When Matt Lauer was fired from the “Today” show after allegations of sexual misconduct, news reports alleged that his lawyers were working on a plan to get the disgraced host a $30 million payout from NBC — the remainder of his $20 million a year salary up until the end of 2018. For a vastly wealthy serial harasser to believe he is owed tens of millions more dollars seemed a galling manifestation of the very entitlement underpinning the predatory behavior for which he was fired.
With powerful men in the media and elsewhere being dethroned amid abuse allegations, payouts to predators frequently follow suit, playing a major role in the current public reckoning with patriarchal power. But receiving or, in Lauer’s case, seeking a massive payout also speaks to an under-discussed facet of the wave of sexual abuse allegations: A light is being shed on the role of entitled wealth, as well as toxic masculinity, in producing a dangerous imbalance of power.
A light is being shed on the role of entitled wealth, as well as toxic masculinity, in producing a dangerous imbalance of power.
All too often, the vagaries of employment law and corporate culture are pitted against efforts to seek justice for victims and consequences for perpetrators. Fox News paid out sexual harassers Bill O’Reilly and late chair Roger Ailes around $25 million and $40 million, respectively.
Payouts and rewards like these, however, are a consistent part of modern American corporate life, found not only among the media or on issues of sexual harassment. Consider the rewards heaped on Wall Street executives following a financial crisis for which they bear substantial blame. In 2008, banks used taxpayer bailout money to pay top executives $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and various benefits like stock options and the use of company jets.
“This is the Wall Street concept of ‘fuck you money’,” Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst for Americans for Financial Reform, told me. “When you’re so rich, you can walk around and do whatever you want without fear of repercussions; this is exactly the sort of power some people chase, as something to aspire to.” Goldstein noted that President Donald Trump is the example-in-chief: a man of vast wealth whose vile actions were rewarded with a presidency.
It was a relief, then, to learn that Lauer will not receive a payout. A senior NBC source told CNN that the host “will not be paid past his last day of work.” But we should be careful before considering this a sea-change. NBC’s response to Lauer is not a challenge to toxic male entitlement, but an explicit refusal to reckon with historic institutional complicity — two problems which must be faced together if we are to take on patriarchal oppression and sexual violence.
In comparison to Fox News, NBC seemed to claim the moral high ground in refusing to reward a powerful predator with further millions. But to deny the payout, the network must rely on a legal rationale in which they claim previous ignorance to Lauer’s years of misconduct.
NBC News reported that the reason Lauer will receive no settlement is that he was fired “for cause,” thus nullifying the network’s obligation to pay him through the end of his contract. This complicates the idea that NBC’s decision is primarily a moral one. In order for the former host to be fired “for cause,” NBC must maintain that his misconduct was unknown to the company, at least when it negotiated the contract.
“If they already knew about it and tolerated it,” explained Samuel Estreicher, professor of law at New York University and director of its Center for Labor and Employment Law, “it takes away from the cause concept as a justification for withholding compensation owed, as opposed to simply firing the person.” An employee generally cannot be denied compensation for services rendered based on behavior that, up until that point, the company has known about and permitted or countenanced.
So while rewarding Lauer a $30 million payout would be unjust indeed, NBC’s ability to deny the payout is predicated on the company’s claim to ignorance regarding his years of predatory and harassing behavior. The network claims that, before receiving the detailed complaint that led to Lauer’s firing, they had found no evidence and received no other complaints of the host’s wrongdoing.
Several women, however, told Variety that their complaints about Lauer to executives “fell on deaf ears,” with one former reporter alleging that executives had “protected the shit out of Matt Lauer.” The idea that NBC management knew nothing until last week buoys a “bad apple” narrative when a structural one is needed.
It’s a double-edged sword. When a predator like O’Reilly is paid out, his misconduct is seemingly rewarded; when a settlement is denied in a case like Lauer’s, the network evades responsibility as a point of law. In either case, it’s important to remember that the only reason these men would be potentially entitled to such huge payouts is because they were paid so much in the first place.
The average anchor salary at NBC is around $67,500 and Lauer was earning $28 million. With the gender pay gap persisting across the media, injustice is already written into the DNA of the corporation and the industry. Whatever NBC executives did in fact know about Lauer’s history of predation, there’s little doubt that his position as a lucrative but large investment for the company played a role in enabling his behavior, or at least letting it be overlooked for years. Only very few top executives and talent, for example, have offices fitted with buttons under their desks to close and lock their doors from the inside — a mechanism Lauer used to harass without fear of interruption.
Lauer’s desk button took on the air of a Bond villain detail, but such “panic buttons” are not that unusual — at least not among people who make tens of millions of dollars. As a New York-based mechanical engineer told Architectural Digest, “In a high-end office for, say, a bank like JPMorgan, or for the high-end executives in other industries, it’s not crazy to have the ability to lock the door from your desk,” he noted, citing the potential for a violent attack. It might not be a button with perverted designs, but it is nonetheless symbolic of vast power imbalance — of who gets protected and who does not.
By elevating women to high-power positions with “fuck you” money, we only address one aspect of toxic entitlement.
With the so-called #MeToo moment orbiting largely around the rich and powerful, the putative solution of elevating more women to high-power positions has been highlighted as a redress. “We already know how to reduce sexual harassment at work, and the answer is actually pretty simple: Hire and promote more women,” wrote Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in the introduction to their Harvard Business Review study, which showed how sexual harassment “flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power.” There have already been calls for Lauer’s replacement on “Today” to be a woman or women. But by elevating women to high-power positions with “fuck you” money, we only address one aspect of toxic entitlement.
Lauer’s career may be over, but until we do away with “fuck you” money altogether — by which I mean extreme wealth inequality — toxic entitlement with which the Weinsteins and O’Reillys of the world have acted will remain a scourge against which we struggle, rather than a thing of the past. The problem is not a byproduct of power imbalances but an operation of them. The corporate executives now promising structural change around sexual harassment might be willing to fire predators and implement better policies, but they’re not going to challenge a system that provides them with their “fuck you” money, too.