Don Nash had just gotten back from a vacation in the Bahamas when his phone rang at 3 o’clock Friday morning. By 4:30, the executive producer of the Today show was at 30 Rock, and by 6 a.m. the show was on the air, broadcasting live reports from the ongoing manhunt in Boston.
Throughout the rest of the morning, NBC provided steady, fact-based coverage of a hyperactive event, cementing a week in which the network was consistently right about events on the ground even as other networks and news outlets seemed to report the latest rumor to pop up on Twitter. The performance could spark a turnaround after what has been a difficult stretch for the Today show and, by extension, NBC.
“This is a story with a lot of moving parts, and in the age of social media there is a lot of reporting coming from a lot of different sources, and I think we are just being extra careful,” Nash said. “If that means we are not going to be first sometimes, that is OK. We would rather be right and last than be first and wrong.”
A large part of the strength of the early morning for the network Friday was Savannah Guthrie, who logged seven hours in the anchor’s chair while co-host Matt Lauer was in Texas reporting on the fertilizer explosion there and while waiting for Brian Williams to begin his afternoon and evening shift. Nash said Friday was the first time that Guthrie had been on the air solo for a breaking news story like this one, and he called it a “turning point” for her.
“She’s got amazing stamina, and she is amazing at doing reporting like this. I think we are all just thrilled with her coverage,” he said. “I think this is a big moment for Savannah Guthrie…she stayed on air for seven hours, mostly by herself, without missing a beat. She was thoughtful, she was transparent, she was honest, she went with the flow.”
Guthrie was handpicked by Lauer after his former cohost Ann Curry was pushed out. The show succeeds best, according to television analyst Andrew Tyndall, when it has two hosts of equal charisma.
“She needs to establish herself as not just Matt Lauer’s sidekick,” he said, a task she took a long step toward completing during the coverage of the manhunt.
It was difficult not to notice that Lauer looked visibly uncomfortable being in Texas, far from the main event. He had gone there Thursday when it looked as if the explosion was going to dominate the week.
It was an unfortunate bit of timing. Nash said he spoke to Lauer before and after the show to explain that he would not get a lot of airtime.
If Lauer is frustrated, “He is not expressing it,” Nash said. “He always wants to be covering a big story, so sure. But he understands the way it works sometimes.”
The other star for the network this week has been Pete Williams, who has emerged as one of the most trusted names in television news, especially after he refused to repeat the claim the FBI had a suspect in custody. Other outlets, notably CNN and the Associated Press, cited their own law-enforcement sources as saying that was the case, an error that led to a rebuke by the FBI.
Williams “really is the best,” said Nash, adding that it had been “frustrating” when it seemed as if competitors had the jump on a juicy scoop. “He is just a very thorough reporter and he makes sure we get things right before we put them on the air and he keeps us honest,” he added.
“The real star of everything is Pete Williams,” said Tyndall. It looks like a reputation-defining moment for him and the reason why is that he has been absolutely firm about refusing to speculate and saying he doesn’t know things when he doesn’t know them. And that has been his brand. By refusing to say stuff he doesn’t know he is a making a promise to his viewers that you can bank on it.”
Nash, meanwhile, could be forgiven for wondering if it wouldn’t have been better just to stay in the Bahamas.
“I am completely exhausted, to be honest with you.”