In the April 21 New York Times Sunday Magazine, reporter Brian Stelter refashioned his book about the morning-show wars, Top of the Morning, into a juicy article detailing “Operation Bambi” — NBC’s plan to dump Ann Curry as host of Today before the 2012 Olympics. Go read it. It’s terrific. The problem with Morning is the other 275 pages.
The standard for a TV-industry tell-all is high, thanks to Stelter’s Times colleague Bill Carter, who owns the genre with two books about late-night-host feuds and an underrated tome about the 2004–05 TV season, which launched Desperate Housewives and Lost. In Carter’s books, you get the sense that the author was in the room when big decisions were made. In Stelter’s debut, you get the sense that he was staring at his smartphone. The author, founder of the blog TVNewser, often dissects media coverage of a story rather than the story itself. Twitter comments by viewers are given the same weight as on-the-record sources — of which there are precious few in the chapters about Today’s implosion. Matt Lauer and Curry refused to talk to Stelter after Curry’s “promotion” to “Today Anchor at Large.” But in a Pulitzer-worthy reporting coup, Stelter was able to snag his Times co-worker Nicholas Kristof, identified as a friend of Curry’s.
Stelter seems to have a vendetta against Lauer, dredging up accusations of extramarital affairs without providing additional evidence (he points out only that “some executives at NBC told me they believed the rumors”) and flogging him for not doing enough to save Curry’s job. Just as disturbing are Stelter’s Hemingwayesque sentences (in length, not substance), hackneyed analogies (Today is Coke! Good Morning America is Pepsi!), and antipathy for the medium he covers (“Wisely — not a word you will see all that often in a book about television…”). And has anyone who has picked up a book in the last century wanted to be called “gentle reader”?
The book (and prose) improves in Stelter’s chapters on GMA, where he was able to interview the on-air talent. (Poor Josh Elliott isn’t rewarded for his cooperation; Stelter quotes him and gleefully dings him in the same sentence.) There are some outrageous stories about booking guests, but few previously unreported bombshells or sharp insights. Robin Roberts’ brave battle against MDS, for example, has been documented better elsewhere—most notably on GMA. Stelter proposes that viewers are flocking to GMA because the anchors are inviting and likable. The same can’t be said for Top of the Morning. C