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Biden Election Call Boosts Cable TV Network Ratings

At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Americans all over the country began flicking on their TVs.

Moments after CNN and most of the major television networks declared that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had defeated President Trump in the presidential election, viewership surged across the three major cable news networks and the Big Three broadcast networks, according to Nielsen Media Research.

On CNN, viewership jumped 36 percent at 11:30, six minutes after the network became the first to project the Biden win. The MSNBC audience jumped 29 percent at 11:30. (NBC News had made its call at 11:25.) On Fox News, which made the call at 11:40, there was a 38 percent jump. The broadcast networks broke into “special report” mode and also saw huge spikes, according to Nielsen.

In all, more than 21 million viewers across the six networks took in the news that Mr. Biden would be the 46th president, an unusually high total for a weekend morning.

CNN had, by far, the most viewers of any network, averaging around seven million between noon and 2 p.m. Eastern time. MSNBC, the home network for many liberal viewers during the Trump years, had an average of roughly 4.5 million. Fox News, which usually has a commanding lead in viewership, had about three million.

Fox News viewers also began to tune out a little more quickly than viewers of the other cable networks, not long after being greeted to gleaming graphics that Mr. Biden was now president-elect. Viewers started to leave Fox News around noon, about 20 minutes after the network made its call, according to data from Nielsen.

By 3 p.m., as cable viewers began to tire of the roundtable discussions about a Biden presidency, CNN had lost 24 percent of its noon audience and MSNBC 23 percent. But Fox News had shed 45 percent of its audience, to about 1.8 million viewers from about 3.4 million at noon.

The gap between Fox News and other networks was even more pronounced Saturday night. More than 35 million watched Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s prime-time speeches, according to Nielsen. CNN commanded the largest audience, with 13.6 million, and MSNBC had the second-highest total, 8.5 million. CBS led the broadcast networks with 5.6 million.

But Fox News had the smallest viewership of any network that carried the speech: Only three million watched.

No television executive anticipated that this trend would last longer than a day or two. Fox News has hit record ratings marks throughout the year. It scored the highest viewership in prime time on election night of any network.

And indeed, by Monday, it appeared that order had been restored. Fox News won in prime time as its hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — who continued to discuss the Trump campaign’s baseless claims about voter fraud and other alleged election irregularities — averaged 3.8 million viewers, a million better than MSNBC and 1.3 million better than CNN.

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Wary TV Networks Refrained From Early Calls of Battleground States

Call it the Great Wait.

As the polls closed in key states on Tuesday, TV networks held off on projecting winners throughout much of their election night coverage, promising a prudent, go-slow approach to avoid the up-is-down shocks of 2016.

[Fox News made a big call on election night, buoying Biden and angering Trump.]

By midnight on the East Coast, anchors were telling viewers that it was now their turn to cool their heels: A clear outcome, they warned, could take days.

“If it were a tennis match, each side is holding serve,” the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said. “I think the story of the night has really not been told yet.”

And on CNN, the map maestro John King likened the pending results in Pennsylvania — which was emerging as a tipping point — to a ballgame in the “second or third inning at best.”

With a vote count complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and enormous pressure bearing down on TV executives to dodge an egg-on-the-face moment, the major news networks had promised to be cautious.

They weren’t kidding.

No major projections in battleground states came during prime-time hours. The dam burst shortly after 11 when the Fox News decision desk called Florida, Texas and Ohio for President Trump and — in a projection that caught other news outlets off guard — Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Unlike ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, which share information on vote counts as members of the National Election Pool, Fox News relies on a proprietary data model that draws from The Associated Press to make its determinations on election nights. (Other networks continued to describe those battleground states as too close to call after the projections by Fox News.)

One clear assessment of what was shaping up to be an inconclusive evening came shortly before 11:30, courtesy of ABC’s lead anchor, George Stephanopoulos.

“It is looking increasingly clear that we are not going to know who the next president of the United States will be tonight,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “And we are just going to have to be patient as we go through this process in the coming hours, and perhaps in the coming days.”

Prudence in election coverage is preferable to jumping the gun. Still, as the night wore on, anchors seemed ready for answers. Fox News brought on its politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, several times to explain the reluctance of the network’s data team to project battleground winners. It turned into a good-natured grilling session.

On MSNBC, a destination for ardent critics of the president, the anchor Nicolle Wallace argued that her colleagues’ focus on North Carolina was wrong, just as the state appeared to be tilting toward Mr. Trump. “We shouldn’t pull our viewers into dramas that aren’t necessary,” Ms. Wallace said, calling the state a “sideshow.”

When Mr. Biden fell behind in Florida, Ms. Wallace said: “You can feel the hopes and the dreams of our viewers falling down, and you can hear liquor cabinets opening all across this great land.”

CNN’s coverage was dominated by updates from Mr. King, who zoomed in and out of counties in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. The conclusions were murky. “Is it significant?” Mr. King asked, peering over results in Pasco County in Florida. “We don’t know.”

Four years on, TV networks still have scars from the 2016 race, when Mr. Trump’s victory shocked many journalists. His norm-busting presidency and its political fallout became the central focus of cable news, which watched audiences swell.

As Wednesday dawned, the future for the networks, and the country, remained hazy. “We are tonight putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle, but we don’t have the box that has the picture on it,” the CBS News anchor John Dickerson said. “We’re going to be developing that picture as we look at these pieces.”

Tiffany Hsu, Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.

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Networks Pledge Caution for an Election Night Like No Other

Batches of ballots that will be counted at different times, depending on the swing state. Twitter gadflies and foreign agents intent on sowing confusion. A president who has telegraphed for months that he may not accept results he deems unfavorable.

Television executives overseeing this year’s election night broadcasts are facing big challenges. And the world will be watching.

“Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct,” said Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News president. “We are committed to getting this right.”

In interviews, the men and women in charge of network news coverage — the platform that tens of millions of Americans will turn to on Tuesday to make sense of a confusing vote count and learn the future of their country — made similar pledges.

Patience. Caution. And constant reassurance to viewers about the integrity of the results. “We have to be incredibly transparent all through the night with what we know and what we don’t know,” said George Stephanopoulos, who will anchor the proceedings for ABC News.

To accommodate the idiosyncrasies of this pandemic-era campaign, networks are planning tweaks to the way some election nights looked in the past.

Real-time results will be displayed in the context of the total expected vote, including the absentee and mail-in ballots that will account for a high proportion of it. The usual metric, “precincts reporting,” is tied to in-person votes on Election Day, which producers expect to be potentially misleading.

Keep up with Election 2020

The “decision desks,” the teams of data experts at news organizations who project results, say they are not competing over who calls a race first. “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night,” said Susan Zirinsky, the president of CBS News.

And combating misinformation — be it from online mischief-makers or falsehoods from the commander in chief — is a priority, particularly in educating Americans that any delays in declaring a victor stem from care, not chicanery.

“Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “It may not even mean that it’s a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn’t mean anything is untoward.”

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Credit…Fox

That TV networks bear this burden is partly a symptom of the country’s broken information culture, in which partisan news sources and specious social media rumors can overwhelm careful journalism.

There is also open concern among Democrats that President Trump may seize on early returns and declare himself the victor, hoping that voters’ perceptions overwhelm reality.

“I don’t think we can censor the candidates,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “But we have to be vigilant about putting whatever comments are made in context, with everything we know about where the race stands, where the law stands, where the votes are.”

“I wouldn’t think he would call in, knowing that the squad is on that is on,” Mr. Wallace said. He added, “Whatever he were to say wouldn’t sway anything when it comes to what we’re counting.”

That was a reference to Fox News’s decision desk, which has a track record of independence and accuracy. Arnon Mishkin, the consultant who leads the operation, is known for holding his ground during an on-air confrontation in 2012 when the Republican strategist Karl Rove questioned his projection that Barack Obama would be re-elected. Mr. Mishkin, like vote counters at rival networks, will be sequestered from the anchor team on election night, an effort that news organizations say shields the decision desk from competitive pressures.

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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

In 2018, Fox News was 50 minutes ahead of any other network in projecting that the Democrats would take control of the House of Representatives. (“I know a lot of listeners out there, their heads are exploding,” the anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.)

Each television network makes its own state-by-state projections. But the projections rely on raw voting data from a handful of shared sources.

One group of networks — ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC — collaborate on an exit-polling operation, administered by Edison Research. The Associated Press, which has an expansive vote-tracking effort, conducts its own count. Fox News, starting in 2018, relies on a proprietary model that draws from The A.P.

Besides the “magic wall” maps and flag-strewn graphics, the networks will trot out a few gizmos to keep viewers tuned in over what could be a long night — or week, or month. CBS News, for instance, is broadcasting from a recently built set overlooking Times Square, in the studio that housed MTV’s “Total Request Live.”

A poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that more than half of Americans thought it could take a week or longer to determine the results (although Mr. Trump declared on Twitter on Friday, “The Election should END on November 3rd”). Three-quarters of those surveyed said they expected some news outlets to “rush to announce a winner.”

Mr. Oppenheim, of NBC News, said he was keenly aware of his responsibilities. “It’s possible we will have a clear outcome on election night at a reasonable hour, and I don’t want the audience to be suspicious of that,” he said. “It’s possible we won’t have an outcome for several days, or several weeks.”

In 2000, when networks twice erroneously declared a winner in Florida, Mr. Oppenheim was working as a production assistant at MSNBC. “Those of us who have grown up in the last 20 years of television journalism understand that election nights can take any number of surprising directions,” he said. “Our job is to be prepared for all of them.”

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Biden Town Hall Leads Trump in Ratings Battle

Television ratings matter to President Trump. So these numbers may sting.

In a victory that few in the TV and political arenas predicted, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s town hall-style forum on ABC on Thursday night drew a larger audience than President Trump’s competing event on NBC, according to Nielsen.

Mr. Biden’s town-hall meeting, which aired on a single network, was seen by an average of 15.1 million viewers, compared with 13.5 million for Mr. Trump even though the president monopolized three networks — NBC, MSNBC and CNBC — simultaneously.

The town halls were vastly different television spectacles, befitting their respective protagonists. For an hour on NBC, Mr. Trump was darting and defiant as the “Today” host Savannah Guthrie pressed him to denounce QAnon and white supremacy (Mr. Trump hesitated on both) and clear up questions about his medical condition.

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

On ABC, Mr. Biden and the moderator George Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober 90-minute policy discussion more akin to a PBS telecast. (Politico wrote that flipping back and forth between the two was like “going from Bob Ross to ‘WrestleMania’.”)

NBC had drawn scorn for scheduling its event with Mr. Trump at the same time as Mr. Biden’s previously announced ABC forum. Executives at NBC News said it was a matter of fairness, saying they wanted the same conditions offered to Mr. Biden at his NBC town hall on Oct. 5. Critics, including the MSNBC star Rachel Maddow, suggested that NBC had erred in allowing Mr. Trump to appear at the same time as Mr. Biden.

It appears that Mr. Biden did not need to worry. And the fact that the Democrat outdrew his voluble Republican rival is likely to inspire dozens of hot takes about whether, after four seasons, Americans are simply growing bored with The Trump Show.

Keep up with Election 2020

Viewership for Mr. Biden’s event, which began at 8 p.m., rose as the night continued, surging to an average audience of 16.7 million in the final 30 minutes after Mr. Trump and NBC’s forum had gone off the air, according to Nielsen. (Mr. Biden’s viewership bested Mr. Trump even without the assist from his extra half-hour).

The numbers were a bracing outcome for the president, whose aides had been promising a decisive ratings win over his Democratic rival. “We’re going to have a much bigger audience than Joe for next Thursday,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, told Fox News last week.

At a rally in Ocala, Fla., on Friday, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Biden was given “easy questions” by ABC and claimed, without basis, that Ms. Guthrie was “not too popular right now.”

“If you can’t handle Savannah, you can’t handle Putin and President Xi and Kim Jong-un,” the president said dismissively, referring to the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea. “That’s small potatoes, last night.”

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign took a victory lap. “Turns out more people last night were interested in watching a leader with a clear plan,” a Biden spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, wrote on Twitter, “regardless of how many channels” Mr. Trump was on.

The Nielsen figures released on Friday included viewers who watched the town halls on television or streamed the event to their TV screens.

His first debate with Mr. Biden, in Cleveland in late September, notched 73 million viewers. On Thursday, the overall viewership for both town halls was smaller than that by 60 percent.

Part of the reason Mr. Trump failed to match Mr. Biden’s ratings was a dropoff in viewers on MSNBC, whose prime time is beloved by liberals and Never Trumpers. Only 1.8 million people watched the Trump simulcast on MSNBC, below the channel’s usual average for that hour.

MSNBC’s audience is generally turned off by appearances by Mr. Trump, but its producers also did little to call attention to the event that would be pre-empting its usual 8 p.m. host, Chris Hayes.

Notably, MSNBC did not promote the event to viewers with an onscreen graphic, and when its 7 p.m. host, Joy Reid, signed off, she made no mention of the forum with Mr. Trump that was coming up next. When NBC held its Biden forum on Oct. 5, Ms. Reid’s lead-in show featured a promotional image of the former vice president in the corner of the screen.

It was a small but pointed sign of the tensions within NBC’s news division over its handling of the Trump event. Both Ms. Maddow and Mr. Hayes had suggested on the air Wednesday that they were not pleased with the scheduling decision.

After Mr. Trump’s forum ended on Thursday, MSNBC viewers were greeted by Ms. Maddow, the network’s top-rated personality, sitting at her anchor’s desk.

“Let me remind you what you just saw was a production of NBC News,” Ms. Maddow said, looking bemused. “We are MSNBC. We did not produce that event.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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The Trump-Biden 2020 Presidential Election Debates Are On

President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. will debate with a single moderator at each of their three matchups, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Wednesday.

The first debate of the general election, on Sept. 29, will be moderated by the “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace. Mr. Wallace received high marks for his debut debate in 2016 and is known for his sharp interviewing style. He is also frequently a target of needling tweets by Mr. Trump.

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Credit…Andre Chung for The Washington Post, via Getty Images

The second debate, on Oct. 15, will be moderated by Steve Scully, the political editor at C-SPAN and a figure well-known in the Washington media community. Mr. Scully has served as an alternate moderator in past years but has never taken charge of a debate.

Kristen Welker, a White House correspondent for NBC News and a co-anchor of the weekend “Today” program, will moderate the third debate on Oct. 22. This will be her first time moderating a general-election debate.

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Credit…William B. Plowman/NBC

The debate commission turned to a print journalist, Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, to moderate the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris on Oct. 7.

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Joy Reid Takes Nightly Anchor Slot at MSNBC

Joy Reid, who rose to television fame as a sharp critic of President Trump and commentator on liberal politics and race, will become the host of a new nightly show on MSNBC, the network announced on Thursday, placing her among a handful of Black women to anchor an American evening news program.

Ms. Reid, 51, who has hosted the MSNBC weekend talk show “AM Joy” since 2016, will move to the 7 p.m. hour on July 20. Her show, “The ReidOut,” succeeds “Hardball” and its host, Chris Matthews, who was forced to resign in March after a series of on-air gaffes and accusations of sexist behavior in the workplace.

Ms. Reid’s promotion is a significant programming move by Cesar Conde, the new chairman of NBC’s news networks. Black women, including Gayle King of CBS and Robin Roberts of ABC, hold leading roles in morning and daytime television, but none currently host a nightly evening show on a major network. The last to do so was Gwen Ifill, who co-anchored “PBS NewsHour” until shortly before her death in 2016.

In an interview on Wednesday from her home in Harlem, Ms. Reid cited Ms. Ifill and two other Black anchors, Deborah Roberts and Carole Simpson, as role models.

“Evening and prime-time news has been a universe of white men really since I was growing up,” Ms. Reid said. “For somebody who grew up as a nerdy kid obsessed with news, watching ‘Nightline’ and ‘Meet the Press,’ the idea of being a part of that family has always just been kind of overwhelming.”

“The ReidOut” will be based in Washington and focus on political analysis and punditry, but Ms. Reid said she also planned to address race, class, policing and other “cataclysmic social issues we need to reckon with.”

“I am a Black mom, a Black woman, a Black daughter,” said Ms. Reid, who is married with three children. “I am also a journalist who can conceptualize that pain from a unique point of view. Every day I’m in this job, I’m very conscious of that responsibility to make that collective voice heard. It’s unique to do that as a Black woman.”

Executives at MSNBC are hopeful that Ms. Reid will attract a younger audience at 7, where Mr. Matthews’s ratings lagged behind Fox News and CNN. Ms. Reid has a big online fan base — search the hashtag #reiders — and interacts with critics and supporters on Twitter, a realm where Mr. Matthews rarely engaged.

Her progressive bona fides, however, were called into question in 2017 when homophobic posts and comments from “The Reid Report,” a blog she wrote in the mid- to late 2000s, resurfaced on social media.

Ms. Reid apologized for writing mocking claims that Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor, was gay. But additional offensive posts emerged. Along with opposing gay marriage, she opined that “most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing” and that “a lot of heterosexuals, especially men, find the idea of homosexual sex to be … well … gross.” She said Rachel Maddow, who was not yet her colleague, held views “at the left-most end of the political spectrum.”

Ms. Reid initially claimed those posts had been fabricated and inserted into the archives of her blog by hackers intending to defame her. She even hired a cybersecurity expert. Later, she acknowledged that there was little evidence that the posts had been faked.

“I genuinely do not believe I wrote those hateful things because they are completely alien to me,” she told viewers in April 2018 in a lengthy apology, saying she had grown up “in a household that, like many in America, had conservative views on L.G.B.T.Q. issues.”

“The person I am now is not the person I was then,” Ms. Reid told viewers. Many liberal pundits defended her, including Jonathan Capehart, Jeffrey Toobin and Joan Walsh.

Asked on Wednesday if she still believed she had not written the posts, Ms. Reid said: “It’s two years ago, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about that old blog. What I genuinely believe is that I truly care about the L.G.B.T. people in my own life. I care about being a good ally, a good person, and making sure that my voice is authentic, that I can make a difference.”

NBC has pledged to improve its diversity, an area where its news networks have struggled. Mr. Conde, a former chairman of Telemundo who succeeded NBC News’s previous chairman, Andrew Lack, in May, said this week that he wanted a work force that was 50 percent nonwhite, with employees split evenly by gender.

“AM Joy” was created after a previous weekend host, Melissa Harris-Perry, left MSNBC, accusing the network of sidelining her. “I am not a token, mammy or little brown bobble head,” Ms. Harris-Perry, who is Black, wrote in an email to NBC staff at the time.

Another prominent Black anchor at NBC, Tamron Hall, who hosted a popular hour of the “Today” show, parted ways with the network in 2017 after her contract expired. The former Fox News host Megyn Kelly replaced her, briefly, at 9 a.m.

In an interview, Ms. Maddow said Ms. Reid’s promotion “feels like such a good decision by the network.”

“African-American journalists, African-American women in particular, are woefully underrepresented on TV in all hours of the day,” Ms. Maddow said. “But particularly in prime time, it’s just a desert. Joy more than deserves this time slot and this kind of national platform.”

Harris Faulkner of Fox News, who hosts an afternoon talk show, is the only Black woman who solo anchors a weekday program on the three major cable news networks. In moving to 7 p.m., Ms. Reid will go up against another newcomer to the time slot: Shepard Smith, the former Fox News anchor, who on Wednesday said he would lead a new newscast starting in the fall on another NBCUniversal network, CNBC.

Ms. Reid’s replacement of Mr. Matthews means that the 7 p.m. hour on MSNBC is likely to tilt farther left, mirroring the network’s liberal-leaning prime-time lineup. Mr. Matthews was a political moderate who wrote nostalgically about the bipartisan friendship between President Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., the Democratic speaker of the House.

But his barking style was increasingly out of step with the mores of modern politics and cable news. He apologized in February after comparing Senator Bernie Sanders’s victory in the Nevada caucuses to the Nazi takeover of France in World War II. And a journalist, Laura Bassett, said Mr. Matthews had made inappropriate comments about her appearance.

Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, Ms. Reid grew up in Denver, and now splits her time between New York and Washington. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in film, she worked her way up the competitive Florida media market, where she hosted TV and talk-radio shows and wrote a column for The Miami Herald. She has also taken time away from journalism, including a position on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

She later served as managing editor of TheGrio.com, a news and opinion site geared toward Black readers. With a growing national reputation, she joined MSNBC as a contributor in 2011 and, in 2014, began hosting a daily talk show, “The Reid Report.” It was canceled after a year, but she remained at the network as a correspondent.

Away from the anchor desk, Ms. Reid has written two books, including “Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide.”

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Credit…Gary He/EPA, via Shutterstock

In the interview on Wednesday, Ms. Reid was asked about the reaction to the offensive blog posts that surfaced in 2018. She called the episode “a pretty rough experience,” and said she had sought candid discussions with friends, colleagues and her daughter, who is gay.

“My job in that moment was to listen,” she said, adding, “The L.G.B.T. community in this country has a resiliency and a core kindness.”

Ms. Maddow praised Ms. Reid for her 2018 apology. “We judge people on their judgment, but also on their capacity to grow and correct,” she said.

“She also reached out to me personally and directly,” Ms. Maddow said, “in case, as a gay colleague, I had been hurt personally by what had arisen at the time. And that was a stand-up thing to do, and something I won’t forget.”

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Record Ratings and Record Chaos on Cable News

Last week, Fox News’s anchors competed for President Trump’s ear about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Tucker Carlson denounced the unrest as “riots.” Sean Hannity unexpectedly took a civil rights angle, speaking “as a person that has now been trained in mixed martial arts for seven straight years” to cast doubt on Officer Derek Chauvin’s actions.

In the midnight hour on Friday, a rerun of Mr. Carlson’s show appears to have grabbed hold of the president’s brainstem, as Mr. Carlson intoned that “rioters are continuing to destroy one of this country’s great cities, unimpeded.” A little after 12:50 a.m., the show panned to a Minneapolis in flames, and at 12:53 a.m., Mr. Trump tweeted that he “can’t stand back & watch this happen.” He concluded, echoing an utterance in 1967 from a bigoted Miami police chief, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

If Twitter is the twisted heart of America’s public conversation, cable news is its aorta, carrying fear and anger, as the rapper and activist Killer Mike put it last week, into the body politic. The coronavirus pandemic and the new urban crisis have made it impossible to look away, and journalists have at times become targets for the police. In this extraordinary news moment, the primacy of this supposedly dying medium has never been clearer, its ratings higher than ever.

But behind the scenes, chaos and uncertainty are also reaching record highs. I spent last week speaking to homebound executives, producers and on-air talent at the three cable news networks and found them wrestling in wildly different ways with an exceptional news moment that does not fit into cable’s familiar boxes: the coronavirus story, the economic crisis, and the protests and fires in the streets of American cities.

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Credit…CNN

The power, and the stress, are clearest at Fox News, by far the most-watched American news channel but one that has been in a rolling corporate crisis since its founder, Roger Ailes, was forced to resign amid sexual harassment allegations almost four years ago. Fox News now occupies a strange position in a shrunken Fox Corporation, whose chairman, Lachlan Murdoch, has sought to pull off an acrobatic feat: collect the abundant profits from the channel while skirting the blame for its missteps in the early days of the pandemic.

Quietly, Mr. Murdoch and his main deputy Viet Dinh, a former Bush administration official, have begun taking a more aggressive approach. Last summer, they hired Raj Shah, a former Trump White House official who led opposition research against Hillary Clinton at the Republican National Committee. And this year, I recently learned, Mr. Shah has begun to build a secret operation, hiring two former reporters for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, Elliott Schwartz and Alex Griswold. (Mr. Schwartz had also run Jeb Bush’s campaign “war room.”) Their job is to defend Fox from criticism from progressive outlets like Media Matters and Sleeping Giants on social media, protect advertising dollars and discredit critics, three people familiar with the work said. (The two former reporters have conspicuously omitted Fox from their Twitter bios.)

The team has also pushed the narrative that the rest of the media played down the threat of coronavirus as egregiously as Fox did, two journalists who have spoken to them said. A Fox spokeswoman, Megan Klein, declined to comment on the new operation. Mr. Griswold said “no comment” and hung up on me before I could ask him a question, and Mr. Schwartz didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Fox News, Irena Briganti, said the chief executive, Suzanne Scott, wouldn’t be available for an interview.

Fox shifted over the weekend into round-the-clock protest coverage. But Mr. Shah’s new team suggests that the criticism of its coronavirus coverage has stung hosts and alienated advertisers. But it also seems a kind of ineffectual, corporate re-enactment of Mr. Ailes’s once-feared opposition-research tactics, which included private detectives, aggressive hunts for leaks and smear campaigns against reporters. The new Fox executive team shares Mr. Ailes’s ambitions, but doesn’t seem to have the stomach for his tactics.

MSNBC has been scrambling in a different way. The channel thrived from 2017 until earlier this year, lifted by its nonstop coverage of the Trump-Russia story and the story’s denouement in impeachment. It signed up former spies and prosecutors as contributors, and dangled the hope that Robert Mueller would end Mr. Trump’s presidency. But the Russia show came to a disappointing conclusion for its audience with Mr. Trump’s acquittal on Feb. 5, and ratings plummeted.

“We didn’t lose viewers,” MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, insisted in an interview. “They may have taken a few days off from watching out of, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got to regroup.’”

MSNBC’s audience numbers did rebound with the coronavirus story, but the network’s DNA is politics, and Covid-19 is not at its heart a political story. Rachel Maddow, the network’s star, saw her audience in the 25-to-54 demographic, the one most prized by advertisers, fall below CNN’s Chris Cuomo for the first time.

“We’re using the same muscles that we use to cover politics covering this pandemic and how the country’s reacting,” Mr. Griffin said.

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Credit…Jesus Aranguren/Associated Press

Behind the scenes, NBC’s corporate dramas continue to unsettle its scattered staff. The new chairman of NBCUniversal’s news group, Cesar Conde, hasn’t described his vision for news. He made his name with an insufficiently covered television coup, Telemundo’s rise against Univision on the back of sexy “narconovelas.” Now, news executives — Mr. Griffin; the NBC News president, Noah Oppenheim, who was conspicuously passed over for the top job; and the senior vice president, Rashida Jones — are waiting to learn what his plan is, and whom Mr. Conde will elevate to carry it out. While they wait, they sought to impose a 3 percent salary cut on the remaining contracts of NBC’s producers and stars, only to face a revolt from the nation’s restive talent agents. They settled for a voluntary 3 percent reduction that its journalists can reverse at any time.

Mr. Conde’s boss, the new NBCUniversal chief executive, Jeff Shell, has suggested in private conversation that he wants to make a more dramatic change at the company’s other cable news network, CNBC, two NBCUniversal executives said. Mr. Shell, the two executives said, is considering turning the network’s prime-time hours, currently occupied by “Shark Tank” reruns and business-focused reality programming like “The Profit,” over to right-wing talk shows. A similar plan was floated years ago — a development executive even met with the talk-radio flamethrower Mark Levin, a CNBC executive said. But it could allow Comcast to extend an olive branch to Mr. Trump and his avid supporters.

CNN once positioned itself between MSNBC and Fox on the political spectrum. But during Mr. Trump’s tenure, the network concluded that there was no profitable middle ground with a president who seeks confrontation with the media. The channel adopted an increasingly political focus, hosting dozens of Democratic primary town halls and debates. It also competes more directly with MSNBC than ever before for audience, offering Don Lemon and Mr. Cuomo as a more emotional, less cerebral alternative to Chris Hayes and Ms. Maddow.

And as much as MSNBC seemed thrown off by the coronavirus, CNN was ready, flexing its still-supple muscles for covering all-consuming news stories. Now it focuses primarily on the coronavirus, interlaced with impassioned and often viral monologues denouncing President Trump.

CNN remains a network identified with and defined by one man, Jeff Zucker, the chairman for news and sports at WarnerMedia as well as CNN’s president since 2013. He runs the 9 a.m. news calls, and his refrain has been to stay on the coronavirus. His fingerprints are all over the programming, and CNN’s confidence tackling the dangerous, physical scrum of breaking news paid off in its vivid coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death and the aftermath. He has been telling his staff for months that the pandemic is the central story, and he told me he anticipated it to dominate the rest of the year.

“Between now and November, there’s no chance it’s a normal political year,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “That’s just not conceivable between now and the end of the year.” And while the network is now focused intensely on the crisis in America’s cities, coronavirus “is still the principal story of our time,” he said.

Lurking in the background for all the networks, though, is the question: How long can this last? Cable news appeared, like much of linear television, to be in terminal decline before Donald Trump turned it into the greatest, most terrifying show on earth.

CNN, the original cable news network that turns 40 on Monday, is at the heart of that question. Its commitment to on-the-scene reporting produced the riveting coverage, and arrest, of its correspondent Omar Jimenez on Friday morning. Its iconic status drew protesters on Friday night to its Atlanta headquarters, where they vandalized its globally recognized logo and defaced the building, putting CNN where it has often found itself in the Zucker years — right in the center of the story.

“They are telling our stories, and you are disgracing their building,” Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, told demonstrators. But Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, spoke for a nation exhausted by the endless adrenaline shots of news and conflict when he told the network to “stop feeding fear and anger every day. Stop making people feel so fearful. Give them hope.” A CNN spokeswoman declined to respond to his comments.

Mr. Zucker, the signature television executive of the Trump era, has more than anyone shaped that always-on, always-breaking, hyper-charged way that news — including politics — is covered nowadays. He has always been a hands-on leader. But now it seems Mr. Zucker may want to drive events even more directly.

Four years ago, he told me he was considering a future in politics. On Thursday, I asked him whether he was interested in the most obvious role, which will be open next year in a city aching for leadership: mayor of New York.

He paused, and said he didn’t want his answer to cause a storm of news.

Then, he said, “New York City is going to need a very strong mayor in the aftermath of this, and I always like a challenge.”

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Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?

It was a breathtaking story, written by The New Yorker’s marquee reporter and published with an attention-grabbing headline: “Missing Files Motivated the Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records.”

In it, the reporter, Ronan Farrow, suggests something suspicious unfolding inside the Treasury Department: A civil servant had noticed that records about Mr. Cohen, the personal lawyer for President Trump, mysteriously vanished from a government database in the spring of 2018. Mr. Farrow quotes the anonymous public servant as saying he was so concerned about the records’ disappearance that he leaked other financial reports to the media to sound a public alarm about Mr. Cohen’s financial activities.

The story set off a frenzied reaction, with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes calling it “an amazing shocking story about a whistle-blower” and his colleague Rachel Maddow describing it as “a meteor strike.” Congressional Democrats demanded answers, and the Treasury Department promised to investigate.

Two years after publication, little of Mr. Farrow’s article holds up, according to prosecutors and court documents. The Treasury Department records on Michael Cohen never went “missing.” That was merely the story put forward by the civil servant, an Internal Revenue Service analyst named John Fry, who later pleaded guilty to illegally leaking confidential information.

The records were simply put on restricted access, a longstanding practice to prevent leaks, a possibility Mr. Farrow briefly allows for in his story, but minimizes. And Mr. Fry’s leaks had been encouraged and circulated by a man who was barely mentioned in Mr. Farrow’s article, the now-disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti, a passionate antagonist of Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Farrow may now be the most famous investigative reporter in America, a rare celebrity-journalist who followed the opposite path of most in the profession: He began as a boy-wonder talk show host and worked his way downward to the coal face of hard investigative reporting. The child of the actress Mia Farrow and the director Woody Allen, he has delivered stories of stunning and lasting impact, especially his revelations about powerful men who preyed on young women in the worlds of Hollywood, television and politics, which won him a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve been watching Mr. Farrow’s astonishing rise over the past few years, marveling at his ability to shine a light on some of the defining stories of our time, especially the sexual misconduct of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which culminated with Mr. Weinstein’s conviction in February just before the pandemic took hold. But some aspects of his work made me wonder if Mr. Farrow didn’t, at times, fly a little too close to the sun.

Because if you scratch at Mr. Farrow’s reporting in The New Yorker and in his 2019 best seller, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” you start to see some shakiness at its foundation. He delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic — with unmistakable heroes and villains — and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic. At times, he does not always follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure, or he suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but he cannot prove.

Mr. Farrow, 32, is not a fabulist. His reporting can be misleading but he does not make things up. His work, though, reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.

That can be a dangerous approach, particularly in a moment when the idea of truth and a shared set of facts is under assault.

The New Yorker has made Mr. Farrow a highly visible, generational star for its brand. And Mr. Farrow’s supporters there point out the undeniable impact of his reporting — which ousted abusers like New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and helped rewrite the rules of sex and power in the workplace, sometimes with his colleague Jane Mayer. Ken Auletta, The New Yorker writer who helped Mr. Farrow take his work from NBC to the magazine, said that the important thing is that Mr. Farrow helped reveal Mr. Weinstein’s predatory behavior to the world and bring him down.

“Are all the Ts crossed and the Is dotted? No,” Mr. Auletta said of some of Mr. Farrow’s most sweeping claims of a conspiracy between Mr. Weinstein and NBC to suppress his work.

“You’re still left with the bottom line — he delivered the goods,” Mr. Auletta said.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, defended Mr. Farrow’s reporting, calling it “scrupulous, tireless, and, above all, fair.”

“Working alongside fact checkers, lawyers and other editorial staff members at The New Yorker, he achieved something remarkable, not least because he earned the trust of his sources, many of whom had to relive traumatic events when they talked to him,’’ Mr. Remnick said in a statement. “We stand by Ronan Farrow’s reporting. We’re proud to publish him.”

Mr. Farrow, in his own statement to The New York Times, said he brings “caution, rigor, and nuance” to each of his stories. “I’m proud of a body of reporting that has helped to expose wrongdoing and to bring important stories into public view.”

It’s impossible, however, to go back and answer the question of whether Mr. Farrow’s explosive early reporting would have carried such power if he’d been more rigorous and taken care to show what he knew and what he didn’t. Is the cost of a more dramatic story worth paying? Because this much is certain: There is a cost.

That becomes clear in an examination of Mr. Farrow’s debut article on Mr. Weinstein, back in October 2017, which provided the first clear, on-the-record claim that Mr. Weinstein had gone beyond the systematic sexual harassment and abuse revealed days earlier by The Times into something that New York prosecutors could charge as rape. The accuser was Lucia Evans, a college student whom Mr. Weinstein had approached at a private club, and then later lured to his office with a promise of acting opportunities. There, she told Mr. Farrow, he forced her to perform oral sex on him.

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Credit…Pool photo by Steven Hirsch

But a fundamental principle of the contemporary craft of reporting on sexual assault is corroboration: the painstaking task of tracking down friends and neighbors a traumatized victim may have confided in soon after the assault, to see if their accounts align with the victim’s story and to give it more — or less — weight. In much of the strongest #metoo reporting, from the stories about Mr. Weinstein in The New York Times to The Washington Post’s exposé of Charlie Rose and even some of Mr. Farrow’s other articles, clunky paragraphs interrupt the narrative to explain what an accuser told friends, and often, to explore any conflicting accounts. Americans are now watching this complicated form of reporting play out in the stories about Tara Reade, who has accused Joe Biden of assaulting her.

Mr. Farrow’s first big story on Mr. Weinstein offered readers little visibility into the question of whether Ms. Evans’s story could be corroborated. He could have indicated that he had, or hadn’t, been able to corroborate what Ms. Evans said, or reported what her friends from the time had told the magazine. He wrote instead: “Evans told friends some of what had happened, but felt largely unable to talk about it.”

It appears Mr. Farrow was making a narrative virtue of a reporting liability, and the results were ultimately damaging.

A crucial witness, the friend who was with Ms. Evans when both women met Mr. Weinstein at the club, later told prosecutors that when a fact checker for The New Yorker called her about Mr. Farrow’s story, she hadn’t confirmed Ms. Evans’s account of rape. Instead, according to a letter from prosecutors to defense lawyers, the witness told the magazine that “something inappropriate happened,” and refused to go into detail.

But the witness later told a New York Police Department detective something more problematic: That Ms. Evans had told her the sexual encounter with Mr. Weinstein was consensual. The detective told the witness that her response to the magazine’s fact checker “was more consistent” with Ms. Evans’s allegation against Mr. Weinstein and suggested she stick to The New Yorker version, prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorneys office later acknowledged. The detective denied the exchange, but when Mr. Weinstein’s lawyers unearthed the witness’s contradictory accounts, the judge dismissed the charge. Mr. Weinstein’s lawyers gloated, though, of course, their client was ultimately convicted on other counts.

In his 2019 book, “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow dismisses the incident as an issue with a “peripheral witness” and attacks Mr. Weinstein’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman for “private espionage.”

A similar problem appears at the heart of “Catch and Kill,” in a section in which he describes Matt Lauer assaulting a junior employee at NBC. In Mr. Farrow’s telling, Mr. Lauer’s accuser leaves his dressing room after the assault. “Crying, she ran to the new guy she’d started seeing, a producer who was working in the control room that morning, and told him what had happened.” Mr. Farrow and the fact checker for his book, Sean Lavery, never called “the new guy” to corroborate the story, both Mr. Lavery and the man told me.

“I might look at something and say that’s good enough, there’s enough other evidence that something happened,” Mr. Lavery said, speaking hypothetically, when I asked why he and Mr. Farrow didn’t call a potentially corroborating witness.

But the “new guy” told me that, in fact, he doesn’t remember the scene that was portrayed in the book. He spoke on the condition he not be identified.

When I told Mr. Farrow that in an email last week, he wrote back: “I am confident that the conversation took place as described and it was verified in multiple ways.”

Mr. Farrow did not share his methods. But this much is clear: Mr. Farrow and the fact checker never called the producer. And if they had, that element of the story would have been much more complicated — or would never have appeared in print.

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Credit…Nathan Congleton/NBC, via Getty Images

Mr. Lauer was fired from NBC, and a series of reports and an internal investigation portrayed him as a star who abused his power in the workplace for sex. He declined to speak for the record during a telephone conversation, except to say that he had found issues with the corroboration of Mr. Farrow’s reporting on him.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for a predator like Mr. Weinstein or to shed tears over Mr. Lauer’s firing. And readers may brush aside these reporting issues as the understandable desire of a zealous young reporter to tell his stories as dramatically as he can.

But Mr. Farrow brings that same inclination to the other big theme that shapes his work: conspiracy. His stories are built and sold on his belief — which he rarely proves — that powerful forces and people are conspiring against those trying to do good, especially Mr. Farrow himself.

At the heart of “Catch and Kill” is an electrifying suggestion: that Mr. Weinstein blackmailed NBC executives to kill Mr. Farrow’s story on his sexual misconduct with the threat that The National Enquirer would expose Mr. Lauer’s misconduct if they did not. This is the “conspiracy” in the book’s subtitle. And it is the thread that holds together its narrative.

In Mr. Farrow’s telling, by the end of July 2017, he had nailed down the story of Mr. Weinstein’s pattern of sexual predation, and the NBC brass had begun to shut him down. He has said repeatedly that he had at least two women on the record for his story at the time he left NBC for The New Yorker. He told NPR in an interview, “There is no draft of this story that NBC had that had fewer than two named women.” But NBC has disputed that claim, and an NBC employee showed me what he described as the final draft of Mr. Farrow’s script, as of Aug. 7. It had no on-the-record, on-camera interviews. (It did have one strong piece of reporting that Mr. Farrow took to The New Yorker: an audio recording of Mr. Weinstein appearing to confess to an Italian model that he had groped her. )

Nor does Mr. Farrow provide any proof that NBC executives were acting out of fear of blackmail when they refused to air his story, a central theme he promoted on his book tour. When the ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Farrow about “the suggestion that Mr. Weinstein was blackmailing NBC News,” Mr. Farrow replied, “Multiple sources do say that, and the way in which that’s framed is very careful.” Pressed on whether NBC had let the story go “because they were afraid information about Matt Lauer was going to get out,” Mr. Farrow replied, “That is what the extensive conversations, transcripts, and documents presented in this book suggest.”

But the reporting in the book does not bear that out. And in the absence of compelling proof, Mr. Farrow relies on what the critic and private detective Anne Diebel earlier this year described in The New York Review of Books as “New Journalism on the sly” — using novelistic technique to make his case. Mr. Farrow, for example, describes the facial expressions and physical gestures of NBC executives during his meetings with them, and then deduces dark motives.

“If the Lauer threat was indeed made, and taken seriously, then NBC’s killing of the story is not just a case of muddy corporate cowardice; it’s a case of abject journalistic malfeasance and moral failure,” Ms. Diebel wrote. “But in the absence of persuasive sourcing, Farrow’s exploration of the alternatives is insufficient.”

Even Mr. Auletta, a supporter and mentor to Mr. Farrow, told me that Mr. Farrow’s central conspiracy allegation was unproven.

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Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

The one on-the-record source supporting the core conspiracy theory in “Catch and Kill” is William Arkin, a maverick journalist and acolyte of Seymour Hersh who departed bitterly from NBC soon after Mr. Farrow.

In a curious passage in “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow writes that Mr. Arkin — an ally of his at the network — told him of two anonymous sources who made the charge. In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Arkin told me that his sources, only one of whom offered a firsthand account, had been unwilling to speak to Mr. Farrow for his book. Mr. Arkin said the firsthand source told him that Mr. Weinstein had made a threat to an NBC executive about exposing Mr. Lauer, but that he doesn’t know who told his source. And he said he had no knowledge of the other elements of Mr. Farrow’s shadowy suggestions — the involvement of The National Enquirer, or whether executives actually shut down Mr. Farrow’s story because of a threat. (NBC has denied that Mr. Weinstein threatened anyone and said most of the producer’s communication was with MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, who wasn’t directly involved in the reporting on Mr. Weinstein.)

Two other NBC journalists, neither of whom would speak for the record, expressed a different view, which is shared by network executives: That Mr. Farrow was a talented young reporter with big ambitions but little experience, who didn’t realize how high the standards of proof were, particularly at slow-moving, super-cautious news networks. A normal clash between a young reporter and experienced editors turned toxic.

Mr. Arkin said he agreed with NBC’s view that Mr. Farrow didn’t have the Weinstein story nailed by August 2017, when he took the story to The New Yorker. But Mr. Arkin said he also believed that NBC didn’t really want the story.

The right move would have been to “take a 29-year-old and you hold him by the hand and you walk him through the story,” Mr. Arkin said in a telephone interview. “Instead what they did was they took him out to the deep end and threw him in — and then they said ‘Oh my God, you can’t swim.’”

That’s an account less heroic than Mr. Farrow’s. It’s also hard to argue that NBC wouldn’t have been better off staying close to Mr. Farrow and getting the story.

Mr. Farrow’s other irresistible conspiracy has even less to support it: that Hillary Clinton, whom Mr. Farrow had once worked for at the State Department, also sought to kill his reporting and protect Mr. Weinstein. In “Catch and Kill,” Mr. Farrow described receiving an “ominous” call from Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, in the summer of 2017 saying his Weinstein reporting was “a concern.” “It’s remarkable,” Mr. Farrow told The Financial Times about Mrs. Clinton during his book tour, “how quickly even people with a long relationship with you will turn if you threaten the centers of power or the sources of funding around them.”

But Mr. Farrow appears to have misinterpreted Mr. Merrill’s call. Mr. Merrill said at the time that Mrs. Clinton was preparing to do a documentary film with Mr. Weinstein, and the Clinton camp was trying to find out if damaging reporting was about to be published about the producer. He had no way of proving it, but another reporter he spoke to at the time about Mr. Weinstein shared with me text messages that back Mr. Merrill’s account, and contradict Mr. Farrow’s. “We’re about to do business with him unless this is real,” Mr. Merrill wrote the other reporter on July 6. In other words, Mr. Merrill was trying to protect his boss, not Mr. Weinstein.

Predictably, Mr. Farrow’s account was seized on by Mrs. Clinton’s detractors, both on the right and left, who saw it as vivid confirmation that Mrs. Clinton was a devious and manipulative character.

When I asked Mr. Farrow whether he has evidence for his conspiracies, he first referred the questions to his publisher, Little, Brown. Sabrina Callahan, the executive director of publicity for Little, Brown, said in an email: “The book is very careful about laying out the facts uncovered by Ronan around NBC’s contact with Weinstein and his associates — and only going as far as the facts support,” adding, “We would encourage people to read it and form their own conclusions.”

When I asked specifically about the Clinton conspiracy, she said, “Ronan‘s book recounts his own experiences.”

The essence of those responses — the first legalistic in a misleading way, the second to suggest Mr. Farrow’s journalistic conclusions are based on his subjective experience — captures the deepest danger of Mr. Farrow’s approach. We are living in an era of conspiracies and dangerous untruths — many pushed by President Trump, but others hyped by his enemies — that have lured ordinary Americans into passionately believing wild and unfounded theories and fiercely rejecting evidence to the contrary. The best reporting tries to capture the most attainable version of the truth, with clarity and humility about what we don’t know. Instead, Mr. Farrow told us what we wanted to believe about the way power works, and now, it seems, he and his publicity team are not even pretending to know if it’s true.

On Sunday night, Mr. Farrow offered another defense of the word “conspiracy” in his book’s subtitle, saying it “accurately conveys the substance of the book and efforts by powerful men to evade accountability.” He added, “With respect to Weinstein, I carefully lay out the various levers of pressure exerted against my reporting — through personal relationships, private espionage, legal threats, etc.”

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Credit…Mike Pont/Getty Images

I’m writing this for The Times, which competed with Mr. Farrow on many stories and shared the Pulitzer Prize with him in 2018 for coverage of sexual harassment. I wasn’t here during that coverage. What first set off my skepticism about Mr. Farrow’s work was reporting in 2018 by Jason Leopold at BuzzFeed News, when I was editor in chief there. (Disclosure: I don’t cover BuzzFeed extensively in this column because I retain stock options in the company, which I left in February. I’ve agreed to divest those options by the end of the year.) That reporting made clear that Mr. Farrow’s article on the Cohen documents was wrong — that they were not missing, but merely restricted to avoid leaks of sensitive materials.

And I found more recently when I dug into the Cohen story that for all Mr. Farrow’s attraction to screenplay-ready narratives, he missed one that was made for this moment. The real story of John Fry, the I.R.S. employee who leaked Mr. Cohen’s records, went like this: Amid the swirl of the scandal involving Stormy Daniels, Mr. Avenatti, her lawyer, took to Twitter one day in May 2018, and demanded that the Treasury Department release Mr. Cohen’s records.

Mr. Fry, a longtime I.R.S. employee based in San Francisco, was one of the legions of followers of Mr. Avenatti’s Twitter account, and had frequently liked his posts. Hours after Mr. Avenatti’s tweet that day, Mr. Fry started searching for the documents on the government database, downloaded them, then immediately contacted Mr. Avenatti and later sent him Mr. Cohen’s confidential records, according to court documents. “John: I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate this. Thank you,’’ Mr. Avenatti wrote to Mr. Fry, according to the documents, then pressed him for more.

Mr. Fry ended up pleading guilty to a federal charge of unauthorized disclosure of confidential reports this January. In Mr. Fry’s defense, his lawyer said he had been watching “hours and hours” of television, and described him as “a victim of cable news.”

Mr. Farrow has a big following on social media, too, and some of the same tendencies that undermine his reporting show up there. In January, when jurors were being selected for the Weinstein trial, they were asked what they had read about Mr. Weinstein to see if they could serve impartially. Mr. Farrow tweeted that a “source involved in Weinstein trial tells me close to 50 potential jurors have been sent home because they said they’d read Catch and Kill.”

Mr. Farrow was not in the courtroom that day, and he told me last week that his source stands by that figure. But the court reporter, Randy Berkowitz, told me that he recalled laughing with lawyers and court staff the day after about Mr. Farrow’s tweet, which he said was seen as “ridiculous.”

And Jan Ransom, a reporter who covered the trial for the Times, was there. The actual number of potential jurors who read the book, according to Ms. Ransom’s reporting? Two.

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Andrew Lack Is Out as the Head of NBC News After a Stormy Tenure

The chairman of NBC News, Andrew Lack, will depart his role at the end of May, NBC Universal said on Monday, an abrupt end to the tenure of an executive whose tenacity and ability to withstand turmoil made for a long career in the fickle television news business.

The announcement brings to a close Mr. Lack’s tumultuous time at the helm of NBC News, during which he oversaw a turnaround in marquee properties like the “Today” show and the cable channel MSNBC while grappling with a cascading series of controversies, including the toppling of the star anchor Matt Lauer in a sexual harassment scandal and questions over the network’s coverage of Harvey Weinstein.

Cesar Conde, the chairman of Telemundo, will effectively replace Mr. Lack. As the chairman of the NBC Universal News Group, a newly created position, Mr. Conde will have oversight of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC.

Mr. Conde, 46, has impressed NBC Universal’s chief executive, Jeff Shell, with his stewardship of Telemundo, the Spanish-language network that has made strides under his leadership in catching up with its chief rival, Univision.

The president of NBC News, Noah Oppenheim, and the MSNBC president Phil Griffin will both report to Mr. Conde, who will relocate to New York from the Telemundo office in Miami.

Mr. Lack had been widely expected to leave NBC News by the end of the year, though rumors of his imminent exit have swirled for years. Change at the top of NBC Universal’s corporate hierarchy may have prompted his exit.

Mr. Shell took over NBC Universal as its chief executive at the beginning of the year, replacing Stephen B. Burke, who had resolutely backed Mr. Lack, even as controversies mounted. Mr. Shell was more inclined to make a quicker change at NBC News, according to two people with knowledge with his thinking.

Mr. Shell made other changes on Monday, including appointing Mark Lazarus as the head of the company’s entertainment properties, as well as its new streaming service Peacock. NBC Universal, which controls theme parks and a large advertising business, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and Mr. Shell suggested last week that the company was looking at cost-cutting

When Mr. Lack was brought back to NBC News in 2015 — he ran its news division in the 1990s before decamping to a job in the music industry and at Bloomberg News — his brief was simple. Fix MSNBC. Fix the “Today” show. Fix “Meet the Press.” And find an elegant way to push out or resurrect Brian Williams, the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News,” who had been suspended after fabricating stories about his time in the field.

In many ways, Mr. Lack succeeded. MSNBC had the highest ratings in its history, benefiting from a surge of interest in cable news during the Trump administration. “Today” and “Meet the Press” have stabilized. And Mr. Williams has served as the host of election night specials and “The 11th Hour,” a popular MSNBC late night show.

But Mr. Lack’s stormy tenure is likely to be defined more by its controversies than its successes.

Since the evening in 2017 when Mr. Lack traveled to Mr. Lauer’s Manhattan apartment and told the “Today” anchor he had been fired, Mr. Lack has had to confront questions over what he and other NBC News bosses knew about the anchor’s alleged history of sexual misconduct. (Mr. Lauer has denied the allegations against him.)

Mr. Lack has repeatedly said that he knew nothing of Mr. Lauer’s allegedly inappropriate workplace behavior, and said that he fired Mr. Lauer immediately upon first learning of an assault allegation against him in November 2017, just as the #MeToo movement was gaining steam.

A subsequent internal NBC Universal investigation exonerated Mr. Lack’s handling of the matter. But the company has been harshly criticized for declining to hire an outside law firm to conduct the review. Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s biggest star, went so far as to question the credibility of the review in an on-air monologue.

Mr. Lack also faced withering criticism for why the network allowed Ronan Farrow, a onetime reporter for NBC News, to take his Harvey Weinstein sexual assault reporting to The New Yorker, even though he had been working on the story for months at NBC. Mr. Farrow would go on to share a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the prestigious public service category.

Rich McHugh, Mr. Farrow’s producer at NBC, told The New York Times in 2018 that he had been instructed to stop reporting on Mr. Weinstein, and that the order came from “the very highest levels of NBC.”

Mr. Lack and Mr. Oppenheim, the NBC News president, repeatedly denied that they tried to quash Mr. Farrow’s reporting, arguing that what he had while reporting for NBC News was substantially different from what he ended up with at The New Yorker.

When Mr. Farrow’s book, “Catch & Kill,” was released last year, it brought his experience at NBC to the fore. Ms. Maddow was among the people at the network’s news division who were publicly critical of Mr. Lack and the NBC News leadership team.

“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in this company since I’ve been here,” Ms. Maddow said on the air in October, before she invited Mr. Farrow on as a guest. “It would be impossible for me to overstate the amount of consternation inside the building around this issue.”

On Monday, Mr. Farrow tweeted, “Andrew Lack is stepping down, after public protests calling for leadership change and a unionization effort within the company demanding more transparency about harassment issues there. Grateful to the sources who spoke.”

Before the Weinstein controversy, Mr. Lack was questioned for his decision to hire Megyn Kelly away from Fox News. He created a Sunday evening showcase for the anchor and gave her in a prominent role on “Today.” Ms. Kelly was eventually forced out of the network after an embarrassing on-air gaffe.

NBC also faced questions in 2016 about why it did not break the story of the “Access Hollywood” audio recording that showed Donald J. Trump, then a candidate for president, making vulgar comments about women. “Access Hollywood” was part of the NBC Universal family, and NBC News had access to the tape, but declined to go with the story before The Washington Post beat the network to it.

Through a representative, Mr. Lack declined to comment.

The future of Mr. Oppenheim, the NBC News president, is likely to rest on his new relationship with Mr. Conde, who will take over as the chairman of the NBC Universal news group immediately. Mr. Oppenheim signed a new multiyear contract with the network last year.

Mr. Lack published a story on the NBC News website last week trumpeting the importance of journalism amid a pandemic, when the news media is under attack.

“During times like these, as millions of people turn to the news for answers, the choices we make about what to air and how to report it can make the difference between panic or persistence, and even life or death,” he wrote. “Humbled by the responsibility we bear, we try our damnedest to serve our audience.”