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Twice in the past two weeks, viewers of America’s morning news television programmes have tuned in over their breakfast cereal to see female presenters reporting the firings of their male co-hosts over inappropriate sexual behaviour.
NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb announced on Wednesday’s Today show that Matt Lauer had been fired following a complaint from a co-worker. Just a week before, CBS This Morning’s Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King discussed the dismissal of their co-host, Charlie Rose, over allegations of harassment.
In both cases the sight of two women on screen, instead of the classic morning show pairing of a woman and man, underscored the unusual moment reverberating across American culture.
“This reckoning that so many organisations have been going through is important, it’s long overdue,” Ms Guthrie said, appearing close to tears.
The “reckoning” she referred to, over the conduct of influential men and the persistence of sexual harassment, was triggered in October by allegations that Harvey Weinstein, the powerful Hollywood producer, had assaulted multiple women. Since those claims were made public, dozens of prominent men have come under fire, from Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey to John Lasseter, head of animation at Walt Disney and Pixar.
The current wave follows scandals at Fox News, which led to the ousters of Roger Ailes, the cable network’s chairman, and Bill O’Reilly, its biggest star. In Silicon Valley, harassment allegations have toppled venture capitalists and accusations of sexism at Uber led to the departure of senior executives including co-founder Travis Kalanick.
The dismissals of Mr Rose and, in particular, Mr Lauer, Today’s longest-serving host, have brought the issue of harassment directly into Americans’ living rooms.
“Matt is arguably the most prominent television news personality in the US,” said Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News. “The morning programmes are built around the metaphor of a family . . . they are designed to add a dose of intimacy and personality. And so people feel that they’ve lost a friend.”
While morning show viewership has shrunk along with the wider erosion of TV audiences, the programmes still draw around 4m daily viewers each. They are key profit centres for the big three broadcast networks, bringing in more than $1bn in combined annual advertising revenues. Today, which created the genre when it debuted in 1952, pulled in nearly half of that total last year, according to Kantar Media. The best-known morning hosts command high salaries and influence. Mr Lauer’s latest two-year contract was reportedly worth $25m a year.
How Today and CBS This Morning may change following the departure of some of their biggest stars remains to be seen. At NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios on Thursday, talent and executives exchanged hugs in the corridors. That morning’s episode of Today opened once again with Ms Kotb and Ms Guthrie, who read Mr Lauer’s apology on air.
“Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterised, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed,” Mr Lauer said.
Mr Rose has also apologised for “inappropriate behaviour,” while adding “I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.”
The swift departures of Mr Lauer, Mr Rose and others stands in stark contrast to the way similar narratives played out this week in Washington, where politicians have remained immune, thus far, to accountability.
Two lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct still occupy their seats, and Senate hopeful Roy Moore remains the frontrunner in his Alabama race despite allegations, which he denies, that he initiated sexual relationships with teenage girls and sexually assaulted a underaged girl. Mr Moore has rebounded in the polls to hold a 2-point lead, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Republican congressional leaders initially suggested that they would begin a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into Mr Moore were he to be elected, paving the way for the Senate to expel him and have a replacement appointed by Alabama’s Republican governor.
That likelihood has dimmed, however, following President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Mr Moore’s candidacy.
A victory for Mr Moore would pose “a very difficult question”, said Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine.
“If the voters of the state fully knowing all of these allegations nevertheless choose to elect Roy Moore, is it appropriate for the Senate to expel him?” she asked on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Democrats are grappling with the fate of Senator Al Franken and Michigan Representative John Conyers, both of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct.
Mr Conyers has denied the allegations against him. Mr Franken has suggested that some of the claims are not entirely true, while also apologising for his actions. That stance has confused some colleagues who say they are waiting for the ethics committee to finish its investigation.
After defending Mr Conyers as “an icon” as recently as Sunday, Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday called on him to resign after more former staffers came forward with claims.
On Thursday, Arnold Reed, an attorney for Mr Conyers, said the congressman would not step down.
“Nancy Pelosi did not elect Mr Conyers. And she sure as hell won’t be the one to tell the congressman to leave,” he said.