Of all the powerful men to have been hit with sexual-assault allegations recently, the Matt Lauer case grabbed me the hardest.
For more than 30 years, the “Today” show has been my weekday morning wake-up ritual. Apparently my mind conflated that with actually knowing the on-air personalities the network has promoted as a “family” that travels, and shares growing-up stories and holiday cooking tips together. That was, even as some members, like former co-anchors Ann Curry and Bryant Gumbel, were shoved out the backdoor.
Partly it was the tearful bewilderment of Lauer’s “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie that moved me as she sat beside Hoda Kotb, who is better known for her alcohol-fueled adventures with Kathie Lee Gifford, and opened the broadcast with news that Lauer had been terminated. Guthrie asked, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”
How indeed? It is likely we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg, and now that more women feel safe coming forward, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, the accusations will multiply. But from outside perceptions like mine of Lauer, most of us probably couldn’t pick out a sexual predator from an inept flirt.
One thing we do know is that a sense of sexual entitlement often goes hand-in-hand with power, wealth, position and name recognition, and that power has made it harder for women to come forward sooner. Maybe they were threatened with loss of their jobs, or didn’t think they’d be believed or supported. Maybe they were reluctant to strip someone else of his job, even when that someone mistreated them, because all they wanted was for the behavior to stop.
Too many employers or co-workers have not tried to reconcile the evidence with the person, but have chosen to overlook it. Still, online responses to some of these sex-abuse stories indicate some people now see a war on men, and think employers are going too far.
We need to be clear about what it is that should be punished. In its statement, NBC characterized the problem as one of “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace,” but that could cover even consensual sexual interactions, and there’s a big difference. This weeding out of abusers should not be presented or construed as a broadside on romance or sex between consenting co-workers. As one who wed her first newspaper editor after a courtship that was entirely reciprocal, I know the difference, and I’d be sorry to see such prohibitions enacted on relationships between co-workers outside the office.
Everyone should know or be taught the difference between an enthusiastic response and resistance to a come-on, and should not persist after being rejected. The complaint that got Lauer, who earned $20 million and has been called the most powerful man at NBC News, fired came from a female colleague who said he was inappropriate with her during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. One woman has alleged to the New York Times that he locked her in his office and sexually assaulted her until she passed out. There are allegations that a button under Lauer’s desk allowed him to lock his office door. Another woman told Variety he exposed himself to her and another said he gave her a sex toy with a graphic note.
What kind of man does those things?
In a statement after his firing, Lauer claimed not everything happened as reported, but he now realizes “the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC.” Really? Just now? He said he was “embarrassed and ashamed.” But not enough to walk away, apparently. He’s looking for a $30 million buyout.
One problem here is that by paying people such inflated salaries to read the news and make small talk, networks turn them into icons who feel they are indispensable and can get away with anything. In corporate speak, they think they’re too big to fail. Perhaps when women have the same degree of power and pay, they’ll do it, too. But I hope we’ll see workplace cultures transformed to prevent either in the future.
It is possible that in the fallout, some men whose infractions were less egregious, who mistakenly thought they were being funny or who made an inappropriate pass on someone they thought would reciprocate, will lose their jobs. That would be unfortunate. But to make the lesson stick, employers have to wipe the slate clean and build new workplace cultures from the bottom up where there is zero tolerance for harassment or abuse. No one is entitled to anything forever, and there are plenty of qualified candidates for every job who never get it. Ask any woman or person of color.
I still feel sorry for Guthrie, but a whole lot sorrier for the faceless women we won’t hear from directly. As to her question — must past bad behavior redefine a person you thought of as good? — the answer depends on the misconduct. If the allegations against Lauer are true, the answer has to be yes. You still can love a person who did bad things, but you need to hold them accountable for acknowledging it and trying to make it right. If Lauer is seeking a $30 million severance package, as reported, that suggests he’s not owning the issue himself.
Rekha Basu is a columnist
for the Des Moines Register.