'Today' Boss on NBC's Reckoning and Interviewing "Unpredictable" Trump

THR Libby Leist_190528_THR25550 - THR - H 2019
Kyle Dorosz

Libby Leist — the "low drama" executive producer who assumed leadership of the morning show in 2018 post-Matt Lauer turmoil — also discusses 2020 plans.

Libby Leist assumed leadership of Today in January 2018 amid unprecedented turmoil at the show and NBC News overall. Matt Lauer had been fired. Hoda Kotb had taken his seat two weeks earlier. And Leist, previously the senior producer overseeing the show's 7 a.m. hour and the first woman to run the flagship 7-9 a.m. program, found herself guiding the news division's most important asset. (Today's first two hours bring in more than $400 million in annual ad revenue, and the show — with 4 million daily viewers, compared with 4.1 million for Good Morning America — has been No. 1 in the advertiser-coveted 25-to-54 demographic for 178 straight weeks.) But Leist, 40, was unfazed. "I'm a very low-drama person," says the Cornell graduate, who joined NBC News' Washington bureau as a desk assistant two months before Sept. 11, 2001. "I don't like to create drama. I don't like to work in drama. I just like to make decisions and move on."

She makes dozens of them a day, many on the fly — as when torrential thunderstorms upended a live hour with Savannah Guthrie and Tom Hanks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "I'd been working on this for months," she says. "It's like planning a wedding. Then someone says, 'Guess what? You're getting married in the basement, the priest has laryngitis, and the lights don't work.' "

Leist invited The Hollywood Reporter into her newish office to talk about covering Trump, growing up in a red region of New York State and what she learned during her time as Andrea Mitchell's producer.

You produced some of the town halls for the previous election. Are you conscious of trying to create moments that could go viral?

I don't think you're sitting there going, "I want to create a moment with Mayor Pete." That's not our job. With politics, you just have to get a plan together, get all of your topics in order and just go for it.

Ratings for all three morning news programs are down. Is it the migration of viewers to different platforms or something else?

There is so much diversification in what people can watch — so one thing I think a lot about now is how to distribute what we're doing on the broadcast [to other platforms, like the NBC News streaming service that launched May 29]. We do a lot of coordination with MSNBC, our social platforms, even NBC Entertainment, making sure they know about our interviews. I'm on the phone more.

And are you concerned?

There are still 4 million people that watch every day. But you would be crazy if you said, "Yeah, it's great!" (Laughs.) It's the industry trend. You still want to maintain your focus on the ratings. Our gap is the smallest it's been in seven years with [GMA], so that makes me happy.

NBC is far from the only media company that's had a reckoning. How has the culture changed?

I only know that I'm in a position where I'm a leader now, and so I try to take that responsibility seriously. I treat people with kindness and respect. And I have focused on that since coming in. That's how I operate; what's the scenario? Who are the best people to put in the jobs? And no drama.

What was it like starting your first news job right before 9/11?

They sent me into the basement, logging tape. I didn't even know what logging was. I remember saying, "What do I do here?" And they're just, "Write down the time when you see something happen." (Laughs.)

What's the craziest assignment you went on with Andrea?

It was 2006, and Israel and Lebanon were firing rockets at each other. We were on a diplomatic mission with Condi Rice to get a cease-fire. The State Department decided that Secretary Rice needed to fly to Lebanon. So as the press team, you go along for the ride. We took helicopters in because it was a dangerous situation. And we all got covered in hydraulic fluid from the chopper leaking.

And the most important lesson you learned from her?

Andrea had a very skillful way of never taking no for an answer. And I try to do that. There are a lot of people in this business that will say, "Nope, we can't do that live shot." Andrea would say, "I think you probably could if you thought about it this way."

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

We spend a lot of time focused on who fills every role because every single person's job matters. You've got to have the right people in those jobs with the right temperament so that it's a functional environment. I hear about control rooms that are off-the-chains crazy. I just can't imagine that. It's hard. Every day, you have to be up. And that's not necessarily human nature, but we all kind of like, hold hands and jump in together. (Laughs.) It's real survival mentality, you know?

You produced interviews with Trump during the 2016 campaign. He's obviously factually challenged. How do you deal with that?

The challenge of interviewing President Trump is very real. As a producer you prepare exactly how you would for a presidential interview. You know at least roughly where he's gone on different issues. Sometimes he'll flip. You just have to be ready for that dynamic. Savannah is really well prepared and studied and good at those. It's about making sure you know how to follow up when he takes it in a certain direction.

Do you talk with the anchors about pushing back on false statements?

[We] make sure it's buttoned up more than ever, because it is a little unpredictable. And we would love the opportunity to interview President Trump. It's been a while. He doesn't do anyone besides Fox, really.

You're from New Hartford, in upstate New York, where your family still lives. How does that inform your worldview?

I'm from a very red part of New York, and I think it's helpful to have that perspective in a media town. Coming from a place that's not New York City or Washington when you're making decisions about how to cover politics, it gets you out of the media world — which we all can get sucked into.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story appears in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.