Four months after being unceremoniously dumped by NBC News President Deborah Turness, fired Meet the Press moderator David Gregory apparently is taking his revenge in a local D.C. magazine.
The portrait that emerges from Washingtonian’s depiction of Turness, who was recruited to run NBC News last year from British television, is not pretty.
The damaging piece by Luke Mullins, “How David Gregory Lost His Job”—for which the title subject is widely believed by television insiders to have cooperated copiously, though Gregory is never quoted directly except to state that he’s “proud” of his six-year tenure and “loved” hosting the iconic Sunday public affairs show—portrays Turness, 47, as capricious, unreliable, meddlesome and arguably a tad daffy.
“This is such a serious management problem,” a well-placed NBC source told The Daily Beast on Monday, claiming that the David Gregory debacle recounted in the Washingtonian story was only one in a series of missteps by Turness, who last month fired former ESPN programming executive Jamie Horowitz, whom she had hired 10 weeks earlier with huge fanfare and at great expense, to revamp the troubled Today show brand. Turness explained Horowitz’s abrupt dismissal in a memo: “he and I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right fit.”
A second NBC source, like the first one, said that in the wake of Gregory’s firing, rumors had been circulating within the news division that Turness would be next out the door because of persistently troubling demographic and ratings trends at NBC Nightly News, which is being aggressively challenged by ABC’s World News, and—even worse—continued weakness and turmoil at Today, which in 2012 had lost its long-held dominance to ABC News’s Good Morning America.
Ironically, this source maintained, the negative publicity surrounding Horowitz’s exit “has bought Deborah another year” because the press-shy higher-ups at Comcast, NBC News’s parent company, “have no stomach” for further public bloodletting so soon after two embarrassing, high-profile terminations. Turness and her spokespeople didn’t respond to a request for comment, but it’s safe to say that she and her boss, Pat Fili-Krushel, chairman of the NBC Universal News Group, would vigorously dispute that scenario.
Turness, a successful British television executive, took the helm of NBC News from the top editor’s perch at London-based ITV News in August 2013. According to Mullins’s sources (including, repeatedly and conspicuously, “a person” or “people close to Gregory”), Turness wanted the 67-year-old Washington-centric program to become a “guilty pleasure. Something that might even make you laugh. The country’s most esteemed political talk show, she concluded, needed to loosen up.”
That, in itself, suggested a cheeky disregard for an admittedly sober-sided Washington talk show culture (common to all of the programs populated by what humorist Calvin Trillin once called “the Sabbath gasbags”) in which loyal viewers tend to skew older, and wish to be informed rather than titillated. Why else would someone turn on the TV news on an otherwise tranquil Sunday morning? Turness had some interesting answers.
Starting in January 2014, she began pitching ideas to blow up television’s longest-running franchise. Mullins: “She considered bringing in a studio audience, as you’d see on Ellen or Saturday Night Live. She thought about moving the show to New York City, where the number-two-rated This Week is sometimes filmed. She suggested that Gregory stack newspapers on his desk to give the set an intimate, coffeehouse feel. She insisted on quickening the show’s pace with shorter interviews and more pretaped segments to mix things up. And she pressed the staff to book more politically active celebrities that nonwhite, non-male, non-senior citizens—the people who aren’t watching Meet the Press—might be drawn in by.”
The rapper will.i.am was one such panelist, forced upon Gregory for an excruciatingly awkward roundtable segment. Mullins continued: “Gregory chafed at these changes, people close to him say, fearing they were too radical and would cheapen the brand. But he complied…. At one point, Turness suggested that Gregory have a live band close out the show to commemorate the death of Nelson Mandela. Gregory was appalled, people close to him say…he worried that Turness’s approach was about to turn Meet the Press into a political gong show.”
By March, gossipy newspaper stories proliferated that Gregory’s job was on the line—and Turness stoutly denied the rumors and issued several statements of “support for the show and for David, now and into the future,” as she wrote in one staff memo, “as we work together to evolve the format.” She added: “NBC News is proud to have David in the important anchor chair of ‘Meet the Press.’ ”
Behind the scenes, however, Turness complained “that the show’s guest lineup still lacked ambition and creativity, and she took more control of the program,” Mullins writes. “Sometimes on Fridays, she would contact the staff to say that the guests booked for Sunday weren’t suitable, forcing Gregory’s team to scramble to find replacements, according to people close to him.”
By late July, while outwardly mouthing sweet nothings, Turness had started searching for Gregory’s successor, even trying at one point to persuade Jon Stewart to take the MTP throne. The Comedy Central star politely declined. “I’m sure part of them was thinking, ‘Why don’t we just make it a variety show?’ ” Mullins quotes Stewart from an interview with Rolling Stone.
Then on August 14—after CNN broke the news of Gregory’s termination and his replacement by Chuck Todd, as Gregory was picking up his kids from summer camp in New Hampshire—NBC News scrambled to announce the messy and humiliating exit. No face-saving white lie was even possible, let alone permitted for Gregory, whose two-decade NBC career had fizzled in an instant.
“It all seems so frantic and crisis-ridden,” said a television news insider about Turness’s management style after reading the Washingtonian article. “To have a band? And a studio audience? What is she thinking?”