Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Matt Lauer firing: This is what real reckoning looks like

This is what a cultural reckoning looks like.

Eight days after Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King spoke movingly of their reactions to allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by CBS colleague Charlie Rose, an equally shaken Savannah Guthrie told viewers today that her morning show co-host Matt Lauer had been fired at NBC.

Lauer’s firing came in response to a complaint lodged Monday night with NBC about what the network termed “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace that took place during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.”

According to NBC, the alleged behavior continued beyond the Olympic games.

NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said in a memo sent to employees early Wednesday that Lauer’s alleged actions represented a "clear violation of our company's standards."

"How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? I don't know the answer to that," Guthrie said at the start of Wednesday’s “Today” broadcast. "But I do know that this reckoning, that so many organizations have been going through, is important, it's long overdue and it must result in workplaces where all women — all people — feel safe and respected."

Those powerful words echoed what O’Donnell said on CBS just over a week earlier.

“There is no excuse for this alleged behavior,” she said of her co-host Rose. “This I know is true: Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace or in society until there is a reckoning and a taking of responsibility.”

Reckoning is a big and powerful word. It made me think of some of the truth and reconciliation commissions that have been set up in various countries in the hope of giving victims, witnesses and some of those accused a chance to publicly tell their stories.

Governments are usually the body that establishes such a forum, but we can hardly expect anything showing such civic responsibility and commitment to truth from the administration now running the nation.

President Donald Trump’s tweet reducing Lauer’s firing to another chance for one of his “fake news” accusations is Exhibit A. This from the man who boasted of sexually assaulting women and now backs an Alabama senate candidate alleged to have sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl.

And let’s not expect anything better from Congress, where at the moment both Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. John Conyers are wrapping themselves in the highly private, slow-walking, non-disclosure-signing process of an ethics investigation in the face of allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. Talk about institutionalized patriarchy.

Thank goodness, media are stepping in to do what our elected officials won’t in creating a space for women to speak and for serious consequences to be publicly displayed.

Since the first allegations against Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes, I have been writing about this cultural moment as a rolling back of patriarchy — another big and powerful word. But the reality of an actual reckoning felt more imminent and powerful than ever in the last week as I heard prominent women like O’Donnell calling for it on national TV.

It led me to say last week that we in the media need to do everything we can to help create a climate in which victims feel their testimony will be heard and they will not be punished for speaking truth about powerful men.

If we are serious about trying to change society away from the oppression of patriarchy, we need to understand change of this magnitude in which power is wrested from a group that has long held control is never smooth or easy. Now is not the time to lose our nerve because things are getting ugly and longtime TV favorites, who we have invited into our homes every morning, are seeing their careers come to abrupt ends.

I have criticized Lack and CBS News President David Rhodes on more than one occasion. But I have praise for them in their handling of Rose and Lauer.

Nothing in news makes more money for a network than morning TV. We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars for the gain of a single ratings point in this highly contested and lucrative realm.

As I said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, CBS has been a loser in the mornings since 1954 — 1954! They were still in third place behind ABC and NBC with Rose, but he boosted the ratings by 1.2 points in five years, and the money was now coming into CBS instead of going onto the loss column.

And within one day of The Washington Post publishing allegations from eight women, he’s gone. One of network TV’s most distinguished careers extinguished.

Lauer was even more valuable during his 20 years as an anchor at NBC News. “Today” — along with ABC’s “Good Morning America” — dominated mornings for so long that Lauer could probably lay claim to having made more money for the network than anyone else currently in its news division.

Yet, some 36 hours after a former colleague of his met with NBC News officials Monday night, he is gone.

They did have a less altruistic incentive in terms of women dominating the morning audience and some of them deciding to tune out if one of these co-hosts was kept on while allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced.

Still, they did the right thing without trying to equivocate.

Next time you want to say what a crass, vile industry TV is, compare the social responsibility it is showing to that of our elected officials in Washington.

This reckoning needs to continue if we as a society are to seize this opportunity to try and actually provide equal opportunity to women in the workplace.

I would like to hear George Stephanopoulos, co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” for example, reflect in today’s climate on his political career with Bill Clinton and the extent he was or wasn’t involved in attempts to discredit women who leveled allegations of sexual assault against Clinton.

Don’t talk about making America better for your daughter, and then try to shield one of your buddies on the job from punishment. This is a time for character, courage and reckoning.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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