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Even at 6-5, Gregory Has Big Shoes to Fill at 'Press'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

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

"He was so earnest when he would talk about that," Gregory says. "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 to Gregory became official when interim moderator Tom Brokaw announced yesterday 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 had watched Gregory "grow into one of the best-known and most respected political reporters" and "grow as an interviewer" while anchoring MSNBC's "Race for 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, in 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 CBS's "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 "Face the Nation" 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 would 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."

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 a half-hour 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 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 suddenly in June at age 58, 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 of "Meet the Press," 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 the "Today" show. Over the years, he has drawn attention for his banter on Don Imus's radio show, his dancing with Karl Rove at a Washington dinner and his dead-on impression of Brokaw, who jokingly told him yesterday that he had to drop it. Gregory said viewers might 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; 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 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."

Radio Joe

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.

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

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