The wave of sexual harassment allegations roiling American society broke over a familiar figure, “Today” host Matt Lauer, who was fired by NBC News on Wednesday for what its chairman termed “inappropriate sexual behavior.”
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. Over more than 20 years as a national figure, Lauer greeted millions of viewers each weekday morning as the co-host of the popular “Today,” commanding a $25 million annual salary in the process.
The number of prominent men brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct has snowballed since revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were reported in early October. Only hours after NBC disclosed Lauer's firing, former "Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor was fired by Minnesota Public Radio, which said he engaged in "inappropriate behavior" with a colleague.
In a memo sent to staffers, NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said that the network received “a detailed” complaint about Lauer on Monday night. “It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company’s standards. As a result, we’ve decided to terminate his employment.”
Lack provided few details about Lauer’s accuser or the nature of her allegation. But he said, “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.”
Indeed, several hours after Lauer was dismissed, the show-business publication Variety published a detailed account of allegations against him, based on interviews with three women who said they were victimized by him.
Variety reported that Lauer, who is married, once gave a colleague a sex toy as a present and included an explicit note about how he wanted to use it on her. He also allegedly invited another female co-worker to his office and then dropped his pants, showing her his penis. He then reprimanded her for not engaging in a sexual act.
The Variety report said that Lauer’s harassment was abetted by a button at his desk that activated a locking mechanism on his office door that allowed him to lock the door without getting up. This ensured that he could initiate inappropriate contact with female colleagues without worrying that anyone would walk in on him, Variety said.
The women said that they told NBC executives about Lauer, but that their complaints were ignored to protect a star of the network’s most profitable news franchise.
NBC received two more complaints about Lauer after his dismissal on Wednesday, according to the New York Times, including one from a former employee who said Lauer invited her to his office in 2001 and had sex with her. She told the newspaper that she didn't report the encounter because she didn't want to lose her job and felt ashamed.
NBC News did not respond to a request for comment.
Lauer joined “Today” in 1994 as its news anchor. He became co-host of the morning program with Katie Couric in 1997 after Bryant Gumbel stepped down.
His current co-host, Savannah Guthrie, read Lack’s statement on the air on Wednesday’s program, her voice and manner betraying sadness and discomfort with the news.
One of Lauer’s accusers and her attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld of Washington, met with managers from NBC’s human resources and legal departments for several hours Monday night, according to Wilkenfeld, who declined to identify his client.
“Our impression at this point is that NBC acted quickly, as all companies should, when confronted with credible allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace,” he said in a statement. “While I am encouraged by NBC’s response to date, I am in awe of the courage my client showed to be the first to raise a complaint and to do so without making any demands other than the company do the right thing.”
Lauer, who hasn't commented on any of the allegations against him, is the second co-host of a morning TV show to lose his job in the past week. Charlie Rose, his rival on CBS's "This Morning," was fired last week after eight women told The Washington Post that he had acted inappropriately toward them over a number of years.
The news of Lauer's firing prompted an early-morning tweet from President Trump: "Wow, Matt Lauer was just fired from NBC for 'inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace,' " he tweeted. "But when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much Fake News. Check out Andy Lack's past!"
Trump is himself the subject of allegations of harassment, including during his tenure as the star of the NBC reality shows “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Cast and crew members said he made inappropriate comments to women; one of the show’s contestants, Summer Zervos, has sued him for defamation for calling her a liar after she went public with allegations that he harassed her during production.
NBC also owns “Access Hollywood,” the entertainment-news program that captured Trump on video in 2005 bragging that he molests women. NBC News was aware of the recording, but delayed reporting on it last year during the presidential campaign. The recording was leaked to The Post last year.
In August, the network’s news division cut short months of reporting about Weinstein, amid conversations with Weinstein’s lawyers. The reporter on the story, Ronan Farrow, eventually took his work to the New Yorker magazine, which published a series of detailed articles about Weinstein.
The “Today” staff broke the news about Lauer early Wednesday, marking one of the few instances in which a news organization was first to report on the misconduct of one of its own employees.
“All we can say is we are heartbroken,” said co-host Savannah Guthrie, who appeared to be near tears when she disclosed Lauer’s firing. “I’m heartbroken. . . . How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”
She said she was “heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story.” Lauer’s accuser has not been identified.
After making the announcement, Guthrie turned to co-host Hoda Kotb, who was filling in for Lauer, and grabbed her hand in a gesture of solidarity and support.
Weather forecaster Al Roker, who was also clearly moved by the news, told viewers, “I’m still trying to process the news.”
In his memo to staffers, Lack wrote, “Our highest priority is to create a workplace environment where everyone feels safe and protected, and to ensure that any actions that run counter to our core values are met with consequences, no matter who the offender.
“We are deeply saddened by this turn of events. But we will face it together as a news organization — and do it in as transparent a manner as we can.”
NBC had no announcement about who would replace Lauer on “Today,” the daily, four-hour news and discussion program that is the network’s most famous news program and a huge network cash cow.
In addition to Lauer and Rose, prominent TV news figures who have been fired for alleged harassment include Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of Fox News and political commentator Mark Halperin, who served as an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.
Lauer has been as much the face of “Today” as anyone in its 66 years on the air. As co-host he has interviewed hundreds of celebrities, politicians and other newsmakers. His interviews of presidential candidates Trump and Hillary Clinton in September of 2016 drew widespread criticism, particularly his repeated questioning of Clinton about issues surrounding her private email server and his failure to challenge Trump on his unsupported claims of opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003.
Lauer's 2005 interview with Tom Cruise remains legendary for the way his questions about Scientology seemed to rattle the actor, an adherent. Cruise, who had previously criticized the actress Brooke Shields for taking medication to control depression, lashed out at Lauer, calling him "glib" and insisting that psychiatry is a "pseudoscience."
Lauer was less poised on the day his then-co-host, Ann Curry — after widespread reports of strife between her and Lauer — announced on-air in a tearful speech that she would not be returning, and made clear to viewers that the decision was not her own. When he attempted to kiss Curry on the cheek, Curry turned and Lauer ended up awkwardly kissing the side of her head.
Lauer also conducted the only TV interview with NBC anchor Brian Williams in 2015 after Williams returned to NBC following a six-month suspension over allegations that he had exaggerated his reporting exploits.
Lauer’s signature segment, running from 1998 until 2009, was an annual trek to various exotic locales, billed as “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?”
He also popped up on other NBC programs, such as co-hosting the network’s coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year and the opening ceremonies of several Olympic Games. He filled in for Bob Costas, NBC’s primary host during the 2014 Winter Olympics when Costas developed an eye infection.
Lauer’s current two-year contract was set to expire at the end of 2018.