Gregory Gets the Gig

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008 10:08 AM

Sitting in Tim Russert's old office at NBC yesterday, hours after being named the new moderator of "Meet the Press," David Gregory recalled the longtime host offering him advice on being a father.

"He was so earnest when he would talk about that. He would say about parenting what he meant about work: 'You can't fake it. You've got to do the work. They've got to know you're the real deal.' "

The handoff became official when interim moderator Tom Brokaw announced that the network would be turning over the coveted chair to a 38-year-old correspondent best known for his combative questioning in the White House briefing room. It is a move that reshapes the Sunday show landscape and puts considerable pressure on the man with the thick shock of prematurely graying hair.

"I'd be crazy if I wasn't nervous about it," Gregory said. "Succeeding Tim Russert is humbling, and I think I'm appropriately nervous." The deal, he said, was not signed until Saturday night.

NBC News President Steve Capus said he has watched Gregory "grow into one of the best-known and most respected political reporters" and "grow as an interviewer" while anchoring MSNBC's "Race to the White House" this year. "We really feel good about David's ability to do it on live television, which is a different beast," Capus said. "He happens to be darned good in the hosting role as well."

The program's importance was underscored yesterday when Brokaw interviewed Barack Obama, the president-elect's first appearance on a Sunday talk show since the election. Gregory's challenge is to keep "Meet the Press" atop the ratings heap, and several Sunday rivals say they see an opening.

Bob Schieffer, host of "Face the Nation," said Gregory is "very smart and has a great wit about him. . . . He has really big shoes to fill here because they don't get any better than Tim. There's no question it will give all of us an opportunity. We're going to try to beat his brains out, just like Tim and I used to do with each other." Schieffer, 71, is expected to head the CBS program for at least two more years.

Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday," called Gregory "a first-rate broadcaster. . . . But he'd be the first to admit he's not Tim Russert or Tom Brokaw. He's going to have to earn his audience the way they did and all the rest of us do."

George Stephanopoulos, who hosts ABC's "This Week," said Gregory will be "a tough competitor. 'Meet the Press' has a stellar brand and a million-viewer lead. We're going to go out and fight for our share every week."

CNN plans to announce today that correspondent John King, a rising star at the network, will take over its Sunday show "Late Edition," two executives said. The show has been anchored for a decade by Wolf Blitzer, who has been looking to lighten his load since he already hosts 15 hours of weekday programming on "The Situation Room."

So far this season, "Meet the Press" has averaged 3.7 million viewers; "This Week," 2.8 million; "Face the Nation," 2.5 million; "Fox News Sunday," 1.8 million; and "Late Edition," 850,000.

The format of the Sunday programs has changed remarkably little since "Meet the Press" debuted in 1947. All the shows except "Face the Nation" have expanded from 30 minutes to one hour, a change pioneered by ABC's David Brinkley in 1981, and most feature pundit roundtables. They have also moved from a panel of journalists to a single moderator.

At the heart of these programs is the questioning of candidates, administration officials and members of Congress, generally on inside-the-Beltway matters, in the hope of producing something resembling news for the Monday papers. They cater mainly to an elite audience that cares about public policy.

Gregory said that he might tinker with the format but that "there's a core to the show: accountability -- tough, smart, fair interviews -- that will remain. It's the mission of the program. I am not Tim, but I can do my best, with this team, to make him proud."

Russert, a onetime Democratic operative who died in June, turned "Meet the Press" into a test of wills, cross-examining guests and pressing them to resolve contradictions with their previous statements, which he would feature as video clips or on-screen graphics. In what was dubbed the Russert Primary, a presidential candidate's stock would rise or fall depending on how he or she handled the interrogation.

Public figures also use the shows to make news. In late 2006, Obama told Russert he was leaving the door open to a White House bid after previously denying that he would run. In October, Colin Powell chose "Meet the Press" to deliver an endorsement of Obama.

Betsy Fischer, who was given a long-term contract extension as executive producer, said she and Gregory lived in the same dorm at American University and occasionally drank beer at the old Maggie's pizzeria. "Tim always had complete confidence in David" when he filled in on the show, Fischer said. "He knows Washington like the back of his hand."

Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, who was passed over for the job, now must decide whether to accumulate more interviewing experience by hosting an MSNBC show. "Chuck has got limitless opportunities," Capus said, and Gregory said he would seek Todd's input on and off the air.

Gregory will continue as a contributor and backup anchor for "Today." Over the years, he has drawn attention for his banter on the Don Imus radio show, his dancing with Karl Rove at a Washington dinner and his dead-on impression of Brokaw, who jokingly told him yesterday he had to drop it. Gregory said viewers may still see glimpses of his lighter side. "I try not to take myself too seriously," he said.

After covering George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, Gregory was assigned to the White House, where he frequently clashed with presidential press secretaries and was sometimes accused of being a liberal partisan. "A lot of people view what we do through their own political prism," he said.

Asked about criticism that the media have gone easy on Obama, Gregory said: "I'll approach this administration as I approached the Bush administration. I don't make a distinction. Our leaders in a position of power should face tough questions every day."

Gregory faced a test of sorts when MSNBC, under fire for allowing liberal commentators Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews to anchor during the conventions, tapped him to fill that role on election night. "That wasn't by accident," Capus said.

The Los Angeles native is married to Beth Wilkinson, who was general counsel of Fannie Mae until the government takeover in September, and they have three children. Gregory said he has frequently disclosed his wife's role when Fannie Mae came up in interviews and will continue to do so.

At 6-foot-5, Gregory might be the tallest Sunday host, but he is unlikely to tower over the competition as Russert did. Capus said he won't be "overly panicked" if the ratings dip once Gregory takes over next Sunday. "I know the other guys are gunning for us," Capus said. And he's right.

"There's nothing written in stone that 'Meet the Press' has to be the preeminent Sunday morning talk show," says Wallace, who moderated the NBC program in 1987 and 1988. "Now, because of a tragedy that none of us would have dreamt or wanted, the audience is going to be looking around."

Nonstop Talk

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, who have gained a growing following for their on-air banter on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," are branching out. They are launching a morning radio show today, beginning with stations in New York and Los Angeles.

Now this is sobering news, from the NYT:

"The Tribune Company, the newspaper chain that owns The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, is trying to negotiate new terms with its creditors and has hired advisers for a possible bankruptcy filing, according to people briefed on the matter.

"Tribune is in danger of falling below the cash flow required under its agreement with its bondholders, but it is not clear how seriously Tribune is thinking about seeking bankruptcy protection. Analysts and bankruptcy experts say that the hiring of advisers, including Lazard and Sidley Austin, one of the company's longtime law firms, could be a just-in-case move, or a bargaining tactic. The company would not comment on Sunday."

Say: Is there any money left in that federal bailout fund?

The Trib confirms the Times scoop:

"Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co. is working with bankruptcy advisers at investment bank Lazard and law firm Sidley Austin to weigh its financial options, sources said Sunday. 'It's an uncertain and difficult environment,' Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman said Sunday night. 'We haven't made any decision. We're looking at all of our options.' "

That, folks, is not a denial.

Lots of chatter out there about Chris Matthews exploring a 2010 Senate run in Pennsylvania. MarketWatch's Jon Friedman is pumped:

"I feel safe in saying that journalists would love to cover your campaign, Chris, because you're unpredictable and glib and you're liable to say anything. Even though you would run as a Democrat, you're the same guy who has stumbled over 'Obama' and 'Osama' and is known to lapse into Yiddishisms . . .

"You're a promotional genius. This kind of publicity can only help raise your visibility and possibly even goose your ratings at MSNBC.

"Let's face it. It appears that you have lost some of your luster at the all-news cable network. Lately, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow -- who are pretty much, respectively, blunter and wittier versions of you at their best -- have now become the twin faces of the General Electric cable unit.

"Clearly you've needed something hot to stay relevant, keep your mug in the news and boost your ratings. Eureka! Irony! Publicity!"

A very different take from John Brabender in National Review:

"Chris Matthews running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania is an absolutely marvelous idea. That is, if you are Arlen Specter. If the Specter campaign could design their perfect opponent, it would look remarkably like Chris Matthews . . .

"A Matthews candidacy does for Specter what he has trouble doing for himself: It solidifies his support among conservatives."

But wait! Politico: says that "Chris Matthews is expected to sign a long-term contract to remain as host of MSNBC's 'Hardball.' "

Obama seems to be disarming some conservative critics, but as the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn points out, not all:

"Silly me. Here I had been thinking that the wild-eyed foamers at the mouth who were driven nearly to madness by the prospect of Barack Obama's election to the presidency were going to wait until Obama actually did something to offend them before going nuts again. But no. Those who spent most of the 1990s seething that Bill and Hillary Clinton were serial murderers and who devoted the entire 2008 campaign cycle to painting Obama as a mysterious radical aren't relaxing during the transition. Much of their energy these days is devoted to the effort to block Obama from assuming the presidency on the grounds that he's not a "natural-born citizen" of the United States, as the Constitution requires. . . .

"Many of these zealots claim to be mere defenders of the Constitution. But poke them, as I did in some instances, and out rushes the gassy blast of Bill-Ayers-Reverend-Wright-Tony-Rezko-Rashid-Khalidi-Occidental-College-Records and other points of concern that did not, to their dismay, turn the electorate against Obama."

For those who may have missed Jeremiah Wright, he's ba-a-ack:

"For the first time since his retirement last spring, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. returned to the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ this morning with two goals: glorifying God and vilifying the media . . .

"Wright said no amount of media coverage could dampen Trinity spirit. 'Jesus said upon this rock I will build -- listen to the promise -- my church,' he said. 'And the gates of Hell -- listen to the promise -- the gates of Hell -- neither ABC nor CNN -- the gates of Hell -- neither Hannity nor O'Reilly -- the gates of Hell -- neither Time, Time magazine, Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Tribune . . . the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Nothing will be impossible with God.' " I'd venture to say that Fox's prime-time lineup for tomorrow night is all set.

You may recall the New York Times, in a front-page story, accusing People magazine of promising Angelina Jolie favorable coverage in a $14 million deal for pictures of her newborn twins. People flatly denied the allegation. Now Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt basically sides with the magazine:

"I have read the seven-page contract for the photos and interview. It made no mention of positive coverage, an editorial plan, a road map for a layout or any other editorial conditions. It said the magazine was buying the North American rights to 10 photographs and that Jolie and Pitt would answer e-mailed questions . . .

"There is no question that Jolie has a history of trying to manipulate coverage of her, and it is frustrating to [Brooks] Barnes and his editor, Bruce Headlam, that some of the people speaking to me would not speak to him when he was reporting the story. But I think that unless one of his sources is willing to come forward -- on the record -- and state firsthand knowledge . . . the paper needs to correct the impression it left of a deal it cannot prove."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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