Brian Stelter On NBC’s Response to ‘Top of the Morning,’ Negative Reviews

By Gail Shister Comment

Though the critics have skewered his first book, Brian Stelter chooses to see the coffee cup as half full.

“Honestly, I appreciate the feedback,” says Stelter, 27, author of Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, and a media reporter for the New York Times. (Full disclosure: Stelter founded TVNewser when he was a college student)

“I’m not making this up,” he continues. “I want to learn how to be a better writer and reporter. I do think normal readers come away really happy, really entertained.”

‘Normal readers’ probably don’t include a trio of power players, past and present, from NBC. ‘Morning’ paints a less than flattering portrait of ‘Today’ co-anchor Matt Lauer; his former boss, Jim Bell; and ex-NBC News president Steve Capus.

All were involved, to varying degrees, in the ham-handed – and excruciatingly public — ouster of Lauer’s co-anchor, Ann Curry, according to the book. Bell had dubbed it ‘Operation Bambi,’ not knowing, of course, that Curry would come out looking as innocent and victimized as the white-tailed fawn in his title.

Lauer is the clear villain of the piece, prompting Entertainment Weekly to accuse Stelter of having a ‘vendetta’ against the mega-millionaire anchor.

Stelter labels the accusation as ‘preposterous.’

“For one thing, he’s the best male morning host in history,” Stelter says. “I learned a lot from him through the process. He was always friendly to me when I was on the set [in New York] and in London for the Olympics, after Curry was removed.”

Still, Stelter acknowledges he has not spoken to Lauer — or Bell or Capus or Curry, for that matter – since the book hit the stands on Tuesday (April 23). In the wake of Curry’s departure, they all had declined to be interviewed for the book as well.

Not surprisingly, ‘Today’ was conspicuous by its absence from Stelter’s media blitz last week. He appeared on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘CBS This Morning’ and CNN’s morning show. His publicist had pitched ‘Today,’ Stelter says.

“I didn’t expect to get on,” he says. “I would have loved to come on and talk about the present and the future. I presume ‘Today’ didn’t want to relive the past.”

According to Stelter, he’s heard from about a dozen NBC sources, some of them ‘senior people,’ who said they were “thrilled” with his book. They must remain anonymous or they would lose their jobs, he explains.

Stelter’s heavy use of anonymous sources throughout ‘Top of the Morning’ was attacked by critics. He couldn’t have written the book any other way, he explains. “I trust that readers understand how this business works. Sources can’t put their names behind quotes because they’ll be fired.”

Stelter’s metaphor-heavy prose style, which could have given Dan Rather a run for his money on Election Night, also came under fire from critics. Says Stelter: “I wanted to have fun with the book. I wanted it to be entertaining. I’m sure I will learn, the same way I learned when I wrote for the paper [NYT].”

Three Times colleagues, in particular, advised Stelter, he says. From Bill Carter, it was “how to open each chapter with a scene.” From Andrew Ross Sorkin, “how to woo sources.” And from Jodi Kantor, “how to drop hints throughout the narrative about what’s coming.”

What’s not coming for Stelter, at least right away, is another book. (His first draft for Morning ran 150,000 words, which he wrote, in part, from 4 to 7 a.m. in the newsroom several days a week.)

Then again, one should never underestimate Stelter’s prodigious energy.

“Maybe I’m just young and naïve,” he says. “I really love this stuff. I think it helps.”