In his new cover story for New York magazine, Joe Hagan offers the most in-depth look at the Today show ratings disaster that has created Matt Lauer's weeks-long attempt at image rehabilitation, and it's now clear that the defining moment that brought the morning show crashing down to Earth — the exit of Ann Curry — was something of a cross between the fourth circle of Hell and running with the Heathers in high school: Curry got pranked, she got her clothes made fun of, she was prevented from reaching out to Robin Roberts, and her legacy lives on as a punching bag for NBC to defend the man who couldn't share camera time with her anymore.
For the past several weeks, we've seen Lauer, Camp Lauer, and NBC executives trip over themselves trying to figure out how to talk to the media and spin the official history of Curry's demise as a refresh for Today and especially Lauer. Talk to the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz, and you can come away with a glossy, press release masquerading as an "exclusive." Don't talk to The New York Times's Brian Stelter, or you'll find out Lauer is basically Voldemort in the halls of NBC. Which brings us to New York's Hagan, who goes more than 6,500 words deep, with the official blessing of NBC... but also a blessed bit of honest analysis and reporting. On the surface, you can see Lauer and executives stick to the tracings of the NBC script so far — that Curry's exit wasn't his fault, that NBC executives made the decision, that Lauer was just caught in the crossfire. But Hagan's piece digs into the deeper reality that Lauer in some respects failed at the basics of his job, and that those failures slid past executives who were so quick to lower the axe on Curry. Here are some highlights that reveal the state of Today today:
The Today crew liked to make fun of Ann Curry. Even when Curry took a fake photoshoot a little too seriously, she got teased — and her only high-profile friend and comforter, just like for many in high school, was the kid who pooped his pants:
She was considered intensely earnest and somewhat fragile, despite her hard-news chops. In the past, Couric would sometimes tease her about her clothes, remarks that Curry took badly. When Lauer and Today producers tried to “punk” the rest of the cast one morning in 2011... Curry was infuriated with Lauer and retreated to her dressing room. Roker, her longtime friend, was sent to comfort her.
The Today show didn't let Ann Curry send a "get well" tweet to Robin Roberts. Social media guidelines at NBC are strange — you can't send your best wishes to your competition, even if she's suffering from a cancer-like blood disease:
When Robin Roberts left Good Morning America a month later to get treatment for MDS, Curry asked NBC if she could tweet a note of sympathy for the ABC co-host. NBC said no, afraid she was trying to aid the enemy.
Matt Lauer didn't get along with Ann Curry on camera... The $25 million man works four days a week to pretend he's interested in making salmon and updating spring wardrobes. And it became increasingly evident that he couldn't do that alongside his co-host. Hagan says that came through everywhere: "But, more important, Lauer looked awkward and unhappy next to her—a situation that Lauer himself had also diagnosed. He openly complained about her to NBC staffers and to [former executive producer Jim] Bell." The man paid millions not to pout was basically pouting.
...and America knew it. If Lauer were a designer on Project Runway, or any human at any normal human job, Tim Gunn or his supervisor would have told him to suck it up. America, according to internal NBC data, was telling him to suck it up. But NBC, it appears, was afraid to tell him. Hagan writes:
But internal research conducted by a company called SmithGeiger showed something different: When Lauer was onscreen with Curry, it was Lauer who became less appealing to viewers, not Curry. “He was looking aloof, a little bit holier-than-thou, and pompous,” says a former NBC executive who viewed the reports.
Matt Lauer could have been a martyr with a cyanide pill. Perhaps the most masterful storytelling — and certainly the most talked about tidbit — in the long read on the Today show is Hagan's tale of a Lauer exit that never materialized. Hagan explains that there were insurance plans that involved Ryan Seacrest and Lauer fleeing to ABC, except Lauer "came back" to NBC to selflessly "save" Today:
Lauer has said he remained to help shepherd Today through a tough period, because he cared about the show and the staff—but this act of selflessness was rewarded with a fairly hefty check.
Lauer says Curry’s name never came up in his contract talks. (Burke declined to comment.) But her fate was already sealed. From top to bottom, Burke, Lauer, Capus, and Bell had all agreed that Curry would be taken off the show, with Today rebuilt around Lauer.
And that brings us to Curry's exit. She apparently told executives ahead of time about her plans to go ahead with what became a teary goodbye message. Lauer apparently got word of Curry's plans and responded, well, like only Matt Lauer would respond:
So when am I taking my cyanide pill tomorrow?