Was Matt Lauer given a break by the press?

He was, according to the popular website Feministing—indeed, he was made into a “martyr” by the press.

Now it seems to me that Lauer is guilty: multiple women have given consilient stories of his predatory behavior, though I think too much has been made on the button on his desk that locked his door. That’s common among executives to allow them privacy when they get phone calls or have a visitor. I’m not aware that he used it to trap women in his office (such locks would have to be easily open-able from the inside to adhere to fire codes). Regardless, for him to be fired almost instantly by NBC suggests that the evidence against him was strong and credible. And if he broke the law, he should be tried.

That’s not at issue. But was the press guilty of making him into a hero?

First read these three leads for three stories, and you tell me if they valorized the man:

The New York Times:

The fast-moving national reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace toppled another television news star on Wednesday . . .

The downfall of Mr. Lauer, a presence in American living rooms for more than 20 years, adds to a head-spinning string of prominent firings over sexual harassment and abuse allegations.

Here’s The Washington Post:

The wave of sexual harassment allegations roiling American society broke over a familiar figure, “Today” host Matt Lauer . . . . Lauer, 59, may be the best-known, and perhaps best-liked, of the men whose highflying careers have crashed in the wake of accusations besetting the news media, the government and the entertainment industry over the past two months.

And USA Today:

America woke up without another one of the most recognizable faces in morning television Wednesday, as the rapid-fire sexual harassment allegations that have been rocking Hollywood and Washington brought down one of the most prominent figures to date.

I’ve unbolded the words that the Feministing author, Dana Bolger, were used by the press to turn Lauer into a “martyr”. See if you can find them. Look hard. You can click here to see them.

Here’s the interpretation from Feministing:

Now Lauer was very popular, but among viewers, not necessarily by the people who knew him or worked with him. Nevertheless, here’s the article’s take on the words above.

Matt Lauer was “toppled” like a tree unlucky enough to be caught in the path of a “fast-moving” tornado. Matt Lauer was “broken over” by a “wave”, like a surfer in the ocean. Matt Lauer (the best-liked of men!) got stuck on the bad end of a “rapid-fire” firing squad intent on bringing him down.

To state the obvious: Matt Lauer isn’t a victim of circumstance, a puppy caught in the eye of the storm. Like all the other Harveys, he made choices. He decided to exploit his subordinates. He opted to harass people with less power than him. He used a button under his desk to lock women in his office.

The language we use to tell these stories matters. It’s not only that whole swaths of people in this country, including actual victims of violence, don’t get to be humanized by the press in this way, but also this: lazy, sexist writing that paints aggressors as victims and victims as aggressors fuels the idea — already gaining steam across the right and left alike — that two months of accountability is a “witch hunt”, a “sex panic”, and “anti-male sexual McCarthyism”.

We can grapple with the complexity of violence in our lives — perpetrated by people we may love — without turning these “fallen” men into tragic victim-heroes.

This is the way you analyze words when your conclusions are preordained. I never watched Lauer, have no feelings of admiration for him, and think he’s guilty. Nevertheless, I can’t see what the author sees. “Best-liked” is certainly true of viewers, who kept him on the air for decades.  And he was, like everyone, a victim of circumstances, in that he couldn’t freely choose what he did. But, as I repeat endlessly, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punished. That includes firing and shaming to stop the tsunami (whoops, sorry—too close to “wave”) of sexual harassment in the workplace and deter others from such behavior, legal sanctions if Lauer broke the law. And although sexual predators are hard to reform, it’s not impossible.

Or maybe I’m just blinded by my privilege.

22 Comments

  1. Stephen Barnard
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Motivated reasoning

  2. Adam M.
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I thought you were driving at the opposite conclusion and was prepared to disagree. I didn’t see it either; the headlines seemed neutral to me. Now, if he’s the only one getting this neutral treatment, that still might speak of bias, but I don’t know if that’s the case, and it still wouldn’t add up to what Feministing claims.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I do not think you are blinded by your privilege any more than another white male, such as me. Sexual harassment has not been talked about much or well known until now. It has come upon us by a brave bunch of women who are bringing this subject out of the darkness. The news media is just dramatizing for their own egos.

    This is dead serious business and it should be treating as such but that is not likely in this world either. The discovery of this disease in anyone’s workplace is always a shock at first but finally it sinks in. It is a really bad thing and it takes some common sense, some brains to deal with it, if in fact people want to fix it. It also takes adults who understand it and have the will to put procedures in place to stop it. That means instituting a plan and procedures for reporting and handing it in every company and institution. It has been around a long time but the answers are known and in some firms are in place and working now.

    • Jake Sevins
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      For me, sexual harassment first came into my consciousness with Anita Hill (1991). The next famous case I can recall was much later: Bill Cosby (which is arguably much much worse).

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and the irony of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case is that he did this to her while at the EEOC of sexual harassment. This is and was the federal agency that handles this matter as a discrimination. So if you had some one like this guy in charge of investigations and outcomes of this issue pretty pathetic, eh. It became a big issue in the company I worked for in the 80s, well before Anita Hill. By the time of the Hill case we already had a system in place and working that basically put a stop to sexual harassment in our company. It still happens mind you, but it gets handled quickly and quietly.

  4. Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Feministing is a blog of, by, and for the mentally ill.

  5. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Feministing seems to use feminist thinking and reasoning, leading to odd interpretations.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Cosby hasn’t been a drag on the Supreme Court for 25 years.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    First read these three leads for three stories …

    Not that I’m anyone to give anyone advice on homophones, boss, but per hoary journalistic tradition, I believe that word is “lede.”

  8. Craw
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Time to drag out Hofstadter again. She exhibits the 100% mind. Would you say something positive about Satan??

    This way she gets to huff and puff and see deeper into evil than the rest of us. If George Clooney is accused she’ll scream if you call him handsome.

  9. ploubere
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I don’t find anything in the three stories that defends Lauer or portrays him as a martyr or unjustly accused. And the tone is not substantially different from stories covering other public figures such as O’Reilly or Roy Moore.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    And although sexual predators are hard to reform …

    It’s well-documented that pedophiles are notoriously hard to reform, but I’m unaware of similar data demonstrating that garden-variety office harassers are resistant to reform. And even if they are, I think they at least can be deterred through methodical detection and prompt punishment.

    • yazikus
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      garden-variety office harassers

      I think this is an important point that doesn’t get enough thought in all of these revelations. There are people who will behave badly no matter what, and there are people who will behave badly if given the space, the freedom and the freedom from consequence (at least they think it). Just as there are very nice, average fellows who might stoop to a negative behavior (cat-calling a lone woman late at night, saying lewd things), I think that these folks can be reformed by positive social pressure. If another man in that group were to call the behavior out, say that it isn’t cool, most of it will stop. I think, I mean, I’m a humanist, I like to think the best of people.

  11. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Excellent use of the word “consilient” – I thought it was just a fanciful word.

    • Craw
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Although in this case, unlike some others, we have rather more than that. Lauer has admitted that there is substantial truth to the charges, and an organization with a huge vested interest in keeping him investigated and decided they had to fire him.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      One of our host’s old professors, E.O. Wilson, wrote a book entitled Consilience.

  12. yazikus
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t read about any of this on Feministing, but on my commute heard on the radio more than one host/media type lament at this and profess their love for him. So I guess that could be taken the wrong way. I’ve found I’ve been finding these revelations to fall into two categories when I hear about them; surprised and not surprised. Lauer falls into not surprised. Does this have to do with me disliking him? I don’t think so, I’ve never really watched more than a clip here or there of him, but he always came off as a bit rude and entitled, and rude and entitled people seem more likely to take from others (or sexually harass) than those who are not.

  13. Posted December 3, 2017 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I can’t find it at the moment but I recently read worldwide statistics. Following is an internet source on U.S. stats:

    “https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence”

    I’m of mixed emotion about this. 1. I think such “outed” men (as well as those who haven’t been…yet) have had a free ride for much too long. 2. The women who have finally shared their stories are very brave because there are always some who blame the woman for enticing the males. 3. I hate to see this played out in the media, court of public opinion, and not a real legal court. However, since many of these reports have been made after the statute of limitations has passed, legal action may not be possible.

    Interesting how little we really know people.

    • Christopher
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. And I’ve been avoiding saying anything about this as I’m not sure I’m allowed to, being male. I am aware that whatever my feelings, I’ve never had those experiences (I have been sexually harassed, by women and gay men but to no great extent and so infrequently that they were comedic rather than humiliating experiences). It is nice to have my thoughts voiced by someone else and so clearly.

  14. Gabrielle
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    “And although sexual predators are hard to reform, it’s not impossible.”

    It’s possible, with the right pressure applied. I was harassed earlier in my career by a coworker 16 years older than me. After 6 months of harassment, he finally stopped when a senior manager simply told him to, and I suspect made it clear what the consequences would be if he didn’t stop. And from that point on, said harasser left me alone.

    On those minority of men who choose to harass: one of the reasons they do it for so long is that harassing has mostly been consequence-free, even with a woman filing a complaint. Up until recently, the harasser could count on people not believing the woman, especially if the woman was young and the man was in a position of power or influence.

    Re Matt Lauer – I have to admit I was surprised by revelations about his behavior and his firing. I used to watch the Today show up until 10 years ago, and thought he was well-suited to the lighthearted nature of morning news programs. I’d say the best word to describe him was ‘likable’. Well, you never know what people are really like when the camera is off and they are behind closed (locked) doors.

  15. Robert Bray
    Posted December 4, 2017 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Although not strictly relevant to this thread, the following is, I believe, worth a word or two in the broader context of sexual predation. According to this morning’s Chicago Tribune, world-famous and much-beloved conductor James Levine has been suspended from all duties by the Metropolitan Opera in light of charges by three men that ‘Levine sexually abused them decades ago when they were teenagers’ (one of whom was 15 when the abuse began).

    Now, should the allegations prove true, that would show Levine to have been, at least legally, a pedophile. Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Met, acted downright precipitately once the New York Times asked his institution for comment on the men’s charges, which I think is in itself suspicious.

    And here’s why. I happen to have heard–years ago–from someone who worked for many seasons at the Met, in a relatively high-level position, that Levine’s predilections were an open secret, and that he acted upon them pretty freely. In other words, he was their star, and he was protected from the top.

    This is very much like what happened a Penn State a few years back. Jerry Sandusky sexually abused players, and Joe Paterno and the president of the University covered things up–to the bitter end, I might add, resulting in a great deal of moral and financial damage to the institution.

    Those who follow college football know that Penn State has returned to its status as a national power. Have they learned anything that will support the values they were supposed to uphold in the first place?

    And will the Metropolitan Opera admit its collusion–if indeed that’s what occurred–and heal itself? Or are the vaunted fine arts, as institutionalized, morally no better than the lowbrow culture they despise?

  16. Max Blancke
    Posted December 4, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    We used to have a system of rules which we taught our children in order that they might avoid these sorts of situations. For boys, it was called being and behaving as a “gentleman”.
    People mock those attitudes today, but they were developed over a very long period of time by people with a pretty comprehensive understanding of the baser aspects of human nature. And they were an attempt to solve problems that exist today as much as they did then.
    Of course wealthy and powerful men have always been tempted to feel that normal rules do not apply to them. Even so, I cannot help but wonder if the men being “outed” now would still be in that situation had their parents instilled them with stronger moral character.


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