When Our Trusted Storytellers Are Also the Abusers

In the interview, which was widely panned at the time, Mr. Lauer extensively questioned Mrs. Clinton, a Democrat, about her use of a private email server. He failed to aggressively press Donald J. Trump, then the Republican nominee, about his policy views or challenge him on falsehoods. Mrs. Clinton addressed the interview in her book, “What Happened,” calling Mr. Lauer’s interview “a pointless ambush.”


Hillary Clinton and Mr. Lauer during an interview in New York in September 2016.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mrs. Clinton also took issue with Mr. Lauer’s handling of Mr. Trump: “You’ve had a very different background, in business,” Mr. Lauer told Mr. Trump as he prefaced a question. “So nobody would expect you to have taken over the last 20 years really deep dives into some of these issues.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Lauer was fired after several women said he had targeted them for abuse, including one woman who said he sexually assaulted her until she passed out.

There is no way to say what Mr. Lauer’s motivations were during his interview with Mrs. Clinton. He may have interrupted and questioned her extensively because she was the more experienced candidate and presumed front-runner.

But that interview reads differently to many now, as do Mr. Lauer’s other on-camera interactions with powerful women that seemed garden-variety sexist or purely boneheaded at the time. In 2014, Mr. Lauer, a father of three, asked Mary Barra, the first female chief executive of General Motors and at the time a mother of two teenagers, if she could do both jobs well. In 2012, he remarked to the actress Anne Hathaway that viewers had “seen a lot of you lately” after a photographer had crouched down to take a picture up her skirt.

Regina Lawrence, a professor at the University of Oregon who studies gender, media and elections, said people like Mr. Lauer have become stark examples of how powerful men can enforce a culture of abuse while having substantial control over what the public sees, consumes and ultimately feels.

“We still have to be cautious” about drawing absolute connections between an abuser’s behind-the-scenes behavior and public professional life, Ms. Lawrence said.

“But these are things that men have been doing in the course of their professional work: Mistreating, denigrating and objectifying women,” Ms. Lawrence said. “If they would objectify people that they work with and know, how much might they objectify women that they cover?”

She said it is also worth considering what the public was told about Mr. Trump — a man accused of assault by at least 10 women — during interviews and commentary as delivered by men who would go on to be named as abusers.


Charlie Rose during a live taping of CBS’s This Morning in December 2014.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“The questions are being raised about how others might have covered Hillary Clinton,” Ms. Lawrence said. “But isn’t the real question: ‘How did they cover Donald Trump’”?

Mr. Halperin, one of America’s best-known political journalists, referred to Mrs. Clinton as “prideful, aggrieved, confused” and a “Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-sized fake pearls in “Game Change,” the book he co-authored in 2008. It was considered to be a definitive account of that year’s election.

Mr. Halperin’s thoughts on Mr. Trump’s behavior in 2016 were less harsh. Last October, shortly after audio emerged of Mr. Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, Mr. Halperin appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to say that he was skeptical of Mr. Trump’s accusers.

In another appearance on the program, Mr. Halperin said that Mr. Trump had done “nothing illegal” to his accusers, characterizing the behavior as “boorish” and part of the Trump brand.

Mr. Halperin, a ubiquitously televised Washington insider, lost network contracts and a book deal in October after several women accused him of abuse while working at ABC News more than a decade ago.

With the departure of several powerful men who explained Mr. Trump’s candidacy and eventual presidency to the public, the focus is turning to the storytellers who will fill the vacancies. Among other big stories, they will be responsible for covering the thousands of women currently interested in running for political office.

Like other industries, newsrooms have often compelled less powerful employees to assimilate to an internal status quo to survive. The next hurdle in what feels like a national reckoning will be grappling with a white-male-dominated structure that allows — and in some cases, directs — decisions about news coverage.

“I would find it hard to believe that Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor and the people accused of these things, that they spoke fundamentally differently about Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin than the rest of the male-dominated media” while on the air, said Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I think as sick as that sounds, that’s just baseline misogyny,” said Ms. Dolan, who studies gender, politics and behavior. “That’s just basic male privilege that doesn’t even tap into their predatory behaviors.”

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