Matt Lauer at Rockefeller Center in New York in April 2016. (Richard Drew/AP)
Media critic

In the midst of Matt Lauer’s November 2017 firing from NBC News, accounts of his behavior toward women surfaced in prominent outlets. There was a report that in 2001, he had summoned a woman to his office, “locked the door and sexually assaulted her.” There was also a report that he “once gave a colleague a sex toy as a present. It included an explicit note about how he wanted to use it on her, which left her mortified.” And now an internal investigation released by NBCUniversal this week cited complaints by four women pertaining to conduct in 2014,  2007, 2001 and 2000.

A detail in the news reports of Lauer’s workplace conduct animated the narrative: “His office was in a secluded space, and he had a button under his desk that allowed him to lock his door from the inside without getting up,” reported Variety on Nov. 29, 2017. “This afforded him the assurance of privacy. It allowed him to welcome female employees and initiate inappropriate contact while knowing nobody could walk in on him, according to two women who were sexually harassed by Lauer.”

Headlines rushed forth. “Matt Lauer’s desk had a button that locked his door. Other NBC execs might, too,” was the formulation of the Sacramento Bee. Architectural Digest: “Matt Lauer Wasn’t the Only One with a Button Under His Desk at NBC.” The Atlantic: “About That Secret Button in Matt Lauer’s Office.” Business Insider: “Matt Lauer reportedly used a button under his desk to lock his office door after inviting women inside.” The Post: “So, you had questions about that button on Matt Lauer’s desk?”

Who could resist? Here was a case when a button wasn’t just a button. “Whether it’s a mundane precautionary tool or an accessory worthy of a Bond villain, it’s also a concrete manifestation of a reality reflected in so many of these recent allegations: the unabridged power and protection that accompany celebrity,” noted the Atlantic. “Even beyond that, the button is a potent metaphor for the way that systems — those seemingly disinterested institutional structures — can insidiously work in favor of the people who already wield the most influence.”

Okay, but just how did this particular “system” work, anyway? The NBCUniversal report dedicated a paragraph to addressing just that question:

The investigation team also inquired about the nature of the “button” in Lauer’s office that was alleged to have locked the door. According to the NBCUniversal facilities team, the button is a commonly available feature in executive offices in multiple NBCUniversal facilities to provide an efficient way to close the door without getting up from the desk. The button releases a magnet that holds the door open. It does not lock the door from the inside.

To review: Variety reported that there was a “button under his desk that allowed him to lock his door from the inside without getting up.” In its Nov. 29 story on the matter, the New York Times provided this explanation of the locking dynamics: “In 2001, the woman said, Mr. Lauer, who is married, asked her to his office to discuss a story during a workday. When she sat down, she said, he locked the door, which he could do by pressing a button while sitting at his desk. (People who worked at NBC said the button was a regular security measure installed for high-profile employees.)”

In its coverage of the NBCUniversal report, Variety said the document provided “new information about details disclosed in Variety of a button Lauer had in his office that allowed him to lock his office door from the inside.” And in its story on the investigation, the New York Times wrote:

One notable detail of Mr. Lauer’s case — that the anchor was able to use a button at his desk to lock the door to his NBC office — was also examined by NBC’s legal team.

“The button is a commonly available feature in executive offices in multiple NBCUniversal facilities to provide an efficient way to close the door without getting up from the desk,” the investigators found. “The button releases a magnet that holds the door open. It does not lock the door from the inside.”

Both outlets are sticking with their locksmithing.

“Variety stands by our story,” reads a statement from a magazine spokesman. “Last November, Variety reported that Matt Lauer had a secret button under his desk that allowed him to lock the door from the inside. This detail was based on victims’ accounts and confirmed by NBC. The New York Times also later reported the same thing, through their own sources.” The Erik Wemple Blog’s attempts to secure further comment from NBCUniversal have failed.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, provided this statement: “We haven’t been able to get further clarification from NBC, but as far as we can determine, our reporting was correct, and NBC has not told us otherwise. We did not say the button locked the door ‘from the inside.’ We cited NBC employees who described it as a regular security feature for high-level executives (which presumably would mean it locked the door to keep people out, not that it locked the door to keep people in).”

Got that? In this version of events, Lauer could press a button to close his office door, at which point it would bar entry from people outside of the office while permitting those inside to leave at will. That understanding jibes with fire codes, as well. The National Fire Protection Association specifies that people inside a building must be able to proceed through doors en route outside without “the use of a key, a tool, or special knowledge or effort for operation from the egress side.”

In a statement last month, Lauer said of the allegations against him: “I fully acknowledge that I acted inappropriately as a husband, father and principal at NBC. However I want to make it perfectly clear that any allegations or reports of coercive, aggressive or abusive actions on my part, at any time, are absolutely false.”

His former office — along with that button — has been demolished.