The New York Times, on Monday, published the most stunning piece of meta-journalism since Janet Malcolm met Joe McGinniss. And it’s all about the newspaper’s former punching bag Matt Lauer. It seems that the “Today” anchor and the paper of record are putting the past behind them.
Lauer, you may recall, was the subject of much reporting by Brian Stelter, the paper’s former media reporter and now a CNN host. That reporting, which ended up becoming a book about the morning-TV wars, indicated in a New York Times Magazine cover story that Lauer was uncomfortable working with co-host Ann Curry:
During her first morning as co-host, on June 9, 2011, she made a joke about not wearing deodorant that made Lauer look genuinely embarrassed. [...] One day early in her tenure, according to a longtime staff member, Lauer told a production assistant, “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.” (Lauer, through a spokeswoman, denied saying this.)
Stelter also reported in that story that Lauer was aware of the plot to replace Curry and renewed his contract with the knowledge that doing so would be tantamount to Curry’s firing. (The sentence Lauer had been told, per Stelter’s anonymous source: “We need to sign you so we can do Ann.”)
Bill Carter, the paper’s seasoned media reporter, published Monday a take that would seem to slightly walk back Stelter’s reporting from last year on the story. (Neither Stelter nor Carter responded to emails requesting comment.) Lauer, here, is a man trying to recover his reputation after “presumed” misdeeds ended up in unnamed media outlets. To wit:
“Today” beat “G.M.A.” every week for a record 16 straight years before it collapsed two years ago under a rash of publicity over its removal of Ann Curry as co-host and the subsequent media flogging of Matt Lauer for his presumed role in her dismissal.
OK! Except that the “media flogging of Matt Lauer” was led by reporting in the Times, like this piece citing anonymous sources within NBC speaking to Lauer’s lack of connection to his audience. And the Times Magazine piece didn’t present Lauer’s role (even if a supporting role) in Curry’s dismissal as “presumed” but as fact.
Like Carter this week, Stelter last year wrote about “Today’s” attempts to rebrand itself, but without quoting Lauer speaking positively about the show’s fortunes. Per Stelter, there was ”continued speculation in the TV industry about the futures of Matt Lauer, whose reputation was spoiled when Ms. Curry tearfully signed off in June 2012.” This sure sounds like media flogging. Carter, instead, quotes Lauer: “You don’t take a selfie when you’re looking your worst. You take a selfie when you think you’re looking pretty good.”
This new story largely concerns itself with a rash of advertising taken out by NBC on behalf of “Today.” Fittingly for a business story about a new ad campaign, it presents the network’s new, positive message straightforwardly — until the very last paragraph, everyone quoted in Carter’s piece works for NBC — a striking contrast to Stelter’s aggressive — if “presumed” — reporting on intra-network decisions. Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairwoman of the NBCUniversal News Group, is quoted: ”I had many conversations with Matt. I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, Matt, but we need to just shut up and let something take the story off the front page.’”
She’s speaking metaphorically, it would seem, but the most prominent front page on which Lauer was featured was that of the New York Times.