Commentary: Matt Lauer Gets a Failing Grade on Charlie Sheen’s HIV Interview


Let’s get this out of the way: Charlie Sheen is no angel.

But the 50-year-old actor, who has become directly associated with a mental meltdown from several years ago that brought “winning” into our lexicon, certainly deserved better than his toxic interview with Today‘s Matt Lauer this morning about his HIV diagnosis. In short, Lauer played into a good number of the stereotypes associated with those living with the virus, and his overall tone did not help with public stigma that suggests that those who contract HIV have done some sort of morally corrupt or unethical action to get the virus.

Lauer has always come off a bit smug to me throughout his years on television, and this interview was no different. In this case, Lauer built a salacious story about Sheen, focusing heavily on the actor’s admission that he paid “millions” in “shakedowns” to a number of individuals to keep his HIV status a secret.

Sheen and his doctor admit that he was suffering from bouts of depression, yet Lauer seemed to blame Sheen for much of his predicament. For example, Lauer asked Sheen about a sex worker who took pictures of Sheen’s anti-viral medications and threatened to sell the photos to a tabloid. As Sheen tries to explain his own ownership of the situation, Lauer cuts him off, stating, “These people kept coming over your house … yet you continued your behavior, you kept bringing these unsavory types to your house … Why did you keep making the same mistakes over and over?”

Lauer’s patronizing tone is the worst after he asks Sheen if he “knowingly or perhaps unknowingly” transmitted the virus to someone. When Sheen says that’s “impossible,” Lauer replies, “We’re going to talk to your doctor about that.” Lauer then focuses heavily on Sheen’s sexual encounters, and begins asking him a series of rather demeaning questions about his “risky behaviors.”

The interview segment with Sheen’s doctor was just as painful, as Lauer drilled him about his “cocktail” of anti-viral medication. At one point, Lauer asks Sheen, “You have never missed taking your medication?” as if he was a child not wanting to take his icky-tasting cough syrup. He follows up by saying, “A lot of people look and say, ‘Charlie, you should stop drinking.'” Again, this was overwhelmingly demeaning.

Part three focused heavily on Sheen’s disclosure of HIV to his previous sexual partners. Again, Lauer seems to suggest that Sheen was not honest about his status and his lifestyle. Lauer reads a series of tweets that viewers sent in during the interview, and concludes with a message that puts blame on Sheen’s behaviors as the reason why he contracted HIV. Yes, this might be true, but there was an overwhelming focus on blame, similar to the disastrous interview Candace Cameron Bure and Raven-Symoné gave on The View to Danny Pintauro. The outcry over the Pintauro interview was so immense, you’d think Lauer might have learned a thing or two from that before sitting down with Sheen, but it doesn’t appear so.

“What do you think the headlines will be after this interview?” Lauer asks Sheen at one point. Clearly, one of them should be that people need to learn how to interview someone with HIV. Lauer’s disappointing performance ranks him right along the likes of Candace and Raven.