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Gregory gets his official 'Press' pass

The new moderator of NBC's political chat show says he is humbled to replace the late Tim Russert.

December 08, 2008|Matea Gold and Faye Fiore | Gold and Fiore are Times staff writers.

WASHINGTON AND NEW YORK — "Meet the Press," the predominant political forum on television, entered a new era Sunday as NBC announced that David Gregory will take the helm of the program, six months after the death of longtime moderator Tim Russert.

The selection of Gregory, NBC's chief White House correspondent, was no surprise, having leaked out days ago after weeks of speculation.

Interim host Tom Brokaw confirmed the news at the end of Sunday's show, introducing Gregory as a "great friend and cherished colleague." The 38-year-old called the appointment "daunting and humbling" and briefly choked up on the air as he described the program's "great purpose."

"There's a lot of pressure," he said later. "I'm not Tim Russert, but I can, working with this team, try really hard to make him proud."

The furious conjecture that preceded the announcement underscored the lasting potency of the program, the oldest on television. For six decades, "Meet the Press" has been a political mainstay, one of the preeminent platforms for elected officials and policymakers. John F. Kennedy called it "the 51st state." Sweating while the boss squirms in the hot seat is a Sunday morning ritual for aides up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

There's no sign of that changing with a new administration. President-elect Barack Obama was Brokaw's guest on Sunday, after a month in which his aides have cropped up regularly on all four Sunday morning network shows.

Together, the public-affairs programs occupy a rare niche in a landscape cluttered with glib political chatfests.

"It's the most old-fashioned kind of journalism," said Bob Schieffer, moderator of CBS' "Face the Nation." "It is the last place where people don't scream and holler. There are no bells and whistles. We basically turn on the lights, sit down and ask the questions."

Schieffer, who was close friends with Russert, called his successor "a very good choice."

"He'll be a tough competitor, and I intend to give him no break whatsoever," he said.

Indeed, Gregory's arrival could recharge the already pitched rivalry among the Sunday shows after 11 years in which "Meet the Press" has dominated the ratings.

Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday" and a former "Meet the Press" moderator, called Gregory "a very solid newsman" but noted that "he's got big shoes to fill."

"There's going to be some shopping around," he added. "That creates an opportunity for me and all the other competitors."

George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's "This Week," declined to say how the change could affect the fortunes of his second-place program but said the new NBC moderator is a "terrific broadcaster."

Gregory comes to the job with substantial political bona fides, having covered three presidential campaigns and the Bush White House, where he was known for his pugnacious questions. But there's no doubt that he faces a steep challenge in living up to the legacy of Russert, who served as moderator for nearly 17 years before dying from a heart attack in June. His zest for the job and prosecutorial style gave him a national profile.

"Tim left such a void there that there was no natural to step into that role," said Garrick Utley, a former NBC anchor who preceded Russert in the post.

Network executives spent months mulling over candidates such as NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, NBC political director Chuck Todd, PBS anchor Gwen Ifill and CBS anchor Katie Couric.

But throughout the process, Gregory was the front-runner, said NBC News President Steve Capus, citing his reporting and interviewing chops.

"While we had any number of conversations that I would characterize as passing interest from other folks, I always knew David had the top spot and it was going take something extraordinary to bump him out of that position," Capus said. Tapping someone within NBC was key, he added.

"We don't have the luxury of ramping up and getting up to speed," he said. "The country is in such deep turmoil on so many fronts that we thought it was important to be ready to go from Day One. This is the ultimate Washington insider's job, and David has proven, day in and day out, that this is a job that was meant to be."

Network executives had contemplated naming Todd or Mitchell as permanent panelists on the show's round table, but Capus said he wanted to give the program flexibility to bring in different guests. "Why box yourselves in?" he said.

Gregory is giving up his daily afternoon show on MSNBC but will continue serving as a substitute anchor on the "Today" show. He'll begin moderating "Meet the Press" next Sunday. Betsy Fischer, who is continuing as the program's executive producer, said she thought the transition would be "seamless."

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