Matt Lauer, a morning news mainstay for more than two decades, has been terminated from NBC News after a colleague reported inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace, co-anchor Savannah Guthrie announced Wednesday as the “Today” show opened.
Hours later, Variety reported anonymous accounts of three women who alleged they were victims of sexual harassment by Lauer. The publication said it had corroborated their stories with friends or colleagues as part of a two-month investigation that included dozens of interviews with current and former staff members.
Guthrie said she learned about Lauer's termination shortly before the show went on air, and added that she was heartbroken for her "dear, dear friend" Lauer, as well as the woman whose allegations NBC News found credible.
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"We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these last few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?" Guthrie said. "I don't know the answer to that. But I do know that this reckoning that so many organizations have been going through is important, it's long overdue and it must result in workplaces where all women, all people, feel safe and respected."
NBC News Chairman Andy Lack said in a memo that Lauer's alleged conduct was "a clear violation of our company's standards." He did not reveal specifics on what Lauer was accused of, but NBC News reported that the complaint refers to an incident at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and that inappropriate behavior continued afterward.
On Wednesday, NBC received at least two more complaints related to Lauer, the New York Times reported, citing a person briefed on the network’s handling of the matter. NBC officials confirmed that two more accusers had come forward on Wednesday.
The Times' article said one of the new complaints came from a former employee who in 2001 was summoned to Lauer's office, where Lauer had sex with her. She told the newspaper she felt helpless to stop the encounter because she did not want to lose her job, and did not report it because she was ashamed.
NBC Owned Television Stations has reached out to a representative of Lauer's for comment on the termination, Lack's statement and the Variety report.
An attorney for Lauer's accuser, whose identity hasn't been revealed, said in a statement that "NBC acted quickly and responsibly" after their hourslong meeting with the human resources and legal departments Monday evening, in which the accuser "detailed egregious acts of sexual harassment and misconduct by Mr. Lauer."
"While I am impressed by NBC’s response to date, I am awed by the courage my client showed to be the first to raise a complaint and to do so without making any demands other than asking the company do the right thing. This is how the system should work," attorney Ari Wilkenfeld said.
Lauer once gave a colleague a sex toy with an explicit note, Variety reported. Another time, he exposed himself in front of a female employee, then reprimanded her for not engaging in a sex act, Variety reported. The story also alleged sexualized conversations with staff that included playing a crass quiz game and lewd text messages.
The women asked to be unnamed because they feared professional consequences.
Several women told Variety they had complained to network executives about Lauer.
Following the publication of the Variety report, an NBC News spokesperson released the following statement: "We can say unequivocally, that, prior to Monday night, current NBC News management was never made aware of any complaints about Matt Lauer’s conduct."
Lauer's termination came suddenly — he had been slated to host the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting with "Today" show co-anchors Guthrie, Hoda Kotb and Al Roker Wednesday night.
Kotb, who co-hosted Wednesday's show, said, "We woke up with the news pre-dawn and we are trying to process it, make sense of it and it will take some time for that."
Lauer was co-anchor of the "Today" show for nearly 21 years, since his debut in the role Jan. 6, 1997, interviewing presidents, royalty, movie stars and more. NBC had noted on its broadcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade last week that Lauer has hosted the event for the past 20 years.
He is the second leading morning news host in two weeks to lose his job after facing sexual misconduct allegations, following Charlie Rose, who was fired by CBS News last week, as well as by PBS. Several women who spoke to The Washington Post detailed a pattern of work-related sexual misconduct by Rose, who issued an apology.
But they are far from the only media figures to have lost their jobs after being accused of sexual misconduct. Last month, NBC News fired contributor Mark Halperin, a major political journalist and pundit, after he was accused of sexual misconduct by women he had previously worked with at ABC News.
Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes were ousted from Fox News in the last two years when faced with accusations of their own. Megyn Kelly, who complained about O'Reilly while they were colleagues together at Fox, said Wednesday on her new NBC show that, in her experience dealing with the fallout of sexual harassment allegations, news organiations are "bigger than any one person."
She said Lauer has been a friend and supported her in her transition to NBC News. She noted her colleagues' anguish as well as that of the women who came forward, whom she hoped are OK. Coming forward is a "terrifying thing to do," she said.
"As painful as this moment is for so many here at NBC today, at CBS earlier this month, at Fox News over the last year, in Hollywood this fall, it is a sign of progress," Kelly said, "of women finding their voices, their courage and of the erosion of a shameful power imbalance that has been in place for far too long."
Former Today co-host Natalie Morales said was shocked when she woke up Wednesday to learn Lauer had been fired.
She said the "Today" show has been her family for 16 years and learning about the allegations against Lauer is very difficult. Morales made her comments while hosting "Access Hollywood."
Morales said she has already addressed rumors that an affair between her and Lauer led to her departure from "Today." She called them hurtful to her and her family and said they should not be the story at the moment. Instead, she said the focus should be on the unnamed woman whose accusation led to his dismissal.
Longtime "Inside Edition" anchor Deborah Norville said she was also "stunned" to hear of the firing of "Today" show host Lauer for alleged sexual misconduct, saying it's upsetting to see yet another fellow journalist brought down by scandal.
But Norville, herself a past "Today" host before Lauer joined the broadcast, notes that no profession is immune to sexual harassment, as recent events are demonstrating.
New accusations of sexual misconduct by powerful men have been in the news nearly every day since two exposes were published in early October about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein allegedly engaging serial sexual harassment and assault throughout his career. Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and Jeffrey Tambor are among the actors who have lost jobs in the wake of that scandal, as men and women came forward with their own allegations.
Scandal has reached the world of politics as well. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. apologized after several women came forward to say he groped them in the past. He and Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers, accused of workplace misconduct, face ethics investigations.
And Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for Alabama's open U.S. Senate seat, has defiantly denied any wrongdoing after multiple women have said he tried to date them decades ago when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. One woman accused him of toucing her sexually when she was 14. Another alleged he sexaully assaulted her when she was 16. He denies the allegations.
The news about Lauer came as a shock to many who posted their reactions online, including President Donald Trump, who tweeted "Wow" and attacked NBC for "putting out so much Fake News."
Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, which he's denied, but he did apologize last year for a 2005 video in which he told then-NBC personality Billy Bush he could do anything to women when you're famous, including grabbing them by the genitals. Despite the apology, Trump has privately raised doubts about the tape's authenticity in conversations with allies or confidents, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Here is Andy Lack's full statement as read on "Today":
Dear colleagues, 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. As a result, we've decided to terminate his employment.
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.
Our highest priority is to create a workplace environment where everyone feels safe and protected, and to ensure that any actions that run counter to our core values are met with consequences, no matter who the offender. We are deeply saddened by this turn of events.
But we will face it together as a news organization - and do it in as transparent a manner as we can.
This story contains material from NBC News