NBC Universal said it fired morning-show veteran Matt Lauer, citing “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace” and setting up potential chaos at its venerable — and very lucrative — “Today” A.M. franchise.
In a memo to staffers, NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said executives on Monday night “received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer. It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company’s standards. As a result, we’ve decided to terminate his employment. While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”
Lauer has been a fixture on “Today” for more than two decades, and has served as a connection to morning viewers through at least two generations. He first joined as a news reader in 1994 before becoming the show’s co-anchor in 1998. He has worked alongside morning-TV fixtures including Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, and most recently, Savannah Guthrie. But he is the latest prominent figure to fall as the nation places more emphasis on the injustice of acts of sexual harassment by prominent public figures, including movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly. NBC had in 2016 quietly negotiated a new deal with Lauer, said to be valued at around $20 million, that would have kept him on the air through 2018.
CBSNews and PBS last week fired newsman Charlie Rose, a co-anchor of “CBS This Morning” and host of the public-broadcasting showcase “Charlie Rose” after The Washington Post presented the accounts of eight women, three of them on the record, who alleged he had made unwanted advances toward them, even attempting to lure them to see him while he was washing in the shower. NBC News cut its ties to veteran political journalist Mark Halperin last month, after allegations of sexual harassment in his past were revealed.
In a statement, Ari Wilkenfeld, who said he was an attorney representing the woman who came forward to NBC News earlier this week, expressed some satisfaction with the company’s response. “Our impression at this point is that NBC acted quickly, as all companies should, when confronted with credible allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace,” he said. “While I am encouraged by NBC’s response to date, I am in awe of the courage my client showed to be the first to raise a complaint and to do so without making any demands other than the company do the right thing.”
“Today” viewers who tuned in to the show Wednesday morning were greeted by a somber Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb. “As I’m sure you can imagine, we are devastated and we are still processing all of this,” Guthrie told viewers. “I will tell you right now we do not know more than what I just shared with you, but we will be covering this story as reporters, as journalists. I’m sure we will be learning more details in the hours and days to come. And we promise we will share that with you.” She said she was “heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear colleague.”
But both she and Kotb made clear they were concerned about a potential victim. Guthrie said she was also upset for the woman who had accused Lauer, and said the ability of women to feel comfortable when making allegations of abuse was “long overdue.” Kotb expressed surprise about the alleged behavior. “It’s hard to reconcile the man who walks in every day” with the behavior that had been described, she said.
NBC News recently fired Matt Zimmerman, senior VP of booking, news and entertainment, who had been with the unit since at least 2004, citing “inappropriate conduct” with two different women at the company. He was promoted in 2014 to head a unit designed to handle guest bookings for “Today” and other NBC News programs.
“Our highest priority is to create a workplace environment where everyone feels safe and protected, and to ensure that any actions that run counter to our core values are met with consequences, no matter who the offender,” Lack said in the memo. “We are deeply saddened by this turn of events. But we will face it together as a news organization – and do it in as transparent a manner as we can.” He said he and NBC News President Noah Oppenheim would meet with staff to discuss issues.
The firing raises questions about next steps at “Today,” where Lauer has greeted viewers since Bryant Gumbel was a dominant presence on the show.
The morning program has been locked in a scorched-earth battle with ABC’s “Good Morning America” since April 9, 2012, when the ABC program ended “Today’s” 852-week streak as the nation’s most-watched morning-news program. Ratings for “Today”suffered as NBC ousted Ann Curry, who had taken over as co-anchor from Meredith Vieira. The chemistry between Curry and Lauer fizzled and her teary on-air departure, in tandem with a growing focus on tabloid-ier stories soured viewers on the program.
Since that time, “Today” has gained some ground on its rival. While “GMA” remains the nation’s most-watched morning program, “Today” is the most-watched among viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming. Last week, “Today” captured 4.23 million viewers, compared to 4.33 million for “GMA” and 3.69 million for “CBS This Morning.”