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An Interview With
Matt Lauer

August 31, 2007

 

 

"The only rules are rules of decorum, in that you don't abuse someone knowingly, you don't humiliate someone knowingly, and you try to be as fair as humanly possible." -Matt Lauer

 

Matt Lauer has worked in television since 1979. From 1980-1986 he was the host of PM Magazine. In the 1990's he worked a variety of news assignments for NBC. Since January of 1997, Matt Lauer has been the co-anchor of NBC's Today Show. During the beginning stages of the war in Iraq, Matt broadcasted live from Quatar, where Americans soldiers prepared for the war. Since 1998, Matt has broadcasted from international locations duing the annual Today Show special, Where in the World is Matt Lauer? Some of Matt's more notable interviews have been with:

•  President George W. Bush - During the five year anniversary of September 11 th
•  First Lady Hillary Clinton- 1998 Interview
•  Tom Cruise- In 2005, topics including scientology, psychiatry, and the use of anti-depressant medication
•  Vice President Al Gore- Decision 2000
•  Members of Flight 63- The target of the "shoebomber"
•  Amber Frye and Ann Bird- During the Scott Peterson investigation
•  Yeslan Bin Laden- The half-brother of Osama Bin Laden

His 2005 interview with Tom Cruise and his 2006 interview with President Bush were somewhat heated. We discussed these interviews and other issues from his office at the NBC studios in New York.

 

 

Spencer:

To commemorate the five year anniversary of September 11 th you interviewed President Bush in what appeared to be a very tense interview. Many feel the President was uncomfortable answering some of your questions relating to the military's use of torture. Why was he so uncomfortable and were you surprised with his responses?

Matt Lauer:

Clearly it's a very difficult subject, there's no question about it. There are very two distinct sides to this argument. One side is that you use whatever means possible to extract information from someone if that information can save a large number of American lives. In particular, we were questioning him about Khalid Mohammed and the revelation that he had been interrogated using alternative means at a secret CIA site somewhere. So I was just pressing him on the fact that the Red Cross had said that these secret sites are illegal and that Amnesty International had talked about these methods and tactics being against the Constitution

So clearly it's an emotional debate. What I think he tried to express in that exchange was that his job is to protect the American people. And what I was trying to get out of him was how much knowledge did he have of the specific techniques that were used and how did he feel about the use of those techniques in terms of serving a particular end. So it was a tense interview, there's no question about it. Anytime you interview the President of the United States it's important. But, when you're standing in the Oval Office in front of the President's desk and you're in almost a finger pointing war with him and he's jabbing you in the chest a little bit, it clearly got a lot of people's attention.

Having said that, I admired his passion about the subject. He was not at all angry with me after the interview. As a matter of fact we talked for quite a while and he appreciated the tough questions. So there was no animosity after the exchange. It was just, in my opinion, good television. It was a good exchange and I think the viewers learned something about the President in it.

Spencer:

Well that's my next question, what message do you think the American public should take away from that interview?

Matt Lauer:

That we're living in very trying times and that the President of the United States is perhaps feeling the pressure more than anyone else. It's a very difficult and demanding job normally, but under these circumstances with terrorism being such a major threat to this country after 9/11 there is a lot of pressure on the Commander in Chief to do what he has to do to protect these people. And at the time he was under a lot of fire for a lot of things. I mean it was not an easy time in his presidency to be doing that interview and I just appreciated the frankness of his answers. I think if the viewers got any window on the President, it was just that he is a man under extreme pressure.

Spencer:

Many believe your interview with Tom Cruise also was challenging. At one point during the interview he said to you, "I think you should be a little bit more responsible."

Matt Lauer:

Right.

Spencer:

He said this in reference to his opinion that you did not know enough about psychiatry. What went through your mind?

Matt Lauer:

Well I think at that point it was getting a little personal. That subject in the interview started off in very much a general discussion of the issue. And the issue was his opposition to antidepressants and I was giving him some examples of where I thought they had worked. And also it got a little personal. A little Matt, Matt, Matt and you're glib and all this stuff.

And when he said I wasn't being responsible I have to say the street fighter in me took a little offense to it, but the journalist in me realized it was a challenge in me to pick the right tone at that moment. I mean there are certain times when you go at someone with both barrels and there are other times when maybe you just let them either sink or swim on their own. So at that point I think I made a decision to keep the conversation going and let our viewers draw their conclusion on what he was saying based on his words, not mine.

Spencer:

You weren't going to try to..

Matt Lauer:

I wasn't going to try to match his level of emotion. He made a blanket statement that there were absolutely no circumstances in which antidepressant drugs were a good thing and helped people. I was trying to tell him that I have people in my life that I know that he doesn't know who I've watched go from not being able to get out of bed in the morning to becoming productive citizens based on the right combination of the medication. Not to say there aren't abuses of the medication and that it isn't over prescribed, because I believe it is. But all I was trying to say is why can't you open your eyes to the possibility that these medications do help some people. He didn't seem willing.

Spencer:

It's very hard to say they don't help anybody.

Matt Lauer:

He didn't seem to want to entertain that thought.

Spencer:

When you conduct an interview where do you draw the line on what questions you ask or don't ask? What are your rules?

Matt Lauer:

I don't have rules. I think any question that advances the story if fair game. I don't go out of my way to hurt someone. Maybe not a rule, although a guideline is there must be a level of respect for the person you're interviewing. For the very basic reason that you have invited that person on your program, that person has accepted the invitation. And as a result they are your guest and that's what we call them, we call them our guests. Well you treat your guests a certain way if you're a proper host. So the only rules are rules of decorum in that you don't abuse someone knowingly, you don't humiliate someone knowingly, and you try to be as fair as humanly possible. I think if you can live by those three guidelines then probably both people at the end of the interview are going to walk away feeling they got a fair shot.

Spencer:

Recently ABC correspondent George Stephanopoulos asked a difficult question to the Republican candidates for president. He asked, "What is the defining mistake in your life and why?" Rudy Giuliani did not like that question. Was this out of line and do you think that question that highlights someone's mistakes are acceptable or fair game?

Matt Lauer:

Absolutely acceptable, absolutely fair game. Rudy Giuliani could have chosen any mistake he wanted to. I think he felt it was pointing to a certain topic, but we all make mistakes in our lives. I think the easier way or the better way for Mayor Giuliani to have answered that question was to simply say I've made a number of mistakes, I don't want to go into one, but I can tell you that my goal is always to learn from my mistakes. So, is it an unfair question, gosh not at all. I wouldn't mind if you asked me the question. I would ask the question to another presidential candidate. We learn about our politicians and our leaders based on the lessons they learn in their lives so why isn't it fair game to ask what caused them to learn those lessons?

Spencer:

What was your most memorable interview?

Matt Lauer:

You know we do so many interviews that it's hard to pick one out. You mentioned a couple that certainly were highlights, the President on the anniversary of 9/11 simply because of the heat of the exchange. Tom Cruise simply because it's one people talked about for so long. There was an interview years and years ago with Hillary Clinton that got an enormous amount of coverage during the very early stages of the Monica Lewinsky coverage where she went out and said those words about a vast right wing conspiracy. But I have to be completely honest with you, doing live television, for the most part, you prepare for an interview, it's front and center in your mind, you do the interview and out the back it goes because you've got the next interview to prepare for. So you can't dwell on interviews for that long.

As a result I often don't have as clear of a memory of the interviews I've done as some outsiders, some viewers I have. So it's a hard dynamic.

Spencer:

Barbara Walters did a special 30 Years, 30 Mistakes . Is there an interview that you would do over?

Matt Lauer:

Sure there are a couple of interviews. There was an interview, I can't remember his name right now, but he was the governor of Mississippi and it was a particularly difficult interview I was doing about a judge who wanted to have the Ten Commandments in his courtroom that I don't think I handled particularly well. There was an interview I did about a polygamist in Utah where I think I painted with too broad a brush in terms of looking at the Mormon religion, which I would do over. There are not entire interviews I would do over, but there are statements you make inside an interview that on hindsight you think I could have handled that more delicately or more diplomatically. But for the most part, you know what, we are who we are. I'm not an actor out there. I'm trying to be myself so certain situations arise in interviews where you have to react in a split second, spontaneously.

Even if you weren't on TV, if you were walking down the street, if you're at a cocktail party, if you're at a family reunion or Thanksgiving, there are moments in all of those occasions where you think, I could have said that better. Or I wish I had said this and not that or I wish I hadn't answered that question or asked that question. So yes, you second guess yourself, but the longer you do this job you learn to not dwell on second guessing.

Spencer:

Because it's live and it happens every day.

Matt Lauer:

You just go on. And moments that seem awkward to me or someone who does this kind of job generally, if they seem like they last an eternity to me, they go by in a split second to the audience.

Spencer:

Whether it was flying high over Austria, bobsledding with Al, or broadcasting live from the inside of a Boeing jet engine, you have done more than a few stunts on camera. What has been your most memorable moment while hosting the Today Show?

Matt Lauer:

Wow, that's a good question. In terms of stunts the more outrageous things we've done in terms of being memorable, you know flying onto and taking off from an aircraft carrier on an F14 was pretty amazing. It's an experience that I don't know whether I should tell people they should or shouldn't have because it will scare the daylights out of you. That was pretty intense. I think that hang gliding or paragliding over the Swiss Alps was pretty incredible. In Innisbrook, the little zip line thing I did, hanging out over the city, that was pretty memorable. I still have chafing marks from that.

One of the things about the show though, to be quite honest with you, is it gives us an opportunity to have so many experiences, such a wide range of experiences from the very serious, you know, whether you consider it an honor, a privilege or a disaster to have to have been broadcasting on 9/11 live as the story was unfolding. Everything from that to traveling the world to meeting all the people I've grown to admire over the years to having a chance to interview all the musicians I grew up listening to and idolizing from Clapton and the Rolling Stones. There are a lot of occasions during the time of doing this show you have to pinch yourself and say boy am I really getting a chance to do this?

Spencer:

Former President Ronald Regan appeared on Larry King Live in 1990. He was asked if a black or a woman would ever be president. He answered, "I don't know if it will be in my lifetime. I hope so, but I think both will happen." Seventeen years later, is America ready?

Matt Lauer:

Oh I think America is more than ready. I think it's just a question of having the right candidate come at the right time. I think we're getting very close to people of both parties thinking they may have found that. The Democrats certainly think they may have found a right woman and a right African-American. It hasn't been as quick in coming in the Republican Party, but I think America is absolutely ready. I won't make that same prediction that President Regan made that it will happen in my lifetime, I think it will happen in the very near future.

Spencer:

Do you feel journalists need to be impartial? If the public respects you and your opinion, why shouldn't they know how you feel?

Matt Lauer:

Because I interview people from the broad range of the political spectrum and it's very, very important that I remain impartial. Impartial in terms of the way I ask questions and the kind of questions I ask. If anybody watches the show over a long enough period of time they will get a glimpse into my belief system. I mean that's unavoidable. Because as I said to you before we're not actors, we're actually ourselves on the air. They are going to become times during the course of them getting to know me and me saying things on the air either about my family or my upbringing or what I plan for the future or how I feel about a particular person. Glimpses of your opinions do sneak into the show, but when you're conducting an interview you always have to keep in mind that you are suppose to stay in the middle. Your job is not to express your opinion, but to illicit opinions from your guests.

Spencer:

You are supposed to moderate.

Matt Lauer:

You're a traffic cop. You're absolutely a conduit for other people's opinions at that point and especially on controversial subjects and political subjects. That's not the time to express your opinion. There are plenty of jobs you can do that in. There are lots of jobs, you know, some of these cable shows where that's all they do. There are radio shows, Rush Limbaugh, that's what he does. But my job on the Today Show, my job as a journalist, no, it's to tow the line and walk the center area.

Spencer:

One of Larry King's great interviews was with George Burns. George said, "The reason I've been around a long time is because I love what I'm doing." How important is it that you like what you do?

Matt Lauer:

I think it may be the most important thing in my career right now. My dad was someone who worked for 50+ years in a couple of different careers and never truly loved any one of them. And we talked about it a lot before he died that if he was even jealous of anything about my career in the early stages it was nothing about money or fame, it had everything to do with the fact that I loved getting out of bed in the morning. So I think that's one of the great gifts that I've received in this career. Despite the fact that the alarm goes off at 4:10 a.m. and despite the fact that there are times when I think my God this is early, I still look forward to doing my job every single day and I am still grateful for it every single time the show ends.

I tell people when they come here and they ask for career advice or anything like that, I say I don't care what you do as long as - and this is by the way what I hope to be able to tell my kids when they get old enough to listen, I don't care what you do, you want to go arrange flowers, you want to go work in a horse barn, you want to be a politician, do it. Whatever you want to do is fine as long as you have a passion for it and you like it because that will serve you so well as you get further into the career. Having a love for something you do is paramount.

Spencer:

If you could ask three guests from anywhere in the world to an intimate dinner party who would you invite?

Matt Lauer:

I've kind of had this question posed before. It has been posed to be me in terms of what would be my ultimate foursome for golf. I think it changes every week and every month. I think right now it's the people who are in the news. I'd like to have Larry Craig on one side of me at dinner tonight. I'd like to have Osama Bin Laden on one side of me at dinner. One week I'd like to have Mitt Romney. The next week I would like to have Barack Obama. I want to have the people who are in the news, who are fascinating, who have something to say. And more importantly who in some way or another are going to impact my life and everyone else's life.

Spencer:

You once said September 11 th changed the way you handle the news. Can you explain?

Matt Lauer:

Well, I mean it opened my eyes. Unfortunately it hardened a lot of us. It was a defining moment in not only my career, but my life. I mean I'm a New Yorker and when a story like that breaks live on your air and you're forced to just sit back, your instincts not only kick in, in terms of being a journalist and a broadcaster, but your emotions also kick in, in terms of being a resident of this city and an American. It was a very interesting lesson in combining the two. And on the one hand you want to tell the story and you want to try to capture the magnitude of it. On the other hand you want to make sure you're not crossing the line. You don't want to alarm people more than they need to be alarmed. It was alarming enough.

There was all kinds of information. There were all kinds of rumors swirling that morning and you had to constantly think to yourself do we really know if any of this is true? What do we know? So you found yourself repeating what you could, facts over and over again until each new piece of information could be verified.

It was a graduate course in journalism in a nine hour period. It really was. We were on the air for a long time that morning and I think we all honed our craft a little that morning. And we all lost a lot of innocence that morning as well. I mean we had people in the studio crying as the second plane hit the second tower. We had people who had been there, done that, seen it all. You know, guys who you would think were kind of gritty, tough news guys walking around with tears in their eyes and stunned looks on their faces. And it changed the way I think we all view our place in the world. It was a wake up call. We all started thinking about how our actions and how we lived our lives here would impact people around the world. We started to realize just how small a world it was at that point.

Spencer:

That day the responsibility of portraying the news about this event really kicked in.

Matt Lauer:

Yeah there's no question about it. I mean I can't tell you over the last five years the number of people who come up to me on the street and said they shared that moment with me. And it's funny; it's a blur to me to be quite honest with you, the first five, six hours of broadcasting that. And then on one of the anniversaries, maybe it was last year, I think it was last year that MSNBC ran our first three hours of coverage over again. They ran the Today's Show's coverage of 9/11 and I have to say I watched a lot of it in tapes. They sent me some DVD's of it. And I was happy to see how we did.

Spencer:

You portrayed the message well.

Matt Lauer:

In hindsight I was very impressed with the entire team at work here that day. Again I don't remember it because we were going off of gut instinct and raw emotion, but I think we equated ourselves very well that day.

Spencer:

There have been many accomplished journalists. Who do you admire most past and present?

Matt Lauer:

You know what I've been fortunate to not only watch some great journalists, but work with some great ones as well. In the early stages of my career in television, not even as a journalist, but as a broadcaster, I watched Tom Brokaw on the Today Show and watched him take over Nightly News. I was always a huge fan. I was also a huge fan of Bryant(Gumbel) here on this show. I thought Tom brought a world experience to this job that I hadn't seen in a lot of people before and Bryant brought a knack for broadcasting and communicating and telling a story that I had rarely seen before. Those are two people that I count myself very fortunate to have watched and gotten to know and learn from over the years.

Spencer:

Who has been the greatest influence in your life?

Matt Lauer:

My parents, no question about it. I mean bar none. They're head and shoulders above everyone else. I am in many ways a complete and identifiable product of them. And I am fortunate to have great parents. I do often think about my parents and how lucky I am. If you're not as fortunate and you don't have parents who are as loving and caring and intelligent as mine are and were then that's a real hardship for you. You know I had a fantastic leg up. I was given a great foundation by two people who really cared about being a parent and took it very seriously.

Spencer:

Looking back at all you have done what are you most proud?

Matt Lauer:

Being a father, no question about it. I am crazy in love with my kids. I can't even hide a smile when I talk about them now. I am so proud. I waited very long, much longer than I should have. We had our first child when I was 43, which is late in life. A lot of me wishes I had done it earlier and had a chance to have more energy and share some of my youth with them. But by far as proud as I am about what I've achieved career wise, it pales in comparison to the achievement of at least getting three kids off to a running start in terms of being good people. I think we're doing a good job with that.

Spencer:

Remember when you were on the zipline you said hi to your kids?

Matt Lauer:

Oh sure. They watch part of the show. Some parts they don't watch, we don't like them to watch. For the most part they check in on me every morning by watching the open of the show.

Spencer:

One last question. Where in the World is Matt Lauer, maybe more important, where is he going? What plans lie ahead?

Matt Lauer:

You know it's a tough one. We've done this for seven years so we're talking 35, 36 locations because we doubled up one year. Although this sounds crazy because the world is a big place it's not that big when you're looking for specific locations that have all the criteria that we need to do that kind of a show and where it's daylight. It's hard to tell. I think we'll do it one or two more times. There are a couple of places still on my wish list. I'm not going to tell you about it because I still want to surprise people. Then we'll move on, we'll go to do something else. I do think at some point we'll let that run its course and then we will move on to what we can hopefully come up with as the next big thing.

Spencer:

But other than where in the world, where are you going in terms of journalism?

Matt Lauer:

In terms of journalism I don't know. I've got several years left in this job and then I'll think long and hard about it. Bt the I will have done 14-1/2 years in this job. I think that's plenty and I think there are a lot of young, talented people who would be eager at that point to have a shot at this and I think they deserve it. And I would scale back. I know I wouldn't get up at 4:00 in the morning anymore and I would spend a lot more time with my family.

Spencer:

Thank you so much for meeting with me.

Matt Lauer:

It's a pleasure. Are you kidding me, it was nice. I'm happy you came in, you had good questions.