NBC News President Michael Gartner Was Bred-in-the Bone Newspaper Man

When he ventured into television he had to deal daily with “enemies from within”

Washington Journalism Review, October 1989: Along about 6:30 on mornings when peripatetic television weatherman Willard Scott is on the New York set of NBC’s “Today” show, he usually spots Michael Gartner in the control room. “He tells me a joke,” says Scott. “And sometimes I tell him one.” What kind of jokes? “Hey! What kind do you think?” he says, laughing. Scott figures, “Michael kind of looks at me as comedy relief for the day.”

Gartner, the beleaguered president of NBC News, can surely use a morning laugh. Lord knows what the day will bring. Since taking the reins in August of last year this bred-in-the-bone newspaperman, champion of the First Amendment and world-class editor of the Wall Street Journal and the Des Moines Register, has been subjected to almost daily pastings from his print brethren.

He most assuredly has enemies from within. Most days, Gartner says, he can count on opening two or three newspapers and reading all about a little private meeting he’s had with maybe four staffers. His chatty, upbeat Friday memos to his staff are regularly passed on to selected television critics.

One day last summer rumors roared along the Avenue of the Americas that Bryant Gumbel had gone into the office of NBC President and CEO Robert Wright and asked for Gartner’s head. It’s reported that the domineering co-host of NBC’s “Today” show thought Gartner had “left him hanging out there” when the press had a field day with a bootlegged copy of the Gumbel Grumble. It was a searing critique of “Today” that, among other things, excoriated Willard Scott for “bad taste” and set off a public feud that took several months to cool down. (Wright denies any such visit from Gumbel.)

It’s also reported that several major affiliates have asked Wright to fire Gartner. Although Wright says that no more than two people have come to him to ask for Gartner’s ouster, there is strong evidence that many of NBC’s affiliates are wary of the news president.

“Nobody knows where Mr. Gartner is coming from,” says one NBC affiliate executive. “He’s a disaster.” (“disaster” and “arrogant” are the words most frequently used by Gartner’s detractors.) At intervals, editors on key publications get “tip-off” phone calls from the depths of 30 Rockefeller Center heralding the “news” that Gartner will be out on his ear “by the end of the week.”

“Oh, you mean, we’re going to shoot Michael Gartner tomorrow morning?” asks Wright, jokingly. “It’s ridiculous,” he says when asked about the rumors swirling around Gartner. “It’s the work of very vindictive people.”

Gartner is the object of intense media and internal speculation: Is he General Electric’s man, come to cut costs at all cost? Is he mandated to chop NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw down to size? And, having achieved these ends, will he cut out of the job and head back to his Tudor manor on Waterbury Road in Des Moines and his job as editor of the Ames, Iowa, Daily Tribune? Or, as some have suggested, will he soar to higher levels at NBC or GE?

If Gartner were a wimp or, possibly, a diplomat, he might have avoided some of the increasingly embarrassing media attention. But he is enormously complex, sometimes precipitous, admittedly self-confident. By all accounts, Gartner digs in. Jim O’Shea, a Washington news editor for the Chicago Tribune who worked for Gartner at the Register, says, “Mike could be arbitrary. He’d make quick decisions and sometimes they worked out and sometimes they didn’t.” Bob Wright acknowledges Gartner’s “demanding, outspoken personality” and admires the way “he tinkers to get right into the bowels of the organization. He very much wants clarity of communication.” This doesn’t make for glitzy PR, Wright admits. “They want news presidents who chat about stars and new programs. That’s just not Michael.”

With the news department $50 million in the red, “Nightly News” entrenched in third place and a mission to put NBC News in a break-even position, Gartner has presided over a succession of unpopular, nonnegotiable decisions that have dismayed some, angered others. Because he reacts in kind”at times remote, at others, peremptory” he has alienated some of his troops, even though most understand the need for economy in the current climate of network news.

Some of Gartner’s earliest decisions are still rankling a number of staffers at NBC, partly because of the insensitivity with which people were handled. As a cost-cutting measure, he moved the broadcast of “Sunday Today” from New York to Washington to consolidate its operation with “Meet the Press,” under one executive producer, Jerry Solomon.

Friends of Barbara Cohen, who is now Washington bureau chief for CBS, say she was “faxed” out of her position as executive producer of “Meet the Press.” At least that’s how news of the move was transmitted from Gartner’s office to the Washington bureau newsroom, where some staffers found out about Cohen’s new status as “producer” before she did.

Bill Chesleigh, the revered weekend executive producer in New York, was abruptly fired, after 24 years at the network, when he strongly objected to Gartner about the “Sunday Today” move. “A lot of people tried to talk Gartner out of it, including Brokaw,” says a source. A computer letter to Gartner protesting Chesleigh’s ouster and signed by more than 100 staffers, was also to no avail. Chesleigh refused to comment on the matter.

Gartner’s mysterious appointment of NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol to an additional job as a senior vice president of NBC News in charge of the “Today” show is viewed as his way of smoothing relations with Bryant Gumbel. (Gartner denies that the Ebersol appointment was related to any displeasure on the part of Gumbel.)

Ebersol, a longtime friend of Gumbel’s, reportedly also “tight” with Brandon Tartikoff, the influential president of NBC entertainment, is expected to bring back the razzle-dazzle “Today” lost along with former Executive Producer Steve Friedman. His first revamping move was to oust longtime “Today” anchor John Palmer in favor of Deborah Norville, one of Gartner’s hottest stars.

Anchor Tom Brokaw plays down his own role in the Gartner hire. His approval, at the very least, had to be absolute. “You don’t go pissing away money and call it good journalism,” Brokaw says, with some heat. Although some reports suggest that Brokaw has cooled to Gartner, the anchor says, “I like him. A lot of people misunderstand him. He does not suffer fools. And that sometimes comes off as being arrogant. He’s an unexpectedly shy man. But in his public appearances that reserve comes off as brusqueness. He has a prickly sense of humor.”

For some, Gartner’s stubbornness reflects the arrogance of a print journalist who has “no interest in television.” A news executive from another network says, “I can’t tell whether Mike really likes or doesn’t like television. People inside have the feeling he doesn’t.” Wright acknowledges that among the things making some NBC affiliates “nervous” is Gartner’s “print background.”

Gartner perpetuates this view by continuing to write a monthly “Viewpoint” column for the Wall Street Journal and a three-times-a-week syndicated column on language, “Words, Words, Words,” for King Features. “It says to people,” notes Bob Sutton, president and CEO for Media General Broadcast Group, “my roots are still in newspapers. I’m just passing through.”

While some NBC staffers lambaste Gartner’s lack of “collegiality,’’ others find him warm, witty and accessible, and are reassured by his solid news background. “I don’t know anyone who feels moderately about Mike,” says Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register. For her, “Mike has been an astonishingly forceful mentor.”

Talk to almost anyone at the Wall Street Journal, where he was an editor for 14 years, and you get a torrent of praise for Gartner’s respect for writers.

When Gartner was given the chanc to be executive editor of the Des Moines Register in 1974, Fred Taylor, who was the Wall Street Journal’s managing editor, says he offered Gartner his own job to try to get him to stay. “It broke my heart when Mike left the Journal,” says Taylor

But Gartner wanted to go home to Des Moines and the newspaper where his father, Carl, 87, was a highly respected writer and editor for nearly 50 years, and where Gartner had cut his journalistic teeth from the age of 15.

This Horatio Alger story doesn’t have a completely happy ending, however. Gartner’s path is also strewn with some embittered Register journalists who still resent his attempt in 1984 to buy the Register, with financial assistance from Dow Jones & Co. A resultant bidding frenzy was won by Gannett. The buyout lacerated morale at the paper and made Gartner a millionaire by virtue of his stock in the company

“There are people here who would definitely put a hand in the fire for Gartner,” says Register reporter Ken Pins. “Other people don’t trust him.” Gartner, 50, looks like the small town editor he professes to be. Much has been written about his suspenders and bow ties. the green rural Ames Daily Tribune mail tube he has planted outside his NBC office. His often disarming demeanor.

In a shirt-sleeve interview, he has a pixie charm. When a reporter’s new tape recorder conks out, he vamps graciously while Peggy Hubble, director of news information, scurries off to the news desk to scare up another. During a long session, he takes only one phone call, from his son, Christopher, 12. “If I tell him I have people in the office, he always wants to know if it’s “Mr. Brokaw.’ He idolizes Tom,” explains Gartner, putting down the phone with a pleased-father look.

But he’s obviously press-shy. When Hubble, who has been sitting in on the interview, ducks out a few minutes later to make a phone call, he calls after her, almost involuntarily, “Don’t leave me!” For those who venture that the powerful Brokaw is pulling all his strings, consider that some of Gartner’s decisions are unilateral. He’s the one, he says, who decided that both “Meet the Press and Sunday Today” would be anchored by Garrick Utley, who was a fellow student of Gartner’s at Carlton College in Minnesota. That meant Chris Wallace was out of his job as “Meet the Press” anchor.

When Wallace was offered the position of national affairs correspondent, he high-tailed it for ABC, as chief correspondent for the new “Prime Time Live.” They all but showed Wallace the door,” says a veteran NBC correspondent. Did Gartner feel he was losing a potential star in Chris Wallace? The sparkling blue eyes turn chilly. “I thought of him as a very good reporter,” he says, evenly. You can hear the period.

No one is quite sure who really wanted Ken Bode removed from his prestigious beat as national political correspondent. But when he was offered the number two position on Capitol Hill, after Andrea Mitchell, Bode left for academia.

“Gartner didn’t give these people the sense that he respected them, understood their work and valued them,” says one inside source. “It’s as if he decided to have a couple of big stars, Gumbel and Brokaw, and everybody else is pretty interchangeable.”

Gartner, whose understanding of stars runs to the kind who win Pulitzer prizes, has run afoul of the network star system. Roone Arledge, ABC’s president of news and sports, has, in a dozen years, built a glittering team of all-stars, many raided from NBC and CBS. CBS also has plenty of celebrity journalists. By the time Gartner arrived, NBC’s bench consisted of a number of strong, first-class correspondents, none of whom had the charisma, or, possibly, the opportunity, to shine.

Then, one day last spring, Gartner lost what many considered to be NBC’s last female superstar when Connie Chung’s agent, Alfred Geller, walked into his office to renegotiate her contract. Chung, who was pulling down what Gartner already considered an obscene $900,000 annually, was about to be one of three co-anchors on the network’s new magazine show, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

As Gartner told it at a meeting of Des Moines Register journalists last May, Geller said, “Here’s what another network has on the table.” “What’s that?” Gartner bit. “He says, ‘$1.8 million the first year; $2 million the second; $2.2 million the third year.’” Chung also wanted to anchor and have complete editorial control over a program of her own. And she wanted, her agent said, “a quick answer.” Gartner said he had one: “You’re out of your fuckin’ mind.”

Despite pleas from Wright and Brokaw (“Tom tried to keep Connie here,” says Gartner), Chung slipped over to CBS. There, she anchors the “Sunday Evening News,” substitutes for Dan Rather and is solo anchor on the revamped “West 57th,” which was rechristened “Saturday Night with Connie Chung.”

Gartner’s response was to hire CNN’s Mary Alice Williams for a reported $500,000. (Williams was quoted as saying that her courtship and jump took place in 10 days. Press aide Hubble says NBC was after Williams before Chung said she planned to leave.) A week later Gartner signed NBC correspondent Maria Shriver to a new four year contract for a reported $475,000.

Two for less than the price of one? A bargain? Or “bargain basement” talent, as one NBC staffer put it? It all depends on how you define “stars. One day in May, Gartner reeled off his all-star list to an incredulous and hostile group of NBC affiliates in San Francisco: Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, John Chancellor, Mary Alice Williams, Maria Shriver, Garrick Utley, Deborah Norville and Willard Scott.

“We happen to believe all those people, except for Brokaw, at best are only second string,” says a co-owner of two NBC affiliates who asked not to be identified. Bob Sutton of Media General says he “loves Tom Brokaw,” who is Number One on Sutton’s Tampa station. And he’d rank Willard Scott right up there, too. “Willard’s probably one of the greatest communicators in broadcasting.” But Sutton is less impressed with Gartner’s other “stars.” “Mary Alice Williams is not going to be a star,” he says. “And Maria Shriver? Give me a break!”

And many affiliates and NBC staffers, alike, are appalled at the choice of WNBCTV anchor Chuck Scarborough as the third anchor, with Shriver and Williams, on the egregiously lackluster “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The latest of more than a dozen failed NBC newsmagazines previewed in three pilots this summer and may or may not be on the NBC schedule in January

Although the pilots excelled in the ratings during the summer doldrums, nobody’s betting the store on that one. “It is premature right now even to speculate” about the show’s future, Gartner says. “If Scarborough is his idea of a star,” says a network insider who is not one of the lethal leakers, “then what message does that send to the news division?”

Then there was the awful day Gartner found out there was a revolution in China and Tom Brokaw wasn’t there. Neither was ABC’s Peter Jennings. But CBS’s Dan Rather and CNN’s Bernard Shaw reported from the midst of the student revolt as Chinese Government troops closed in on Tiananmen Square. Their networks, which had brought in equipment at enormous expense, transmitted memorable pictures. At home, NBC affiliates were frustrated and furious with the president of NBC News.

“We didn’t know there was going to be a revolution,” is Gartner’s response. But sources say that saving money, not news judgment, was the major reason Brokaw wasn’t in China in the first place. When Brokaw was dispatched to Beijing nearly three weeks later, “all it proved,” says another affiliate executive, “was that NBC could get a signal out of China and Tom Brokaw could ride a bicycle.” Many affiliates don’t cotton to the soft human interest features ending many “Nightly News” broadcasts and favored by both Gartner and Brokaw. “

We’re contemplating contracting for a nonexclusive pick-up of CNN,” says an NBC affiliate executive. “We’re that worried.” There’s the stolid fact that NBC “Nightly News” remains in third place. Gartner, who points out the miniscule difference in the ratings between the three network news programs, believes Oprah Winfrey lead-ins to the local news on ABC and CBS affiliates could be a factor in the embarrassment of a third-place newscast preceding a top-rated entertainment lineup. According to Manager of Network News Research Jo Holz, in the top 25 markets Winfrey’s show airs on 15 ABC affiliates, eight of CBS’s and only one of NBC’s.

You could say Gartner is in a no-win situation. Things were already bleak when he took over NBC News. The staff had been through two vicious firing waves and a demoralizing strike. And NBC is the only one of three networks without at least one money-making magazine show. Gartner’s arrival at NBC followed the highly public clash between his predecessor, Larry Grossman, and Brokaw. According to well-placed sources, Brokaw was displeased by Grossman’s lack of journalistic experience. And, according to one former executive, Grossman felt that Brokaw didn’t have the “heft and seriousness to carry the network against Peter Jenning and Dan Rather.”

Accordingly, Grossman went out after both Diane Sawyer and ABC’s Ted Koppel “hammer and tong,” says a source. The idea would have been to bolster Brokaw’s third-place position by putting him into an anchor rotation with Sawyer and Koppel, allowing each of the three to spend the remaining time reporting from the field.

The deal, had it been possible to persuade Koppel to leave ABC, or Sawyer to consider NBC, or Brokaw to agree to a shared anchorship, would have cost millions. GE, however, stopped Grossman cold. Dollar signs, not stars, are in GE’s eyes. When the mega-conglomerate went shopping for a news president in 1988, it was seeking a kindred soul. Gartner seemed a readymade candidate. After being fired from the Des Moines Register, he had joined Gannett as an executive (a job that included a now historic stint as a budget-slasher at the Louisville Courier-Journal), and with partners Gary Gerlach and David Belin, had also founded his own chain of small newspapers, Midwest Newspapers, Inc.

By the time Gartner got Bob Wright’s offer, he was bottom-line oriented. But when Wright asked him if he’d be interested in the job, Gartner says he at first protested: “You don’t want me to come to NBC News. First of all, I’m the happiest guy in the world. I’m half-time a country ean in Iowa and half-time a newspaperman in Washington at Gannett’s USA Today. And of all, I’ve never been in television and third, I’m not panting for this job.” Wright convinced him. “You know management.” Gartner says Wright told him. “You know news, you know the business as the journalism aspects and that’s what I’m looking for. You can learn television.” Finally, he agreed, telling Wright. “This your risk, not mine.”

With the arrival of Gartner, the fate of Tim Russert, Grossman’s right-hand man, hung in the balance. Russert told Electronic Media that he had considered three job offers including one at another network before “landing on his feet,” as a colleague puts it, as a senior vice president and Washington bureau chief. It’s a job he’s tackled with gusto and it’s no exaggeration to say that, despite the painful beat shuffle that coincided with his arrival, morale has soared in Washington. “The guy’s bouncing around like a popcorn ball, he’s so excited,” says a Washington bureau staffer.

Many at NBC share the view that Russert was “saved from Michael Gartner by GE chairman Jack Welch.” But whatever their original relationship, Gartner and Russert are now close, and in constant phone contact. Russert says he thoroughly approves of Gartner’s cost-cutting measures, and Gartner glows when he talks about Russert. “Tim has brought an energy and an edge into that bureau that’s really outstanding. He’s one of a half-dozen people I’ve met in my life who are instinctive news people. More than that, he is one of the key people in top management.”

Gartner spends long weekdays at NBC in New York where he and his wife, Barbara, maintain an apartment. He jets home to Des Moines on Friday afternoons to spend the weekends with his family, which also includes another son, Michael, 9, and a daughter, Melissa, 19. Proof, some say, of his impermanence. But Gartner claims his four-and-a-half-hour door-to-door commute isn’t difficult at all. “Grant Tinker ran the whole place for five years going on a hell of of a lot farther commute [to Los Angeles].”

Gartner is weary of being picked on. “I have much bigger challenges managing the present than worrying about the past,” he says. He notes that with the rapid changes taking place in the industry, it is imperative “to anticipate what will happen, so we can design change, do it at our own speed and in our own way or else change will manage us.”

To that end, in June, he set up a central news management team, headed by former Miami Bureau Chief Donald Browne, which will, he says, “change the way NBC News operates.” The team oversees news assignments and tries to avoid sending correspondents for more than one show out on the same story. “The reporters and producers now work for the news desk. They don’t work for any particular show,” Gartner explains.

So far, many NBC staffers don’t seem to be taking the team seriously. “ “˜Nightly News’ sails its own course,” says one. “It gets what it damn well pleases, desk or no desk, Don Browne or no Don Browne.”

Gartner has also been getting his own team in place, paring, but not chopping staff. “I’ve been eliminating a layer of middle management,” he explains, “and trying to deploy as much into news-gathering as possible.” One way or another, Gartner says, the news staff has been reduced by 100 since he signed on. The cuts have come largely from finance, administration and support people in some of the bureaus, especially overseas.

Tom Ross, one of Gartner’s four senior vice presidents, heads up a new strategic planning department that is investigating ways to cut the costs of news gathering and production, and of marketing the product of NBC News through a video news service. “If someone said, would you produce a five minute news segment for my cable channel, I’d give it a hard look,” says Gartner. The same would go for a request from an affiliate. “I don’t think the NBC newsgathering team has to serve only NBC News.”

Among the changes so far: the acquisition of a 38 percent share of Visnews (with Reuters and the BBC), a global news-gathering agency that cuts down the necessity of using NBC crews. NBC News is also making reciprocal arrangements with affiliates to use their personnel from time to time. Gartner calls it “rent-a-tech.”

Not everyone shares Gartner’s optimism that his budget chops are also good journalistically. “If you’re trying to save all this money on producers and cameramen,” observes one industry source, “you can’t make good programs and good pieces.”

Since Gartner has been president he’s saved so much money that he fully expects the division to break even by next year. “Nightly News,” however, hasn’t budged from third place, and Gartner is possibly one of the few who thinks the quality of the show has improved.

Unlike Willard Scott, most of Gartner’s troops are not happy campers. But affiliate relations, clearly more important, are being attended to. Gartner says he met this past summer with news directors from seven key affiliates to talk about ways of servicing them better and to deal with administrative complaints.”

The question now at NBC News is whether Gartner is in it for the long haul. He says, “I expect to be president of NBC News for the foreseeable future.” Whatever the time or circumstances of Gartner’s eventual leave-taking — NBC News presidents seldom last more than two years — speculation has already begun about his successor. The bets at the moment are on Russert and Ebersol, both of whom stay close to corporate management. But for now, Gartner’s boss cheers him on. “He’s done a hell of a job,” says Wright.

Michael Gartner and NBC News: Can A Newspaperman Win the Network Game?

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.