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NBC: ‘Today’ anchor Matt Lauer fired for ‘inappropriate sexual behavior’

Former "Today" show host Matt Lauer, seen here

Former "Today" show host Matt Lauer, seen here on Sept. 4, 2017. Credit: NBC / Nathan Congleton

Matt Lauer, the longtime co-host of the “Today” show and one of TV’s best-known personalities, has been fired by NBC News because of “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.”

Lauer, 59, becomes the latest — arguably the biggest — personality to fall in the ongoing shakeout in the entertainment and TV news industry related to sexual harassment. Other recent cases of misconduct have also involved corporate executives and politicians.

In a memo to the NBC News staff, the division chairman, Andy Lack, wrote, “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. 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.”

NBC said the misconduct started when Lauer and a network employee were stationed at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and continued beyond that assignment. Later Wednesday, The New York Times reported NBC had received at least two additional complaints regarding Lauer, one from an unnamed female employee who said she was called to Lauer’s office for sex in 2001. Also, Variety reported it had talked to three women at NBC who said they have been sexually harassed by Lauer.

Lauer’s co-host, Savannah Guthrie — appearing somber and almost stunned — made the initial announcement at the top of Wednesday’s edition.

“This is a sad morning at ‘Today’ and NBC News,” she said, clutching the hand of Hoda Kotb, who was rushed in to co-host the broadcast. “As I’m sure you can understand, we are devastated. I’m heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear colleague.” She added, “I’m heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story, and any other women who have their own stories to tell.”

An NBC employee had retained Washington-based civil rights attorney Ari Wilkenfeld, who confirmed that a meeting between his client and NBC News took place Monday night.

“My client and I met with representatives from NBC’s Human Resources and Legal Departments at 6 p.m. on Monday for an interview that lasted several hours,” Wilkenfeld said in a statement. “Our impression at this point is that NBC acted quickly, as all companies should, when confronted with credible allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace.”

Wilkenfeld did not immediately return a call for comment.

Lauer, who has not publicly commented, had recently signed a contract extension to take him through 2018 and was reported to be making $20 million to $25 million a year. Although terms of Lauer’s contract could not be independently confirmed, Mark Spund, head of employment law practice for New York-based Davidoff, Hutcher & Citron, said in a phone interview that “most of these contracts, especially at this level, have termination for cause” stipulations, while most also include a morals clause. Once that is exercised, he said, “there is very little payment afterwards, and you’re usually paid up until the day you’re terminated.”

Lauer’s last appearance on NBC was co-hosting coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He — along with Guthrie, Kotb, Al Roker and “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt — had been scheduled to co-host NBC’s broadcast Wednesday of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.

President Donald Trump tweeted after the Lauer firing, first saying, “Wow, Matt Lauer was just fired from NBC for ‘inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.’ But when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much Fake News. Check out Andy Lack’s past!”

Lauer — who replaced Bryant Gumbel, a close friend — has been a regular presence on the national and New York airwaves for more than 30 years. An anchor at WNBC/4, he segued into “Today” as news anchor in 1994, then became co-anchor in 1997. His two-decade run set a “Today” record for co-anchor tenure.

As anchor of TV’s most-prominent morning news show, Lauer took a front-and-center seat to every major news story of the past 20 years, occasionally making news of his own.

He conducted interviews with first lady Hillary Clinton, for example, that not only partly defined her husband’s tenure — notably in the midst of Kenneth Starr’s investigation of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — but also defined her. Most famously, she appeared with Lauer on the Jan. 27, 1998, edition, where she blamed “this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”

Years later, Lauer was criticized for a Sept. 8, 2016, prime-time interview with then-candidate Clinton that was deemed too harsh.

In the court of public opinion, he was blamed for the ouster of co-anchor Ann Curry in 2012. Lauer appeared awkward and unmoved during her tearful on-air farewell on June 28, 2012. NBC has long patterned the on-air “Today” staff as a big, happy family, and it didn’t take viewers long to decide who had broken up this family.

But over the years, Lauer’s on-air presence has seemed almost like a given. He long avoided the reputation that had so often — unfairly at times — dogged his predecessor, Gumbel, as a frosty morning presence. On the air at least, he also got along particularly well with Katie Couric, who left the show in 2006 to become anchor of “The CBS Evening News.”

“Today’s” importance to NBC News, can be measured in raw numbers. Even though the show slipped behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” into second place in 2012, it continued to maintain ad revenue dominance years after. According to figures from New York-based advertising metrics firm, Kantar Media, “Today” commanded $435 million in ad revenue in 2014, topping “GMA” by more than $70 million.

Lauer’s firing will also raise speculation about the future role of 9 a.m. anchor Megyn Kelly. Even before Kelly had launched her new NBC morning program, there had been buzz that it would be a launchpad for a future role on the 7 a.m. flagship.

Kelly weighed in at the top of her program Wednesday: “This one does hit close to home,” she said. “I, too, have known Matt for a long time. He has been a friend, and kind and supportive to me in my transition to NBC News.

“I see the anguish on my colleagues’ faces,” she continued. “But when this happens, what we don’t see is the pain on the faces of those who found the courage to come forward. It is a terrifying thing to do. We don’t see the career opportunities women lose because of sexual harassment, or the intense stress it causes a woman dealing with it when she comes to work each day. I am thinking of those women this morning, and hoping they are OK. The days to come will not be easy.”

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