The 'Today' show made history promoting the Emmy-winning journalist to co-anchor, with the first all-female team in the show’s 66 years. The network also reinforced history by paying her a fraction of Matt Lauer’s salary.
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Just over a month after the world learned of former Today host Matt Lauer’s habitually predatory tactics—from sending vibrators and dirty messages to subordinates to allegedly trapping women in his office with a Dr. Evil–style hidden desk button—Today has hired his replacement. Hoda Kotb, who has been filling in for Lauer since he was abruptly fired on November 29 for being a disgusting fucking pig, will now join Savannah Guthrie as a permanent member of the show’s marquee anchor team. In addition to hosting the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. block, Kotb will remain as co-host of Today’s 10 o’clock hour with Kathie Lee Gifford.
Guthrie and Kotb are the first all-female anchor team in Today’s 66-year history, and Kotb is only the second woman of color to sit in that chair (Ann Curry lasted a year before she was edged out). It’s another check marked off in women’s firsts, and as usual, what should be a celebration of a qualified, competent woman earning her rightful place in her industry is soured by the sexism that prevented her from getting there sooner.
Sexism is built into the morning-TV-show landscape. The format was invented in 1952, and women weren’t allowed at the anchor desk until Barbara Walters crashed through that glass ceiling in 1966. Before becoming Today’s first female co-host, Walters worked as a “Today Girl” correspondent–what the show branded the female journalists who fronted lifestyle fluff pieces, but were considered too precious to cover hard news. When she took the hosting job, Walters convinced the network to eliminate the position (score two for Barb!).
Once audiences—and women have always been the primary demographic of morning television—responded to the male-female dynamic, a new template took shape. Soon, men in dark suits and women in jewel-toned sheath dresses with artfully coiffed “anchor hair” became standard everywhere from Today and Good Morning America to the smallest local news markets. They laughed at each other’s bad jokes, dressed in complementary Halloween costumes, and exchanged banter that was just flirty enough to make viewers believe the pair really did have a “fun” friendship … or could it be something more? The banter ranged from the goofy—Kathie Lee Gifford regularly gushing to Regis Philbin about her children, slapping his knee as she guffawed—to the awkwardly co-dependent, like Kelly Ripa’s baby-koala-like presence around Philbin, cuddling up to him as often as she could, peering out from beneath his shadow just long enough to tell him how great he is. Somewhere along the line, the repartee took a dark turn. It often became openly misogynistic, such as the way the male co-hosts of Fox & Friends have condescended to every iteration of Gretchen Carlson, who has joined the show. And sometimes it’s been downright creepy (oh, hi, Charlie Rose.)
Kotb is beyond qualified. She is an Emmy-winning journalist who has been with the network for 20 years, beginning as a Dateline correspondent. She has covered hard news, and turned her real-life struggles—breast cancer, adopting a child late in life—into morning-show storytelling that has become the gold standard. She has the authority to carry a breaking-news disaster and the relatability of a gal-pal you’d want to have drinks with. She might just be Today’s most popular anchor since Katie Couric. The show has struggled in ratings for years, especially since Curry’s awkward departure in 2012—I can’t shake the image of poor Ann wincing at Lauer’s forced kiss during her tearful good-bye. Since Kotb has taken Lauer’s chair, Today has surpassed even Good Morning America in ratings, a race the show hasn’t won in more than two years. She deserves this job.
But the move by NBC to hire Kotb now stinks of saving-face opportunism. The Today show would not have survived had it plopped yet another standard-issue white dude in that seat next to Guthrie. Kotb’s promotion is further diminished by the fact that NBC gave her a “samesies” salary to Guthrie, who was a relative newcomer to the network when she took her anchor seat in 2012. The estimated $7 million Kotb will earn each year is $18 million less than her disgraced predecessor made, and $16 million less than pseudo-journalist Megyn Kelly, whom the network spent years pursuing. Is it worth it to squabble over millions when any number of them still makes for one of the highest-paid salaries in the industry? When we are talking about an industry with a gender wage gap average of 6.6 percent, and certain cases of more than 50 percent, where non-network anchors and reporters make scraping-by wages, and where at the very top, there is still a 28 percent difference between the salary of a white man and a woman of color, then yes, we must talk about it, and also ask: What the fuck?
As sexual harassment claims continue to seep out of nearly every newsroom in the country, we need to examine the culture of media that promotes male supremacy and silence among victims of harassment and assault, and also consider how the gender imbalance of these organizations may have created the problem.
Simply put: When more women occupy positions of power from the ground up, from production assistants and editors to anchors and corporate executives, fewer women will have to suffer in silence—or suffer at all. As evidenced by the Time’s Up campaign, a new initiative led by influential female actors, producers, directors, and agents in Hollywood that calls for gender parity, equal pay, and penalty-free harassment reporting for women in entertainment and blue-collar industries—and even offers legal fees for those who can’t afford them—it takes women to make these changes.
It has been three months since the initial Harvey Weinstein bombshell exposé kicked off the #MeToo movement—and decades since women in Hollywood first started complaining about unfair treatment, including systemic rape. But who’s counting? Men certainly aren’t. Even after months of allegations, ousters and firings, cancelled TV shows and recast films, all the fauxpology letters followed by anger, and promises of allegiance by the good guys (and there are many), there have been no movements by men in entertainment or media—where most of the power, wealth, and influence remains concentrated—to make systemic, quantifiable changes to a culture that created a toxic, dangerous, unfair working environment for their female colleagues.
Maybe Kotb wouldn’t be sitting in her well-earned anchor chair today if women hadn’t forced the cultural shift we’re still riding. But if they hadn’t, Lauer would most certainly still be in that chair, awkwardly asking young actresses about their underwear, and maintaining the status quo of female oppression that is only now starting to shift, thanks entirely to women.
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