All the while, Brian Stelter, the Times reporter, was documenting the Today show meltdown. Lauer refused to give Stelter an interview, believing he was working hand in glove with Ben Sherwood to tear him down in the press (an impression that Stelter vehemently denies). And indeed, Sherwood was fanning bad news about Lauer.
When I bring up the press about him, Lauer grows agitated. “There was a piling on,” he says. “Fair, untrue, unfair, it didn’t matter, there was a wave of negativity.
“When the media covers something, it’s important to do basic homework. You can’t just repeat something over and over again until it sounds true. It’s not fair. You know how much trouble we would be in if we did that? If we repeated what one person told us over and over like it was a basic fact? We would be done.”
“It’s not just the New York Post,” adds Roker. “It’s everyone.”
“The show was No. 1 for so long that that story may have gotten a little old,” muses Nash. “So when they see an opportunity to tell a different story, everybody seizes on it. It’s hard to always control the narrative.”
But Lauer and the Today show found themselves in a bind: Curry refused to help them repair the damage, and it would be suicidal for Lauer to blame Curry for what was befalling him. Curry had morphed into a kind of martyr, and her defenders say she did nothing to harm NBC.
“I think it’s unfair to blame Ann for any of the problems that she had,” says Nicholas Kristof, the Times columnist and a close friend of Curry’s. “They were incredibly lucky to have stabbed in the back somebody who wasn’t in the least vindictive and had the interest of the Today show at heart even after they treated her so wretchedly.”
At one point, I ask the cast why Curry never helped repair the damage.
“You’d have to ask her that,” says Roker.
Did Lauer ever try talking to Curry about fixing the perception that her ouster was his fault?
“No, I have not ever had that conversation,” he said.
Because I’m concentrating on doing the show,” Lauer says, “not concentrating on spinning the damage and trying to end the negativity on a daily basis.”
When I evince skepticism, Lauer says, “You’re rolling your eyes like you don’t believe us, but that’s just not a conversation we’re having.”
But the answer is obvious: Matt Lauer was helpless to convince her otherwise.
The Wounds Time Heals
There’s talk of a live sloth on the set. I hear Martha Stewart declare, “Herring juice! Yum!” On a cool morning in March, the control-room chatter at the Today show rises to a crescendo at 7 a.m., like a ship taking off, as executive producer Don Nash stands before a bank of screens, hands on hips, like Captain Kirk navigating the Enterprise. Another producer sees Stewart in one of the screens and declares: “She looks 100 years old!”
In the early-morning hours, starting a little after four, Lauer and Guthrie are briefed on stories in their dressing rooms and emerge before seven to prerecord the opening. On this day, the producers feature two segments with Martha Stewart, both handled by Lauer. The first is about her legal battle with Macy’s over distribution of her housewares, the other a meat-loaf-cooking segment. Lauer’s talent is telegraphing a pleasing, likable gravitas, and in his Stewart interview, he strikes his signature pose: He leans on his right elbow, legs crossed and swiveled left, reading glasses in right hand, pen in left, while he poses questions with a tone of tactful skepticism, his eyebrows cocked in expectation. Then he switches the pen to the other hand, dons his glasses, and reads from notes as if from a stone tablet of inescapable truth, almost sorry he has to go there. Then glasses off, eyebrows up.
But the interview isn’t as tough as it appears. The questions he asks are the ones Stewart was prepared for, and both Lauer and Stewart benefit from the appearance of a sharp exchange. Fifteen minutes later, Lauer is asking Stewart whether overmixing the hamburger and the bread crumbs might make the meat loaf too dense. This isn’t his first meat-loaf session.
For NBC, Lauer’s talent is worth $25 million a year. Or at least it used to be. Now the bond between the star and his audience is damaged. “The guy is a legendary morning-show anchor,” says Nash. “He’s the Johnny Carson of morning TV. There’s nobody better than him. That’s why it’s so hard to read all the negative press.”
Last fall, Today producers used a research firm called Sterling to help analyze how viewers felt about the show. The producers flew to Florida to hang out in viewers’ living rooms, identifying themselves as researchers. A woman named Adrianna, for instance, thought the interviews went on too long, but she liked the weatherman. “People told us, ‘I love that Al Roker,’ ” says Wallace. “So they’re getting more Al Roker. It’s not an anti-Matt thing at all.”