Before we lose another moment feeling bad or sad or mad about Matt Lauer, or Charlie Rose, or Bill O’Reilly, or whatever guy next loses a high-paying job over allegations of conduct unbecoming a decent human being, could we talk about the women?
Not just the women who’ve come forward to accuse these men, but the ones who worked – and maybe bantered – beside them, and who lately have been left to pick up the pieces.
As Callum Borchers points out in the Washington Post blog “The Fix,” “this has become a familiar scene on TV: A female host tasked with explaining to the audience why a male colleague is suddenly absent. It is a wrenching assignment, cruelly emblematic of the problem. Even after his dismissal, an accused harasser can put a woman in one more uncomfortable position.”
It was hard enough watching Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell go through this – was it really only last week? – but “CBS This Morning” isn’t the “Today” show, and Lauer, who’s long been considered critical to the fortunes of the lucrative NBC morning show, is a household name and face in far more households than Rose has been.
Savannah Guthrie, reaching out to grab the hand of her “Today” co-host Hoda Kotb, had to summon up a brief, brave smile before announcing Lauer’s firing on Wednesday morning. Because smiling, and looking relatable, is as much a part of Guthrie’s job as delivering the news, sad or otherwise.
Declaring herself heartbroken, she needed to maintain the impression that these people whom millions wake up with every morning are truly a family while also showing support for the unnamed colleague whose accusation led to the ouster of a member of that family.
Guthrie went to journalism school and got her law degree from Georgetown, but who signs up for this?
And yet TV newswomen have long had to play by a different set of rules, the ones that dictate that women who’ve pursued advanced training in, say, meteorology must also look good in cocktail attire, that aging is tolerated only to the point that it becomes obvious, and that lack of on-air chemistry with the apparently indispensable male co-anchor is a firing offense.
Meanwhile, Lauer and Al Roker got to be bald on TV.
What Lauer doesn’t get, though, is the presumption of innocence he’d be granted in a criminal case. I know it must seem to some men, in and out of the public eye, that the rules have been changed mid-game. But the rules were always there. They just weren’t enforced.
Those rules that govern the appearance and behavior of women – even on morning shows whose audiences are predominantly female – didn’t come about only because some of the men calling the shots are sexist pigs.
They’re based on a cruel calculation of what viewers will tolerate.
At some point, it was decided that Today’s audience likely wouldn’t tolerate whatever Lauer is said to have done. Or at least that they might not be able to see Lauer, the brother/dad/annoyingly smug uncle of what NBC once called “America’s First Family,” in the same way once the story, or stories, NBC reportedly knew to be coming broke.
Getting out ahead of that story was an unusual move for “Today,” which has a long history of rocky transitions (see Curry, Ann and Pauley, Jane), and there’s a lot of money on the line for its Comcast-owned network. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Today” earned $509 million in ad revenue last year, more than any other morning show, though ABC’s “Good Morning America” attracts more viewers.
Advertisers had to have been part of NBC News’ calculations. When Bill O’Reilly was let go from Fox News seven months ago, it was capitalism at work, his ouster coming only after advertisers started fleeing “The O’Reilly Factor,” eager to avoid controversy in the wake of the sexual-harassment allegations against him.
And not standing between the company and the money? That’s the only rule that applies to everyone.
Ellen Gray is the television critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.