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Top of the Morning: Book Review

Brian Stelter's gossipy account of the rise and fall of "Today" co-anchor Ann Curry flops.

Top of the Morning Book Cover - P 2013

A version of this story appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

New York Times reporter Brian Stelter promises to take readers “inside the cutthroat world of morning TV” through the rise and fall of Ann Curry in Top of the Morning, his new book about the rivalry between Today and Good Morning America.

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Curry inherited the Today co-anchor slot from Meredith Vieira in June 2011 only to be unceremoniously dumped for Savannah Guthrie in June 2012.

There also are detours about Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts’ struggle with cancer and the rise of MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Readers will feast on gossipy details ranging from Matt Lauer’s rumored affair with news reader Natalie Morales to the names of potential alternate hosts (Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, CNN’s Anderson Cooper) to executive producer Jim Bell dubbing the plan to fire Curry “Operation Bambi.”
 
Top of the Morning evokes a TV-world version of Bob Woodward's inside Washington books. Stelter is at his best when he lets the story carry itself, offering a fly-on-the-wall view of key moments (including the drama of Curry’s last day).
 
 
Still, his enthusiasm often gets the better of him, and the purple prose, strangely dated analogies (the Today-GMA rivalry is like 1971’s Ali-Frazier fight) and fondness For Capitalizing For Emphasis overwhelm the story.
 
Stelter conducted about 350 interviews, but many details and quotes have been reported in the Times and elsewhere, including by THR.
 
The book mostly skims the surface, never penetrating its characters’ inner motives. Major screen players are underdeveloped (Al Roker is nearly invisible) or generic (Bell is hard-charging). Curry is a fascinating enigma: vulnerable, fragile, never seemingly in control of her destiny. Guthrie is cast as a cheery newcomer on whom everyone has a crush.
 
Lauer hovers over it all, influencing everything (a great aside has him calling into the afternoon rundown to berate producers about running too many tabloid stories). His skill at deflecting responsibility is exemplified by his response to the decision to name Curry co-host: “Yes, but.”
 
Stelter depicts Lauer’s main goal to be to shift blame for Today’s ratings decline to others.
 
The book suffers in comparison to The Late Shift, Bill Carter’s classic account of the race to succeed Johnny Carson. Lauer and Curry seem bland in comparison to Jay Leno (who famously hid in a closet to spy on NBC executives) and his volatile manager Helen Kushnick.
 
Stelter struggles with the big picture, failing to weave many examples of morning-show sexism (Curry blames the NBC boys’ club for her fall, Stelter jokes the No. 1 rule of morning is protect the blond queen) into a coherent analysis. 
 
Equally disappointing is his inability to grapple with how the profound changes of the Internet and social media are reshaping viewers' relationships with the morning shows.
 
He flirts with this idea in detailing the rise of Morning Joe (the book's most intriguing section) though falls back on framing it simply as a personality story revolving around Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski
 
Near the end, Stelter quotes Pat Fili-Krushel, who became NBC News president in 2012: "People wake up with their smartphones; that's their alarm, so when you are presenting the Today show, we have to keep that in mind."
 
It's a pity Stelter's love of gossip gets in the way of grappling with that profound shift.
 
Top of the Morning feels like an MSG-laden meal at a Chinese restaurant: temporarily filling but ultimately unsatisfying.