CBS’ Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb and ABC’s Robin Roberts open up on an historic year in broadcast news, the firing of Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, and the push for salary parity: “We actually should be paid much more in some instances.”
In the span of eight days last November, two of morning TV's biggest stars were summarily dismissed amid allegations of misconduct and gross abuse of power. Charlie Rose, who anchored CBS This Morning for nearly six years, was nothing less than an icon — a friend to presidents and pop stars. Matt Lauer was the linchpin of NBC's $500 million Today show for decades. Their abrupt departure was a watershed moment for an industry that continues to be roiled by the #MeToo movement, and a painful ordeal for Rose's and Lauer's colleagues, especially their co-anchors. CBS' Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell and NBC's Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb found themselves on live TV reporting on (while personally processing) the bad behavior of the men with whom they shared an anchor desk — and years of friendship. It was the kind of shock no amount of experience could have prepared them for.
But all four were ready for what came next: expanded roles, higher profiles and continued hard-hitting coverage of retrograde gender dynamics in media and beyond. King, 63, and O'Donnell, 44 (who've been joined on CTM by John Dickerson); Guthrie, 46, and Kotb, 53 (now handling Today as a two-hander); and Good Morning America's Robin Roberts, 57 (who was one-half of morning TV's pioneering female anchor team when in 2005 she was paired with Diane Sawyer) — all among THR's 35 Most Powerful People in Media — sat for separate interviews about Charlie, Matt, #MeToo and where the movement will go next. Those three conversations have been condensed and edited together here for a revealing look at a year that Roberts calls, simply, "seismic."
Gayle, Norah, describe your conversations after you read The Washington Post story on Charlie.
GAYLE KING I was stunned and shocked. I really was. Because we were all in the middle of the #MeToo conversation, I never thought we would be part of the #MeToo conversation. I never saw that coming for us.
And you considered him a friend.
KING Yes, I did. And I have to say, I still do. So it was very interesting to have a friend really let you down, and I think he did. I only speak for me. It was a punch in the stomach to me.
NORAH O'DONNELL Reflecting on it, I'm so grateful that I get to work with Gayle because I had somebody to get through it with and to figure out what we were going to do on the air and speak openly and honestly about what we felt. We were on the phone all night.
Were you angry?
O'DONNELL I'm still angry. I'm still very angry.
Has either of you talked to Charlie?
KING I have. He tells me that he's fine. (Laughs.) Because I said, "I'm worried about you." He keeps assuring me there's no reason to be worried about him, but I am worried about him, I am. And I do care about him. He was a big part of my life for six years. So I can't just turn that off. But I also can't dismiss the stories that I'm hearing, and I do take them very seriously.
Did you confront him with these stories?
KING Oh, I've definitely talked to him about it.
Is it sinking in that this was wrong?
KING Well, I'm going to let him speak for himself about that, but I've definitely had a very serious conversation about it, about how I feel about it. I can't dismiss what I'm hearing. I can't act like I didn't hear that.
O'DONNELL I'll just say one thing on that. I think we now know that his behavior was abusive and predatory. And there is absolutely zero tolerance when it comes to that, end of story.
Savannah, Hoda, how hard was the morning of Nov. 29, when Matt's firing was announced?
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE It was hard.
HODA KOTB It was excruciating.
GUTHRIE We were literally both woken up out of our beds with this information. We had no idea. We had to go on the air and say something with very little information. In fact, the information we said was [all] the information we knew, it wasn't like we were holding back.
KOTB Just minutes before we're going on the air we went to Savannah's dressing room and had a moment of prayer. It was hard. It was heavy.
GUTHRIE A lot of tears.
KOTB We had each other's back, but we didn't know how emotional it would feel. When you're blindsided with information … you're almost shocked, you don't really feel the thing yet. That day was …
GUTHRIE It was crushing.
KOTB Really debilitating, yeah.
Robin, how do you think your colleagues handled their mornings when they had to inform viewers why their male co-hosts were gone?
ROBIN ROBERTS They handled it with such grace and professionalism and compassion for the women who accused these men. I was very proud of both shows at how they handled it and how they reached out to their colleagues who had brought about this change. Somebody that they had worked with — and they say they didn't see that side of that person — but to know that they did what they allegedly did …
Gayle, Norah, what would you have done if you'd heard these stories about Charlie earlier?
O'DONNELL Well, I'm not his boss and I'm not his manager and it's not my job to adjudicate that. For the people who work for me — I don't have direct management responsibility for them — but they work with me and I can control that relationship. But I don't have any control over how much money my co-host makes or how he is reprimanded or managed.
KING But I would have said something to him, I really would, with a sort of what-the-hell conversation. I wouldn't have heard that and then acted like that was OK or that I was signing off on it in any kind of way.
O'DONNELL I would not have felt comfortable having that conversation with him. I think he would've screamed at me.
KING He might've screamed.
O'DONNELL He would not have screamed at you, he would've screamed at me.
KING I don't know, Norah, if that's true. Because, you know, nobody likes to be confronted about bad behavior. I don't think he would've taken it well. But I definitely would've had a conversation about it.
O'DONNELL In this #MeToo moment, everybody needs a reeducation about how to report behavior and who is supposed to deal with it. And having a conversation with a friend about behavior at work is a personal way of addressing it. But it's not the way to adjudicate that kind of behavior, it has to be dealt with by human resources and management.
When it happened on the Today show, did you reach out to Savannah and Hoda?
KING I did. And I just happened to see them at Willie Geist's Christmas party. We all had a sort of, "What the hell …? Can you believe that we're a part of this conversation?" I think that Charlie's situation is different than the Matt situation. They're very different. The women are still standing, though. All of us felt that whatever this is, we'll get through it, we got this. It's not like we were falling apart.
O'DONNELL And we are OK, if not better.
Savannah, Hoda, are you still friends with Matt? Do you still talk to him?
KOTB Yeah, we keep in touch with him. I mean look, this is one of those complex situations. I've known him since I started working at NBC [in 1998]. When I was sick with breast cancer, he was the first to call. He helps and helped in ways that … you know, he was incredible in that way. There is that Matt and then there's the Matt that the accusers speak of. And those accusers' voices matter and that story matters and it's … (to Savannah) It's still tough, right?
Gayle, Norah, did you advocate for a show with the two of you and not adding a third person?
O'DONNELL I did.
KING I didn't. (Laughs.)
O'DONNELL On the afternoon/evening after the news about our former co-host came out, I, Gayle and Ryan Kadro, our executive producer, were on the phone and I said, "Look, tomorrow morning we're going to be judged on optics and we're going to be judged on substance. And we can easily get the optics right and it should just be Gayle and me." There was a plan to have another male and I said it should just be Gayle and me, and I think you agreed.
KING I thought it sent a good statement: We're going to be OK, we're going to be all right.
And in January, John Dickerson was named as your co-anchor …
KING I like the male/female dynamic. I still do. Men bring a different part of the conversation, and I personally like that. But do you need that? No. That's why Norah was fine with two [women]; I thought the three-person dynamic worked for us and so I was very much in favor of keeping that. And I wanted another male voice at the table. But they didn't do that because I wanted that. (Laughter.)
O'DONNELL Page Six: "Gayle wins management battle against Norah, who advocated for two women!" (Laughter.)
KING It's their sandbox, they decide who plays. I never lose sight that this is a business. And when the end comes, and it does come for all of us at some point — some of our own making, some because of circumstances beyond our control — you just have to remember it ain't personal, y'all. So while you're here, you just want to do the best job that you can. And I know nobody is indispensable, nobody. But I want to make it difficult for them to get rid of me. (Laughter.) I want to make it very difficult.
O'DONNELL By doing a really good job.
Savannah, did you advocate for Hoda to anchor?
GUTHRIE I didn't have to because everyone agreed. I mean, maybe this will never happen before, since or ever again, but it was a complete and total meeting of the minds. Like "Hey, this seems to be working great. Are you happy?" "Yeah, I'm happy, are you happy?" "I'm happy. Let's all do this, we're all happy."
The audience seems to have long ago accepted serious news from a woman. Why did it take so long and require this ugliness for two network morning shows to finally say, "We don't need to have the alpha male anchor"?
KING Because it had fallen into an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" [pattern]. The audience had gotten used to it and on some level, even we had gotten used to it. But when it happened at our place, we did say: You know, we can do things differently. For a gazillion years in TV news, it was all men. And then came Jane Pauley and Diane Sawyer. But that stuff is really deeply ingrained. And [this] has been such an amazing wake-up call.
GUTHRIE It was obvious to everyone who saw it, including our bosses, that this worked. And the fact that we were both women was secondary. Now, there would have been a time in our business — and maybe it wouldn't even have been all that long ago — where it would have been, "Yeah, that's so great but guess what, you're two women and we've got to have the guy/girl thing." That we're both women, the fact that it matches a cultural moment is beneficial. This feels very relevant to our time.
When CBS This Morning launched a little over six years ago, Charlie Rose was clearly the anchor with the most experience and visibility. But last year, both of you renewed your contracts with CBS. Was pay equity a priority for you in those negotiations?
KING Well, I don't know what Charlie was making, and all I wanted to do was to make sure that I was well paid. When I first came, I felt they were taking a chance on me, even though I had done TV news for many, many years. I wasn't a novice. I certainly wasn't a media icon the way Charlie Rose was. So I didn't expect to make what Charlie Rose was making. But as time went on and I felt that I was bringing value to the table, I did expect to be paid what he was paid. Though I still don't know what he was making.
O'DONNELL You are selling yourself short. You'd been on the air for 20 years in Connecticut.
KING Oh, I know, but the thing is, unless you were in Connecticut or Kansas City, I was not a national name outside of being Oprah's best friend. And I don't run away from that, I'm OK with that. But it became clear to me that I was also bringing something to the table and I thought I should be compensated for that. And certainly I felt that way with the three of us. People got to the point, and they would say this to me, "The show is not the same without the three of you there." I heard that a lot. I never felt that one of us was a dominant person on the show. I thought that show worked because all three of us were very much in sync. And I expected that we should be compensated for that.
O'DONNELL It became clear to me in the first year that Gayle was the much stronger partner on the show. But I asked for equal pay and will continue to ask for equal pay, if not more.
KING Oh, I did too after my second contract.
O'DONNELL Not only equal pay but pay commensurate to the work that was being done. And sometimes that should be more than what's equal. Let's look at actually what I contribute compared to what the male contributes and let's pay based on what you're worth.
KING Because the male should be making as much as we do. (Laughs.)
O'DONNELL Because I believe firmly that the 21st century is the century of women and we're going to get to the point where equal pay should not be the standard. It might be that we actually should be paid much more in some instances. And that's the lens, but we have to get to equal pay first.
KING Sometimes you have to bring it to their attention — "I'm kinda worth something here."
O'DONNELL You should never assume that people will pay you what you're worth, you have to tell them what you're worth.
Robin, you were named Diane Sawyer's co-host on GMA in 2005. Describe the internal discussions around that decision.
ROBERTS There was no discussion. The attention that the other two shows are getting because of the women, I think that's fantastic. When Diane and I did it, not much was said about it, and we took that as a compliment.
How has the industry changed for women?
ROBERTS I've been doing this morning show as an anchor since 2005; we now see two women prominently at the other two morning shows. Diane for a time was the evening anchor. We've had Katie Couric as an evening anchor and our friend Gwen Ifill at PBS, may she rest in peace. My sister Sally Ann just retired after 40 years in [local news]. And to see the old footage of her from the '70s, we've come a long way in what women are doing now in TV news.
GUTHRIE Women don't wear blazers five days a week anymore! (Laughs.) It was a uniform but not because anyone told you to do that. All you wanted to do was look like all the other news ladies.
KOTB Yes, I had a lemon yellow blazer, boom, with shoulder pads. When I first came to NBC — me and my blazers — they said, "A stylist is going to come to your apartment and look at your wardrobe." I was like, "OK." She literally went like this: "No, no, no, no, no, no."
GUTHRIE That happened to me too!
KOTB But minus the wardrobe, I didn't feel the woman thing when I was younger.
GUTHRIE I felt my bad hair was hindering me way more than my gender. I had two different news directors in two different cities take me to the local hair place and be like, "Please do something with this." It was so humiliating.
KOTB But the hair stuff, the clothes stuff, that's the stuff they criticized you for. Like, "What are you wearing, what's your hair doing?" They're not saying that to the guys.
Robin, when you started in sports, it was pretty exclusively male.
ROBERTS Yeah! (Laughs.) I left a trail of "interview rooms" because before I came along you went into the locker room [for interviews]. And because I was a woman and they wouldn't let me [in], they had to create interview rooms where they would take the players. I thought that my colleagues would all be angry, but they loved it. They didn't want to be in that locker room any more than I did. And it's really interesting because with all that's happened with women raising their hand and saying "Me too," I was racking my brain, and I don't have a quote/unquote "#MeToo moment." But yeah, being a woman in sports, a black woman, a black, gay woman, yeah, there was tough language and denied opportunities. This younger generation is saying to us — the women who said, "Well, I just did the work and put my head down" — we appreciate that and you helped a great deal. But we don't want it to be that way anymore, and we're not going to let it be that way anymore.
Was there a time starting out in sports where you were denied a beat, denied a promotion?
ROBERTS Sure! Could have been because I was young, could have been because I wasn't good enough, could have been because I was a woman. I remember saying to my parents early on one time, "I didn't get it because I'm a black woman." And my mom said, "Maybe you're not good enough yet, honey." You know, when your mom says that to you … (Laughs.) But it was really great advice. And she said it with love. But it made me think; I can't always have my back up and going, "Because I'm a woman, you don't think I can do it."
Can you still engage in the male-female, sometimes flirty on-air banter, or do you have to tiptoe around that now?
GUTHRIE We didn't get that memo. (Laughter.)
KOTB The guys who we have on our set are Carson [Daly] and Al [Roker] and Craig [Melvin], and their sense of humor is not that. Al's like your crazy uncle, Carson's your best guy friend. I hug Craig when I see him. We don't feel like there's a new set of rules that we cannot be ourselves.
GUTHRIE Plus we've all worked together for a while now. We're all married, we're all pretty boring and there's a presumption of good faith, you know? There are no creeps.
KING Well, listen, I thought we could engage in flirty banter because it was so redunculous, you know? When I said, "We're a menage a trois," nobody thought that [was real]. You know? And if I was saying, "Hey, I'm comin' over to your house, Charlie," nobody thought that. It was so absurd. To me it was clear it was a joke and nobody would take it seriously.
O'DONNELL We don't want to get to the point in our society where people can't make jokes.
KING I don't think [Charlie] ever felt uncomfortable, let's just say that. (Laughter.)
He never felt objectified?
KING Yes, yes. (Laughs.) But I agree with Norah, I don't want to get to the point where we can't joke with a colleague, you know? It was never vulgar, it was never inappropriate.
The #MeToo movement has focused people's attention on the retrograde gender roles that have existed for so long, and not just in TV news. Where do you think this discussion goes?
ROBERTS I think it's to be determined. When you see what we saw [on March 24 with the March for Our Lives], these aren't the same times. People are speaking up, whether you're a woman that's saying "#MeToo," or a man who is saying "#MeToo," or you're a kid saying "enough." So I hope we don't go back to business as usual. Being a little bit older, there was a part of me at the beginning going, OK, how long is this going to last? But I am an eternal optimist, and I think this time it's different.
O'DONNELL You have to see people like yourself in positions of power or strength in order to say, "But wait, I could be like that." And Lord, these 20-year-old women are the most impressive women I have ever met.
KING I call 'em Wakanda Nation moments. It's really important for women, minorities, to see people that look like them doing things that you go, "I want to be like that." And you can use your voice. Girls coming up today, I'm excited for them. They're not gonna take crap.
This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.