Have We Seriously Decided that Old Consensual Affairs Involving Media Stars Are Now ‘Assault’?!


Ugh. This never-ending news cycle is just going to keep getting nuttier, isn’t it?

Thursday, Variety breathlessly reported about a completely consensual affair in 2000 which former NBC superstar Matt Lauer apparently had with a then 24-year old woman who was leaving her production assistant position at NBC to take a job as a news anchor at the CBS affiliate in Charleston, West Virginia.

Had this story been told in the context that Lauer, as I strongly believe is the case, was fired from NBC because of the network suddenly and retroactively, post-Weinstein, started enforcing rules requiring employees to disclose old affairs with NBC co-workers, I would have no problem with this reporting.

This is not at all the case.

Instead, the sense the article gives is that the woman, now known as Addie Zinione, was effectively assaulted by Lauer and that her life and career were dramatically impaired by the horrific month-long experience. This despite the fact that she makes it very clear that the relationship was totally consensual, she knew he was married at the time, and she fully participated (and kept!) in the flirty messages they exchanged when he first made his move on her.

The basis for this charge, both from the way Variety framed it, as well as her own words, is that the power imbalance between them was so overwhelming that she effectively had no choice but to immediately submit to all of his sexual desires. Therefore, while that word is not specifically used, this was essentially an assault, or maybe even worse.

“Ultimately, I felt like a victim,” she says (there are three important qualifiers in that six-word sentence).

If that is actually true, it sure is a horrible statement about the state of feminism. She portrays herself, an adult, 24-year old, woman who had been a college gymnastics star, and who had just landed her dream job of being an on-air news anchor, as somehow being, much like a child, totally weak, powerless, and easily manipulated.

I don’t think that’s what is really going on here.

The reality is that, even under her version of the story, there was NO massive power imbalance. She was LEAVING her job at NBC. She was going to a CBS affiliate. Lauer had absolutely no power over her. In fact, since he was married, once they had the affair, she was the one with ALL of the power because, as she admits in the story, she could have easily gone to the tabloids with her tale.

Clearly, Lauer, apparently being a cad, but not an idiot, realized, that, under the rules as they were in 2000, this “opportunity” was, for exactly these reasons, while morally decrepit, completely fair game. It should also be noted that, since this affair came right after Bill Clinton had survived his much more egregious affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, it is irrational and treacherous to not view this situation through the context of that time period.

In many ways, this story is a Rorschach test for how people see the current flood of sexual harassment allegations against media/entertainment/political figures. Joe Bel Bruno, a managing editor at Variety responded on Twitter to my initial concerns about the story’s legitimacy this way:

Yashar Ali of New York Magazine and the Huffington Post also expressed to me very similar sentiments.

Neither of these reporters responded when I pointed out to them that, given the specifics of her leaving NBC to go to a CBS affiliate, Lauer had no real power over her, to begin with.

Everyone always says that a woman in this situation would have no motivation to tell a story that is not true, but this premise is absurd on many levels.

In general, revenge, the ability to rationalize why a career/life didn’t turn out like one hoped, attention, and money, are all possible reasons for someone to tell an old story in a way which is not accurate. But the element people miss the most from these almost always very old allegations is the fact that the human memory is both highly unreliable, and extremely vulnerable to after-the-fact suggestion or manipulation.

This Lauer story comes on the heels of the Ryan Lizza firing, which he strongly claims was about a consensual relationship. As well as a situation involving Tavis Smiley which appears to be extremely similar. Now, HGTV star Carter Oosterhouse is under attack for what he also says was a completely consensual affair with a woman who worked on his show almost a decade ago.

The really striking/scary thing about the Oosterhouse story is that the reporter on it actually wrote the following sentence, apparently with no intention to be funny:

“He declined to comment when asked whether a sexual relationship could ever truly be consensual between the star of a TV show and a show staffer whose employment is dependent on remaining in the star’s favor.”

So let me get this straight, it is now suddenly not even theoretically possible for a media star to have had an affair with someone who worked on the same show and have it be “consensual”?!

Seriously? I felt like I was reading something from The Onion parody news website.

Making this lunacy even scarier is the fact that it’s not like this is a new rule that is only being implemented going forward. Oh no. This is a new social law, that has been created illogically during a period of temporary (hopefully) insanity, and which is now being enforced both retroactively and arbitrarily.

What could possibly go wrong?!

I wrote just over a month ago that we were in grave danger of the media creating precarious new rules of engagement in the “post-Weinstein” era. But even I am shocked that we have already gotten to the point where very old, clearly consensual, affairs are now able to effectively be criminalized whenever it is convenient to someone in a position of power.

I honestly have no idea where (or even if) this is all going to finally end, but I do know that it will not end well.

John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is a documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud  or email him at johnz@mediaite.com.

–image via screen capture–

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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