Matt Lauer’s tenure on the “Today” show can be measured by two tearful speeches from his female co-anchors, just five years apart. The first, at the zenith of his power, is Ann Curry’s farewell speech — a heartbreaking address to the camera that came, as was later reported, due to offscreen tension between Curry and Lauer. The second, at the nadir of his career, is this morning’s graceful statement from Savannah Guthrie, his co-anchor since Curry’s departure, explaining that Lauer no longer worked at “Today” because of “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.”
With that, Lauer — an anchor who presided over “Today” losing its ratings advantage (in total viewers) against competitor “Good Morning America,” botched a presidential debate, and told Anne Hathaway to learn her lesson after she was taken advantage of by paparazzi — has been all but erased from the “Today” show after more than 20 years with NBC News.
Lauer, as the lead anchor of “Today,” was always surrounded by women. When he came on, Katie Couric was the heavyweight lead anchor of NBC’s morning show. After Couric departed, Lauer was joined by first Meredith Vieira, then Curry, and finally Guthrie (who, like Henry VIII’s last wife, has the distinction of surviving Lauer’s reign).
But it wasn’t just on-screen talent. Like most daytime programming, “Today” is a show that caters to women viewers — specifically, stay-at-home moms — with its cooking segments and cozy kaffeeklatsch atmosphere. “Today,” in particular, has always had a warm if manufactured conviviality — the jokey asides from longtime weatherman Al Roker, the laughing conversations on the couch, and even the fans outside waving signs, hoping to enter the viewing audience’s mornings with their own little story. Lauer, a tidy, close-cropped man with a slightly sardonic air, was thought to be key to the show’s appeal to women.
NBC played into that by steadily creating cults of personality around its anchors. In 2012, the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley joked that “the network keeps turning ‘Today’ personnel changes into daytime soap opera.” It’s hard to disagree. Just this January, NBC brought back Couric to co-anchor with Lauer for his 20th anniversary working on the “Today” show. This piece on today.com about the event reads like a profile in a high school yearbook: “There were high-fives, hugs and smiles all around,” it reads, “to salute the 59-year-old TV icon.”
So, of course, it is a little startling to learn that Lauer is a sexual predator — one who preys systematically and exclusively on women he supervises, with a detailed lechery that is hard to confront. Lauer is the second morning show host to be dismissed in disgrace in as many weeks, and yet his departure feels more significant. “CBS This Morning’s” Charlie Rose, 75, only worked on that show for five years. (He was best known as a PBS interviewer.) Lauer, meanwhile, was not just the face of “Today” but the face of morning news; until Wednesday morning, he was the longest-running anchor currently hosting a morning show.
Guthrie, Wednesday morning, displayed the considerable talent she has at projecting authentic trustworthiness on-screen, and her confusion and sadness read as quite genuine. But morning news, especially at NBC, is supposed to be a refuge from the cruel difficulties of the world, not a reminder of them. These are shows that sip coffee, talk about innovative new products, marvel over trends and gossip, and swap weeknight dinner recipes. The camaraderie might appear forced, at times, but the illusion of comfort was usually enough to gloss over the off-screen difficulties. This quality often made morning news very frustrating, too: The much-discussed Anne Hathaway footage, which has resurfaced following Lauer’s firing, is both a product of Lauer’s misogyny and of how lightweight news can promote lazy thinking.
And yet Wednesday morning, turning on “Today” brought the sexual harassment movement right to your home, whether you wanted it or not. Now that we all know about Matt Lauer’s secret button that locked the door behind unsuspecting women he called into his office, the illusion of a happy television family is hard to believe in. Now the viewing audience has to reckon with the fact that the man they knew and watched for 20 years is, according to the company who made his career and the co-anchor who still calls herself his friend, a predator.
Guthrie said, eloquently: “We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.”
Now we all don’t know together.