WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE: Brian Stelter’s book “Top of the Morning” purports to be the definitive account of the troubles at the “Today” show and “Good Morning America” over the past two years as the two juggernauts fought to win the morning news ratings war. With such a high-profile book — Stelter is a New York Times reporter — promising to do for morning news what Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift” did for the late-night slot, it’s natural all the players would want to have their say, for posterity’s sake, anyway.
But while Stelter spoke with some 350 sources, according to his acknowledgments, the marquee stars, Matt Lauer and Ann Curry, declined to be interviewed on the record.
Stelter said that Lauer was never going to agree to an interview — until his troubles started mounting recently, he rarely did press — but he got to know Curry in researching the book and from frequent visits to the “Today” set. The two even had lunch last April. But after Curry was demoted, Stelter said, NBC forbade her from speaking to reporters.
Stelter said one of his jobs with the book, out Tuesday, is to offer readers a look at Curry’s state of mind during the whole ordeal. “I feel she deserves to have her story told,” he said. “I really wanted to get into her head, figure out how she felt.”
Presumably, Curry, eager to win in the court of public opinion, wanted to as well, but contractually barred from doing so, her only resort was to allow colleagues and friends to speak on her behalf.
Stelter said he wasn’t sure if Curry consented to have her friends speak out, though he assumed they must have gotten a nod from her in advance. They felt it was necessary to speak “because they felt she was wronged. I think they felt her side of the story had not been told, or at least not fairly,” Stelter said.
The most prominent, and only on-the-record, of Curry’s proxies is a colleague of Stelter’s at the Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof. His insight serves Curry well, burnishing her public profile as the good woman who has been done wrong.
In April 2011, before Curry had officially been anointed Meredith Viera’s successor, she welcomed the Kristofs for dinner at her home in Connecticut and debated taking the job. She argued that the show’s ratings were already starting to slip and she was concerned the more prominent role would cut into her time doing international reporting. “She didn’t want to be doing fewer of those pieces just because she was climbing one notch up the ladder,” Kristof told Stelter. She eventually came to her senses, of course, reasoning it would give her, in addition to a fatter paycheck, more editorial control.
When negotiations started for Curry to leave the show, she again reasoned it would allow her to produce stories on the poor. Kristof again helpfully pipes in the book: Curry saw “some advantages in leaving the cohost job and focusing on reporting,” he said. “At the same time, the way it was handled by NBC was unforgivable. They humiliated her.”
Stelter said it was crucial to include Kristof’s voice because he had a front-row seat to the drama. He and Curry aren’t just close personal friends — at one point, Stelter said, Kristof argued on Curry’s behalf to former NBC News president Steve Capus.
“I couldn’t not include him,” Stelter said. “He had a dim view of television until he got to know Ann Curry. I thought he had an interesting contribution.”
Kristof went beyond just speaking with Stelter. He also shared correspondence between himself and an anchor at a rival network who conveyed dismay over Curry’s treatment. Kristof’s last cameo comes toward the end of the book to clarify that while Curry has “no venom in her,” he felt compelled to speak for her because he was “enraged at NBC” for her demotion.
Kristof, through his assistant, declined to comment on the book because he hasn’t read it yet.