How Matt Lauer Became the Leader of the Pack

 Ruven Afanador

It's war in the mornings as the "Today" host opens up about his new reported $25 million-a-year deal, a move that (most likely) keeps the NBC juggernaut on top, inspired a strange delivery by "GMA" and has the industry marveling over how one man alone has altered the landscape of TV news.

Lauer isn't the managing editor (a title that generally comes with the evening news job), but he actively helps steer the broadcast. Lauer admits that the tabloid turn of the media in general has been challenging, even though Today can be as guilty as any other news outlet (Today and MSNBC came under fire for an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson's personal physician Conrad Murray days before his manslaughter conviction that was part of a package deal with a U.K. production company). "Sometimes you feel like you're losing ground because other people are reporting this stuff," he says. But there are other stories easy to nix: an ogling piece about Lara Flynn Boyle's disastrous plastic surgery is a recent example. "This is not what we do. When it's something that absolutely strikes me as wrong, we kill it."

But mistakes still occur: A misleadingly edited Trayvon Martin 911 call on the March 27 broadcast of Today put NBC News on the defensive. The network apologized, then fired the producer responsible for editing the piece, which was reported by correspondent Ron Allen. "It's not acceptable," says Lauer. "It was sloppy, and it was wrong."

Lauer's hustle -- and likability  -- serves as a reminder of just how difficult it is to mint male morning hosts. ABC's Charlie Gibson exuded a certain sleepy avuncular charm; Charlie Rose has brought intellectual gravitas to a revamped CBS This Morning (quality, yes, but not exactly Mom-in-a-morning-rush bait). But of the rotating cast of Lauer stand-ins -- CNBC's Carl Quintanilla, MSNBC's Willie Geist, Meet the Press host David Gregory -- none emerged as a replacement. Brian Williams' memorably awkward appearances as a fill-in on the show a few years back brought into further relief Lauer's unique ability to thread the morning TV needle of everyman as hard-nosed anchor. "He always puts the audience at ease," says GMA's Roberts. "He can be a man's man, but what's so appealing is that you trust him. Also, he's not too handsome but handsome enough."

Adds her ABC News colleague Barbara Walters, who started her career as a Today researcher in 1961: "Matt is able to do the most serious interview and then talk to, say, Lindsay Lohan. He has that quality. Men like him; women do too."

"The intricacies of broadcasting aren’t just about doing a good interview and asking the right question," says Bell. "It’s the tone. It's knowing when to be serious, when to let your guard down and be a little silly, when to interact with somebody in the crowd." 

Lauer's skills and Q rating (70 percent of Americans 18 and older are familiar with Lauer, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc.) are such that he could command just about anything he dreams up.

Lauer, once deemed too lightweight, began his career pivot to heir apparent in 1996 with a series of big news stories while Today show news anchor: the TWA Flight 800 explosion off Long Island and the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics 10 days later. One year into Lauer's tenure as Today's co-host, his interview with then-first lady Hillary Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal put to rest questions about Lauer's hard-news chops.

It was Jan. 27, 1998, when Clinton was booked for a sit-down with Couric. But with the death of Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, three days earlier, the interview fell to Lauer.

"I remember vividly going over the questions with Matt," recalls Zucker. "We had TV trucks lined up outside to cover the story. MSNBC and CNBC were going to simulcast Today. This was without question the biggest interview of Matt Lauer's life."

Bill Clinton had issued his finger-wagging "I did not have sex with that woman" denial the night before. Hillary Clinton then infamously told Lauer that she and her husband were the targets of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

Says Zucker: "Matt did an incredible job with exactly the right tone and all the right questions. Nobody ever questioned Matt's ability after that."

Like his anchor star competitors, he's a persuasive and active booker, having landed notable interviews with Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, and Princes William and Harry on the 10th anniversary of their mother's death. He began courting George W. Bush for his first post-presidency sit-down the moment he announced he would write his memoir, even though the Oval Office interview with Bush on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 was considered particularly contentious (with Bush jabbing his finger at Lauer's chest during repeated questioning about black sites and waterboarding). "It's one of my favorite pictures," he says of a photo of himself and the president from that day. The two men are in the midst of an animated conversation. Says Lauer: "I know exactly what we were talking about. But I can't tell you."


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