If you happened to read the New York Times magazine excerpt of Brian Stelter’s book “Top of the Morning” — a dissection of the network morning shows and the battle for “We’re No. 1″ bragging rights — before wading into the book itself, the first thing you notice is what’s missing: The parenthetical denials.
In the magazine, after the New York Times reporter refers to “Operation Bambi” — then-“Today” show producer Jim Bell’s secret plan to oust co-anchor Ann Curry — there’s this disclaimer: (Bell denies using the term “Operation Bambi.”) Earlier, when Stelter cites a blooper reel Bell assembled of Curry’s gaffes and another attempt to call attention to her shortcomings, there’s this: (Bell denies both incidents.)
Sources lie, spin and obfuscate all the time, but it’s usually difficult to bluntly say so if all you have are anonymous sources to dispute their versions of events. What Stelter has done in crafting a breezy, gossipy account of the morning-show wars is to form a narrative that conveniently omits specific sourcing and seldom gives equal weight to on-the-record denials — an approach that, based on the half-dozen parenthetical asides in the magazine, apparently doesn’t completely adhere to the standards in force at his day job.
From a storytelling perspective, this is obviously helpful, and it allows Stelter to work in all sorts of juicy tidbits, like referencing tabloid reports about “Today” host Matt Lauer’s alleged marital infidelities. See, we’re not saying it’s true; we’re just saying it’s been reported, and that some people think it’s true.
In a broader sense, “Top of the Morning” struggles with the “Who cares?” problem that plagues many books about the media, or at least, who cares at this level of minutia. Sure, millions of people watch morning news programs, but listening to networks jockey over a margin of 12,000 viewers between two shows with a combined audience of nearly 10 million — which frankly amounts to a Nielsen rounding error — can begin to sound petty, even by TV standards.
“It’s over. We’re in second place,” a “Today” source announces with finality, which, in the book’s parlance, is tantamount to a large meteor hurtling toward the Rockefeller Center.
There are other semi-awkward aspects to “Top of the Morning,” beginning with the fact one of Stelter’s colleagues, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, functions as a sort-of surrogate for Curry, saying how badly his friend was mistreated by NBC News management. And as the Times review of the book noted, some of Stelter’s analogies and sentence constructions (“a growing warmth that spread through his broad bosom like the aftereffect of a double jigger of single-malt scotch”) can sound a little too much like an Imitation Hemingway contest.
That’s not to say “Top of the Morning” isn’t fun for those who cover the industry. Like Times colleague Bill Carter’s “Desperate Networks,” though, it probably doesn’t have much resonance beyond those with legitimate reason to think their name might appear in the index.
By the way, Stelter was interviewed Tuesday — the day of the book’s official release — on “Good Morning America,” which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite some snarking about its content and soft-news happy talk, the ABC program emerges as the book’s clear victor by ending “Today’s” ostentatious winning streak while “Top of the Morning” was being written. (ABC News’ Dan Harris drew the short straw, conducting the puffy taped interview.)
A spokeswoman for Grand Central Publishing, which is releasing the book, said there were currently no plans for Stelter to be featured on “Today,” which a spokeswoman for the NBC show confirmed. A freeze-out, perhaps, because “Today” comes off badly in the book, or simply the usual booking issues, with one program not wanting to take someone who was going to be featured on its rival? Either way, I’m sure even if there were ulterior motives, everyone involved would deny this.