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Who Knew What in Questions After 'Dateline' Apology : Television: NBC silences staffers in the inquiry by two outside lawyers.

February 19, 1993|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Ten days after NBC's extraordinary on-air apology for the staging of a car-truck crash on "Dateline NBC," many questions remain unanswered about who knew what in the news division's chain of command and about what action may be taken against those found to be responsible.

Sources at NBC said that those involved in the original story--including executive producer Jeff Diamond, senior producer David Rummel, segment producer Robert Read and correspondent Michelle Gillen--have been instructed by management not to discuss the case with the press pending an investigation by two outside lawyers hired last Friday.

The attorneys--Robert Warren, a senior partner in Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles, and Lewis Kaden, a partner in Davis, Polk & Wardwell in New York--have been interviewing staffers and looking at notes and tapes from the incident.

In response to a lawsuit filed by General Motors last week, NBC acknowledged that in the course of preparing a report last year about the safety of GM trucks, an outside testing firm it hired used incendiary devices on a 1977 pickup truck to ensure that a fire would erupt if gasoline leaked and also fitted the truck with an improper gas cap. NBC personnel knew about these procedures but did not report them on the air when the story was broadcast in November.

While NBC executives have called for an "urgent and intense" review, the network has not said when the lawyers' report will be written or whether the results will be made public.

"This is an internal review that we are going to conduct in a timely fashion, but we don't want to put time constraints on it," said NBC News spokeswoman Peggy Hubble. "It's inappropriate to comment while the investigation is ongoing, and, after all the talking we've done publicly, we don't feel we have to give the press a daily update on the review."

A key question to be determined by the investigation is who at NBC had knowledge of the rigging of the crash. TV journalists say that normal practice is for both senior news management and a corporate lawyer to review such an investigative piece, but that doesn't necessarily mean they would have been informed of or thought to ask about details of the crash, which occupied only about a minute of the 15-minute report. NBC News President Michael Gartner has said that he did not know about the mishandling of the crash.

"NBC has a real problem in this case," said one network source who is knowledgeable about the law and journalism. "If some producers or executives up the line knew about the use of rockets, then how can they hold one or two individuals responsible?"

Some NBC News staffers have questioned why the network hired lawyers to investigate the case rather than, as CBS News did in Gen. William Westmoreland's 1982 lawsuit against a "CBS Reports" documentary, asking a respected journalist to conduct an internal inquiry. NBC's Hubble said that management felt outsiders would provide the most impartial investigation.

Although some at NBC said bringing in outside lawyers is typical of the management style of General Electric, NBC's parent, one source speculated that hiring attorneys may in part be to protect lawyer-client confidentiality and to protect the network in the event that someone who might be fired decides to file a lawsuit.

"When CBS had Bud Benjamin (the CBS News executive who conducted the network's investigation of the Westmoreland documentary) look into what went wrong, the information was admissible in Westmoreland's lawsuit because there was no attorney-client privilege," noted an investigative reporter at another network.

On Wednesday, Gartner, in a memo to his staff, said that he had asked three NBC journalists to assist in the investigation: New York-based producer Bill Wheatley, Washington-based correspondent Lisa Myers and Burbank-based producer Arthur Lord. He said that they will "make themselves available to the lawyers to explain to them the practices and procedures that are supposed to be followed here, the traditions and history of the organization and the general rules of network television."

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