I don’t watch morning news-tainment programs, but I’m rooting for Hoda Kotb in her new job as co-host of the Today Show. Kotb is the daughter of Egyptian immigrants. She got her start at a small news station in Greenville, Mississippi, and honed her skills in New Orleans. She is a woman joining another woman, Savannah Guthrie, as the face of a major media empire. For too long, women have been relegated to the sidekick position in the news biz, and morning news programs aren’t even really news. The can tell you the weather and give you the headlines, but they aren’t a natural fit for investigative journalism, hard questions, or breaking news. Even so, these hours-long, sit-and-chat programs are a primary source of news for many Americans. So the people on the couch, or behind the desk, matter.
Kotb replaces Matt Lauer, the disgraced former host known for his condescending interview style and now known as the man who installed a button under his desk to lock his office door when he wanted to keep a woman inside against her will. So Kotb doesn’t have such a high bar to clear to do better than Lauer.
I have no idea what Kotb’s interview skills are like, but Lauer was a terrible interviewer. He opened with awkward questions that shut his guests down rather than encouraging them to open up. He was smarmy and insincere. And yet NBC kept giving him plum assignments. They let him conduct the interviews for that one presidential debate that wasn’t really a debate. He botched the hell out of it, which was no surprise. He was a man who struggled to interview movie stars on the eve of their blockbuster premieres. Why would anyone imagine he’d be great with presidential candidates?
It’s easy to argue that Lauer got preferential treatment and an awful lot of big breaks because he is a white man in a business run by white men, and that fact played a huge role in his ascendancy. But there was something else at play behind Lauer’s unlimited opportunities. He asked for what he wanted. When he wanted to get rid of Ann Curry, he said so and tied it to his own contract negotiations. He later denied that, but industry rumors were rampant and Curry was forced out in a humiliating on-air farewell that included a cringe-worthy lunging kiss from Lauer. When Lauer wanted more money, he asked for it. When he wanted to travel around the world delivering fluff pieces, he asked for the assignment. By asking for what he wanted even when he hadn’t earned it, he got more than he deserved. We could all learn a thing or two from Lauer.
It’s no easy thing to ask for what you want on the job or anywhere else. Most of us wait until something is offered to us. We wait for someone to recognize our good work, our talent, our potential, and to reward us with opportunity. The problem with that strategy is that it relies too heavily on chance and, frankly, assumes that the decision makers are smarter than they are. Too many bosses or people with power seem prone to rewarding the person in front of them rather than casting a wide net to find the best person for any job. I think Matt Lauer knew this. It emboldened him demand things he didn’t deserve. A lot of men, particularly white men with money, do this easily.
But the rest of us can also ask for what we want. We can ask for the opportunities we’ve earned rather than waiting for someone to notice us. In a recent interview, Kotb said she didn’t think she’d be where she is today if she hadn’t explicitly asked to be considered for the fourth hour of the Today Show, a ridiculous gig that pairs her with Kathie Lee Gifford and features a lot of insipid chatter and morning alcohol consumption. Still, Kotb knew it was a gateway to bigger opportunities. Anytime a network devotes four hours a day to any one program, you’ve got to figure they’re paying attention to the on-air talent. Kotb says she was emboldened to make the ask after her battle with breast cancer. There is something about facing mortality that seems to make people braver. She was smart to do it. She felt she’d earned the opportunity and she could have spent the rest of her life waiting for someone to notice.
Kotb might need to get brave a few more times. There are reports that she will be making a fraction of what Lauer was making. It’s understandable that the new person on the job won’t immediately make the same as someone who’s held the position for years, but the discrepancy won’t be bridged without some shrewd negotiation from Kotb and her representatives. And it looks like they expect her to do the prime time gig and continue on with the fourth hour fluff fest. That’s unsustainable and I hope she puts an end to that nonsense soon. If she continues to do both jobs, she should demand a lot more money and she should demand it now.
Last year was a weird year for women in the workplace. We lost ground politically, but our voices became collectively louder. A lot of powerful men, including Lauer, lost jobs thanks to women speaking up about sexual misconduct and assault. It remains to be seen, however, if this wave of empowerment will build or break. Kotb’s appointment to a powerful media position that could have easily gone to a man, gives me hope that we might continue to rise.