Part 2—The question which won't be asked: In the earlier years of TV news, moguls were less devoted to the need for disguise.
In those days, Dave Garroway was the host of NBC's Today show. As the leading authority on the show has recalled, his co-host was a chimp:
Though initially panned by critics, Garroway's style attracted a large audience that enjoyed his easygoing presence early in the morning. His familiar "cohost," a chimpanzee with the puckish name of J. Fred Muggs, did not hurt his genial manner, but his concurrent seriousness in dealing with news stories and ability to clearly explain abstract concepts earned him the nickname "The Communicator" and eventually won praise from critics and viewers alike.But seriously, though, Muggs was a consequential early star. In 2002, when his trainer died, the Los Angeles Times recalled the ways of a somewhat less buttoned-down era:
WOO (3/15/02): Muggs landed an audition in early 1953 with the year-old "Today" show, NBC's experiment in early-morning news programming that was slumping badly in the ratings.After defeating that ratings slump, the frequently temperamental Muggs starred on Today from 1953 through 1957. At one point, he apparently inspired an analysis from the Russkies—an analysis which wasn't necessarily wrong:
The magnetic Muggs was signed to a contract and, to the dismay of "Today" show host Dave Garroway and other serious journalists, became a sensation.
Dubbed Garroway's "right-hand monkey," he sat on the anchorman's lap, his leash concealed and held by Mennella or Waldron, who hid under the desk. Garroway bantered with and interviewed him. Muggs played in skits, accumulating a wardrobe of 450 outfits.
Children threw tantrums if their parents didn't let them watch Muggs; soon the parents were hooked, too. The "Today" show's ratings rocketed within weeks, and two dozen new sponsors were signed. Fan mail poured in for Muggs.
Muggs went on a world tour to promote Today; in Japan, where his popularity was second only to that of Marilyn Monroe, 15 geishas waited on him, while in Russia Izvestia described him as "a symbol of the American way of life" and said he was "necessary in order that the average American should not look into reports on rising taxes, and decreasing pay, but rather laugh at the funny mug of a chimpanzee."Did Izvestia really say that? So the Arizona Republic seems to have reported in real time, on January 31, 1955.
Izvestia's remarks were hurtful, but they weren't necessarily wrong. Tomorrow, we'll revisit the way our major news organs have helped keep "the average American" from "looking into" basic facts about the outlandish costs of American health care, with a nod to this long-overdue, 15-years-later report.
In the modern era, no chimps disgrace the Today show! In the modern press era, that task is left to the program's human co-hosts, like the recently defrocked Matt Lauer, the major, ridiculous TV star once known as "America's dad."
Yesterday, NBC News announced that Hoda Kotb will replace Lauer in Today's co-anchor chair. At The Daily Beast, a fully grown human named Tim Teeman described Kotb's appeal, spewing script as he went:
TEEMAN (1/2/18): At 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning Savannah Guthrie rightly opined to viewers that appointing Hoda Kotb as co-host, alongside her, of NBC’s Today had to have been the “most popular decision” that NBC News ever made.The hiring of Kotb created more interest than even the frigid cold weather! Skillfully gushing, Teeman described Kotb's skills:
There was a hashtag ready to go, #SavannahHodaTODAY, and the hosts proudly watched it rise to the top of the morning's trending Twitter topics, way above the cold weather.
Three hours later, at 10 a.m., Kathie Lee Gifford, Kotb’s long-time cost of the fourth hour of Today, said the occasion marked a “very special Booze Day Tuesday.”
And so it is that the brilliant and warmth-radiating Kotb will wear two hats every morning: the news anchor shepherding Today show fans through the biggest headlines of the day—though these are quickly subsumed on regular news days by segments about food, fashion, and parenting—and then, after an hour’s rest provided by the more controversy-inclined Megyn Kelly, back to her 10 a.m. perch with Kathie Lee Gifford, made famous by the duo’s filled wine glasses which are now more for show than gulping from.
There are very few TV hosts who can convincingly segue from national tragedy to whooping over makeovers, but Kotb is one of those hosts. It was not only the most popular decision NBC News could have made, it was surely also one of the easiest.
Kotb is one of the rare TV hosts who can "convincingly segue from national tragedy to whooping over makeovers." Beyond that, she can handle "the biggest headlines of the day—though these are quickly subsumed on regular news days by segments about food, fashion, and parenting."
Citizens, this is a business! Those headlines are also subsumed by the fun of such Muggsian antics as "Booze Day Tuesdays" and glasses filled with wine at 10 A.M., though mostly just for show. Muggs was popular in his day, but species-specific routes to warmth tend to dominate now.
As he continued, Teeman played by the rules. He agreed to assume that Kobt and co-host Savannah Guthrie were shocked, shocked by the news of Lauer's many years of appalling conduct.
Having agreed to reinforce that morality play, Teeman turned to the important question:
"But what of Kotb or Guthrie’s salaries? Will they be the same or anywhere near Lauer’s reported $20 million a year?"
Will Kotb score twenty million, like Matt? Perhaps repulsively, this was the Daily Beast headline:
NBC’s ‘Today’ Is in Hoda Kotb's Debt. It Should Pay Her Back, HandsomelyOur species is wired in such a way that these are the matters which count. For reasons of biological programming, people making regular wages tolerate gagworthy clatter like this from the alphas to whom we defer.
At any rate, back in the day, Muggs was cost-effective. For insisting that they hadn't heard about Matt, Today's co-hosts may cost the network quite a bit more.
With regard to Lauer's misconduct, we leave you with a familiar pair of questions:
"What did Hoda Kotb know, and when the heck did she know it?"
Of one thing you can be sure—no one within the mainstream press will ever ask those questions. Dearest darlings, it just isn't done! What happens within our species' guilds tends to stay right there!
Our species is wired to behave in these ways. What would the old Izvestia say if it was still fully here?
Tomorrow: "Necessary in order that the average American should not look into [non-existent] reports"