NBC fires producers, demotes reporter for 'Dateline' misstep

March 23, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

NBC set out yesterday to close the book on its "Dateline NBC" debacle with a blizzard of high-minded statements, three firings, a demotion and the creation of a task force to avoid similar mistakes.

But sources at NBC News wondered whether top network management understood how deep the news division's problems ran and how they led to the rigged test-crash of a General Motors Corp. pickup during a November broadcast.

"Understand us clearly," NBC President and CEO Bob Wright said in a statement. "On the night of Nov. 17, 1992, a piece of bad journalism went out over our air. It reflected neither our character nor our intent. . . . It must not happen again."

An investigation commissioned by NBC laid the blame on three "Dateline" producers, who were forced to resign over the weekend: Jeff Diamond, former executive producer; David Rummel, a senior producer; and Robert Read.

Correspondent Michele Gillen, who reported the story on GM pickups, was demoted. "Michele Gillen is different," said an NBC statement about the firings. "Gillen raised concerns over problems related to the taped demonstration. The only question is to what extent."

She will leave "Dateline" and the network news operation to go to Miami as an anchorwoman at NBC's WTVJ-TV "as soon as she can relocate," according to NBC. She had been set to co-anchor another NBC newsmagazine to debut this summer, "Prime Story."

According to the long-awaited report of the November broadcast by two outside attorneys, the "Dateline" team failed in five areas to apply proper news standards and good judgment. By limiting itself to the newsmagazine team, the investigation avoided the larger question of how NBC News allowed something to happen like the phony test crash and its subsequent defense.

"By sponsoring a $4,200 crash demonstration that involved pushing an old car down a country road and into the side of a parked GM pickup truck, 'Dateline' associated NBC News with an event of questionable safety and professionalism, which could not be presented as proving anything about the safety of the . . . GM pickup trucks," the report said.

It criticized the producers for staging the test crash; for rigging it withigniters placed under the truck; for using trick camera angles and editing to make the explosion and fire look bigger than it was; and for not telling viewers about the igniters.

The report went on to criticize the producers for not telling higher-ups at NBC News about GM's complaints and threats to sue NBC.

The report and Wright's statement support former NBC News President Michael Gartner's contentions that he knew little about problems with the "Dateline" episode until just before GM's February news conference attacking NBC.

According to the report and statement yesterday, information was kept from senior management at NBC News, leading to an embarrassing 24 hours in which Gartner defended the broadcast and the network subsequently apologized on the air. Gartner was forced to resign three weeks ago.

The investigators concluded that the "Dateline" debacle was "the story of the breakdown in the system of corrections and compliance that every organization needs."

But some at NBC News said off the record that there has been no such system at NBC News in recent years. The editorial process, they say, was shredded by Gartner's downsizing and cost-cutting.

On paper, NBC did take some steps in establishing such a system yesterday. It named David McCormick, a 20-year veteran of NBC, as ombudsman, with the responsibility of reviewing all investigative reports before they go on the air. Acting News President Don Browne also posted a memorandum specifying who is in charge of what on NBC News shows and setting guidelines for dealing with images, pictures and visuals. He and Wright promised a task force to examine the editorial process. But at least one NBC news executive isn't satisfied.

"It's all about credibility," he said, asking that his name not be used. "That's what they were trying to win back yesterday. Gartner's firing was a big deal in that regard. But the firing of three producers, the transfer of Gillen and lots of talk about a task force and ombudsman, is just not going to do it."

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