NBC News chief to step down

March 03, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

NBC News President Michael Gartner yesterday announced his resignation, saying it was for the network's good and something that had been planned for several months. In recent weeks, a firestorm of criticism has surrounded NBC since it admitted rigging the test crash of a GM pickup truck on its "Dateline NBC" newsmagazine.

But others involved behind the scenes at NBC said yesterday that Gartner was forced to resign. Among the warning signs: Top NBC management had isolated him in recent weeks. NBC's affiliates were demanding that Gartner step down after five years of controversy and blunders at NBC News. And polls showing a measureable loss in the credibility of NBC News in the aftermath of the General Motors Corp. debacle.

A former Wall Street Journal editor and owner of several Iowa newspapers, Gartner said he would leave the network Aug. 1.

"Given the publicity of late, I think it best to announce it now in hopes that this will take the spotlight off of all of us and enable us to concentrate fully on our business," the 54-year-old Gartner wrote in a memorandum to his staff.

Among those applying pressure for Gartner's resignation was Arnold J. Kleiner -- general manager of NBC's Baltimore affiliate, WMAR (Channel 2). As chairman of the news section of NBC's powerful affiliate council, Kleiner was in touch with senior NBC management on a regular basis about the GM controversy.

Last week, Kleiner said, he called NBC President and CEO Robert C. Wright and told him, "This thing is not going to go away . . . and Mike is going to have to resign."

According to Kleiner, Wright suggested that he call Gartner himself and explain how the affiliates felt. Kleiner said he did just that.

Kleiner, who has criticized Gartner since the newsman took over leadership of the news division five years ago, said that in his recently assumed capacity as chairman of the news council he had come to like Gartner.

"I told him that," Kleiner said. "But I also told him that I thought he had to step down."

Katherine McQuay, a spokeswoman for NBC News, has declined The Sun's recent requests to interview Gartner.

The Associated Press yesterday quoted an unnamed NBC source who also said Gartner resigned under pressure. The AP's source said Wright met with Gartner over the weekend and demanded his resignation.

"The truth of the matter is that Michael did have discussions with both Bob [Wright] and [executive vice president for employee relations] Ed Scanlon, where he was asking 'Should I stay or should I go?'," the source told the AP.

"The answer was, 'You go.' "

Don Browne, the executive vice president of NBC News who will take over Gartner's responsibilities until a successor is named, yesterday challenged the notion of Gartner being fired.

Browne, Gartner's right-hand man in recent years, said, "I think Michael stepped up to this himself. He felt that in order for NBC News to keep moving, he was going to have to decide. It was too distracting to the organization."

Mounting pressures on Gartner and NBC News included a Times Mirror Co. survey embargoed until today that found a significant drop in the credibility of NBC News following the rigged explosion of the GM pickup truck.

"NBC News has gone from having the highest believability scores of the three major networks to now having the lowest," the Times Mirror poll reported.

The Times Mirror pollsters found that CNN now had the highest believability rating of any network news operation.

Comparisons of CNN and NBC have contributed to Gartner's demise. In October 1989, for example, NBC News was the only network without disaster footage hours after the San Francisco earthquake. Several NBC affiliates, including WMAR in Baltimore, scrapped the network and instead carried CNN's coverage. The cable channel's performance that night and NBC's failure resulted in NBC affiliates around the country signing agreements with CNN and, in effect, becoming cable affiliates for special news coverage.

Facing much criticism of NBC News' performance in covering the earthquake, Gartner called for an investigation, just as he did with the GM controversy. The results of the GM probe, which is being conducted by two lawyers, are expected later this week.

Gartner has made a major contribution to the network. This year, for the first time in two decades, NBC News is expected to make a profit -- a modest one pegged at between $15 and $20 million.

"He has been the great cost- cutter," said Peter Herford, a former CBS News producer and executive who now teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "He turned NBC News into an efficient machine. . . . But it's been bad for the audience and public."

THE BAD NEWS FOR NBC

NBC News has been the source of much questionable TV news coverage in recent years.

* In November 1989, Michael Gartner announced th replacement of Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville on the "Today" show.

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