Earlier this month new NBC News president Michael G. Gartner was having a get-acquainted meeting with key staff members when one of his executive producers called him aside.
"Can I tell you something without offending you?" the producer wanted to know."Even if you offend me you're going to tell me," Gartner said. "So what is it?"
Gently, the producer told him: "Say `tape,' not `film'."
It's been like that for Gartner ever since he was appointed to lead NBC's news division Aug. 1. A third-generation newspaperman and a print journalist since he was 15, the 49-year-old Iowa native has found the transition from newspapers to television news a little like trying to edit one of the world's greatest newspapers - in Shanghai.
"It's a different language with a different way to deliver to a different audience," Gartner said during a press tour press conference Saturday. "You're dealing with the same commodity in a totally different way. I've got a lot to learn."
One thing he doesn't have to learn, however, is the basics of good journalism. Unlike his predecessor at NBC, Larry Grossman, Gartner is an experienced and respected newsman. He started out as a teenager answering phones at the Des Moines Register, where he worked through his high school and college years. After graduating from college he spent 14 years at the Wall Street Journal, including five years as page one editor. He later held executive positions at The Des Moines Register and Tribune, The Louisville Courier-Journal, The Louisville Times, The Ames (Iowa) Daily Tribune and with Gannett Co. in Washington, D.C.
Gartner also holds a law degree from New York University. His legal training combine with his journalistic expertise has helped him to become one of America's foremost authorities on the First Ammendment and free press issues. It probably also had something to do with his hiring at NBC, since his first contact with NBC President Robert Wright came when Wright asked him to lunch so he could pick his brain on the First Ammendment.
In other words, even though Gartner is inexperienced in the technical aspects of broadcast news, there's a lifetime of real world journalistic experience he brings with him to NBC.
"I think I bring a knowledge of news," he said. "I bring a knowledge of management, of leadership, of how to deal with creative people and a knowledge of budgeting and finance. That's what I think I bring to the table."
He also brings a clear sense of vision for what he wants to accomplish at NBC. "I come into this job with the goal of being open and fair and honest with the people who work with me, with the viewers who watch NBC, with the people who I work for at NBC and with every constituency that we have," Gartner said.
NBC News, he said, "should be fair and accurate and thorough and interesting and professionally done. I want to be sure that what we do we do better than anyone else and we do as close to perfection as we know how under the daily deadlines."
And if you think this man with printer's ink in his blood thinks he's going to do that by reforming TV high glitz and even higher paid reporters, think again.
"I'm the new boy," he said. "It would be folly for me to start going in and tinkering. I've watched the news carefully. I watch it a whole lot more carefully now than I did two weeks ago, but I have no agenda."
In fact, the new NBC president denies that he comes into the job with any kind of print bias. "I bring a news bias," he said. "I bring a fairness bias. I bring an accuracy bias, a thoroughness bias. But no print bias.
"This is going to be a great adventure and a lot of fun," Gartner continued. "What a wonderful opportunity, what great challenges, what an enormous, wonderful time it could be if I do it right."
And if you don't? "I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that if I do it right I presume they'll keep me and if I don't I presume they'll get rid of me, at which point my old friend (and former newspaperman-turned-network news president) Dick Wald called me up. He says, `Even if you do it right they'll get rid of you.' "
Just ask Larry Grossman. Earlier in the day Wright told reporters that Grossman had done "a very good job for us under very difficult circumstances," leading NBC News to a position where it could regularly challenge the respected CBS News team.
"There's no negativism on my part about Larry or about anything he did," Wright said. "It's just a very complex, tiring, difficult job and he served us well. Now the ball is passed to Michael, and we think he'll be the right person to take what's already there and to take it to the next level."
Provided, of course, he can figure out the difference between "film" and "tape."
***(BU) GARTNER'S FIRST PRESS CONFERENCE seemed to be a success, with reporters from all around the country talking about his quick wit and his honest, open style. Following are some examples: - "One of the nicest things about NBC News is that Tom Brokaw is not Dan Rather." Asked to amplify, he said, "I'll let it stand."
- On election projections: "My personal feelings is when you have news you tell it. I've never understood this issue about not projecting because it'll keep people away from the polls. I simply don't believe it."
- On network coverage of national political conventions: "I think conventions are news. I mean, there's a lot of showmanship - there's no question about that. But I also think it's news. And if it's news we'll cover it."
- On how much he'll be paid in his new job: "I'll tell you what I told a reporter the other day, who asked me how much I made: `Less than Tom Brokaw and more than you."'
- On TV news reporters who make huge salaries: "I think they're worth the money they're making. These people are stars as well as news people - and those are not mutually inconsistent definitions."