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Solving the Matt Lauer and 'open secret' problem

Conservative Review

On Wednesday, Matt Lauer, host of NBC’s “Today” show, was suddenly and unexpectedly fired for allegations of sexual misconduct.

He joins the ranks of slayed giants in the media/entertainment industry, alongside Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Glenn Thrush, Charlie Rose, and far too many other deplorable creeps who have now become the victims of their own predatory behavior.

For some, the news was not shock. Apparently, Lauer’s behavior was somewhat of an open secret and its exposure a long time coming.

As CR’s Rob Eno points out, rumors of Lauer’s sexual misconduct had been swirling for years. After the news of Lauer’s firing broke, New York magazine and Huffington Post journalist Yashar Ali unambiguously said that several reporters knew a number of women claiming to be Lauer’s victims who were just too “terrified” of coming forward.

“Matt Lauer put the fear of god into these women,” Ali explained. “He had relationships with reporters outside NBC that he cultivated just for this purpose. They knew that.”

“Lauer is among the worst I’ve heard about,” he added in a later tweet. “Not in terms of the kind of misconduct but the way in which he manipulated these women into silence. It's evil, frightening stuff.”

How is it possible so many journalists knew and yet refused to go public? It seems cowardly. It seems fundamentally unjust that Lauer could get away with terrorizing these women for so long when people — reporters knew what was going on.

The situation is far more nuanced than it seems, however. First, consider the victims. As the Federalist’s Bethany Mandel – herself a victim of a sexual predator – powerfully illustrated recently, victims often do not want to come forward because there is blame, and shame, in being a victim.

Victims will be accused by some of lying. In the case of a public figure, the victim will be hounded by the media. Every salacious detail will be printed, read, and talked about on T.V. It is embarrassing. It is traumatic. And ever present are the friends in high places who come to the defense of the victimizer. For these reasons, it takes a great deal of courage for victims of sexual abuse to come forward.

Next, consider what is ethical. A journalist cannot go forward and betray a source who came to him off the record. Journalists need permission. It appears several news outlets were working to expose Lauer but were waiting for their source to be willing to go public.

It isn’t fair to criticize the journalists in this Lauer story for not coming out with the story earlier. Yet still, the fact that, time and again, these stories of sexual harassment are predated by “open secrets” — in some cases, for years — demands action.

This problem is not silence, but fear. The fear keeps victims quiet. The fear of their abuser. The fear of career implications, even to their physical safety, if they tell anyone what happened to them.

To conquer this fear, sexual abuse victims must be shown that the power their victimizers hold over them is an illusion.

The details of how Matt Lauer manipulated his alleged victims remain unknown, but whatever power he thought he had evaporated in an instant. The minute a credible complaint of sexual harassment was made against him to the top brass at NBC, he was fired.

What can he do to his victims now? His reputation is irrevocably destroyed. He no longer holds no sway with contacts in the media that could ruin the woman who filed a complaint against him, or the other victims. He is powerless because the accusation was taken seriously, investigated, and when NBC was convinced it was true, Lauer suffered consequences.

To give sexual abuse victims the courage to come forward, they must know that their allegations will be heard, investigated thoroughly, and if true, that actions will be taken against their abuser. Put simply, people must believe that justice will be done.

If an “open secret” exists, those who know it have a moral responsibility to go to the victims, assure them that they will be believed, encourage them to come forward, and work to bring this secret to light.

When we, as a nation, are committed to seeing justice done, then the unjust cannot stand.

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