If you’re a keen NBC Today show watcher—or an early morning TV Kremlinologist—keenly attuned to who is sitting at the main desk and when, then Craig Melvin’s appointment as a co-anchor (or “news anchor,” to give him his proper title) of NBC’s morning show will not have come as a surprise.
The announcement was made on Tuesday, even though the words “news anchor” were not mentioned by co-anchor Savannah Guthrie. (Anchor issues, anyone?)
On air we were told Melvin—who also anchors MSNBC Live on weekdays—had “stepped away from Weekend Today so he can be with us every morning,” which puzzlingly failed to both tell viewers precisely about Melvin’s new job and accord him the right kind of props for being promoted to it.
A week ago on Saturday, Melvin announced on air he was leaving his Weekend Today anchoring duties. His wife and children were waiting off-camera for hugs at the end of that show.
By Monday, Melvin was sitting alongside Savannah Guthrie while Hoda Kotb was away.
For some time Melvin has been present at the main Today desk after 7.30 a.m., when the main drag of serious news begins to segue into celebrity and human interest stories.
He has even been sighted at the desk before 7.30 a.m., in what was traditionally the first, 20-minute unbroken patch of the biggest stories of the morning presided over by the two main Today anchors; for some time Melvin has been, visually at least, a co-anchor in all but name.
His appointment is a significant moment. Guthrie and Kotb became the anchors of the show in the wake of Matt Lauer’s firing (they had to break the news of Lauer’s sex scandal that very morning in an emotional broadcast), and both the presence and optics of two women fronting the broadcast was its own implicit statement of female empowerment and redress.
Al Roker and Carson Daly were male foils, providing weather, pop culture bulletins, and general japery when required.
Many moons on, the introduction of Melvin as an official co-anchor implies that the producers think a more emphatic male presence at the helm of the show is once again required, and they have very stealthily introduced Melvin by the incremental increase of his presence—out on the road with Roker, in the studio across a range of stories, in the kitchen happily doing, as Guthrie and Kotb do, the serious and not-so-serious stuff.
Melvin is not an identikit anchor. He is as handsome in a well-tailored suit as anchors must be, but he is also a welcomingly, freshly forthright presence. Sure, he yaks about family and all the softball and lifestyle material that Today show anchors must cheerily chew on day in day out. But he is also notably sharp.
It was Melvin who in June asked Bill Clinton about Monica Lewinsky and whether he would have behaved differently had their sex scandal unfolded in the time of #MeToo. Clinton maintained he had apologized to Lewinsky publicly and that was sufficient. Melvin persisted with his questioning, and the interview was a bracing joust.
Melvin has—at least for the show he finds himself on—a distinctive spirit of gentle dissension, a spirited pointedness.
It was again on display, when sitting with Guthrie in Megyn Kelly’s habitually rogue “9 a.m. hour,” Melvin asked Kelly about Gretchen Carlson, her former Fox News colleague now mired in controversy and accusations of bullying by the reigning Miss America, Cara Mund.
This was a fascinating moment, because tonally Kelly is the real cuckoo in the early morning nest on NBC, an angular tough presence to the 7 to 9 a.m. show’s softer curves and the 10 a.m. jolliness of Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford.
Kelly is the one known for being direct, for asking the gotcha question, and here she was utterly gotcha’d herself, and Melvin was responsible.
Typically, it is Kelly flooring guests (and even her host network) in the first 20 minutes of the show addressing the day’s hottest topics.
On Tuesday she opined that an independent investigator was best placed to discuss NBC’s newsgathering practices in the continued wake of what exactly happened to scotch Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein appearing on the network.
Her show is a dizzying mix of this sharp polemicizing (also evident after Lauer’s firing), tough interviewing (her skewering of Michael Cohen’s lawyer David Schwartz was a treat), and her quite brilliant simultaneous embrace and rejection of the cooking segments she must do.
But that morning it was Melvin who asked Kelly: “You know Gretchen Carlson? Some of the stuff she [Mund] claims? Do you find it believable?”
This was an excellent, natural question to ask.
Savannah Guthrie thought differently. “Oh my gosh, you are the worst,” she said to Melvin, in a joking voice that wasn’t joking.
No, he was doing what every journalist sitting across from Kelly should have done (and which Guthrie does in her best interviews too), which is to ask fresh and different questions of an interviewee.
“Can I not interview the interviewer? Is that wrong?” Melvin queried, smiling but serious and absolutely right.
“Is this Meet the Press?” asked Guthrie, to audience laughter. Journalists arguing, even lightheartedly, against the tenets of basic journalism is always depressing.
But Guthrie’s gentle protest, albeit rooted in a loyalty to Kelly, was misplaced. It reminded me that Today hosts are celebrities first, with an imagined and cherished ring of protection around them against such unpredictable intrusions of unexpected questions and serious enquiry.
Kelly, who (boot on the other foot) would have asked the question (and more), was silent.
“Now you know how Bill Clinton felt when Craig was asking him all the questions,” joked Guthrie.
The strange thing was Melvin’s question was of the mildest kind, aimed not at making Kelly feel uncomfortable (although he noted that it might) but at expanding the debate.
“I’ve no idea what Gretchen has done with the Miss America pageant. Let's leave it at that,” Kelly said tightly.
It says a lot about Melvin that he politely tried to elicit some answers from Kelly on her polemical home turf, not rudely but in the spirit of finding a new angle—which, after all, is what a show like Today, indeed any journalism, should be about.
The show’s anchor desk has increased one in number. It may also have increased its bite.