Matt Lauer criticized over 2006 interview with Britney Spears resurfaced in new doc

Suzy Byrne
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
·9-min read

Justin Timberlake doesn’t come off well in the new Britney Spears documentary — and neither does Matt Lauer.

Framing Britney Spears, the latest from the New York Times Presents series, which airs on FX and FX on Hulu, came out Friday and looks back at the pop star’s rise to fame — through a modern lens in this age of fourth-wave feminism — to where she is now with her conservatorship battle involving her father. Over the weekend, doc viewers called for her ex-boyfriend Timberlake to apologize for how he handled their 2002 breakup, and now Lauer is being criticized for his June 2006 interview with Spears, which the doc used to support the narrative that the pop star was publicly painted as an “unfit mother” after welcoming son Sean Preston in September 2005.

At the time of the Dateline interview with Lauer, who's since been fired from NBC amid #MeToo allegations, Spears — pregnant with her second child — sat down to make a plea for the paparazzi to leave her alone and also address some headline-making parenting blunders. To set the scene, Spears was relentlessly hounded by the paparazzi — in an era before it was illegal to photograph the children of celebrities in California and a time in which photographs of Spears were selling for up to $1 million a shot. The then-24-year-old new mom had recently been visited by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services after video showed her driving on a highway with her 4-month-old son, Sean Preston, on her lap, a “mistake” she admitted to explaining she was trying to flee paparazzi. There were other incidents, including the baby falling from his high chair on his head necessitating a trip to the ER, the baby being in a front-facing car seat instead of a rear one.

(Photo: FX)
Framing Britney Spears (Photo: FX)

While Spears tried to make a case for why the paparazzi should leave her alone, Lauer grilled her about her “skills as a mom,” saying the baby being on her lap “crossed from a paparazzi incident to the next day it's in the newspapers and you've got all these legitimate people weighing in, saying, ‘You know what? That's dangerous. And she put her child at risk. You saw the questions that were being asked, ‘Is Britney a bad mom?’ It's not like, ‘Did Britney record a bad song? Is Britney wearing a bad outfit? Is Britney in a bad marriage? Is Britney a bad mom?’”

Spears, who described herself as an “emotional wreck” earlier in the interview, replied, “That's America for you,” trying to laugh it off.

Lauer just kept pressing, “Yeah, but as a mother, that has to hit pretty close to home.”

“It makes you really strong,” she replied.

“Make you weep?” Lauer asked.

Oh, I've wept. Yeah, I've definitely wept just with the world, you know how judgmental they are. But I know what kinda mom I am.”

Elsewhere in the interview, which saw Spears chewing gum throughout, which really riled up America at the time, Lauer questioned Spears about the baby falling from his high chair, suggested Federline was “not good enough” for her and brought up how Federline had a six-month pregnant girlfriend, Shar Jackson, when he started dating Spears. Lauer also asked Spears how she felt about being called a "redneck," and said she had a "tone” that made her come off as “angry.”

It ended with Spears crying as she speculated what it would take for the paparazzi to leave her alone and saying she was considering a move to the suburbs of Atlanta.

Considering Lauer was fired from NBC over "workplace misconduct" and later had a colleague accuse him of sexual assault (which he has denied), there has been blowback over him "questioning Britney Spears on topics of morality."

Diane Sawyer’s 2003 Primetime Thursday interview, also revisited in the doc, didn’t age well either, and she has been called out by viewers. While she didn’t have a scandal derail her career in the same way Lauer did, Sawyer has been criticized for grilling Spears over her breakup with Timberlake in the ABC News interview, asking the 21-year-old singer what she did wrong in the relationship.

“You broke his heart, you did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?” Sawyer pressed Spears.

In another part, Sawyer brought up the then-first lady of Maryland saying she would "shoot" Spears for her influence on young girls. Spears is appalled by the comment, saying she's not put here to babysit other people's children, while Sawyer seemed to defend the comment, saying, “It’s because of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent.”

Sawyer also grilled Spears on allegations of partying and drug use, but also put her on the hot seat over being late to a premiere and giving the finger to a paparazzo. Like Lauer, Sawyer also made Spears cry — and the doc makes the case that this all fed into her 2008 breakdown, which led to her conservatorship.

On Monday’s The Talk, Amanda Kloots said she thinks “Diane Sawyer does owe [Spears] an apology. I think the whole world owes her an apology, the paparazzi owe her an apology... It's heartbreaking to see what this poor girl went through.”

There were similar sentiments expressed on social media.

Reps for ABC News and NBC News haven't responded to Yahoo Entertainment’s requests for comment on the criticism of the old interviews. Lauer previously stood by his interview with Spears. Asked in 2017 on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen if regret how he came across in the interview, he said, "I think I did my job," explaining the very emotional Spears had plenty of opportunities to stop and compose herself.

Framing Britney Spears is an eye-opening look at Spears's conservatorship battle with her father Jamie, but also how, while coming up in the aughts alongside all the boy bands, she faced a higher level of criticism in the press — and mistreatment. Other footage shows how at just 10, Spears was on Star Search where Ed McMahon creepily made a joke about wanting to be her boyfriend. Once famous, she was crudely asked in an interview whether she was a virgin. Another resurfaced clip had a male talk show host explicitly ask about her breasts, and then mocked her surprised reaction to his comment.

The way Spears's 2002 breakup from Timberlake was also revisited — and how she was painted as a villainess, including by him as he hired a Spears lookalike for his “Cry Me A River” music video, which had a blonde sneaking around behind his back. The doc includes a clip of Timberlake, now married to Jessica Biel with two kids, giving a radio interview post-split, laughing along when the first question is about whether he slept with Spears — and answering yes.

In an interview about the project, the New York Times's Liz Day, senior editor for the documentary, told Yahoo Entertainment the intent of the film was to "go back" to Britney's early days — as she faced criticism of her talent, prying into her sex life, shaming for her parenting and blame for corrupting America's young girls — and her breakdown, for which she received little sympathy despite obvious mental health struggles, "and revisit what we can learn about America through her story." But also look into the legal conservatorship that has stripped her of control of her life and career — and why she’s still in it 13 years later.

Since the doc aired on Friday, Sarah Jessica Parker and other celebrities have joined the cries to #FreeBritney from her conservatorship.

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