"Very, Very Few People Like Him": 7 Tidbits on NBC News' Internal Turmoil
One month after NBC News suspended Brian Williams for six months amid mounting scrutiny of the “Nightly News” anchor’s serial embellishments, the network’s woes have hardly been eradicated, as internal disputes and power struggles that predated the exposure of Williams’ Iraq War fabrications continue to plague 30 Rock. New York Magazine media reporter Gabriel Sherman goes behind the scenes of NBC’s turmoil in a lengthy piece for the new issue of the magazine, from which Salon has gleaned seven revealing tidbits.
While much of Sherman’s reportage focuses on the drama surrounding Williams, he also examines the struggles confronting the post-Tim Russert “Meet the Press,” the ratings challenges facing the “Today” show, and the persistent influence of Tom Brokaw, Williams’ “Nightly News” predecessor and NBC’s revered elder statesman.
Here’s what Sherman finds.
1. Joe Scarborough wanted to host “Meet the Press”
As it became clear last year that lackluster “Meet the Press” host David Gregory was on his way out, “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough angled for Gregory’s job, making what Sherman reports was “an aggressive play” for the host’s chair. However, Sherman relates, Scarborough’s bid “was not taken seriously” inside NBC. Chuck Todd eventually secured the job.
2. Matt Lauer doesn’t want “Today” to become “Good Morning America”
Among the most daunting tasks facing NBC News president Deborah Turness when she assumed her post in 2013 was the ratings decline of the “Today” show, which once dominated breakfast programming but was surpassed by ABC’s “Good Morning America” for the first time in two decades earlier that year. But while Turness has floated a shake-up of “Today’s” roster, co-host Matt Lauer has fought back against Turness’ proposed changes, arguing that the focus should be on the program’s content, not its personalities. Sherman’s sources relay that Lauer favors a mix of hard news and softer feature stories — not the reliance on “tabloid garbage” that he says defines “GMA.”
3. Williams sought to succeed David Letterman
At the height of last month’s fracas, it emerged that Williams lobbied to succeed “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, a bid that NBC executives quickly rejected. But it appears that Williams’ comedic ambitions haven’t abated; Sherman reports that after CBS “Late Show” host David Letterman announced his retirement last year, Williams contacted CBS chief Les Moonves to let him know he was interested in filling Letterman’s shoes.
It was on Letterman’s show in 2013 that Williams vividly recounted having his helicopter come under fire during the 2003 Iraq invasion — a story now known to be bogus.
4. Williams resisted “hard-hitting” stories
The controversy-averse Williams pushed back against at least two stories on hot-button issues, Sherman reports: Investigative reporter Michael Isikoff’s look at the U.S. government’s justification for killing American citizens in drone strikes, and reporter Lisa Myers’ 2013 finding that the Obama administration knew as far back as 2010 that some Americans would have to change health insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act. Williams rejected Myers’ attempt to air the story on “Nightly News,” but after it went viral online, Williams opted to broadcast it.
5. NBC colleagues aren’t exactly enamored of Williams
While Williams’ comedic prowess and pop culture savvy endeared him to many viewers, his NBC colleagues aren’t such fans. Sherman quotes a “senior journalist” at the network: “Very, very few people like him. The phrase you hear constantly: ‘What goes around comes around.’ ”
6. Williams and Brokaw really don’t like each other
There’s no love lost between Williams and his predecessor, who reportedly warned NBC executives for years that Williams displayed a troubling pattern of exaggerations and fabrications. Details of their frosty relationship — long known to NBC insiders — have gradually seeped into the open over the past month, and Sherman provides further insight. Though Brokaw responded to the Williams imbroglio with a terse statement saying that his successor’s fate was in NBC’s hands, Brokaw has played a key role in the network’s deliberations over Williams, even canceling a Virgin Islands vacation to help executives handle the mess.
For Williams, living in Brokaw’s shadow has been nothing short of frustrating. Speaking with Chuck Todd after he was named host of “Meet the Press,” Williams quipped, “At least your ghost is dead. Mine is still walking the building.”
7. NBC is still undecided on Williams’ fate
Although the return of Williams ally Andrew Lack to NBC would seem to portend Williams’ return at the end of his half-year suspension, such an outcome is no done deal. NBC sources tell Sherman NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke “has truly not made up his mind about Williams’s fate.”