Why NBC fired Matt Lauer before new sexual misconduct allegations emerged

NBC managed to seize the moral high ground by firing Matt Lauer yesterday—at least for a few hours.

No one can dispute that NBC News Chairman Andy Lack moved to oust his most bankable star 36 hours after a female staffer complained to management about Lack’s treatment of her. Given that Lauer has been a key part of the franchise for two decades as a "Today" host, the network moved about as swiftly as CBS did in dropping Charlie Rose from its morning show 24 hours after sexual misconduct allegations published by the Washington Post.

That allowed NBC to control the narrative, and to release no details of the complaint against Lauer, though Lack said he had reason to believe this was not an isolated incident. Savannah Guthrie looked as heartbroken as she said she was in delivering the news at 7 a.m. Many of us who know Matt as a likable professional were stunned as well.

But an NBC insider tells me that the network knew for at least two weeks that major exposes on Lauer appeared to be coming.

By the afternoon, Variety posted a story that indicated this has been a longstanding problem at NBC, raising questions about just how much management may have known:

"Matt Lauer once gave a colleague a sex toy as a present. It included an explicit note about how he wanted to use it on her, which left her mortified.

"On another day, he summoned a different female employee to his office, and then dropped his pants, showing her his penis. After the employee declined to do anything, visibly shaken, he reprimanded her for not engaging in a sexual act ...

"These accounts of Lauer’s behavior at NBC are the result of a two-month investigation by Variety, with dozens of interviews with current and former staffers. Variety has talked to three women who identified themselves as victims of sexual harassment by Lauer, and their stories have been corroborated by friends or colleagues that they told at the time."

And there was this: "Several women told Variety they complained to executives at the network about Lauer’s behavior, which fell on deaf ears given the lucrative advertising surrounding 'Today.'"

The New York Times followed up by reporting that two more women have filed complaints with NBC:

"One complaint came from a former employee who said Mr. Lauer had summoned her to his office in 2001 and then had sex with her. She provided her account to The New York Times but declined to let her name be used.

"She told the Times that she felt helpless because she didn’t want to lose her job, and that she didn’t report the encounter at the time because she felt ashamed."

This was the woman cited by Lack in his announcement. Her lawyer said in a statement: "While I am encouraged by NBC’s response to date, I am in awe of the courage my client showed to be the first to raise a complaint and to do so without making any demands other than the company do the right thing."

It is hard to overstate Lauer’s importance to NBC as its $25-million-a-year man. Not only has he been holding down the money-making morning franchise since he was paired with Katie Couric in the 1990s, he has interviewed presidents, circled the globe with his where-in-the-world feature, and carried the flag at the Olympics and the Thanksgiving Day parade.

Allegations of sexual misbehavior have now rocked NBC, MSNBC, CBS, Fox News, NPR, the New York Times and other outlets--even Minnesota Public Radio, which terminated Garrison Keillor’s contract yesterday over allegations of inappropriate behavior. The cultural upheaval that started with Hollywood and has also hit the world of politics—Roy Moore, Al Franken, John Conyers—has changed life at the nation’s biggest media organizations as well. The firing of Matt Lauer confirmed that in spades.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.