Did NBC News stage a psychological intervention on Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, hiring a shrink to interrogate his wife and friends last year in hopes of discovering what can be done to save his cratered ratings?
Reaction in the television news business varied from gobsmacked to amused after The Washington Post's media reporter, Paul Farhi, suggested on Monday that the network seemed to have done just that, “commissioning a psychological consultant to interview his friends and even his wife. The idea, according to a network spokeswoman, Meghan Pianta, was ‘to get perspective and insight from people who know him best.’ ”
Given the sensational play accorded the revelation on various popular news sites—“NBC Hired ‘Psychological Consultant’ to Assess Struggling ‘Meet the Press’ Host,” was the headline on The Drudge Report—it almost seemed reasonable to ask if electroshock treatments would be next.
After Farhi’s claim, in the 11th paragraph of a lengthy story about the once-dominant Washington Sunday show’s three-year ratings “meltdown,” went viral, journalists at rival network news divisions, some of them giggling, offered comments to The Daily Beast ranging from “That was a weird one” to “Holy fuck!”
“That is the craziest thing ever—just stupid,” said a well-placed executive at a rival network, who, like NBC’s other competitors, spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s bad enough that they were doing it. The worst of it is it’s not working.”
Another executive at a different television news outlet said the Post’s revelation was “jaw-dropping….Even when anchors are completely crazy, they [executives and producers] don’t get to do that. The whole business is nuts.”
Gregory’s wife, Washington attorney Beth Wilkinson, a partner in the blue-chip law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, declined to comment on her encounter with the consultant, saying, “No thanks…I’ll leave it to the pros.”
NBC News’s publicity machine was at pains to push back. “Last year Meet the Press brought in a brand consultant—not, as reported, a psychological one—to better understand how its anchor connects,” Pianta emailed The Daily Beast. “This is certainly not unusual for any television program, especially one that’s driven so heavily by one person.”
Farhi tersely responded: “I stand by what I wrote.”
Gregory, 43, who rose to prominence at NBC News covering George W. Bush’s White House, took over MTP six months after the untimely June 2008 death of Tim Russert, NBC’s larger than life Washington bureau chief who dominated the Sunday show landscape for nearly 17 years. It was an impossible act to follow—and the venerable program’s ratings eventually eroded.
A source at NBC News said New York-based Elastic Strategy, a boutique firm run by former advertising executive Audrey Francis, is the “brand consultant” which conducted the interviews with Gregory’s wife and friends a year ago—several months before the August 2013 arrival from Great Britain’s ITV News of NBC’s latest news division president, Deborah Turness.
“Our purpose is to strengthen your brand and propel it to lasting success,” the consulting firm’s web site says. “We do this by working with you to design a specific strategy to guide the development of your brand. This strategy will define how your brand will stand out, lead, and thrive in the evolving marketplace. It will impact every interaction anyone has with your brand.”
It’s unclear how thoroughly Elastic Strategy worked the David Gregory problem, whether NBC took the firm’s advice, or if brand consultant Francis, who apparently did the grilling, has an advanced degree in psychology; she didn’t return phone and email messages.
But according to top television consultant Jack MacKenzie, executive vice president of the consulting behemoth Frank N. Magid Associates Inc., using the discipline of psychology to help an on-air personality would hardly be exotic.
“The relationship between someone on television and a viewer in their living room is a complicated relationship,” MacKenzie said, noting that Magid has trained psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists on staff. “Our work has found historically that the more someone is perceived to be themselves on television, the better the chance they have of connecting with the viewer. And there are a lot of ways to get at breaking down that emotional barrier of the screen and the distance and the pixels, and given the level of complexity in today’s world, I think we are constantly evolving the way we ask questions, the questions we ask and what is important.”
MacKenzie added: “If you can get more information about how David can be a better David, that makes sense.”
In Gregory’s case, according to people who have paid close attention to his career, there has sometimes been a disconnect between the charming, funny, clever man off-camera—who is famous among his acquaintances for his spot-on impressions of politicians and TV personalities—and the occasionally stiff and earnest persona he inhabits on Meet the Press. Sometimes he can seem brittle and accusatory, as when he demanded of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who won the Pulitzer Prize last week for his reporting in The Guardian on indicted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, “Why shouldn’t you be charged with a crime?”
By contrast, Russert was the same relentless yet approachable interrogator on camera and off, and was able to modulate seamlessly between the tough questions of a prosecutor and the personal warmth of an Irish pol. He was, in that sense, a unique figure in TV journalism.
MacKenzie said asking friends and a spouse about an on-camera talent is perfectly reasonable. “The more you know about somebody and what makes them tick, the higher the chance you have helping them be themselves—which is really the hardest thing to do on television,” he said. “It’s such an artificial environment—big, high ceilings, with bright lights and makeup, and all of a sudden the red light turns on and you’re supposed to be as normal as possible. But it’s terribly abnormal. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”