Even if you weren’t a faithful viewer of NBC’s “Today”—even if you were inclined to feel a little cynical about the whole morning TV enterprise—the news of Matt Lauer’s termination hit like an earthquake. It’s not just that another prominent media name wound up on the list of men behaving badly. It was this guy, who had come to symbolize morning TV for the past 20 years. This guy, reminding us that the friendly, dad-like figure onscreen at dawn was problematic, possibly sinister, impossibly flawed.
Lauer was fired on Tuesday over an allegation of sexual misconduct at NBC. Afterwards, Variety published an account of several more accusations against Lauer, including that he gifted a sex toy to a colleague, and dropped his pants in front of another. It was a shock. Rumors had swirled around Lauer for years. His personal life was not spotless. But he’d endured as one of TV’s best-known, best-paid anchors, in part because his public persona was so intertwined with the gauzy mood of “Today.” NBC’s on-again, off-again ratings giant remains the apotheosis of the morning show, setting the tone for the genre across the TV dial long before Lauer occupied a seat on the couch. It was hard to imagine that the morning show’s host might be any less pleasant than his cheerful surroundings.
Lauer kept that seat for so long because he fit the genre and the role. He had a particular talent for a job that is considerably harder than it looks, in part because it’s meant to look so effortless. The skill set begins with the ability to look wide-awake and chipper in full makeup at unreasonable hours. It extends to a peculiar mix of friendliness and mild, digestible gravitas: an ability to shift credibly from the lightest of fluff to a serious interview with a government leader. (Lately, some late-night hosts have demonstrated that same skill; in mid-November, Stephen Colbert made a weird-but-artful pivot, with a pre-booked Gayle King, from Charlie Rose’s firing to a discussion of Oprah’s favorite holiday gifts.)
That combination doesn’t always work outside those early-and-late hours, and Lauer’s appearances in other time slots could be a drag on his reputation. On the fluff side, there was his cringeworthy 2006 interview with Britney Spears, in which he made her cry and neglected to tell her that her false eyelash was falling off. On the serious side, he was roundly critiqued for his September 2016 town hall interviews with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, lambasted for being, alternately, too soft and too hard on the candidates.
Partly, that was Lauer’s own fault. Partly, it was the soup he had been lifted from. George Stephanopoulos is a rare TV talent who has managed to seem credible in light and serious arenas, perhaps because he never really took one foot out of the hard-charging political arena where he began. But the transition between time slots has stymied other anchors—most notably Lauer’s former “Today” co-host, Katie Couric, whose much-heralded leap to the CBS Evening News didn’t stick. Post-mortems of her five-year-tenure posited many reasons she didn’t break through, but it might have come down to the fact that people missed her in the morning.
Lauer, for better and worse, projected a similar persona—sympathetic, affable, safe. It eventually helped lift him—and the show—past the awkwardness over its 2013 dumping of Ann Curry, a skilled and serious journalist who never could master the avuncular morning mood. Curry left “Today” with an ardent base of supporters, some of whom are expressing bitter vindication over Lauer’s demise. But in the eyes of NBC, she failed at being Lauer’s friend.
That friendship, false as it might be, is the true conceit and power of morning TV. If we all have imagined relationships with the people on our screens, we invite the morning anchors in to see us at our worst—pajamas, rumpled bedhead and no makeup, scrambling to prep for work and get the kids to school. We grant them a special kind of intimacy, with no pretenses and no judgment.
That’s why Lauer’s fall feels different from what’s happened so far, as other male media titans are toppled from their thrones. Bill O’Reilly was nobody’s friend; his specialty was telling others what to do. Charlie Rose may have helmed a morning show, but he wasn’t a morning guy; his genre across a long career was intellectual chatter.
Lauer, on the other hand, was Matt. Just last week, he was helming the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (and making an awkward joke about segregation that sparked a smaller frenzy of Twitter-driven rage). He wasn’t perfect, but he was someone you put up with, like an old high school friend whose foibles you tolerate because the relationship has lasted for so long. You turned on TV in the morning, flipped on the Olympics, and he was there. And now he’s gone.
Powered by WPeMatico