YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Mixed Mood at NBC News Amid 'Dateline' Probe : Television: Staffers are expectant about a new leader, but anxious about how they will rebuild the division's reputation and who will be dismissed.


NEW YORK — While they await the results of the investigation by outside lawyers into the "Dateline NBC" incident, NBC News staffers and executives say that they are trying to focus on their work and put the embarrassing publicity behind them.

The report, which sources say is likely to lead to the dismissal of several staff members involved in the staged car-truck crash on the prime-time newsmagazine, is expected next week.

At the same time, staffers said this week, they are looking forward to the appointment of a new NBC News president to restore the reputation of the division following the departure of Michael Gartner last week. NBC President Robert Wright has begun the search, with the ideal candidate being described by one NBC insider as a "top TV journalist who is a terrific communicator and has a squeaky-clean reputation for integrity."

"The mood here is mixed, and people are anxious about getting moving, getting this 'Dateline' incident behind us," "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw said. "We've been hurt by this, and it will remain part of our record.

"The incident on 'Dateline' was a mistake, and it will be corrected. But it was the exception, not the rule, and I don't think it's fair to say we've been permanently scarred, any more than CBS was permanently scarred by the (lawsuit filed by Gen. William Westmoreland over a 1982 "CBS Reports" documentary) or the Washington Post was permanently scarred by Janet Cooke (the reporter whose Pulitzer Prize was taken away after it was found that the story was based on a fictitious character)."

Brokaw pointed to what he called the "complete and thorough job" that "NBC Nightly News" has done in recent weeks on the World Trade Center bombing and the siege in Waco, Tex., and said, "One of the things I keep saying to people here is that this is what's going to repair it for us, to keep doing solid work."

Still, another NBC News staffer who requested anonymity noted that "it feels as if we have another rung to fall with the 'Dateline' report. The atmosphere is tense because the expectation is that people on 'Dateline' are going to be fired. Many people are calling for the departure of Gartner's management team, and everyone is eager for the new president to come in."

Sources said that a long list of potential candidates for the president's job is being compiled. Executives hope to have a new president in place by the meeting of NBC affiliates in May, and they will be looking outside NBC for "big names" as well as within NBC News, sources said.

Bob Horner, the president of NBC NewsChannel, a 24-hour news service for NBC affiliates, has been mentioned as one possible candidate from within NBC News, along with Bill Wheatley, the former executive producer of "NBC Nightly News."

Tim Russert, who is both the moderator for NBC's "Meet the Press" and its Washington bureau chief, was approached for the job but said that he is happy where he is. "I've got the best job in TV, and I think I can best serve NBC News in its Washington coverage," Russert said.

Brokaw also was approached but said that he was not interested in being his own boss.

Whoever is chosen, he or she will have some additional financial resources available, the anchor said.

"Bob Wright has said that we will have the resources we need to go out and hire some correspondents and make (other) targeted hiring and investment," Brokaw said. "We're not going to go back to the old era of fiscal irresponsibility, but I think there is a feeling that we've got to make an investment--in the broadest sense of the word--in the news division."

Don Browne, the executive vice president under Gartner, has taken over as Gartner's interim successor, but several sources at the network say that he is considered too linked to cutbacks and layoffs under Gartner to get the job on a permanent basis. In an unsigned memo that was distributed within NBC News this week, the "Gartner-Browne regime" was blamed for "shunting aside" numerous award-winning producers and "cheapen(ing) our journalism."

Browne, in an interview, acknowledged that he was a "long shot" for the job since vice presidents of news divisions have not tended to get promoted in recent years. But the former Miami bureau chief for NBC said, "I stand on my own two feet as a journalist, and I'll put my journalistic credentials alongside anybody's."

"There's no question that there should have been more attention to the nurturing of the needs of people here," Browne said. "It's pretty hard to let people go and cut their salaries and win popularity contests. But this organization is on sound footing financially, whereas it was losing a lot of money several years ago. We've had a black eye on the 'Dateline' incident, but we will come through it."

Los Angeles Times Articles