Katie Couric Going After Matt Lauer Says A Lot About #MeToo, the Media, and the Nature of Selling Books
As you have surely heard by now, Katie Couric, an iconic figure of the now-faded era of mainstream media magic, has written a controversial new book, Going There, about her life and career. On Tuesday, she will do a much-anticipated interview on NBC’s Today show, where she had by far the most successful run of her career, most of it alongside Matt Lauer as her co-host.
Only a few short years ago, it would have been inconceivable that Couric would be promoting a (so-far) poorly received memoir in which she spends many pages attacking Lauer, with whom she was so connected in the public consciousness, and to whom she was so close off the air. But when Lauer was fired in 2017 for having an inappropriate relationship with an NBC producer three years before, and then was accused of rape by the same person in Ronan Farrow’s 2019 book, Catch and Kill, the entire equation of the once tight relationship dramatically changed.
Before providing some analysis of this situation, a disclosure and an important point of context are in order. First, over the past two years a since the publishing of Farrow’s book, I have spoken to Matt Lauer, in-person and on the phone, in excruciating detail, both as a journalist and as a friend, for probably around 100 hours, and he hosted me on a golf trip earlier this year. Secondly, I have been very critical of Katie Couric’s journalism in the past, specifically her much-praised take-down of Sarah Palin during the height of the 2008 presidential campaign.
My intent here is not directly defend Lauer (I expect him to handle that himself), but rather to offer some insight into what is going on here and what it says about how utterly broken the news machine really is. Much can and should be learned about what Couric both says, and does not say, about her former NBC co-host and long-time friend.
When it comes to Lauer, Couric goes out of her way to try have it both ways, and this has sparked rather schizophrenic news coverage of the topic. She calls him a “decent man” and that she felt “heartless” abandoning him, all while making it clear that the allegations against him were not the man she knew. Couric even, quite correctly, points out that the “rules” for intra-office sex in the news media were very different before #MeToo, and seems to imply that Lauer got caught up the game being radically altered, in the middle of a moral panic, well after it had already been played.
Couric also, rather shockingly, publishes a partial (and based on my extensive conversations with Lauer, substantively incomplete) private text message exchange between them right after his firing from NBC. Couric justifies this act of disloyalty by saying that Lauer had betrayed her and the Today show with his sexual exploits, thus, apparently, allowing two wrongs to make a right.
Then, in an obvious attempt to placate the #MeToo movement, she tries to diminish the nature of their friendship, which is particularly bizarre given that she divulges that she moved heaven and earth to try to get Lauer to join her daytime talk show in 2012, a program which literally began with them “sleeping” together to open the first episode. Perhaps revealing a real motive regarding Lauer, she even expresses frustration over Lauer not teaming up on her ultimately failed talk show, saying that, if he had just left NBC to come with her, all of this could have been avoided.
She also claims that she had no knowledge of what was going on in Lauer’s sex life. This actually makes sense given that the evidence indicates he was having consensual extra-marital affairs with consenting adults, which while stupid/reckless, was not considered a fireable offense in the news media prior to the #MeToo movement.
She concludes that his behavior towards women was “callous,” conveniently rationalizes that she somehow must not have known the REAL Matt Lauer, and even refers to him, without a shred of corroborating evidence, as a “predator.” It is also important to point out that, despite what must have been a great temptation to do so given Ronan Farrow’s popularity with the media elite, she does not indicate that she believes the rape allegation in his book, which, having investigated it quite thoroughly, I am quite confident is because she doesn’t think it is true. And for very good reason, which is why there has never been a criminal charge, or even a lawsuit, filed in that or any other similar circumstance related to Lauer. Common sense would tell you that if Lauer has said anything remotely untrue in his comprehensive defense, Couric would have discovered that and been hailed as a hero for exposing it in her own book.
Here is where this saga illustrates why the news media is so poorly set up to deal with these sorts of allegations, especially now that the #MeToo movement has such a powerful stranglehold on the narrative. Once a celebrity the size of Lauer has been decapitated, everyone knows that he becomes a rich target, especially when he has almost no viable ability to fight back. For Couric, going after Lauer in order to get media attention for a book, particularly one which has already opened her up to lots of very legitimate criticism of her special brand of liberal activism disguised as journalism (like bragging about editing out very key comments from a liberal Supreme Court justice to “protect” them) is a marketing no-brainer.
She may even use her Today show interview tomorrow to make criticizing Lauer a figurative life-raft for a book launch which appears to be sinking amidst largely negative media coverage. Again, not because much of the media-created narrative about Lauer is actually true, or that Couric even remotely really believes that it is, but because, much like as depicted in Apple TV series The Morning Show (which clearly patterned the character played by Steve Carell after Matt Lauer, and where I am convinced Couric sees herself as the role played by Jennifer Aniston) this is all just a sick game, and it is simply the right card for her to play.
As the father of two young daughters, the part of the destruction of Matt Lauer that has always bothered me the most is the utterly infantile view of adult women which one must possess in order to interpret sex between a famous man and a non-famous co-worker as inherently predatory. Men learning — as my mother drilled relentlessly into my head as a teenage boy — that “no, means no” is incredibly important, but we have forgotten that “yes, means yes.” It is totally unfair and even dangerous to, in an effort to swing the pendulum of gender power dramatically in the other direction, allow women to radically change the nature of consent in hindsight, especially based on shifting political winds.
One of the many reasons that mainstream journalism has died in the modern era is that those with the most power became very rich celebrities. Among the myriad of problems this created is that rich celebrities must protect their positions and their public popularity at all costs, which then prevents them from telling uncomfortable truths that, especially in these days of the “cancel culture,” can easily cost them what hold to be most dear.
The reality here is that, at least when it comes to Matt Lauer, what Katie Couric has done is based on a self-interested strategy, and not on the truth, or on what is right. In this way, it is all too representative of the how and why the modern news media is fundamentally dysfunctional.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.