We’ve published a few analyses now on how the media is trying those accused of sexual misconduct in the court of public opinion. Matt Lauer, who was dismissed on Wednesday from the “Today” show for similar allegations, is no exception to this media phenomenon. However, some of the follow-up coverage on Lauer caught our attention, because it brought in events and opinions that aren’t related to the allegations, which could incriminate him further. Consider the headlines from the articles we analyzed:
Matt Lauer’s History at ‘Today’: Two Decades of Highsand Lows ( The New York Times)
Matt Lauer mocks sexual harassment, drops his pants in resurfaced ‘Today’ clips (Fox News)
Five moments when Matt Lauer’s on-air behavior raised eyebrows ( Los Angeles Times)
Matt Lauer Has Always Had Problems With Women on the TODAY Show ( TIME)You might notice a couple of things. One is how the four headlines feature information that reflects negatively on Lauer. The other is spin — the subjective, vague or dramatic language that’s noted in red — and how that creates or emphasizes the negative implications.
The outlets we analyzed used those two ways of distorting the information, but there was also a third and less visible distortion in play: juxtaposing Lauer’s dismissal and the allegations against him with unrelated information.
In a court of law, information or questions that aren’t about the issues pertaining to the trial are dismissed as “irrelevant” or “immaterial,” and rightfully so, as they can bias, mislead or confuse a jury. There’s even a federal rule (403) that allows judges to dismiss evidence when it might have those effects on the proceedings. The media could pick up a few things from our justice system.
The articles we looked at cited past events involving Lauer and female public figures, which portray his behavior as inappropriate. Some of the observations may be valid, but the issue, again, is that none of it seems to have anything to do with the allegations against him, and the juxtaposition of the two disparages the former “Today” host. Here’s an example from the outlet that earned the lowest Knife integrity rating (12 percent), TIME:
Lauer got many of the big interviews and his particular wry yet knife-twisting style of interviewing defined the show’s voice. Much of that, given what has been alleged against him, now comes in for re-evaluation — like, for instance, the events surrounding one co-host’s departure.Objection, irrelevant.
The implication here is that Ann Curry’s departure from the show may have been a result of sexual misconduct by Lauer. This is damaging on three levels. First, it irreparably damages Lauer’s reputation. Second, it distorts the way we view Ann Curry by portraying her as a victim, and NBC News by suggesting it may have condoned the alleged behavior for years. Third and most importantly, it circumvents due process and limits the possibility of a fair investigation and trial in our justice system.
It’s important to note that shedding light on the lack of due process does not in any way condone or dismiss the allegations. On the contrary, if we are to pursue justice, supporting due process and the presumption of innocence are critical. Excessive or insufficient punishment is detrimental to justice and to building a fair society, and both of these things often occur in the media. The court of public opinion is not the place to try such cases — the downsides and the margin of error are simply too great.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News