"NBC Nightly News" has taken veteran Supreme Court reporter Carl Stern off the air and no longer has an on-air correspondent assigned to the court, network officials confirmed yesterday.
Stern, an attorney, still keeps an eye on the court. But his job has been reduced to writing memos, helping other reporters with their pieces and contributing occasional stories to "Sunday Today."
Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," said he wants to cover the impact of major court rulings with reporters around the country "and not so much the internal court decisions. The decisions are pretty much going to be 7-2 from now on. I want to take the story to the country. I don't want to cover it from Washington. I would do Roe versus Wade from Missouri."
Sources say Stern, 54, took a substantial pay cut when he signed a three-year contract in June. Stern declined to comment, saying: "I'm not going to bite the hand that's fed me well for 32-plus years."
NBC staffers likened Stern's demotion to the benching of an all-star player and said Friedman is trying to cultivate a small cadre of well-recognized reporters. "It's a huge, huge waste of talent," one staffer said. "Nobody knows better than Carl how to cover the Supreme Court.
"It's terribly awkward for Carl. He's not a producer, he's not a correspondent; he's just kind of there. 'Nightly News' has made it absolutely clear they don't want him. It's very demeaning."
While the Big Three networks all have been squeezed by the recession, ABC's Tim O'Brien, a lawyer, still covers the court full time, and CBS's Rita Braver covers the court and the Justice Department.
"It's one of the three branches of government, and it doesn't seem an extravagance or a luxury to have one reporter assigned to it," said George Watson, ABC's Washington bureau chief.
Timothy Russert, NBC's bureau chief here, maintained that Stern's new role "does not lessen our commitment to covering the court" and that Stern helps ensure that other reporters' stories are "legally sound."
"He's there day in and day out. ... He writes the clearest and most concise memos on what's going on at the court," Russert said. "I asked Carl the other day for a list of the 10 most important cases coming up."
NBC has assigned the major court cases this term to Lisa Myers, Bob Kur and Robert Hager, all of whom cover other beats. "It's a different way of packaging it," Russert said.
NBC sources said Stern no longer attends oral arguments or reviews the weekly list of cases the court has been asked to hear. While he previously reported a dozen or more stories a year from around the country on major cases, the sources said, he has stopped gathering such footage.
Stern still pinch-hits for "Nightly News" in a crisis. In August he was drafted to do a piece on the antiabortion protests in Wichita, Kan., during a three-week period when NBC did not send a correspondent there. But he played only a minor on-air role during the Clarence Thomas confirmation battle.
Stern, who became television's first full-time Supreme Court reporter in 1967, has also covered the trials of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Patty Hearst, John Hinckley, Oliver North and Marion Barry.
While Friedman said he plans to use reporters around the country to cover Supreme Court cases, NBC recently closed its New York, Miami and San Francisco bureaus. "We're still putting out the product in a 16-ounce package, but there's only about four ounces of news in there," an NBC reporter said.