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Matt Lauer was always NBC’s misogynist hiding in plain sight

Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
Goodbye to you.
By Leah Fessler
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For a few weeks, it seemed the slew of sexual-harassment allegations was limited to stereotypical media “creeps” like Harvey Weinstein or James Toback, who cultivated bad-boy personas. That delusion is over. Today, Americans awoke to the news that Matt Lauer, a member of NBC News’ Today show team since 1994,  has been fired.

Given Lauer’s long-sustained “guy next door” presentation—he had been a Today anchor since 1997—NBC News chairman Andy Lack’s statement that executives received “a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace” and was “also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident,” was shocking and heart-wrenching for many viewers. It may have been all the more so coming soon after Charlie Rose, another widely beloved morning television anchor, was fired by CBS News on the same grounds.

The cast of Today—Lauer, Katie Couric, Al Roker, and Ann Curry—was once marketed as “America’s First Family,” as New York magazine explained in 2013. “As the sturdy straight man, Lauer bonded with women by showing he could bake a cake with the same ease with which he could grill a politician, then effortlessly josh with the avuncular Al Roker, the jovial weatherman, for comic relief,” wrote Joe Hagan. “It looked real. For a while, it was.” That all-for-one image would be dented a bit, but Lauer and the show managed to sustain it beyond Ann Curry’s notorious firing.

Then came this morning.

“As I’m sure you can imagine, we are devastated and we are still processing all of this,” Savannah Guthrie, Lauer’s Today show co-anchor, told viewers today (Nov. 29). She said she did not know any more than the public about Lauer, and that she would be covering this news as a journalist, though she is “heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear colleague.”

According to Lack, the complaint, received on Monday, “is the first complaint about [Lauer’s] behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News.” That NBC News acted so swiftly on this first complaint is respectable. However, Lauer has been letting his misogynistic impulses leak for years. He has been able to get away with subtly demeaning women and abusing his power right before our eyes.

Here is exactly why we really shouldn’t be surprised about the news.

The firing of Ann Curry

Lauer has long been blamed for Today co-anchor Curry’s firing in 2012. She reportedly was fired after Today’s ratings fell behind rival ABC morning-show Good Morning America. Even though internal research showed that Lauer, not Curry, was losing favor with viewers, then-executive producer Jim Bell began blaming falling ratings on Curry.

In addition, as New York reported in “Long Night at Today,” its expose on Lauer’s role in Curry’s firing, it had become obvious that Lauer was not making a significant effort to make the show work with Curry simply because he didn’t like her.

Lauer reportedly then began working with Bell and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke on what would come to be known as “Operation Bambi,” a scheme to get Curry out, to secure Lauer’s (extremely lucrative) future on Today. ”I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman,” Lauer was said to have told an assistant. He also reportedly got in a number of fights with producers about the show’s morning lineup, and spoke of cutting back on work, implicitly threatening to leave the show.

And he got what he wanted: Curry was replaced with Guthrie, Lauer received a massive signing bonus, and the video of Curry crying through her final goodbye on Today—evading a hug and kiss from Lauer—is now notorious.

His slut-shaming of Anne Hathaway

Months after Curry left, Lauer interviewed Anne Hathaway, starring in Les Miserables, one day after she had stepped out of a car at the film’s premiere and inadvertently exposed herself to photographers when her dress rode up. Paparazzi captured the image, which Hathaway reportedly described as “devastating.”

To Lauer, Hathaway’s embarrassment was news well-worth exploiting. “Seen a lot of you lately,” he said, to open the interview. Hathaway tried to laugh off the comment, but Lauer kept pushing: “Let’s just get it out of the way… You had a little wardrobe malfunction the other night. What’s the lesson learned from something like that, other than that you keep smiling, which you’ll always do.”

Lauer’s insistence on spending a significant portion of his interview discussing this “wardrobe malfunction,” cushioned by a long-held sexist trope about women’s need to constantly smile, was at best humorless bullying, and at worst patronizingly aggressive and exploitative. Hathaway, who would go on to win an Oscar for her role in Les Mis, shut him down gracefully.

“I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants,” said Hathaway, before turning the conversation back to the film: “Which brings us back to Les Mis, because that’s what my character is—she is someone who is forced to sell sex to benefit her child, because she has nothing and there’s no social safety net. And I— Yeah, so, um, so let’s get back to Les Mis.”

His sexist interview with Mary Barra

A year later, in 2014, Lauer interviewed General Motors CEO Mary Barra. Lauer brought up a statement Barra had recently made about missing her son’s junior prom: “My kids told me the one job they are going to hold me accountable for is ‘Mom.'” Lauer continued with a question many deemed sexist: ”Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?”

Barra responded with confidence and grace, saying, “You know, I think I can. I have a great team, we’re on the right path…I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband and I’m pretty proud of the way my kids are supporting me in this.”

As Justin Hyde wrote on Yahoo of the Barra interview, ”For the record: All previous GM CEOs that I’ve known had children. In my 15 years of covering the industry, I can recall only a couple of occasions where they were ever asked how they balanced the roles of father and executive; it was more often them who brought it up in small talk about what was going on in their lives outside the company.”

Lauer tried to defend himself in a Facebook post, writing that the question he posed to Barra is “an issue almost any parent including myself”—Lauer is a father of three—”can relate to. If a man had publicly said something similar after accepting a high-level job, I would have asked him exactly the same thing.”

That biased treatment of Hillary Clinton

More recently, there was Lauer’s widely criticized moderation of a live, prime-time forum with presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in September 2016. Lauer decided to spend a significant time grilling Clinton about her use of a private email server, before rushing through topics more relevant to the forum like domestic terror. Lauer also tsk-tsked Clinton for being too hard on her Republican opponent.

Meanwhile, Lauer consistently allowed Trump to talk over and interrupt him, and perhaps most egregiously, refrained from interjecting or correcting Trump when he lied, saying that he had not supported the war in Iraq, which he patently did.

Lauer’s treatment of Clinton was seen as justified by many observers. The email server was a prominent issue in the 2016 campaign. His defenders also noted that Trump has zero inhibitions about interrupting anyone, or lying.

But once again, when given the chance, Lauer was heavy-handed with a woman, implicitly demeaning and targeting her supposed incompetencies.

The America that would go on to elect Trump had become, in all ways, all too familiar with both of their acts.

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