NBC's $25-million dollar man and gazer of Anne Hathaway crotch shots, Matt Lauer, is finally speaking up about Ann Curry's Today show ouster, conveniently telling Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast that he really didn't want to see Curry pushed out so unceremoniously by NBC executives. What, did you really think Lauer and NBC were going to take this rare interview opportunity with their most useful mouthpiece to look inside the world of the second-highest rated morning show and tell you that he hated his longtime co-host's guts and that everything was doomed?
Kurtz's story opens up with a scene of faux sword-falling, that amounts to Lauer, who had apparently been feeling bad about being cast as the bad guy (again and again) amidst Curry's ouster, doing his best Charlie Brown impersonation:
Lauer was feeling down. Week after week, he was getting pummeled by the press for the sinking fortunes of the Today show. The veteran host was being blamed for the messy departure of Ann Curry and the downward ratings spiral of what had been the iconic program in morning television.
“If you think the show’s better off without me, let me know, and I’ll get out of the way,” [Steve] Burke recalls Lauer saying.
Burke wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re the best person who’s ever done this,” he said. “We’ll get through this.”
Mind you, lines like "You're the best person who's ever done this" is the stuff of press releases... except press releases actually show restraint sometimes. After a decent bit of naval-gazing, Kurtz actually gets Lauer to sort of criticize NBC — the NBC star's version of criticizing NBC, of course, is skipping the kiss-and-make-up in favor of the we-messed-up-and-we're-sorry line, a half mea culpa if there ever was one:
“I don’t think the show and the network handled the transition well. You don’t have to be Einstein to know that,” says Lauer.
“It clearly did not help us. We were seen as a family, and we didn’t handle a family matter well.”
Lauer, in saving his bad-guy image, also gets an assist from some convenient unnamed sources, which may or may not be NBC falling on its own sword just to make Lauer look all nice again:
That is an understatement. Sources familiar with the process say that Lauer repeatedly tried to convince his bosses to slow things down and give Curry more time before she was pushed into a reduced role.
And then there was that odd meal NBC set up between Lauer and Curry after the fact, in which he apparently told her that he didn't like her very much:
Lauer and Curry had a candid talk over lunch at the Four Seasons. He acknowledged she hadn’t been his first choice for co-host, but said that was in the past. Curry said that both Lauer and the show would take a hit if she was thrown overboard, and he agreed. Lauer suggested that she try to get a meeting with Burke and resolve the situation. He also advised Curry, who didn’t employ an agent, to hire one quickly.
To be clear, Lauer and these unnamed sources want to establish that it was totally NBC's fault and that he tried everything in his power to mitigate the firing. Matt Lauer is a nice guy, America, and he wants his ratings back. It's another hard push on a narrative, which hasn't exactly been working, in which NBC has been trying to cast Lauer as the nice guy, rather than the one who pushed Curry over the edge: In September, they trotted out (now former) Today executive producer Jim Bell, who said "it was absolutely" his "call" to fire Curry, not Lauer's. And then — poof! — Bell was gone. In November, the network was scrubbing clean Lauer's reputation, warning us of vicious tweeters who hate Lauer — insisting that they are the vocal minority, but important enough for another Howie Kurtz "exclusive." In December came word of the make-up lunch.
Kurtz's "exclusive" today is basically the icing on that heavy-handed blame cake, with NBC taking the fall for Curry and making out Lauer to be a sweetheart with a conscience, all to fill in the cracks and crevices with a thin layer of optimism amid the Curry curse that hangs over Today and its ratings swoon at the hands of a resurgent Good Morning America. "In some ways being No. 2 in the ratings is a real shot in the arm, a kick in the pants ... It makes you hungrier ... I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a fire lit under your ass," Lauer said. Well, as long as you don't mind it, Mr. Lauer, you can be the nice underdog until your next big important interview.