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Why the Matt Lauer case feels like betrayal

Updated 8:39 AM ET, Thu November 30, 2017

Editor's Note: David Bianculli is founder and editor of His latest book is "The Platinum Age of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' to 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific." He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He also is TV critic and guest host for NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN) - Savannah Guthrie of NBC's "Today" show reported the breaking news Wednesday morning of the network's sudden firing of her long-time colleague Matt Lauer. NBC News had received and investigated a report of "inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace," and in her reaction, she was simultaneously utterly professional and unavoidably human.

She admitted to being heartbroken, "for both her longtime friend, Lauer, and for the (as yet unidentified) NBC woman who came forward with her complaint."

"As I'm sure you can imagine," she said, her voice breaking, "we are devastated." Willie Geist, who reported and repeated Guthrie's remarks on sister network MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, announced that he was "stunned" -- and he, too, confessed to feeling for both the accused and the accuser.

"How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?" Guthrie asked on the program Lauer had co-hosted for 20 years.

A new shock in a shifting landscape

For Geist and Guthrie, Lauer's sudden, unexpected, and doubtlessly irreversible fall from grace was almost like a death in the family -- a sudden, jarring loss, and a change to that TV family's dynamics; his absence will be instantly conspicuous. And not only on "Today" and in the morning, either. Lauer was scheduled to co-host NBC's "Christmas at Rockefeller Center" special Wednesday night in prime time, and would have been one of the most prominent NBC faces hosting coverage of events at the 2018 Winter Olympics this February in PyeongChang.

Lauer, 59, joined "Today" as a news reader in 1994, and was promoted to co-anchor three years later, upon the retirement of Bryant Gumbel. That made for a seamless and orderly transition at the time, with Lauer joining continuing co-anchor Katie Couric, who served until 2006.

Together, Couric and Lauer were the most popular hosting duo in the show's history -- after which Lauer sat alongside, in order, Meredith Vieira (2006-2011), Ann Curry (2011-12), and, until Wednesday, Savannah Guthrie (starting in 2012 ). ABC's "Good Morning America" now leads in the ratings, with "Today" in second place, but NBC's four-hour morning show block still generates more advertising revenue than any other morning show -- more than $500 million last year, compared with about $400 for "GMA."

And this year as last year, "Today" has ranked first in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, while internal NBC testing credits Lauer as a main reason why viewers, female viewers especially, tune to "Today." Tomorrow, who knows?

The uncertainty facing the "Today" show is but a microcosm of the shifting landscape in front of and beneath just about everyone these days. How are we to evaluate, and respond to, these exponentially growing claims and revelations of sexual abuse?

How will viewers take it?

Two weeks ago on her Hulu series "I Love You, America," Sarah Silverman opened her show by asking a similar question about her close friend and fellow comic, Louis C.K., who was accused of, and admitted to, his own inappropriate sexual behavior: "Can you love someone," she asked, "who did bad things?"

The accusations, confessions, denials and investigations aren't so much a tsunami, hitting all at once with unexpected force and devastating results, but more like a steadily rising tide or a series of waves, with each new revelation gaining strength and context from the ones preceding and following it.

Not every accusation is equal, or should be treated that way, but increasingly, the voices of those coming forward to tell stories of abuse of power, sex or both are being given more credence.

In politics, the reactions from the accused range from total denials (President Donald Trump, senatorial candidate Roy Moore) to sheepish apologies (Sen. Al Franken), and range widely in severity as well.

But in show business and the media, thus far, repercussions and judgments have been more swift and severe. Harvey Weinstein, who denies allegations, has been ostracized, Kevin Spacey (who apologized and said he didn't recall alleged incidents) has been edited out of his latest movie, and Louis C.K. has had his latest film pulled from the marketplace.

On television, Lauer was fired instantly after the investigation of what may be a single --and what NBC execs found to be clearly credible -- complaint, and he's the second male morning show host this month to be dismissed for inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace, after "CBS This Morning" host Charlie Rose, who also lost his jobs at PBS and at "60 Minutes."

And at "Morning Joe," one formerly frequent MSNBC contributor no longer there to comment on the Lauer firing was Mark Halperin, whose respected run as a political analyst on TV came to an abrupt end last month after several women surfaced with stories of his alleged inappropriate conduct while at ABC News (he offered both apology and denials on some of the specifics). And of course before Keillor, Lauer, Rose and Halperin, there was Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly, who lost his anchor chair after allegations and reports of settlements with women.

Why Lauer accusations so surprising

But in this torrent of allegations, some are more surprising than others, and this largely owes to the public persona of the person being accused. Lauer, the longest-running host in "Today" history, successfully radiated a genial, nice-guy, family feeling. Just as when the Bill Cosby allegations hit -- so radically warring with his cuddly patriarch character on NBC's beloved "The Cosby Show" -- the disappointment, perhaps even a sense of betrayal, has seemed somehow more pronounced.

Also Wednesday, longtime "Prairie Home Companion" host and creator Garrison Keillor faced his own allegations of sexual misconduct. (A spokesman for Keillor did not respond to a request for comment.)

I teach TV history classes at Rowan University in New Jersey, and last week, my students were so shaken by the recent allegations of abuse by men in positions of power, they spent a long time talking about it. The more they trusted or liked a celebrity or politician, the more hurt and betrayed they felt.

And since we had recently covered the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, these college students eventually concluded that today's growing awareness of sexual abuses in politics, Hollywood and the media is comparable to that era, with a similar loss of innocence, but a long-overdue re-evaluation of the status quo.

The news of Matt Lauer hurts today, just as his absence is likely to hurt "Today" in the future. But expect more accusations and revelations to come. Perhaps the best thing that can come from this disturbing and distressing news is that we could actually arrive at a time of change, especially for former and current victims -- so there won't be as many future ones.

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