Commentary: Matt Lauer was the king of ‘Today,’ but his reign was not benevolent
On the day Matt Lauer was fired, Variety published allegations by three unnamed women who accused him of sexual harassment. (Nov. 30, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)
If you make a man a pasha, there is a good chance he will act like one.
The near-daily sweep of men from positions of power in the wake of sexual harassment allegations ascended to a new and more culturally intimate level with the ouster of Matt Lauer from the “Today” show on Wednesday.
For 20 years, Lauer has been a constant presence on early-morning television, prepping viewers for the day’s news, scandals, setbacks and celebrations. The on-air staff of “Today” was, to many, an extended family, anchored by its boyish patriarch and a succession of smart and lovely female co-hosts.
Of course the problem with having a patriarch, boyish or no, is that it establishes a patriarchy. Ever since Jane Pauley met Bryant Gumbel, networks have clung to the notion that a successful morning show requires some sort of “marriage” in the middle, a bantering between the sexes to give the downtime juice and make viewers feel like they were hanging out with friends over their morning coffee.
Unfortunately, the dynamic of many of these shows, including “CBS This Morning,” from which Charlie Rose was recently canned for similar reasons, is based on the man having the bigger role (and, inevitably, paycheck.)
The longer Lauer reigned at “Today,” the more the marriage in the middle came to resemble one of the grimmer bigamous situations in “Big Love,” with Lauer at command central, surrounded by equally talented yet clearly not as high-status female co-hosts and co-anchors.
Two of whom — Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb — had to do the dirty work of breaking the Lauer news, which they had obviously just received themselves, on Wednesday morning.
And, unfortunately, it looks like it was an example of form following function. While on screen, Lauer mugged and teased in his self-conscious, self-deprecating way, offscreen he allegedly did what many monarchs do. In a report in Variety that quickly followed news of his firing, several women accused Lauer of systematically sexualizing and harassing female employees; the desk in his office, the report notes, was rigged with a button that could lock the door from the inside.
As with Roger Ailes, who, until he stepped down under similar charges, oversaw a Fox News newsroom filled with glamorized women in tight sheath dresses, the sexism on “Today” existed in plain sight.
Barbara Walters was the first official female co-host of “Today” and since the idea of two female hosts is apparently heresy, the tradition since has been that if a woman is in one chair, a man will be in another. Gumbel and Pauley were the first to turn that template into a team; though their relationship took time to jell, it eventually included a familiarity that added a new dimension (and higher ratings) to “Today.” So much so that when Deborah Norville replaced Pauley, she lamented breaking up a professional marriage.
Norville was quickly replaced by Katie Couric, then Gumbel by Lauer, but the idea that “Today’s” co-hosts should function as a professional couple remained.
As television news, and culture in general, grew more informal and branded-personality-driven, so did “Today.” Couric went on to host the “CBS Evening News” and was replaced by Meredith Vieira. By then Lauer was the unofficial star of “Today,” praised for his ability to do a tough interview one minute and goof off with the gang the next. He trotted around the globe in “Where in the World is Matt Lauer,” co-hosted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the opening of various Olympics. He and Viera appeared to get along like gangbusters and “Today” owned the a.m.
But when Ann Curry replaced Vieira in 2011, the chemistry was not as good. Curry’s quieter mien clearly made Lauer uneasy and it quickly became plain that the responsibility for fixing the “problem” was hers. Ratings fell, but Lauer got a new, reportedly $25-million contract and Curry got the ax. When Curry broke down on camera and later spoke of the show and network as a boy’s club, Lauer’s first reaction was to blame her, and then the media. For a moment the smiley-face curtain was pulled back; “Today” was a workplace like many, filled with competition, cutthroat contract negotiation and the ruthlessness of a high-stakes enterprise, and Lauer was the one with protection. If he had not orchestrated Curry’s removal, he certainly had done nothing to prevent it.
Which is why, minutes after the news of Lauer’s firing broke, Curry’s name was trending on social media, as thousands wondered how she was feeling and what “Today” would be like if she and Guthrie were the co-hosts.
Certainly that is a notion that needs to be considered as NBC and CBS attempt to save their shows. Morning television is not Noah’s Ark, so hosts do not have to come in his ’n’ her matching sets. Guthrie and Kotb seemed pretty comfortable, and as shows as disparate as “Cagney & Lacey” and “The View” have proven, you can have a show with just female leads and people will still watch.
More important, the notion that male and female co-hosts or co-anything are obligated to flirt or tease to goose the ratings has got to go. Chemistry is fine, but it comes in all sorts of flavors and professional is one of them. ABC’s “Good Morning America” has his ’n’ her co-hosts, Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, who are friendly and gracious to each other without inching into “Oh, there you go again,” “Moonlighting” territory, and if there’s a star, it’s Roberts.
Lauer and Rose, are, of course, completely responsible for their own actions and many men oversee female employees without harassing them. But sexual harassment isn’t so much about sex as it is about power, the belief that a person’s value, to a show, to a company, to the world, is so great that the word “no” literally does not apply to him (or her).
NBC certainly seemed to think Lauer could do anything — during the Sochi Olympics in 2014 (at which at least one of the harassment incidents was alleged to have happened), he even took over for veteran Bob Costas, faring only slightly better than he did during his ghastly and blatantly unfair interviews of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.
And, as the increasing number of allegations appear to indicate, Lauer believed he could do anything too.
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