By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
NBC is in advanced negotiations with David Gregory to become the moderator of "Meet the Press" and could announce the move as early as Sunday, when Tom Brokaw hopes to wind up his temporary stint on the program, according to network executives familiar with the situation.
The decision, if not derailed at the last minute, would place the network's lucrative franchise in the hands of a journalist who has been a chief White House correspondent, cable news host, frequent fill-in on "Today" and accomplished mimic who has dared to dance on the air. The challenge for Gregory would be to fill the considerable void left by Tim Russert, who turned "Meet the Press" into a top-rated interrogation ritual during a 17-year run that ended with his death in June.
"We have nothing to announce," NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said yesterday. Gregory, 38, declined to comment. The sources, confirming a report this week in the Huffington Post, would discuss private personnel matters only on condition of anonymity.
The other leading contender for the job has been Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, who has blossomed into the network's premier political analyst this year, despite a lack of previous television experience. It is not clear how Gregory's ascension would affect Todd's role, which had also been filled by Russert.
NBC had considered an ensemble format that could have included Gregory, Todd, NBC's Andrea Mitchell and PBS's Gwen Ifill as a way to avoid a tough choice, but the network eventually decided against it, sources said.
Gregory clearly has the requisite journalistic experience and is accustomed to verbal sparring. As a White House reporter, he frequently clashed with President Bush's spokesmen and became a constant target for conservatives who viewed his aggressive style as partisanship. After Vice President Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion, Gregory scolded press secretary Scott McClellan: "Don't tell me you're giving us complete answers when you're not actually answering the question." On another occasion, Gregory said: "Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question." Gregory later apologized to McClellan.
As a substitute co-host on "Today," Gregory displayed an easy on-air manner that meshed well with the morning-television genre. He received additional training this year as host of the MSNBC talk show "Race for the White House" -- now "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" -- and was tapped as moderator during major political events after the cable network decided that Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews were too opinionated for that role.
Skeptics say that Gregory has a less than commanding screen presence as a host, leading them to question whether he could sustain viewer interest in the hour-long Sunday program. As the son of a Broadway producer, he might need a bit more showmanship.
NBC also has to weigh the possibility that, if Gregory were passed over, he might leave when his contract expires next year. ABC is said to be interested in him.
As an 18-year-old freshman at American University, Gregory cut a deal with the ABC affiliate in Tucson to use him as a Washington correspondent. He joined NBC as a Chicago-based correspondent in 1996. Bush nicknamed the 6-foot-5 reporter "Stretch" early in his tenure and later downgraded him to "Little Stretch."
If Gregory is tapped, it would set off a chain reaction in which NBC would likely want to craft a prominent role for the popular Todd and MSNBC would need a new 6 p.m. host. The leading contender for Gregory's White House job appears to be NBC correspondent Savannah Guthrie.
A Gregory promotion would represent an opportunity and a challenge for ABC's George Stephanopoulos, whose program, "This Week," is second in the ratings, behind "Meet the Press." Ratings for all the Sunday shows are expected to decline next year, in the wake of the year-long drama of a presidential election.