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For NBC News President, a Week In the Hot Seat
Convening the session proved to be crucial. "A whole lot of top-down managers wouldn't have thought of that," Williams says. As some major advertisers started bailing out, it was the employees' complaints "rattling around in my head" that had the greatest impact, Capus says.
Imus was trying to arrange a meeting with the Rutgers team, but Capus felt he should move first. "I didn't think it was fair to have those young women have to handle the pressure I was feeling to decide Don Imus's fate," he says.
The next day, April 11, Capus got the green light from Zucker and had a top executive tell Imus in person that MSNBC was dropping the program. Capus called the radio host soon afterward. Imus "was a gentleman," Capus says. "That was the first night I got a good rest."
Days later, Capus was at an industry convention in Las Vegas when Cho murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech. The morning Capus returned, he learned that the killer had sent NBC a package. As he spent hours reviewing the profanity-laced video and barely coherent manifesto with Zucker, Williams and other executives, Capus says he never considered not airing material that he believed to be extremely newsworthy. The only question, he says, was how much of it to make public. Just more than two minutes of the 25-minute video aired that night.
The next morning, April 19, "Today" co-host Matt Lauer told viewers that "there are some big differences of opinion right within this news division as to whether we should be airing this stuff at all." Capus, surprised by the remarks, went to see Lauer. Capus says they had a "back and forth" over how much dissension there actually was at the network.
With his daughter Lindsay being a college freshman, Capus needed no reminder of how the Virginia Tech tragedy was reverberating. He got a "Dear Parent" letter from the president of her school, addressing the issue of violence on campus.
Conservative and liberal commentators alike assailed NBC's handling of the video, and executives at other networks that had quickly lifted the footage took potshots. Capus resented their remarks.
"I'm stunned that people bang down our door at one moment," he says, "demanding we release it uninterrupted and without filter -- then question whether it should have been released in the first place. . . . I'm just stunned at the depths of absurdity and hypocrisy."
Capus bristled when conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said on CNN that "NBC will have blood on its hands the next time someone sends a video to their network of their mayhem."
"We're not above criticism," Capus says, "but let's not take the easy way out and turn to the lowest form of political rhetoric." Still, he understands the public anger, saying: "Sometimes good journalism is bad public relations."
It was the bad PR that led Capus and Williams to tape Oprah Winfrey's show. Later, while the program was airing, the phone rang in Capus's office. Brokaw was calling to congratulate his camera-shy former producer for making the appearance.
"You had to do it," Brokaw told him. "It's okay to have these discussions about how the press makes decisions."
For Capus, two weeks in the limelight was more than enough. "I'm happy to go back to worrying about coverage costs," he says.
The Next Imus?
Stephanie Miller, the wisecracking Los Angeles radio host who is unabashedly liberal -- despite being the daughter of former congressman William Miller, Barry Goldwater's 1964 running mate -- gets this week's MSNBC tryout in the Imus morning slot.