In September 2016, Matt Lauer came under fire for his treatment of then–presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the NBC Commander in Chief Forum.
The format of the forum had Clinton answering questions for 30 minutes, followed by Donald Trump doing the same. During Clinton’s turn, Lauer focused one-third of that time on seemingly prepared questions about her private email server. He asked tough follow-up questions, and interrupted her answers more than once. By the time a veteran in the audience could ask Clinton a specific question about how she would deploy troops to combat ISIS ― the type of inquiry that would allow her to show Americans her understanding of foreign policy and her concrete plans should she become Commander in Chief ― Lauer cut in before she could answer, asking that her response be delivered “as briefly as you can.”
In contrast, Lauer went relatively easy on Trump. Lauer did not interrupt or ask a follow-up question when Trump brazenly lied about consistently opposing the Iraq War. And though Lauer did push back on Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he certainly did not spend 10 minutes on the subject.
Clinton described the forum and her frustration with Lauer’s line of questioning in her memoir What Happened. “Lauer had turned what should have been a serious discussion into a pointless ambush,” she wrote. “What a waste of time.” Adele Stan wrote about the underlying sexism that she felt had been apparent at the forum at the time, pointing out that Lauer’s journalistic choices were “not simply a problem of unfairness in the treatment of the individual candidates; such performances have serious consequences for the fate of the nation.”
“[S]exism against a woman presidential candidate could help elect a recently minted politician with questionable allegiance to the United States,” she added, “who sees himself in eyes of the cold-blooded autocrat who rules a rival nation.”
Lauer’s treatment of Clinton is cast in a new, even harsher light now that Lauer has been fired from NBC over “inappropriate sexual behavior” toward at least one fellow employee. Since the news of his termination was revealed on Wednesday morning, Variety reported the allegations levied against Lauer by multiple women in greater detail. According to the report, Lauer exposed his penis to one female employee without her consent, and gave a sex toy with an explicit note to another. He also allegedly “fixated on women, especially their bodies and looks” and made “lewd comments verbally or over text messages” to women he worked with.
How many women have been pushed aside over the years professionally because of the preferences of more powerful men who turn out to be predators? How many predatory men have been propped up by other predatory men? And how many stories have gone untold in the process?
Media, like most industries, is still dominated by straight, white, cisgender men ― at least at the top. How many women have been pushed aside over the years professionally because of the preferences of more powerful men who turn out to be predators? How many predatory men have been propped up by other predatory men? And how many stories have gone untold in the process?
Writers, editors, publishers and pundits impact the way we think about news stories and public figures, and which news stories and public figures we consider at all ― it’s the nature of the job. So what does it mean when some of the people doing the shaping of our nation’s most important conversations about powerful women and sexual misconduct privately treat women like garbage? It would be nearly impossible for those private attitudes and willful disregard of women’s boundaries not to creep into their storytelling, hiring decisions and their news judgment.
Lauer was NBC’s star anchor, a man endowed with $25 million a year and considerable editorial and managerial clout. He was allowed to sway which stories got airtime on “Today,” reportedly steering the focus away from stories about “cheating husbands.” His influential position allowed him to shape national narratives about sexual harassment and (other) Very Bad Men, and frame the way audiences conceived of powerful women ― from young female celebrities like Kelly Clarkson, to Hillary Clinton, the nation’s first viable female presidential candidate.
There was the time in 2014 ― the year Lauer allegedly acted in a violating way toward a female colleague during the Sochi Olympics ― when he repeatedly asked General Motors CEO Mary Barra about her ability to balance leading a company and being a good mother, suggesting this dynamic was the most compelling part of her job. Lauer later claimed that he would have asked a man the same questions, despite there being no evidence that he had ever asked a male CEO about balancing parenthood with work.
There was the time he commented on then-23-year-old Kelly Clarkson’s “hot new look” in an interview meant to focus on her new album. “Well, I’m back from vacation and you got my attention,” he told her when she questioned him about it.
There was the time, days after an upskirt paparazzi photo of Anne Hathaway had been sold, Lauer greeted the actress on-air by saying, “Good morning, nice to see you. Seen a lot of you lately.” (He went on to ask Hathaway if there was a “lesson learned” from the incident, insinuating that she should adjust her behavior moving forward, instead of the paparazzi.)
There was the time in 2012 when “Today” did a whole segment essentially parodying the way workplace sexual harassment is discussed, mocking a butt-slapping incident between Willie Geist and Lauer. “I’m upset for a couple of reasons,” Lauer said to correspondent Jeff Rossen while somber music played in the background. “One, that [Geist] denied it. I mean, why deny it? If you do it, own up to it.”
There was the time less than three months ago, when Lauer was given the chance to interview Bill O’Reilly in the wake of his firing over multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. It’s particularly stomach-churning to watch Lauer ask O’Reilly whether he’s “done some self-reflection” and whether he has “looked at the way [he] treated women.”
And behind the scenes, Lauer was reportedly linked to the wrenching departure of his former “Today” co-host Ann Curry back in 2012 ― his decision to stay with “Today” essentially sealed the fate of Curry’s job. According to a report by Brian Stelter for The New York Times: “Curry felt that the boys’ club atmosphere behind the scenes at ‘Today’ undermined her from the start, and she told friends that her final months were a form of professional torture. The growing indifference of Matt Lauer, her co-host, had hurt the most, but there was also just a general meanness on set.” While Curry’s job trajectory faltered, at least in part because of Lauer, former NBC executive and booker Matt Zimmerman’s soared. Variety reported that it was Lauer who elevated Zimmerman into an executive position. In mid-November of this year, Zimmerman was fired amid allegations of “inappropriate conduct with more than one woman.”
As Rebecca Traister pointed out a month ago, after the first wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men involved in media came to light, it has a ripple effect in an industry like ours when the power brokers are predatory men.
“The accused are men who help to determine what art gets seen and appreciated — and, crucially, paid for,” she wrote, adding, “They are also the men with the most power to determine what messages get sent about politicians to a country that then chooses between those politicians in elections.”
It is a disturbing thought experiment to look at the media men who have faced allegations of sexual misconduct over the past two months ― Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Hamilton Fish, Michael Oreskes, Matt Zimmerman, Glenn Thrush, Leon Wieseltier ― and consider what stories might have been told had women been in their places.