LOOSE LIPS

07.23.14

David Gregory: Dead Head Talking?

NBC News’ chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, and Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski are jockeying to replace the moderator of Meet the Press.

Whenever he got around to reading the unpleasant item in the Page Six column on Wednesday, Meet the Press moderator David Gregory could not have been happy with NBC’s tepid denial that his job is on the line.        

 “We heard the same false rumors and suggest you take them with a grain of salt, as we did,” the New York Post’s premier gossip column quoted a so-called NBC spokesperson.

 “Just a grain of salt?” Gregory might have thought to himself. “Not even a teaspoon?”        

The spokesperson’s quote—which seemed to some observers an act of premeditated murder—was in stark contrast to NBC News President Deborah Turness’ ardent display of support for Gregory only three months ago, when The Washington Post claimed that NBC had hired a psychologist to interview his friends and relatives to help him get a handle on his television identity.        

“I wanted to reach out to reiterate my support for the show and for David, now and into the future, as we work together to evolve the format,” Turness wrote then in a memo to the staff. “NBC News is proud to have David in the important anchor chair of ‘Meet the Press.’…He is passionate about politics, and is committed to getting answers for our viewers on the issues that matter to them the most.”         

The 43-year-old Gregory, who has been hosting NBC News’ venerable Sunday public affairs program since December 2008 to inexorably declining ratings, didn’t respond to an email requesting guidance on his situation.

But the Page Six item—which suggested that Turness will replace Gregory at MTP shortly after the midterm elections in November—prompted an energetic round of speculation among network insiders about who planted it, for what reason, and which ambitious on-air personality will dislodge Gregory from the anchor chair of the third-place Sunday show.        

In multiple conversations that I had with people inside and outside NBC after the item appeared, it was taken as a given that Gregory is toast. The Post reported viewership has sunk an alarming 43 percent—and in recent months MTP has been beaten consistently by ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos and CBS’s Face the Nation, hosted by Bob Schieffer—since Gregory assumed the unenviable position of taking over for the late Tim Russert, who turned the show during his 16 years as moderator into No. 1 must-see Sunday television.

In multiple conversations that I had with people inside and outside NBC, it was taken as a given that Gregory is toast.

The principal pretenders to the MTP throne are NBC News’ chief White House correspondent and political director, Chuck Todd—who anchors The Daily Rundown, MSNBC’s weekday 9 a.m. show—and the cohosts of the three-hour-long Morning Joe program that precedes it, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

According to my sources, Scarborough, 51, a Washington-savvy former Republican congressman from Florida, and Brzezinski, 47, the supremely well-connected daughter of former White House national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, have been aggressively angling for the job in the event of Gregory’s all-but-certain demise. If they were to be picked as MTP cohosts, it would represent a complete departure from the 69-year-old program’s traditional format. On Thursday, Scarborough tweeted: “There have been numerous stories with NBC News sources saying Mika and I have been 'aggressively angling' for MTP. That is false.” There might be a difference in nuance, of course, between “aggressively angling” and “making no secret” that you want the job, as an informed source told me about Scarborough and Brzezinski.

An NBC insider told me the duo had believed they had an understanding with top news division executives that they would be named cohosts of the Sunday Today show in addition to their Morning Joe duties. Then Turness arrived at NBC from Britain’s ITV News in August 2013 and undid the agreement, I’m told. “They were furious,” my source told me, referring to Scarborough and Brzezinski.

While some observers have expressed skepticism that Scarborough, an erstwhile professional politician, should be made co-anchor of a public affairs program that aspires to be strictly nonpartisan and down the middle, Scarborough’s supporters cite the example of Stephanopoulos—who was a sharp-elbowed Democratic operative and a top adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House before he became ABC News’ chief anchor, cohost of ABC’s top-rated Good Morning America, and the host of the frequently top-rated Sunday show.

Indeed, the much-revered Russert, before he joined NBC News, was an aggressively partisan top aide to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

The 42-year-old Todd, who has occasionally clashed with Scarborough on the air, leading some to believe that there’s little love lost between them, has slimmed down in recent weeks to fighting trim. Todd, who wears a goatee, is also deeply knowledgeable about politics and Washington folkways.

Neither Todd, Scarborough nor Brzezinski returned my phone calls, but it’s widely assumed that either the Todd camp or the Scarborough-Brzezinski camp dropped the dime on Gregory, although one veteran NBC producer mischievously suggested: “The people who planted the item are the same people who are making the decision.”