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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Legal Concerns After The Sudden Firing Of Today Show Icon

The long-term host of The Today Show on NBC, Matt Lauer, was fired today barely 24 hours after the first complaint about his behavior during his 25 years at the network, according to a memo circulated by Andrew Lack, the network's president for news.

The stated reason was "inappropriate workplace conduct."

But there might be 28 million other reasons: Lauer's reported salary was $28 million. That's a lot of bread, for any broadcast network, in an industry plagued by declining ratings amid systemic audience shifts away from traditional broadcast television and towards alternative technologies and media.

Lack's memorandum stated the network received a "detailed complaint" this past Monday night about the 59-year-old Lauer's behavior. He acknowledged it was the first complaint ever received, then continued by claiming the network "was presented with reason to believe [the alleged incident] not have been an isolated incident."

As the purge -- or is it, the putsch -- of Men (Allegedly) Behaving Badly continues, of concern should be the apparent Star Chamber treatment of some of the biggest "stars" in show business, politics and, likely, other arenas in public life, celebrities or "big names" all. It is not certain -- and from a mathematical perspective, unlikely -- that everyone named in a complaint is guilty. 

What does this all mean?

The incredible pace with which the network moved after receiving, it claims, the first and only complaint this past Monday night must raise questions about the strength of the evidence, the credibility of the network's response and investigation and the network's true motives. For now, without knowing more or having the access to the critical documentation, the incredible speed with which this decision was apparently made suggests haste, at the very least.

Should the NBC documents be accurate, this means that a major employer went from 0 to red zone termination territory, from receipt of complaint through the stages of investigation, inquiry, collection of evidence and likely some review by internal (and external) legal counsel, to decision, in less than 36 hours.

(Quick questions here for the audience: Could your job be in jeopardy from a vengeful, envious or devious co-worker, angling for that promotion or your very job, and now armed with a convenient way to eliminate the competition? In the current environment where it may be more possible than ever to achieve competition-eliminating results through allegations which might be easier than ever to make, and be believed, without going through the traditional scrutiny, do not discount the temptation of false allegations by people without scruples.  As for employers, if you act in haste without proper procedures, could you be at risk of wrongful termination lawsuits?)

Such speed could -- and emphasis needs to be placed on that word, "could," because there are so many actual hard facts not available right now -- mean the "evidence" was really strong. As in damning, no-explanation-necessary, this-is-unacceptable behavior.

We don't know the behavior, the context in which it allegedly occurred or the validity of the evidence. The focus here is on hard, legal facts, not the potentially salacious details of any allegation. 

We also don't know Lauer's side of the story. Stay tuned, as that's sure to be coming sooner than later.

Quick question: Was 24 hours (and likely, far less time) enough time for anyone to determine that whatever "evidence" may have been presented was indeed genuine evidence, i.e., not fabricated, distorted or otherwise manufactured to support whatever allegation was made?

The speed alone will give rise to suspicions (and conspiracy theories, any second now) that the firing is either a cover-up of something else (misconduct by someone else?), perhaps an intentional distraction, or that it was a pre-ordained move instigated by someone in upper management with either a strong grudge or other motive.

One thing to remember: Such a move might be grounds for "termination with cause" and could be motivated by a desire to get out of the high salary Lauer was commanding. You don't think saving $28 million wouldn't motivate a network, plagued by declining market share (which is affecting all old-guard media), to look for every possible way to get from under that burden?

Something else to remember: We have not heard from Lauer or his representatives. They surely will be very busy today. Lauer's employment is reportedly governed by an employment or personal services contract, and the terms of that will surely be hotly contested.

A third thing to remember: We don't know the details of the allegations. But what will now be the "bar" or "standard" for what is merely "inappropriate workplace" behavior, or "fireable" offenses?

Celebrities generally are plagued by opportunists, scam artists and the like. They now may be under career-threatening danger from anyone in their pasts with a grudge, real or imagined, who has access to questionable evidence (which is more available in the age of smartphone cameras, etc.).

And those statements are applicable -- to the celebrities who are innocent.

The current fever pitch of scandal is encouraging virtue-signaling-by-firing, perhaps with due process being discarded. But we should also pause to think whether this "trend" might ruin -- permanently, irreversibly -- careers, reputations and even lives.
 
Lauer started his broadcasting career in 1980 and began his NBC stint in 1992 with dual gigs co-hosting studio programs at the network-owned New York flagship station WNBC. 

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