Matt Lauer is sent packing this week on another one of those round-the-world mystery jaunts for “Today,” the kind that has probably earned him enough frequent flier miles to get to the moon for free.
Some of his work during the past few weeks on stories closer to home — much closer — better illustrate his value to NBC News.
(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
In the midst of Don Imus’ career implosion over his remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, Lauer so adroitly handled an on-camera interview with his own boss at NBC News that it impressed a former competitor watching at home.
With his news organization again in the news a week later, Lauer and partner Meredith Vieira bluntly discussed NBC’s role in disseminating pictures sent by Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho and the reaction against that decision.
The departures of Katie Couric and Charles Gibson for evening anchor jobs last year left Lauer as the king of morning television. Although the transition to a new “Today” hasn’t been flawless, Lauer has assumed his role with quiet authority and skill. No one really comes close.
The Imus controversy was the nation’s biggest story for a week and it directly involved NBC News because MSNBC simulcast the radio star’s show. Lauer spoke to Imus and his chief critic, the Rev. Al Sharpton, together on the April 10 show, and for most TV hosts merely preventing a shouting match would have been an achievement. Lauer kept in firm control and got pointed questions in to both men.
To Imus, who still had his job at that point, he asked: “If you didn’t immediately understand how deplorable the comments were of last week, how can you be trusted to clean up your own act or censor yourself down the road in the future?”
He asked Sharpton, a minister, how the Biblical concept of forgiveness applied to Imus. “Can he only be forgiven,” he said, “if he’s unemployed?”
Two days later, he interviewed NBC News President Steve Capus about the decision to end the MSNBC simulcast. There was no friendly banter. Lauer pressed Capus about the timing of the firing, staying on him when the question was ducked. He forced Capus to respond to the idea that NBC was caving to pressure from advertisers and some of the loudest voices.
It was direct, sharp and to the point.
“When you put the boss on television, it typically sounds like you’re interviewing the boss,” said Ben Sherwood, former executive producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I think Matt treated it like he was interviewing a newsmaker. He showed the curiosity and toughness that he would with any newsmaker.”
Lauer’s “Today” interviews usually waste little motion, a necessity when segments have limited time. He can ask the difficult question without being showy, without drawing attention to himself.
“He is a very underrated interviewer,” said former NBC News President Neal Shapiro.
Time added the polish. Lauer has been “Today” co-host since January 1997, and there were some fingers crossed behind the scenes when he was given his first high-profile interview the next year, with then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the height of President Clinton’s sex scandal. That produced headlines when Clinton denounced the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get her husband.
The morning after NBC News released the photos sent by Cho, Lauer and Vieira signaled that the backlash against NBC was on, resisting impulses to duck or get defensive. They said family members of victims canceled a “Today” interview because NBC had aired the photos.
Lauer also publicly noted the “big differences of opinion” within NBC News about using them at all. (Lauer, who was not made available for an interview, agreed with the decision to release the material but believed “less is more,” a spokeswoman said.)
A decade at “Today” — through mornings where the day’s big story was about a horrific gun massacre or Britney Spears shaving her head — also taught him the importance of setting the right tone for his broadcast.
That’s a skill usually only notable in its absence. For instance, on the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, NBC’s Brian Williams identified it as a story that people would remember years from now where they were upon first hearing it. Tragic as it was, there was never a sense — then or since — that the story had reached that level. To a viewer, it felt like a false attempt to add emotion to a story already laden with it.
Lauer will rarely divert attention in that way.
“You can’t say a bad word about Matt Lauer,” said Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS’ competing “The Early Show.” “He’s a tremendous performer. He’s smart, he’s a hard worker, but this is not a one-person show.”
Friedman’s unsubtle reference is to another part of Lauer’s job — making a smooth transition from a decade-long partnership with Couric to one with Vieira — that isn’t fully done.
The “Today” show ratings for the first three months of 2007 were lower than any first quarter in 12 years, according to Nielsen Media Research. The reason there’s no full-scale panic is that no competitor is really nipping at NBC’s heels, unlike in 2005 when “Good Morning America” came close to eclipsing its rivals.
There’s no apparent single answer for the slump; NBC believes that more people are turning on computers for morning updates. The lack of sustained bad winter weather, usually a magnet for viewers, also kept people away.
Hoping to turn it around, Lauer has loaded his suitcase again.