Why NBC had to act fast in firing Lauer

NBC News is the latest media organization that is sending a signal that other institutions and industries could follow —that nobody is too important to be held accountable for their actions.

Compare how NBC handled the allegation about Matt Lauer's alleged inappropriate behavior and CBS' handling of complaints about morning anchor Charlie Rose to how FOX News handled allegations against network founder Roger Ailes and anchor Bill O'Reilly.

You only have to watch Lauer's tough interview with O'Reilly to understand why NBC had to act if there are reasons to believe the allegations have merit. "Today" anchors are a mixture of entertainment and news anchors. Lauer and his colleagues move between cooking segments and covering terrorist attacks, as he did the morning of September 11, 2001.  Lauer sometimes found himself to be the heavyweight that the show relied on to confront people accused of wrongdoing. His painful interview of former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams comes to mind.

Beyond the matter of journalistic credibility, NBC also understands it has multiple layers of reasons to act fast.  Newsrooms are rumor mills and the only thing worse than NBC having to go public with the bad news is for other news organizations to be the first to report the details. The New York Times said it had reporters who have been looking into harassment allegations involving Lauer for weeks. Variety's New York bureau chief Ramin Setoodeh said that publication also has been investigating similar allegations for months. Taken together, it raises the question of how NBC had heard nothing about such complaints until Monday.

NBC is part of the Universal/Comcast family and as such, would be a wealthy target for civil lawsuits that seek to show the company knew about a problem and didn't act on it. NBC also has learned that slow-motion justice in cases like this invites often even worse news. If the network, for example, suspended Lauer while it investigated, then there would be a second wave of bad publicity when they took final action.  

"Today" launched in 1952. In that time the show produced legendary stars from Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw to Bryant Gumble and Jane Pauley. The show has avoided scandals in all of those years with the exception of a handful of clumsy changes in anchor roles. On the whole, though, the show has been a model of how to grow the next generation of stars. Now NBC finds itself without an heir apparent to a flagship program while bracing itself against whatever other bad publicity will follow if new accusers come forward. 

Morning TV viewers develop unusual attachments to anchors. They stand in the rain outside the network studios to be a part of the program. 

Morning anchors who are on the air for hours every morning eventually have to show their unscripted selves in ways evening news anchors don't. That's why this morning news so shocked us. Viewers rightfully think they know him, and the real damage for NBC may be when the network realizes how difficult it is for viewers to trust anybody like that again.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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