In 2012, "Today" show host Matt Lauer appeared on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter, next to a headline that read "The New Most Powerful Face in News."
No one would dispute that characterization — at the time, Lauer had just signed a monstrous four-year contract with NBC, reportedly north of $20 million a year. Not only was he one of the highest-paid personalities on television, but as the star anchor of the country’s top-rated morning show, he could help shape the national conversation from his perch at 30 Rockefeller Center.
Lauer's status made his abrupt departure from TV all the more shocking on Wednesday, when NBC announced that he was fired after allegations of "inappropriate sexual behavior." In a memo, NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack stated that the network received a detailed complaint about Lauer from an employee, and after "serious review," they terminated his contract.
"While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he's been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident," Lack said. A Variety story published later in the day reported multiple sexual harassment allegations.
As social media users processed yet another sexual harassment allegation about an influential man in media, many started looking back at Lauer's on-air controversies, particularly with women: His grilling of Hillary Clinton and softball questions for Donald Trump during NBC's "Commander-in-Chief Forum" last year, his cringeworthy remark to actress Anne Hathaway in 2012 after paparazzi took an "upskirt" shot of her getting out of a car ("Nice to see you, seen a lot of you lately").
But one particular situation stood out — Ann Curry's disastrous exit from the "Today" show in 2012, for which Lauer was widely blamed. Curry had been co-host with Lauer for a year, and viewers could tell it wasn't going smoothly. Lauer was visibly less comfortable with her than he was with former co-hosts Katie Couric, who left for CBS News in 2006, and Meredith Vieira, who departed shortly before Curry came on board.
News shows don’t necessarily need sparkling chemistry, but morning TV relies on the casual banter between anchors. And given that Lauer was undeniably the star of the program, Curry had to adjust to his rhythms.
"I feel like the high school computer nerd who was just asked to prom by the quarterback of the football team," Curry exclaimed on-air in May 2011, after Lauer announced she would be his new co-host.
“The MVP of morning broadcasting hadn’t invited her anywhere,” Stelter wrote. Lauer, who didn’t make the call about Curry’s hiring, “thought she was a perfectly nice human being, but not the perfect cohost — not by a long shot.”
Also at that time, “Today” show ratings started to slip, with its rival, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” gaining ground.
Coincidentally, Lauer's contract was up for renewal. NBC was desperate to keep him, as viewers love consistency on morning shows and take cast changes very personally. Eventually, in spring 2012, Lauer decided to stay, and executives informed him of a plan to get rid of Curry.
“Lauer’s protectors say [NBCUniversal chief executive Steve Burke] never explicitly stated the connection between Lauer’s renewing his contract and Curry’s losing her cohost chair,” Stelter wrote. “They say he told Lauer that Curry would be gone regardless of his decision to stay or go. Lauer was against it, these people say, and he told them immediately that he thought it was a bad idea.”
Others, Stelter reported, said that “Lauer’s staying and Curry’s leaving were explicitly connected.”
Regardless, it all led to the horribly awkward televised moment in June, when Curry — whose imminent departure had been all over the news — broke down in tears as she bid goodbye to viewers. (Stelter wrote that Curry had long struggled with the "boys' club atmosphere at 'Today,' " and "she told friends that her final months were a form of professional torture.")
As she told the audience it would be her last morning as a regular "Today" co-host (NBC named her an NBC News national and international correspondent), she said it was not how "I expected to ever leave this couch after 15 years."
“For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker: I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line, but man, I did try!” Curry said tearfully. Things got worse after Lauer bid goodbye and tried to give her a kiss on the cheek, but she flinched and turned, and he kissed the side her head.
The backlash was immediate — and much of it was aimed at Lauer, who was seen as the mastermind behind her exit. In the months afterward, Lauer tried to mend his battered reputation. He reiterated that not only did he have nothing to do with Curry leaving the show, but he told NBC it was a terrible idea (it could "destabilize the show," he explained to the Daily Beast) and executives ignored him.
It took "Today" years to recover, as "Good Morning America" usurped its spot as the No. 1 morning show. And now, "Today" has been thrown into new chaos with the allegations against Lauer.
On Wednesday afternoon, Curry sat for a previously scheduled interview with People magazine and declined to comment about Lauer's firing. "I'm still really processing it," she said. However, she added, "The women's movement got us into the workplace, but it didn't make us safe once we got there. And the battle lines are now clear. We need to move this revolution forward and make our workplaces safe."