Ed Driscoll

NBC & Brian Williams: Worst Assumptions Confirmed By Insiders

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There aren’t a whole lot truly new revelations buried within Vanity Fair’s juicy-sounding “Inside Story of the Civil War For the Soul of NBC News” for anyone who closely followed Williams’ implosion here at Ed Driscoll.com and elsewhere in the Blogosphere in February, but it serves a decent summary for anyone coming in late to the party, with some occasionally fun passages along the way:

There is NBC News before Tim [Russert] died and after Tim died,” says the recently departed correspondent. “Tim was our soul, our conscience…. When Tim died, and Brian pushed out John Reiss, there was no one who could influence Brian in a significant way, who could say, ‘Goddammit, Brian, you have to do this.’ ”

* * * * * * *

Since Comcast took control of NBC, the network’s news division—famously termed Comcast’s “crown jewel” by C.E.O. Brian Roberts—has endured one debacle after another. “When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast,” says a former top NBC executive. “That’s all completely fallen apart. I don’t know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It’s been a nightmare.”

Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili’s boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke. Under Burke the network has done well overall—its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18–49 demographic, and NBCUniversal’s profits were up 18 percent last year—but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent. “News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a fucking clue,” says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. “She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.”

Well, NBC and particularly its subsidiary channels MSNBC and (to a slightly lesser extent CNBC) have felt that way to its right-leaning viewers for almost a decade now. But it’s nice to have the assumption confirmed by both Vanity Fair and an NBC insider that the network and its subsidiaries are staffed by lunatics, overgrown children, and/or adolescents posing in bespoke Paul Stuart suits.

Speaking of one of the biggest adolescents at NBC, this is a classic:

“What always bothered Tim was Brian’s lack of interest in things that mattered most, that were front and center, like politics and world events,” says a person who knew both men well. “Brian has very little interest in politics. It’s not in his blood. What Brian cares about is logistics, the weather, and planes and trains and helicopters.”

“You know what interested Brian about politics?” marvels one longtime NBC correspondent, recently departed. “Brian was obsessed with whether Mitt Romney wore the Mormon underwear.” (A supporter says that this characterization is unfair and that Williams reads deeply and broadly, especially about history and politics.)

Really? It certainly wasn’t reflected in his work; doesn’t the quote describing Williams’ obsession with Romney’s Mormon underwear fit the former anchorman perfectly, particularly given both his worshipful genuflection to Obama and his concurrent paranoid ramblings when the Tea Party originally emerged in 2009?

Meanwhile, back at Vanity Fair today:

“If Brian could’ve eaten [in the NBC Rockefeller Center 51st-floor executive dining room*] eight days a week he would’ve,” says another onetime NBC executive. “He would hold court at some table, with some poor mid-level schmo who didn’t know what was going on, and he always seemed to be there when Steve Burke would come in. And [with Burke in earshot], he would make a point of taking someone down a notch. It could be Pat or Steve [Capus] or [P.R. chief] Adam [Miller] or someone else, but over time it got to be Steve Capus a lot. Brian took Steve down. I heard those lunches. I know what he said. He got Burke and Pat Fili very riled up about Steve.”

No wonder Williams appeared to have few friends inside the network, which turned him with vicious force when the news of his serial lies and fables reached a head in mid-February.

More delicious schadenfreude to digest:

“Look. Deborah Turness: I have seen no evidence she knows what she’s doing, but in fairness, she walked into a complete shitstorm there,” says a former top NBC executive. “Today is a horror show. Brian Williams? He didn’t give a rat’s ass what Deborah Turness says. But this is fundamentally not a Deborah Turness problem. She’s just a symptom of the problem…. This is a Comcast problem.”

Officially, in a damage-control mode where almost no one will be interviewed freely and on the record, NBC News declined comment for this article. Unofficially, its loyalists cooperated extensively. While admitting the occasional misstep, they reject the harsh critiques that have trailed in the wake of the Williams scandal, blaming them on a coterie of departed executives, including former NBCUniversal C.E.O. Jeff Zucker and former NBC News chief Steve Capus, who resigned under pressure in 2013. “We know the people saying these things about us, and we know why,” one NBC partisan told me. “Because five years later we are still cleaning up the mess they left behind.”

Good luck to anyone at the network searching for the pony hidden under that network’s self-described sh**storm, or even understanding how tall the pile is. Particularly since hitting CTL-F and typing “Sharpton” in an article otherwise devoted to the woes at NBC’s news division brings up zero results. And given MSNBC’s daily rants against us eeeeeeviiiiil awful raaaacist Satanic boogiemonsters on the right, Williams was fighting for his job as network anchorman, having effectively already ceded the moral support of half the country. Williams himself wasn’t directly responsible for the steaming mess at NBC’s subsidiary network, but it certainly reflected badly on him and earned him few friends on the right.

And finally:

This executive long believed that Williams’s penchant for embellishment was a function of his insecurity when it came to Brokaw, but that it was all essentially harmless. “I always felt he needed to jack up his stories because he was trying so hard to overcome his insecurities,” this executive says. “And he had to follow Tom, which brought its own set of insecurities. He likes to sort of tell these grandiose tales. But, can I tell you, in all the years we worked together, it never rose to the point where we said, ‘Oh, there he goes again.’ I just saw it as one of the quirks of his personality.” It was a quirk, however, that incensed Brokaw, who is still thought highly of inside the news division. “Tom treated that anchor chair as a public trust,” says one former correspondent. “He really was our Walter Cronkite.”

Given what we now know about Cronkite and how on numerous occasions he badly abused the “public trust” of his anchorman’s chair decades before there was a Blogosphere to call the elite media on their bias, false assumptions, and lies and push back, that’s a surprisingly damning quote.

* Sharpton apparently has the lock on the Grand Havana Room.