The Mess at NBC News…
In a must read, New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman writes about NBC News’ woes…and at least party revives a meme NBC had hoped would die off by now, that Matt Lauer is to blame for a lot of this.
Producers began to grumble that Lauer was preventing Today from evolving. When Fili-Krushel proposed installing a troika of female producers to oversee the show, Lauer and Guthrie nixed the plan. “This is like Lilith Fair,” Lauer complained to a senior producer, according to a source, referring to the ’90s all-female rock festival. Lauer’s handpicked choice, Don Nash, was named executive producer instead. And last March, NBC poached Josh Elliott from GMA, which many producers interpreted as an effort to groom a successor to Lauer. A logical introduction would be to have Elliott join the cast as a newsreader—Natalie Morales’s position. Turness reportedly had her doubts about Morales in that role anyway. (Morales was furious when, months earlier, Turness told her she needed more personality on the air. “I want more Natalie,” she said.) But Lauer didn’t want Elliott to replace Morales.
Turness was boxed in. To catch GMA, Today needed to consider a talent shake-up, but in June 2014, she had helped persuade Lauer to re-sign his contract. And Lauer would fight changes tooth and nail.
The situation came to a head in September. Today’s ratings had stalled over the summer. In something of a last-ditch effort, Fili-Krushel and Turness tapped a brash, 38-year-old ESPN producer named Jamie Horowitz to devise a turnaround plan. But Horowitz had a cocky style and a big mouth, and he immediately set the staff on edge. According to one senior Today staffer, he would play a game of Survivor with producers. “If you’re on an island and you could keep three senior producers, whom would you keep?” According to another source, Horowitz was stoking unrest among the cast. “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.” (Horowitz declined to comment.)
Fili-Krushel even heard Horowitz was badmouthing Turness in his second week on the job.
“Did you throw Deborah under the bus?” she asked him during a September meeting in her office.
“Well, they were complaining,” Horowitz replied.
Horowitz’s real problem, however, was getting on the wrong side of Lauer. According to sources, the two met for dinner in October to discuss Horowitz’s plans for the show. Horowitz told Lauer he wanted to swap out Morales and Willie Geist by the end of the year to find a visible role for Josh Elliott. He also wanted to reevaluate Guthrie in six months; if she didn’t improve, he would consider moving Hoda Kotb into her seat. Lauer pushed back hard.
“I’m not going through this again,” he said, referring to the Curry debacle.
And there’s this bit of insanity…
On the morning of November 11, Horowitz presented his turnaround plan to Turness and a handful of executives, distributing only hard copies to prevent leaks. According to sources, Horowitz stood in front of a magnetic board and moved anchor names around like chess pieces: replace Guthrie with Hoda Kotb; replace Morales and Hall with ESPN sportscaster Samantha Ponder and Entertainment Tonight correspondent Brooke Anderson; Josh Elliott could be groomed to replace Lauer in two years.
Turness expressed support for Horowitz’s casting ideas and even pushed him to think bigger. “This is not aggressive enough of a plan,” she said, according to a high-level source. “Very good meeting. Looking forward to making plans,” Turness texted him after, according to people who saw the message. Horowitz planned to present his plan for final approval to Fili-Krushel on Monday afternoon.
Obviously that never happened but jeeze if it had…
And there’s this…
Others complained about Williams’s unwillingness to go after hard-hitting stories. Multiple sources told me that former NBC investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers battled with Williams over stories. In February 2013, Isikoff failed to interest Williams in a piece about a confidential Justice Department memo that justified killing American citizens with drones. He instead broke the story on Rachel Maddow. That October, Myers couldn’t get Williams to air a segment about how the White House knew as far back as 2010 that some people would lose their insurance policies under Obamacare. Frustrated, Myers posted the article on NBC’s website, where it immediately went viral. Williams relented and ran it the next night. “He didn’t want to put stories on the air that would be divisive,” a senior NBC journalist told me. According to a source, Myers wrote a series of scathing memos to then–NBC senior vice-president Antoine Sanfuentes documenting how Williams suppressed her stories. Myers and Isikoff eventually left the network (and both declined to comment).
Since the scandal has proved to be something of a release valve for resentment that had been building toward Williams, it could make the climate at NBC News inhospitable to his possible return. “Very, very few people like him,” one senior journalist told me. “The phrase you hear constantly: ‘What goes around comes around.’ ”
My main problem with Sherman’s piece is it’s too myopic. The seeds of destruction for MTP, Nightly, and even Today were planted long before Comcast took over NBC. Putting Gregory in Russert’s chair happened before Comcast. Most of the talent changes at Today, and all their contracts with all their clauses, happened before Comcast took over. Brian Williams being allowed to riff about his career highlight was allowed to occur long before Comcast took over.
Sure, the current regime is to blame for not being able to adequately deal with these issues. But these issues would have never happened if previous regimes had thought to avoid them in advance. Sherman devotes no space to that. He should have.