How Matt Lauer's NBC sexually harassed America's TV viewers, and our politics | Will Bunch

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Hillary Clinton takes the stage with “Today” show co-anchor Matt Lauer at the NBC "Commander-In-Chief Forum" on the Intrepid carrier parked off Manhattan in September 2016.

The details are dribbling out about why NBC Today host Matt Lauer — head-shaven icon of the age of celebrity-driven newscasts — was abruptly fired Wednesday, and they are every bit as lurid (although, after weeks of Harvey Weinstein-fueled revolution, no longer particularly shocking) as any tabloid editor might ever hope for. Unwelcome drawers-dropping! The secret button that could lock the door on unsuspecting female visitors to his office! (Seriously? Is that something they sell at Staples? …” Female torture buttons. …Yeah, we got that.”)

Like many of the sexual-predator allegations that have roiled Hollywood, Washington, Manhattan’s media ghettos, Silicon Valley, and Anywhere Else Where Privileged and Entitled Men Are Found, the specific accusations against Lauer are serious, and they scream out for justice for the individual women he harassed, abused, threatened, thwarted, and demoralized. That’s vitally important, but I hope the conversation about the corrosive effect of patriarchy in the corridors of American power doesn’t stop at the creepy specifics of how Matt Lauer, and the dozens of other “Matt Lauers” at the top of the corporate, creative, and political food chains, treated the women they worked with.

That’s because Lauer’s gross sexual offenses were merely the bubbling volcano on top of a toxic mountain of masculinity, a “boys’ club culture” (as Today backstage was frequently described, years before this week’s news bulletins) that practically bled onto your TV screen every morning. And that fuzzed up the big picture not only on who delivered America its news — and the regressive message that sent about gender — but ultimately discolored the news itself. “The boys’ club” at NBC News that protected Matt Lauer for years was the same “boys’ club” that fought to keep the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and thus, the wider revolt against patriarchy and abuse) under wraps, and that biased the coverage of a presidential election that put the poster man-child of male supremacy in the Oval Office.

Matt Lauer’s sins were unconscionable, but so is the culture at NBC News — similar to other top media companies — that nurtured him, protected him, and then produced a televised “reality” that reflected those pathologies back at millions of viewers.

While Lauer has been exposed as a horrible human being, it’s probably the case that — had there not been a Lauer — the weird Freudian psychology of Morning TV Land would have created one. Over the last couple of generations, the TV sets in our living rooms morphed from a source of entertainment to babysitter to constant companion to, finally, our reality. And television producers have striven, through morning television, to impose a brand of patriarchal domestic tranquility that so rarely exists in the messy world outside of TV — the chipper, always-together “mom” and the alpha-male “dad” who imposes order on all.

The image is so deeply ingrained that no one thought it weird when NBC overtly marketed Lauer and the cast of Today — whose facade of Everyman affability made him seem perfect for the host job after his 1997 arrival — as “America’s First Family,” with no question over who’s your Daddy. But it turned out that “America’s First Family” was every bit as dysfunctional as many real ones. Behind closed doors, when the cameras were off, Daddy had a problem, and the rest of the family bent over backward to keep it secret.

Now we know, from news reports, that Lauer’s sexual misconduct — ranging from inappropriate comments to out-and-out predatory behavior toward females with less power at NBC News — dates back to the dawn of the millennium, making a mockery of the claims by the current NBC News president, Andy Lack, that he and other top executives knew nothing about it. But covering up immoral behavior that might harm “the franchise” — Today was a massive pot of money for NBC, bringing in as much as $500 million a year, much more than the rival networks’ morning shows — was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to maintaining patriarchal order on your flat screen.

There were major personnel wars at NBC News’ Today driven not by the journalistic talent of the women working with Lauer — let alone the content of their character — but by their ability to display the proper deference and maintain the fiction of Lauer as the set’s beloved “dad.” The most notable casualty was the widely acclaimed journalist Ann Curry — who found herself through a chain of unlikely events in the co-anchor chair, and was then maneuvered by Lauer and his allies out the door in 2012, after a relatively short stint. Officials cited (off the record, of course) bad “chemistry” between the two — deflecting the reality that Curry’s skill and sincerity were making Lauer look bad.

But the ouster of Ann Curry didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a broader pattern — in TV news in general, and certainly at NBC News — of finding prominent on-air roles for women who were talented but also properly deferential or otherwise pleasing to the target audience of 50-something-or-more white men, which just happened to be the demographic of top media executives. Which meant jettisoning some remarkably talented women journalists who didn’t fit that mold — not only Curry but popular (Temple grad) Tamron Hall, a charismatic African American newswoman who was unceremoniously pushed aside from the third hour of NBC’s Today this year to make room for news director Lack’s gleaming vision (but not the viewing public’s, apparently) of what a female anchor should be, Megyn Kelly.

Lack, an archetype of the white male executive who constantly manages to fail upward, left Bloomberg News under murky  circumstances in 2015 to retake the reins at NBC News, thus bumping down that rarest of rarities, a female chief, Deborah Turness, who’d briefly held the job. Nothing unusual there — almost all of the top news executives at NBC, CBS, ABC, and the cable news networks have been white men, throughout the recorded history of television. That tradition of male supremacy looms over the big decisions — from protecting predators in the anchor’s chair to deciding what is, and what isn’t, news. And those decisions grew bigger than ever around the time that Lack regained his crown at NBC News, because America’s longstanding patriarchy was suddenly staring into the abyss.

In the broader society, the rape and sexual-abuse allegations against Bill Cosby — whom, irony of ironies, NBC had presented as “America’s Dad” a generation earlier — threatened to open the floodgates against men in power. And in politics, the 2016 presidential election would prove to be a choice between a male billionaire drenched in misogyny and a smart, driven woman who probably — consciously or subconsciously — reminded more than a few news executives of … Ann Curry.

In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t be shocked that Matt Lauer’s new boss and protector didn’t seem to think that allegations that powerful men are sexual predators was much of a story. So when MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow uncovered powerful evidence — even a New York police tape recording — documenting the crimes of Hollywood mogul Weinstein, Lack and his minions kept sending it back for more reporting and finally told Farrow to take it somewhere else. When NBC News got its hands on Donald Trump’s explosive Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about his predatory behavior, the network dithered until it was finally leaked to the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly clear that the candidacy of the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination was covered and often dismissed by men who held Neanderthal — and that’s being charitable — views toward how women in general should be treated. None worse than now-accused predator Mark Halperin, a pundit whose dim views of Hillary Clinton and his barely disguised admiration for Trump’s machismo often turned up on NBC News’ cable outlet, MSNBC; Halperin once wrote (with coauthor John Heilemann) that Clinton was “[p]rideful, aggrieved, confused  —  and still high on the notion she was leading an army, Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-sized fake pearls.”

Clinton was a major-party nominee and career politician who deserved tough, critical news coverage — and God knows she got it. But there’s a difference between investigative reporting and sexist dismissiveness, and the latter flourished in the key final weeks of the Clinton-Trump showdown. And it was at the most pivotal moment when NBC News put its compromised star Lauer front and center, moderating a nationally televised “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on the Intrepid carrier parked off Manhattan in September 2016.

The night is remembered as one where Lauer repeatedly let Trump off the hook — declining, for example, to press the then-GOP nominee on blatant inconsistencies on whether he’d opposed the war in Iraq (he hadn’t) — while seemingly determined to make Clinton uncomfortable on stage. He interrupted the Democratic candidate and on more than one occasion urged her to answer a query “as briefly as you can” — discourtesies that were not shown to Trump. “Lauer interrupted Clinton’s answers repeatedly to move on. Not once for Trump,” the political analyst Norman Ornstein wrote. “Tough to be a woman running for president.”

Indeed. The performance by Lauer, amplified by the likes of Halperin and like-minded pundits on the other channels, spread a misogynistic fog that only grew thicker in the final days of the election, making it easy for voters to buy into a flood of “fake news” about Clinton and to write off Trump’s Access Hollywood scandal, much as Lack and his NBC minions had dismissed Trump’s sexual abuse in the first place. Today, the fog is finally lifting (with Trump ensconced in the White House) and the subtle and not-so-subtle impact of patriarchal journalism on the American body politic is becoming clear — a type of sexual harassment, if you will, toward the information-seeking American news viewer.

So let’s not be so naive to think that Lauer’s firing — or similar actions against his former CBS morning-news counterpart Charlie Rose, or Halperin and the others — is a satisfactory conclusion. This should be a jumping-off point for a complete rewiring of the media infrastructure (and not just TV, but newspapers, websites, etc., etc.) so that women aren’t only reporting the news (which many are doing very, very well) but making the actual decisions in the corner offices of the newsrooms. The paucity of women TV news-division presidents (really, CBS? None? Ever?) and females in other key executive positions is not only a national disgrace, but it has had real consequences on how we get our news, the news (like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump) that we didn’t get, and, ultimately, who gets elected. The Matt Lauers of the world are on the way out, but it’s time for the Andy Lacks to start getting nervous.