Politics & Media
Mar 19, 2015, 07:11AM

Big Guys on the Loose at NBC News

New York on how the mess happened.

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NBC's lead anchor is off the air, the chairwoman of NBC News has been kicked upstairs, and the division's president is now a figurehead. New York Magazine sizes up the mess and provides a confused, hectic look at how it all happened—blind quotes, adjectives and loose ends wheel about like shoes, jaws and elbows in a cartoon fistfight. The upshot is that, left to itself, NBC Universal would broadcast Jack Donaghy's haircut and call that the evening news. But they can't, so they settle for Brian Williams and his headlines, and in the morning there's Matt Lauer demonstrating vacuum cleaners and asking personal questions. Big men who can look at a camera and make people like it: that is network news, as far as NBC is concerned.

These human lynch pins are a pain to live with. New York talked to “dozens of current and former NBC News journalists, executives, agents, and rival-network officials.” They all agree: NBC News let the big guys get out of control. “If you don’t manage, it turns into a bad version of Ron Burgundy,” says a “senior NBC executive.” Another says, “There's no adult supervision.” The two executives get to sum up because the article takes a suite-level view. The article is about executives—chiefly the chairwoman and the president of NBC News—and what they tried to do, which was wrangle talent, placate the big guys while getting them into line.

There was one thing that didn't cause a problem between executives and talent, and it was this. The managing editor of the NBC Nightly News didn't want news, he wanted stories. Not only that, but the stories had to have the right tone. “He didn’t want to put stories on the air that would be divisive,” says “a senior NBC journalist.” This bent was such a non-issue for the executives that New York has to back into the subject. The allegedly awful news judgment of Brian Williams shows up as a workplace issue, something the content producers were grumbling about. The topic gets a long paragraph and then good-bye. But if the paragraph is true, Williams should be supervised while making news decisions.

Williams had a shot at putting on the air a previously unknown Justice Department white paper that laid out some of the department's legal rationale for killing certain citizens without trial. He said no, and the one reason lodged in the paragraph is the senior journalist's quote about “divisive stories.” If that was the reasoning, we're at a scary pass. Of course, if Williams was sucking up to Obama, things are also bad. Maybe if his colleagues thought Williams was in the tank, their complaints would get into the article, maybe not. The “divisive” quote does seem plausible as a motive. Williams comes off as a man who's gung ho about the smiley face, a radiator of good vibes. That's what he was paid for, that's what did him in one fateful night when he triggered fact-checking by service members.

Those bullshit tales tumbling from his mouth, everyone applauding—all of a sudden they weren't okay. The article is tense about the accumulating hits. His heroic anecdotes “were being picked apart in public.” The network investigator “discovered more issues with Williams’s accounts.” The executives trooped to his apartment on a Saturday morning. The article tells us Williams “seemed paralyzed.” His wife argued for keeping him on the air. He said, “Honey, you haven’t seen the stuff.” A few days later he was to told to present himself at the apartment of NBC Universal's CEO. Verdict: off the air for six months, no pay, maybe he'd get back on, maybe not. A few weeks after Brian Williams' bad news, the ax fell for the news division's chairwoman and its president (also a woman). The NBC Universal CEO “had had enough,” the article says.

True, neither woman had caused Williams to be a coddled goofball who shot off at the mouth. But there had been the mess with Lauer and the Today Show. The Today big guy had triumphed over Ann Curry, but then came her goodbye appearance. She tried to talk and began to cry, several times over, and millions watched while she slipped her shoulder out from under Matt's hand and then let him kiss a fragment of her scalp before she turned for a full-on clinch with Al Roker. (The article doesn't mention this incident, but it's on YouTube.) That was her farewell, and it left Curry's old persecutor feeling bombed out by bad press. “According to producers, Lauer seemed so rattled by the backlash that followed Curry’s ouster that he was adamant that NBC couldn’t make any further talent changes,” the article tells us. Which was too bad, given the show's not very good ratings.

At first the executives went with Lauer's approach. Keep everybody in the cast and go for uplifting content, heart-warmers; just as Williams shunned divisive stories, Lauer sought “relatable” stories. No problem, but Good Morning, America was still ahead. The article is vague as to why: “Senior producers openly wondered whether the current anchors... could ever develop enough on-set chemistry to catch GMA.” Did everybody on the sofa crawl away from Matt Lauer? For their part, the people in charge seemed terrified Lauer might go but unhappy that he was around. At some point the chairwoman wanted to put a new team in charge at the show, three women. “'This is like Lilith Fair,' Lauer complained to a senior producer, according to a source, referring to the ’90s all-female rock festival.” Savannah Guthrie was against the idea too, we're told, but it was “Lauer's handpicked choice” who became the new executive producer. After which Good Morning, America kept beating them.

In March of last year, Today hired a young stud to be the other big male on the Today set, apparently as backup. In June the reigning big male re-upped on his contract. But, having stuck themselves with Lauer, the president and chairwoman apparently set about muscling him. In September they moved in. They installed a new hotshot as boss of the show. He made enemies (“according to one senior Today staffer,” “according to another source”) and occasioned a fine quote about the morning news business: “He told Tamron Hall she had to watch her back because Natalie was trashing her. But then he told Natalie that Tamron was trashing her.”

The hotshot (“according to sources”) informed Lauer that there were going to be changes in the cast. “Lauer pushed back hard. 'I’m not going through this again,' he said, referring to the Curry debacle.” But the hotshot steamed forward. A few weeks later he presented his big plan to the news president. He wanted to toss three cast members and bring in new people. Plus, Lauer was now a target. They would get the backup stud ready to step in: “Josh Elliott could be groomed to replace Lauer in two years,” as the article puts it. The president said full speed ahead and then some. “This is not aggressive enough of a plan,” she said, “according to a high-level source.”

A week later the hotshot was fired. First, a gossip column said he was being considered for the news president's job. Then somebody told a gossip magazine that the hotshot had just canned two of his show's cast members. The news president blamed the hotshot for the first leak, and the second caused her to fire him. The article doesn't pin down her thought process on this, but it does note that she was called “Mad Dog” for “her style of shooting ideas at her staff and constantly driving them to land exclusives.” Possibly she was impulsive, and we're told (without attribution) that the news chairwoman had caught the hotshot talking shit about the president.

I feel kind of gauche in wondering why the article doesn't address whether Matt Lauer planted the two gossip items. But Lauer goes on record to provide the reporter with some helpful quotes (“I felt we should be focused on the content of the show. We were all pulling together to make the show better”), so maybe that's what counts. At any rate, we're told the news president had to rush out a statement saying nobody on the team was getting fired. The article: “If Turness [the president] had in fact wanted to shake up the cast of Today, now she couldn’t.” For the time being anyway. But she had certainly lost the round.

During all this, as kind of a weary sideshow, she had dragged out the finding of a new lynchpin for Meet the Press. First the pallid, shrimpy David Gregory had been left to suffer too long, then the search for his replacement took silly detours (Jon Stewart?) before settling on the obvious Chuck Todd. The article notes just one success from her time as president. When Brian Williams kept mooning after talk show fame (the article says he lobbied to succeed Jay Leno, then lobbied CBS to succeed David Letterman), the president sweet-talked him into staying on as America's most trusted news face. Edward R. Murrow's old writing table, bought from a dealer, did the trick. Williams said yes right on the spot. The president gasped, NBC Universal's CEO “broke into applause.” I don't know if Williams admires Edward R. Murrow, but he appreciates a moment; here was a ripe one. “'It was,' a senior NBC executive recalls,  'like we were a family.'” Two months later, we have the meeting in Williams’s apartment.

Brian Williams pretends to deliver the news, NBC pretends to have broadcast news programs. Really they're selling neat footage and Brian Williams. Or, at a much greater profit, Matt Lauer and the couch, since the morning shows make the big money on broadcast news. People look at the screen and think they see a friend; it's just a picture of some big shoulders and a furnace-like ego. The real Brian Williams? “Very, very few people like him,” says a “senior journalist.” The real Matt Lauer is already apparent. This man who's there to behave on camera, and who charges NBC millions of dollars to do it just so—he stages scenes that appall viewers. Ann Curry cried! Savannah Guthrie gave him the finger!

Lauer activates such disasters because he's a bully about getting the show up to a certain notch, giving the people their millions of dollars' worth of behavior. He's so professionally intent on his tiny but financially crucial endeavor that he sabotages himself. Williams, suffering from a different side of the same problem, falls victim to eruptions of professionally overdeveloped bonhomie. The men with the shoulders perform freakish bouts of behavioral athletics. The activity makes them rich, but it deforms them, and their situation is deformed too. They think the world is theirs; after all, look at them up there. But they have to put their toe just right or the masses land on them. When that happens, an idol turns into wreckage that's pinned across the network. Judging by this article, the network doesn't really know what to do about it. The top executives know how to exhort staff and push big contracts in front of camera talent. That's their skill set. It's not always useful, but they're paid regardless.

It's hard to tell who comes out ahead. Not the viewers, if they really want news and/or actual friends. Not the talent, since they get chopped down for doing what their careers gear them to do. Not the network, given that their lynchpins turn into liabilities and still stick around. Not the executives, since they want to be boss but dangle after the big-shouldered camera beasts. The sponsors get their audience, though that's chipped away by clips on YouTube. It's a scramble. In that spirit, let me introduce my favorite sentence from the magazine article: “There’s a chance, of course, that Williams’s stories could check out.” Next to last paragraph. Right until then, I could have sworn the investigators had found something. All that fuss, and we still need a lawyer-proof sentence in case there's nothing.

I like that because it's a crowning touch, a meta flourish. Everyone in this story takes part in a mutual game of bait and switch. They hustle a package back and forth, and no one gets the diamonds because the package just has some old handkerchiefs. No one delivers.


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