Matt Lauer fired by NBC over sexual harassment claim

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Matt Lauer, the star of NBC's "Today," was fired over sexual harassment allegations, it was revealed in an early morning staff memo from NBC Chairman Andy Lack.

It was the second time in less than a week that one of the mainstay broadcast morning shows — which pride themselves on continuity, audience loyalty and substantial profits — opened with news of the professional self-immolation of one of their own. 

Last week it was Charlie Rose on the "The CBS Morning News," with Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King delivering the word. Wednesday, it was "Today" co-host Savannah Guthrie, who only Thursday was in fine fettle hosting the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with Lauer and Al Roker.

Lack's memo said, “On Monday night, we received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer. It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company’s standards. As a result, we’ve decided to terminate his employment. 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."

A high-profile NBC employee told Poynter there was "stunned disbelief" at the timing, though not necessarily at the gist of the allegations. Indeed, Lauer's personal and workplace life had been the subject of rumors and reporting for years, with stories in The National Enquirer and the New York tabloids about extra-marital entanglement. 

At one point, he even had to issue a statement with his wife that their marriage was intact, which is not the sort of defensive press release celebrities like to issue.

Lauer is as adept at what he does as anyone on morning television and thus is one of the highest-paid NBC employees, likely in the range of about $20 million a year. He can do soft features, sports, serious political news, the whole gamut, though he was criticized for how he ran a presidential forum last year, with claims he was too tough on Hillary Clinton.

The seemingly rapid decision mirrored what played out at CBS News, where President David Rhodes made his decision to cut ties with Rose less than 24 hours after a Washington Post story in which many women went on the record about his unseemly behavior toward them.

It remains unclear if a string of high profile tales of sexual misconduct — Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Rose, among others — will prompt a change in American workplace culture.

But it is clear that inhibition about reporting on the subject has been swiftly transformed. In addition, the moves by CBS and NBC clearly reflect a sensitivity to corporate reputation and the decision to fish or cut bait with such allegations with dispatch.

Roger Ailes' cynically astute casting decision

In 1996, Sean Hannity's life changed forever when his agent, who is Rush Limbaugh's brother, got word that Rupert Murdoch was to bankroll a new cable news network, Fox. Roger Ailes, who was to run it, had helped to start Rush's (ultimately failed) TV show.

Hannity, a blue-collar Long Island kid and a radio talk host in Atlanta, met Ailes and a deal was struck for a debate show, as reporter Matthew Shaer chronicles in a solid and sympathetic New York Times Magazine profile. Two decades later, Hannity has a giant combo TV and radio audience of more than 13 million daily, a reported income of around $36 million and a surefire mix to entertain a conservative legions: nostalgia about a myth-laden American past, support for the military and law enforcement, theatrical disdain for the "liberal mainstream media" and unbridled support of President Donald Trump (with whom he's in touch regularly).

But the piece includes an almost parenthetical anecdote that gives rise to one of life's many "What if?" hypotheticals. It involves a critical casting decision by Ailes as he prepared to launch Fox News.

As Shaer recounts, "Hannity’s program was given the all-important 9 p.m. slot at Fox News, but through the summer of 1996, as the network edged closer to its debut, the show still had no co-host. Ailes brought in a range of options, including Joe Conason, a seasoned investigative reporter who was then the executive editor of and a liberal columnist for The New York Observer."

Alas, "Conason did a screen test but was never asked back; eventually, the job went to the mild-mannered Alan Colmes. (Colmes died in February of lymphoma.) “I came to the conclusion that Roger wanted a handsome, smart conservative on one side and a nerdy liberal on the other,” says Patrick Halpin, a commentator and frequent guest on "Hannity & Colmes." “Alan, God rest his soul, was smart and knowledgeable, but he wasn’t Joe, who would’ve been too strong for Hannity.”

Yup. Colmes was a smart, nice man who was a nightly punching bag for Hannity. When he split in 2009, the show was rebranded as "Hannity."

Conason, a fine reporter who now runs left-leaning National Memo, says that reporter Shaer gets the story right. But he has a few thoughts to add.

"I’m not sure anything would’ve been very different, but that process showed Fox was set up as a con — the opposite of fair and balanced — at the very beginning. From what I’ve heard over the years, it’s clear that Roger Ailes and Hannity arranged a fixed fight."

"I knew Roger before Fox, and while we certainly weren’t friends, he had always treated me with respect — until then. He wouldn’t return my calls for several months after that audition, and I think it was because he felt ashamed. When we finally talked, he made up an excuse about what had happened that we both knew was bullshit."

And it worked like a charm. A "champion of insurrection" is cast perfectly — and as a result is now probably the single greatest influence among media on a ratings-obsessed Trump.

Facebook's new tag

Recode discloses, "Facebook will now let some publishers add a 'breaking' tag to news stories, making it easier for readers to identify news while scrolling through their feed. The new label is part of a test, and publishers will have the option to leave the tag on a story for as little as 15 minutes or as long as six hours. Publishers can use the tag once in a 24-hour period."

"Right now, adding the tag to a post does not boost that post higher in users’ feeds, though it could in the future. 'As part of this test, we’ll be evaluating if breaking news stories should be incorporated into ranking,' a company spokesperson confirmed."

The fake U.S. embassy

It was a story that went viral after being confirmed by the State Department: Visa forgers were running a "fake U.S. embassy" in Accra, Ghana. With help from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, The Guardian explored the story.

"The fake embassy became a sensation largely because the story was so predictably familiar. The Africans were scammers. The victims were desperate and credulous. The local police officers were bumbling idiots. Countless officials were paid off. And at the end, the Americans swooped in and saved the day. There was only one problem with the story: it wasn’t true."

Barbecue wild wings vs. Time, Sports Illustrated and Fortune

Consider a Minneapolis Star Tribune story: "Buffalo Wild Wings, the Minnesota-grown beer and wings chain that drew hungry sports fans and delighted investors for years, is being sold in $2.9 billion deal to the owner of Arby’s and other fast food chains."

"The deal, announced Tuesday, comes after three years of slower growth and greater profit pressures at the Golden Valley-based company, which had been one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the United States from 2003 to 2014."

Now consider that Meredith Corp. is buying Time Inc. for basically the exact same amount. Maybe the magazines should have installed more high-definition TVs, unceasing sports and craft beers in its newsrooms long ago. You know, more family friendly places to hang while awaiting the latest assessment of Trump, Silicon Valley or the New England Patriots. My teen has forced me to stop at a Buffalo Wild Wings, but not yet asked for Southern Living, Entertainment Weekly or Real Simple for Christmas (truth in advertising, however: I do get him the wonderful S.I. For Kids).

Facebook tries to track suicides

Gene Munster, managing partner at Loup Ventures, surfaced on Cheddar to discuss Facebook's new A.I. feature, which aims to detect suicidal posts. "Munster gives the company huge props for using this technology to help its users. And he believes that this type of technology will be integrated into voice assistants around your home."

“'It’s pretty clear that people are having conversations about taking their own lives with their digital assistants,' he said." It's a small investment, the tracking technology is banned in the United Kingdom and Munster conceded it could make some consumers nervous. Why the anxiety? They might think that Facebook is overstepping the bounds of what they want on their beloved social media platform.

Morning Babel

"Trump & Friends" informed that North Korea's ICBM test is "incredibly serious" but segued quickly to Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi stiffing Trump at the White House yesterday. CNN's "New Day" underscored (again) the complexities of even attempting to take out of its dictator's mobile launch units. The options available have "now narrowed," intoned military pundit James "Spider" Marks (glad they added the nickname), who said the only way to deal with it now is to "take it out militarily ... and we understand the downside of that."

While Fox revelled in the two empty chairs alongside Trump, "Morning Joe" highlighting Pelosi dumping on Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan for being "props" at the empty chair photo-op. Analyst John Heilemann said Trump is playing "roller derby, not kabuki theater," as he made the point that in doing what he does (with the empty chairs), rather than what Washington politicians normally do, he's a "fraud, just like everybody else," but a different fraud. Got it? He's doing roller derby (smash, kaboom), than more stylized and subtle theater. There was also its frequent invocation of the guy being crazy, namely Joe Scarborough saying his onetime chum "is not right," as in not mentally well.

Breitbart gets an AP story killed

Breitbart News went after the Associated Press for claiming its fearless leader, Steve Bannon, was distancing himself from Roy Moore and had no plans to campaign in Alabama for him. It even marshaled an Atlantic story to underscore such plans, saying the support and the plans are unchanged as it went after reporter Tom Beaumont personally. And it noted that it had three staffers there, unlike Beaumont himself. 

It got its mainstream scalp as AP put out this note to editors: "The Associated Press has withdrawn its story about former White House adviser Steve Bannon having no plans to campaign for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Bannon now tells CNN he will attend a rally for Moore on Dec. 5. The AP has also confirmed the Dec. 5 rally. The AP is replacing its previous story with a new story, BC-US–Alabama Senate-Bannon-Moore, based on Bannon’s announcement."

A Trump propaganda machine uncovered

Check the Bloomberg Businessweek story, "Truthfeed Spreads Pro-Trump Propaganda —The website has connections to the president’s camp — and white supremacists."

It runs crap like this: “'Shocking Photo of DACA Recipients BURNING American Flag in Protest!' declared a September headline on the website Truthfeed. The article came a day after Donald Trump said he would halt the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants from deportation."

Bottom line: The photo wasn't from a DACA demonstration and did show burning flags. It came from an anti-Trump rally 16 months earlier. But, "It was a typical article for Truthfeed, a website with hidden financial backers that went online in April 2016 as Trump worked to finish off his challengers in the Republican primary. Despite having only two main writers, Truthfeed’s articles were shared millions of times on Facebook — about one-quarter the reach of the 750-person Washington Post newsroom — by churning out stories and memes that support Trump and attack his adversaries."

FCC boss sees Twitter as part of the problem

TechCrunch reports, "FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, as part of the plan to promote his plan to undo the country’s net neutrality rules, has thrown Twitter and other online services under the bus in order to show that it’s not just broadband providers that can exert control over internet content. 'When it comes to an open Internet, Twitter is part of the problem,' he explained. 'The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate.'"

"Pai’s remarks were made at an event hosted by the 'free market think tank' R Street Institute and the 'liberty'-focused Lincoln Network. Pai was joined by the other two Republican Commissioners, Brendan Carr and Mike O’Rielly, and FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen. Needless to say, none of them is a fan of the existing 2015 rules.

Back at the gilded prison

The New York Times' Tom Friedman had that exclusive interview with the Saudi crown prince in which it was suggested that a new days is here for freedom in the nation, even as the guy detains about 200 fat cats in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.

The prince says that, essentially, 95 percent have conceded they've ripped off the country. But details are hard to come by, as Friedman colleagues Andrew Ross Sorkin noted in a piece on Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the so-called "Warren Buffett of the Mideast." Chums like the Murdoch family "has tried to find out more about his situation but has been stymied." A new Arab Spring may be slow in coming, at least when it comes to detainees knowing why they're being detained, be it at a Ritz or a $20-a-night youth hostel.

Mitchell vs. Nauert

Andrea Mitchell and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert (formerly with Fox News) had a lively back and forth during the department's daily briefing on the topic of whether Rex Tillerson is unusually slow in filling vacancies.

Mitchell suggested an intention to "hallow out" the department ranks, citing lots of resignations, buyouts and retirements. She mentioned key areas of the world, like Asia and Africa, not having their full complement of top State officials. Nauert, who's playing a difficult hand pretty well in the early going, conceded both that "we would like to move faster" and the reality of ample negative press. But she cited figures in arguing that the total workforce is roughly the same as it's been in recently years and that it was "unfair" to call the nominations process slow.

She was both respectful and firm, at one point cutting off Mitchell as she interrupted Nauert. "Let me finish," said the ex-newsie to the celebrated current one.

She was less decisive as she strained to explain why, as NBC reported, the person hired by Tillerson to help reorganize the department is splitting after three months. 

The new sports bribery

William C. Rhoden, former longtime New York Times sportswriter, talks corruption with former longtime college basketball coach George Raveling for The Undefeated. Raveling says, "The sneaker scandal is this generation’s point-shaving scandal. Raveling, 80, said that as basketball has become a multibillion-dollar industry, only the form of corruption has changed."

“'Bribery comes in many forms. We’re bribing players today. It’s just more sophisticated. Where the difference between the two is, is in the intent. The intent at that time was to strike the blow directly to the heart of the process, which is the game. Now the intent is different. We’re still bribing players, but we’re not bribing them to throw a game.'”

The bribes go beyond enticing a player to go to a particular university, he says. “It’s to have them commit to a particular enterprise, a footwear company. Commit to representation or an agent. These kids today have so many distractions. In most cases, the biggest distractions they have, other than technology, are adults.”

The geo-political side of sports

The Associated Press reports, "An Iranian wrestler said his managers told him to intentionally lose to a Russian competitor to avoid facing an Israeli wrestler in the next round."

"Ali Reza Karimi told the semi-official ISNA news agency late on Monday that only one minute before the end of a Sunday round of the U-23 World Championship in Poland his coaches told him to throw the match to avoid facing an Israeli wrestler."

By the way, is "semi-official" like being partly pregnant?

A libertarian take on net neutrality

From Ben Thompson, author of the very good Taiwan-based Stratechery blog, "The Internet has been the single most important driver of not just economic growth but overall consumer welfare for the last two decades. Given that all of that dynamism has been achieved with minimal regulatory oversight, the default position of anyone concerned about future growth should be maintaining a light touch. After all, regulation always has a cost far greater than what we can see at the moment it is enacted, and given the importance of the Internet, those costs are massively more consequential than restaurants or just about anything else."

"To put it another way, given the stakes, the benefit from regulation must be massive, which is why the 'net neutrality' framing is so powerful: I’ll say it again — who can be against net neutrality? Telling stories about speech being restricted or new companies being unable to pay to access customers tap into both the Internet’s clear impact and the foregone opportunity cost I just described — businesses that are never built."

"That, though, is exactly the problem: Opportunity costs are a reason to not regulate; clear evidence of harm are the reasons to do so despite the costs. What is so backwards about this entire debate is that those in favor of regulation are adopting the arguments of anti-regulators — postulating about future harms and foregone opportunities — while pursuing a regulatory approach that is only justified in the face of actual harm."

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

 

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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