Matt Lauer visits the DMZ.

Matt Lauer visits the DMZ.

Matt Lauer visits the DMZ.

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May 19 2003 8:25 PM

Matt Lauer Sees a Serious Place

The Today showfinds "military overtones" on Korea's DMZ.

One way to tell Today's coverage of world affairs from the kind you see on the evening news is that on Today (NBC), soldiers are urged to send shout-outs to their moms at home. Like the crowds in Times Square, they also must hoot for the live cameras. In Korea's Demilitarized Zone—"in the crosshairs on the axis of evil," as Matt Lauer put it, broadcasting live from the border Monday morning—the Americans who spend the lion's share of their days at Camp Bonifas in silent staring contests with North Korean soldiers also fielded questions from Lauer like, "What's it like to serve here?" To which they answered, "It's great, sir."

That's reassuring. Making even a day of morning news from the DMZ—providing a capsule history of Korea's Sunshine Policy, cracking leery jokes about sex-starved servicemen and Jennifer Aniston, and finally throwing back to Al Roker in Manhattan—would try the nerves of even the toughest newsman. But Lauer, whose live broadcast from the DMZ was history's first, is, fortunately, an airhead, and a patient one. He managed, therefore, not to get stressed out, as he would have put it; calmly, he strolled, interviewed, ruminated, and schmoozed with Americans along the immaculate and menacing border. (The North Koreans have a standing army of 1.2 million; they also, of course, boast of nuclear capacity.) And while Lauer failed to communicate much urgency about North Korea, neither did he appear anxious. Only once did an emotion come through: "Katie, I have to be honest with you. This is one of the most serious places I've ever been to in my life." (Has he alreadyforgotten co-hosting Fame, Fortune, and Romance with Robin Leach?)

Virginia Heffernan Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Politico. Follow her on Twitter.

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Monday's Today took place at night in Korea, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. The NBC camera crew was forbidden to use lights when filming the central structures on the border; Lauer explained that bright lights could be construed as a provocation. Viewers were left with a queasy green night-vision image of a handsome concrete building finessed with pagodalike allusions. You couldn't see many North Korean soldiers, but they were said to be watching the NBC people like hawks.

Lauer was in Panmunjom, 40 miles from Seoul, a "negotiation area" whose conference room features a long rectangular table that's split down the center, right on the 38th parallel itself. North Koreans take the north; Southern Koreans the south. This keeps things fair when the two sides negotiate, which is never.

While Lauer spent a fair amount of time setting up prerecorded pieces on North-South family reunions, life in Seoul, and the history of the Korean War, he also toured the DMZ live with the head of American military operations there. He visited the Bridge of No Return, the fascinating landmark between the two countries over which Koreans were given one chance to pass after the war; once they'd chosen a side, they couldn't go back. Ominous-looking guards were shown standing at the midpoint of the bridge.

On these walks, Lauer appeared deeply serene, neither daunted nor impressed by hard news. He seemed to have made himself at home. He called the DMZ "the DMC" once or twice, and he caught himself saying "South Carolina" instead of "South Korea." No big deal. Periodically, when he turned to hyperbole, he did so as if to wake himself up. He was "on the bull's-eye" in "the scariest place on earth," "the most heavily fortified border anywhere," and "the most dangerous place in the world." But that was all right, too.

Lauer may have sounded most like himself when he surveyed the area from a high observation point. He breathed deep and said, as if to himself, "If this didn't have such a military overtone, it would be a pretty beautiful place."

"Thank you, Matt," said Katie Couric. In other news, Les Misérables is closing.