Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer on the 'Today' show
Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer on the 'Today' show
Kirby Elliott

Savannah Guthrie Talks TV News in Trump Era

After the soap opera (and ratings slump) of Ann Curry's NBC morning-show exit, Guthrie heads to maternity leave in first place and with a new contract as she reveals her thoughts on the crazy campaign, a historic election night and being the target of sexist criticism (especially on social media).

On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 23, Savannah Guthrie, dressed in a black-and-red floral Givenchy jersey dress, sits next to co-host Matt Lauer behind the Today anchor desk. In her ninth month of pregnancy with her second child, a boy, she somberly introduces a segment from correspondent Kerry Sanders about the horrific school-bus crash two days earlier that killed five elementary-school children in Chattanooga, Tenn., and new revelations of complaints about the bus driver. As the segment plays, she looks down at her notes, and the heaviness of the story casts a pall over the set. The usual activity — producers scurrying hither and yon, guests whispering to each other — seems to cease. Then it's on to the non sequitur weirdness that is morning TV. Lauer and Guthrie are taking turns playing traffic cop during a segment with co-anchors Hoda Kotb, Al Roker and Tamron Hall and etiquette expert Thomas Farley, who is offering tips for surviving the holidays with the family post-election: no politics whatsoever at the dinner table, and all political talk should be confined to one room.

"How closely should you enforce?" queries Guthrie. "Should there be like a swear jar? Or a cattle prod?"

"An ejector seat," Lauer deadpans.

The strong chemistry between Guthrie and Lauer, as well as the enthusiastic ease with which she navigates the show's dizzying high/low subject shifts, has restored stability to NBC's $500 million franchise. Last year, Today regained the lead in the critical 25-to-54 demographic from ABC's Good Morning America (it's also No. 1 among younger viewers 18-to-49) and has bested GMA in the key demo for more than 15 consecutive months. Meanwhile, Guthrie has become the top choice to fill in for Lester Holt on Nightly News and also has put in strong performances at the helm of Meet the Press.

All of which comes at a perfect time for her. After her contract quietly was extended in early 2015, she signed a new long-term deal just before heading out on maternity leave Dec. 2. Lauer remains the A anchor; he's been on the show 20 years and recently signed on through 2018. But the gulf between their compensation packages — he is said to earn more than $20 million annually — has likely narrowed. Andrew Lack, who was named chairman of NBC News and MSNBC in 2015, won't comment on contract negotiations, but he acknowledges how "important" Guthrie is at Today.

For now, Guthrie, who turns 45 on Dec. 27, seems tightly focused on the present, exhibiting none of the narcissism that afflicts many in the industry. "I'm far more motivated by a fear of failure than I am by a desire to succeed, which sounds weird," she admits. "I don't know where it comes from. I'll have to talk to a psychotherapist about that."

At a time when the public's estimation of the mainstream media has hit a nadir and Donald Trump has made media-bashing a blood sport, Guthrie has steadfastly reported on the fray without being engulfed by it — unlike many of her news peers. "There are plenty of people who think the media created Trump, and there are plenty of people who think the media never gave Trump a shot," she notes. "The only thing that seems to be unifying everyone is their mutual hatred of the media."

But as the media's confusion and disarray has intensified in the election's aftermath, Guthrie has stayed the course. Which is an accomplishment considering Today itself was caught up in the campaign's most dramatic turn — the 2005 "grab 'em by the pussy" hot-mic conversation between Trump and Billy Bush. When management initially seemed poised to keep Bush as host of the show's 9 a.m. hour, female staffers revolted, and on Oct. 17, 10 days after the tape surfaced, Bush was officially gone.

By all accounts, Guthrie's only direct involvement with the episode came Oct. 10, when she informed Today viewers that Bush had been suspended. Pressed about it now, she allows that it was uncomfortable. "I don't think anyone who covers the news is ever happy to be in the news," she says. She won't go any further than that. When I ask if she can keep an open mind about Trump given all that we've learned about his attitudes toward women, she politely shuts me down.

"That just gets into an area that I don't feel comfortable saying much about because it veers into personal opinions I may have about a political figure."

But she does admit that for a newswoman, the criticism — especially on social media — can most certainly veer into sexism.

"There is often a different tenor to the criticism. Everybody gets 'You're biased.' But you may also get 'Why do you roll your eyes and make that face? Why does your voice sound so shrill? Why are you such a B?' Honestly, I'm interested in fair criticism. I'm not perfect. I try really hard to stay neutral. But often that's not what you're finding on social media. You're finding people who are very opinionated and detect bias in anyone who does not share that opinion."

When I ask Lack the same question, he answers, "I think that's [her] job, to detach [herself] on a personal level from what he said."

Guthrie's equanimity and poise might be exactly what Today needs in the era of Trump. She was not among those in attendance at Trump Tower on Nov. 21 when the president-elect summoned TV news anchors and executives for an off-the-record "reset" that turned into a set piece for Trump's Lugenpresse-ranting base. But like most journalists, she has had her run-ins with him. She characterized his "appreciate the congrats" tweets for predicting the horrific nightclub shooting in Orlando last summer as "unseemly" and asked him, incredulously, "Literally everyone predicts there will be another terrorist attack. Why are you giving yourself credit for something that everyone knows will happen, sadly?"

Trump claimed that her assertion was "completely false."

Says Lack: "One of the things I really do love about Savannah is she's game. She's up for the question, and damn it, give me an answer. I admire that about her. She's got a very good bullshit barometer."

•••

In June 2012, when Guthrie was promoted, Today was in serious turmoil. Tension between Lauer and co-host Ann Curry had led to Curry's messy ouster, and the show had been eclipsed in the ratings by GMA. It was a huge break for Guthrie, but it was complicated. "I mean, we used to get ready together every day," she says of Curry. "One of the things I was proud of was that we never made it about each other."

Guthrie and Lauer share a genuine and mutual respect. "I had no doubt at all that we would get along well and have a good on-air chemistry," says Lauer. "I just tried not to mess it up."

Before arriving at Today, Guthrie took the long road through TV's minor leagues, starting at a station in Butte, Mont., that closed on her 10th day there. When her career later hit a lull in Tucson, Ariz., she was inspired to apply to law school by watching the Simpson and Menendez brothers trials on Court TV. She got her degree from Georgetown in 2002 and received the highest score on the Arizona Bar Exam that year.

After working as a litigator at a white-shoe D.C. firm, Guthrie soon was drawn back into television, working for four years at Court TV before joining NBC News in 2007. Her big break came when she was sent to Wasilla, Alaska, to cover the outrageous new political phenomenon that was Sarah Palin, and she rode that into a highly coveted post-election assignment as NBC's White House correspondent, joining Chuck Todd. The two would become close friends, working 12-hour days in the cramped confines of the White House press offices. "A 15-by-8 cell," as Todd puts it. "A horror," is Guthrie's phrase for it.

"Look, one of two things happens when you're put together like that," adds Todd. "You either become best friends for life or mortal enemies for life. Savannah and I didn't believe the other was trying to thwart them."

It was a tough three years for her. "There's just so much news and information around the White House and Washington that you never can feel that you know it all," she says. "I always felt like I was cramming for exams. I loved it and I hated it at the same time."

Todd and Guthrie still lean on each other. "We talk each other off the ledge," says Todd. They also share a sad commonality, having lost their fathers as 16-year-olds. Guthrie's father, Charles Guthrie, an engineer specializing in mining, had a fatal heart attack while in Mexico on a scouting trip. Guthrie's sister, Annie, was 18 at the time; her brother, Camron — now a pilot with the Air National Guard — was 23. "When you're 16, you think you're so grown up," she reflects. "But the first thing I thought was, 'We still need him.' "

Her mom, Nancy, who has been featured on Today (demonstrating her favorite fried-chicken recipe; talking about the birth of Savannah's daughter, Vale, in August 2014), became her rock. She went back to work, getting a job in PR at the University of Arizona so Savannah and Annie could attend tuition-free. A dorm wasn't included in the benefit, so they lived at home.

Guthrie's personal life also suffered while she was working the White House beat. She divorced her first husband, BBC News presenter Mark Orchard, then began dating Michael Feldman, a political consultant who worked on Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. They married in March 2014, four months after they found out Guthrie was pregnant. She was 42. When I ask if she delayed having children for her career, she laughs. "I didn't have my act together," she says. "I was doing the best I could in my personal life, and my professional life was going better. So you know, you just keep doing the thing that works."

And then she tears up. "I think that's why I feel such an acute level of gratitude about getting to have a baby. Because I know how late it is in the game, you know? I'm a person of faith. It feels like the greatest embrace from God that I can imagine, to get to have a baby. And to get to have a second is just beyond."

Guthrie lives with her family in Tribeca and keeps a hectic schedule. (Feldman, whose Glover Park Group consultancy has offices in New York and D.C., spends most of his time in New York.) She took the red eye back from San Francisco after a Sept. 19 interview with Priscilla Chan, the wife of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, and came straight to the Today set, offering a tick-tock of the frantic dash via Twitter. The workload is tough, but the morning TV schedule, she notes, is actually not bad for work-life balance, "if you don't mind getting up in the middle of the night," she says. "On a good day, I'm home by noon and I get my whole day with [Vale]. So some days are like 20 hours and some are a nice eight-hour day that I would have dreamed of as a White House correspondent."

•••

Guthrie spies me outside Studio 1A; it is the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving. She looks at me, notepad in hand, and rolls her eyes. "I have nothing for you," she laughs. We have been meeting like this since July, when I started trailing her. We went to the White House together, where she interviewed President Barack Obama one day before he was to deliver a fiery speech at the Democratic convention. Then we went back to Philadelphia, where Guthrie was anchoring NBC's coverage along with Holt and Todd.

She turns to the side and points to her belly. "Look at this!"

Three weeks ago, with more than a month to go, she had an ultrasound; the doctor said the baby already weighed 7 pounds. "Seven pounds! I am giving birth to a toddler," she says. And then she hustles outside to the plaza where an enormous table is set up for a Thanksgiving feast prepared by 30 celebrity chefs including Daniel Boulud, Giada De Laurentiis and Martha Stewart. It's the final segment of the show. Afterward, Guthrie lingers as fans ask for selfies. These encounters are common. Last month, as we were walking across the street from Studio 1A to her office at NBC headquarters, a blond woman introduced herself as Jamie, telling Guthrie she also is from Arizona. "I think you're wonderful and authentic and beautiful," she said. In Philadelphia at the convention, an older woman approached us at the train station: "Thank you for being so intelligent."

"This job is so personal for everybody. It's not a normal, 'I'm going to go read five minutes of news and wrap it up,' " Guthrie says. "It calls for every part of you."

This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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