What matters is the accuser and the accused, the NBC employee who alleged sexual harassment against Matt Lauer, and Lauer himself. But neither party could be present Wednesday morning on NBC’s TODAY franchise. Lauer had been fired – “terminated,” in the memo’s memorable phrasing – and the employee who filed the “detailed complaint” was speaking via attorney. Broadcast news abhors a visual vacuum. The hosts speak to the camera, but they’re not supposed to monologue. Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Megyn Kelly all opened editions of the Today franchises with extended sober Lauer conversations – Kotb did double time in the flagship and the booze cruise.
In a typical news event like this, the camera might have rolled footage of faces while they spoke: The powerful man brought low, the woman or women who spoke out. But, at least on Wednesday, both humans were televisual voids: The accuser remaining anonymous, the accused banished from a cultural continuum where once he occupied center square.
It was weird and uncomfortable – and great TV, like so many weird and uncomfortable things amorally become. You don’t envy any of the women onscreen. Addressing sexual harassment in your own workplace is difficult. Addressing the harassment in your workplace to a global audience? How do you say the right thing? Is there any not-wrong thing? “There’s no real way to do this,” said Guthrie. All involved claimed that they had heard the news merely hours earlier – “pre-dawn,” as Kotb stated a couple of times, and you imagine the newscasters on their morning commute getting four phone calls and 10 texts at once, the morning sun dawning through tinted windows like a realization that nothing would ever be the same. “We are still processing all of this,” said Guthrie. I don’t remember when “processing” became the de facto response to unsettling new information – it’s a way of sounding both active and passive, more urgent than just thinking, trendily borg-ish – but it got picked up as an internal meme. “The processing,” Kotb said in the last hour, “is gonna take a lot of time.”
There’s something to learn here, I think, from the immediacy of these responses. I felt Guthrie’s confusion as she expressed her heartbreak: “I’m heartbroken for Matt… I’m heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell their story.” The power dynamics onscreen are confusing, women who were Lauer’s onscreen equals (though the man had few salary equals), the accused man who did something mysterious yet apparent enough to justify swift termination, the accuser who is neither a name nor a face. “It’s hard to reconcile what we are hearing with the man who we know who walks in this building every single day,” said Kotb. Maybe that’s true and maybe not; showbiz is a gossip industry, costars know more than viewers. (Best to assume everyone onscreen knows more than they’re saying, or to assume that they think they know more.)
But the sentiment is a familiar one, this year more than most. You would expect that we live in a golden age of viewer cynicism and skeptical awareness, that a human species spending so much of its day creating mediated content of ourselves would know that the people onscreen aren’t what they appear. 2017 implies that the opposite is true. Living so much of our life in front of a screen or a camera, we put greater faith in image than in whatever truth that image just barely captured, in a square frame, with one dimension and all context removed. This is why people talk so much about “alternate realities” today; because actual complex fact is more complicated than the cultural dimension we inhabit, there’s a tendency to treat truth the way DC Comics treats various infinite earths, postcards from a dark dimension where heroes are villains. (Twist: It’s our dimension! The only one we’ll ever know!)
By the time Kelly’s hour started, there was footage to cut to: Today‘s own opening, Guthrie and Kotb, the news show itself part of the news. Kelly’s in a strange spot at NBC, her show not a rating success and not particularly good. When I watched a week of Megyn Kelly Today last month, it felt like the show only really came to life when the host confronted the wave of sexual harassment allegations. Kelly has less experience with Lauer as a colleague, and so it was either easier or more clear-eyed of her to shift attention immediately to the accused, to think of “the intense stress it causes a woman” to deal with harassment. “I am thinking of those women this morning,” she said, “And hoping they are okay.”
Kelly’s strength or weakness – her defining trait, one shared by most pundits – is to make the news personal. Guthrie shared the Lauer news with her trademark blank stare, which always reminds me of Kurt Russell at the end of Vanilla Sky, a digital creation ruefully realizing his own unreality. (I don’t mean that as a negative; a certain amount of blankness helps with morning shows, which have to cover every possible emotional tone across endless hours.) Kelly in her NBC phase seems to be striving for that blankness, which is a bummer: If any day called for a hotblooded take-no-prisoners Kelly File-style take, it was this one. But she calmly described the situation: “An empowerment revolution, in which women, who for years felt they had no choice but to simply deal with being harassed at work, are now starting to picture another reality.”
Reality-peddling was a big part of Kelly’s old job, the Fox News gig which comes up often on Megyn Kelly Today, like how Spider-Man thinks about Uncle Ben at least once an issue and twice per movie. “I have been at another news channel where this happened, as you know,” she reminded the audience, quotes implied around news channel I’m guessing. “A news organization is bigger than any one person. The good ones stay standing and forge forward, fulfilling their core mission: journalism.” Then it was time to talk about haggling on prices during the holiday, the core mission: capitalism.
When the news becomes the news, there’s a strange effect, close-up but distancing, like that shot in Vertigo, getting closer but further away. It’s not surprising that the final hour, with Kotb and Gifford, offered the most compelling response to the Lauer news. These co-hosts are off the cuff by trade. “Should I even share something?” Gifford said, “I guess I really should.” She offered a personal story of male betrayal: Her late husband in a tabloid scandal 20 years ago, in a snarkier era when it was common to treat Gifford herself as a figure of light farce. She still kind of is, with added self-awareness, but I suspect future generations will recall her as an example of endurance. The sheer act of surviving in media for over four decades is a testament to some sort of willpower.
Belief in something helps. Gifford was the only Today host to bring up religion: “No person is perfect in this world,” she said, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, is what scripture says…there’s no bad time to reach out for his help.” Everything these women said Wednesday morning seems to demand deeper readings; there will be more in the days to come, and they will receive more information. Perhaps they will feel that they navigated a difficult transition; perhaps, if the allegations become worse, they will regret trying to even strike a balance.
There is honor in confusion, though. The Great Old Men of news never seemed to be at a loss, or at least that was the notion inherited by men like Brian Williams and Matt Lauer, who now more than ever look like shallow parodies of the myths they were trying to inhabit. Maybe there was honor in those myths. Gifford floated through show business, acting and seeing and waiting for “just being” to become a career trajectory; it’s easy to avoid failing at journalism if you never even really pretend to be a journalist. Something about her openness in this moment spoke to me, though. Maybe if the main contribution of these news people in 2017 is their willingness to admit that they simply do not understand. “We are all so broken,” she said. “We need somebody to put us back together.” I don’t believe in any gods, but I do believe in Kathie Lee Gifford.