Matt Lauer’s dismissal from NBC following a report of sexual misconduct matters for the woman who came forward, for everyone at NBC, and for Lauer, who may face more specific and more public allegations in the coming days. But it also matters for everyone in America and around the world who watched Lauer on television as he shaped their understanding of news and culture.
One moment from last year’s presidential campaign, in particular, stands out: the Commander-in-Chief Forum, which Lauer moderated in September. The event was supposed to be a chance for presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to discuss their positions on national security issues, each in a conversation with Lauer. Instead, it turned into an opportunity for Lauer to grill Clinton about her emails.
Things got off to a bad start. In the second question of the evening, Lauer asked Clinton to name the most important quality of a commander-in-chief. As she talked about steadiness, strength, and the ability to make difficult decisions, he interrupted her: “You’re talking about judgment,” he said.
She hadn’t exactly been talking about judgment, but the reason for his interruption became clear a few moments later, when he said, “the word judgment has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year and a half, and in particular concerning your use of your personal email and server to communicate while you were Secretary of State.”
“You’ve said it’s a mistake,” he continued. “Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying, if you want to be commander-in-chief?”
Clinton answered him — and then she answered again, and again, as Lauer peppered her with question after question about the emails. When Lauer took the first question from the audience, the question was about emails. All the talk about Clinton’s email server left less time for other topics, and at several points, as Michael M. Grynbaum of the New York Times noted, Lauer interrupted Clinton to tell her time was running out.
Lauer did ask Trump some difficult questions, but his tone was more collegial overall, that of one man giving another the chance to explain himself. He failed to push back, Grynbaum and others noticed, on Trump’s false assertion that he was “totally against the war in Iraq.” And when Trump launched into a strange disquisition on his belief that the United States should have “taken the oil” from Iraq, Lauer questioned him briefly, but then redirected the conversation without really making Trump explain himself.
Lauer was widely criticized at the time for his performance at the forum. “At times, Mr. Lauer — who has conducted fewer adversarial interviews with Mr. Trump than his colleagues on NBC’s political desk — appeared flummoxed by his subject’s linguistic feints,” Grynbaum wrote. But in the light of the report of sexual misconduct by Lauer, his failures at an important moment in the presidential campaign take on a new importance.
Katherine Krueger of Splinter News cautioned on Twitter Wednesday morning that it’s not helpful to frame rudeness as “a tell-tale sign that someone's an abuser.” And it’s true that Lauer’s treatment of Clinton was by no means evidence that he was guilty of sexual harassment.
But as Rebecca Traister pointed out in a story at the Cut that looks more prescient by the day, our political narratives have been shaped for many years by men who have now been accused of harassing, assaulting, or abusing women. That list of men includes political journalism heavyweight Mark Halperin, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, disgraced Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, and now, Matt Lauer.
It’s now time for news readers and viewers to ask ourselves if men who don’t treat the women around them as equals can be trusted to cover women in the news. Can you really cover a female presidential candidate fairly if you don’t respect the autonomy of women enough not to touch them when they don’t want to be touched, or flirt with them when they’re just trying to do their jobs?
Lauer is just the most recent man to lose his powerful position in media as a result of sexual harassment or misconduct allegations, and he probably won’t be the last. But the effects of media harassers and abusers on our nation’s politics — on our very understanding of ourselves — make take far longer to root out.