I will be pursuing all available legal remedies against these women and defending myself vigorously.”
The events of the last week presented the first big test for Godwin, who was appointed to head ABC News in April. She has called for an “independent investigation” into the matter, a move that angered Disney execs, including Rice, who have made it known they do not want a fresh probe, particularly in the midst of litigation, according to people familiar with the situation.
ABC had long managed to avoid the massive MeToo reckonings that engulfed NBC, CBS, and Fox News. But overall, sources said the lawsuit’s fallout has demonstrated the lingering cultural issues within ABC News that staffers believe parent company Disney has ignored.
“The problems are greater and there should’ve been clear action and an intervention,” Ross, the former GMA executive producer, who mentored Corn, told The Daily Beast.
“There has to be a reckoning of all enablers.”
—With additional reporting by Maxwell Tani