NEW YORK - The "Today" show's top producer is speaking out against stories portraying anchor Matt Lauer as being difficult to work with during the show's slide in the ratings.

Executive Producer Jim Bell said Wednesday that Lauer is the heart and soul of NBC's morning news show and that negative stories about him have been hard to deal with.

"Today" has slipped behind ABC's "Good Morning America" in the ratings recently, particularly since Lauer's former co-host, Ann Curry, was replaced by Savannah Guthrie. That's led to a wave of bad publicity, much of it focused on Lauer.

Bell said there's a clear contrast between his show and "Good Morning America" now, one that will become even more apparent in the coming months.

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