NBC's First Casualty

March 08, 1993

If Michael Gartner is the only NBC News employee to lose his job over the fake-flames incident, then the network has still not learned its lesson. As president of the news division, Mr. Gartner can justifiably be held responsible for the disgraceful incident. But he did not take part in the artificial ignition of a truck in an ostensible test. He did not learn of it until afterward. But he did try to excuse it away, and some feel he created a climate at NBC rTC News that encouraged this sort of chicanery.

It is ironic that Mr. Gartner should be forced out because of a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics. There is no greater sin in the news business than faking the facts, as a "Dateline NBC" team did in igniting flames in a test crash of a GM pickup truck. Mr. Gartner has a reputation for the highest integrity and certainly would not have condoned this trick. His big error was in jumping too quickly to his staff's defense. Without knowing all the facts, he defended the "Dateline" segment. In so doing, he put the spotlight on the real culprit: the competition for ratings among network news programs. His competitive instincts dictated a quick rebuttal to GM's charges that the test was staged. Only afterward did he learn -- from GM, not his own people -- how wrong he was. The result: NBC dropped from the highest believability scores of the three major networks to the lowest in a Times Mirror poll.

Mr. Gartner might have been forced out of NBC, anyway. A veteran newspaper editor, he was brought in by the network's owner, General Electric Co., to transform the news division from a money-loser into a profit center. He did, but at the expense of coverage and quality. His drastic cost-cutting, together with a personality and management style that alienated many in the news division, left him with few allies when he needed them. There were other serious errors on his watch as well; Mr. Gartner's days were probably numbered.

An investigation by two lawyers is to identify the culprits who placed the ignition devices on the truck in the staged test and those who condoned it. They should follow Mr. Gartner down the plank. But ultimate responsibility for this disgraceful incident lies with the senior executives who measure the news division's performance by its ability to compete with entertainment programming in prime time. They are the villains who are encouraging the blend of fact and fantasy on the air.

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