Michael Gartner, president of NBC News, doesn't like what some people, at NBC and other networks, are saying about him, and especially doesn't like it that they say it anonymously. Gartner hates the use of unnamed sources.
But he nevertheless agreed to respond to some of the criticisms being made of him in the wake of superstar correspondent Connie Chung's decision to leave NBC for CBS. Chung's departure, and the departures of fellow reporters Chris Wallace and Ken Bode, has resulted in a star gap for NBC.Gartner, former newspaper executive, has been accused of having contempt for TV news, and some say this attitude prevented him from negotiating more effectively to keep Chung.
"That's bull," he says, from his office in New York. As for TV news, "I think it's terrific. I don't think you can be a well-informed person getting your news only from print, or only from television, or only magazines. They all complement each other. I've said that from Day One."
What about charges that Gartner all too willingly does the bidding of General Electric, NBC's corporate owner, and NBC's GE-installed president, Robert C. Wright?
Gartner says the charge is silly, but also asks, "What have the corporate people done that is so wrong? The moves Bob Wright is making ensure the long-term success and survival of NBC and NBC News." There has been "no interference with the editorial process" by GE, Gartner says.
Chung says she left NBC not because of dissatisfaction with Gartner, but because CBS offered her a better deal. Among other things, CBS is making Chung sole anchor of its prime-time magazine show "West 57th," whereas Gartner wanted her to be one of several anchors on the planned NBC magazine show "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," which debuts this summer.
But sources close to Chung also say she objected to working with Sid Feders, producer of the magazine and of several high-rated but superficial pop documentaries Chung anchored on NBC last year ("Scared Sexless," "Stressed Out"). When Chung balked over Feders, sources say, NBC executives spread the story that she had demanded total editorial control over the show.
The magazine project makes NBC News veterans uncomfortable for another reason. Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, has had considerable input into the program. Traditionally, news and entertainment are like church and state at networks, always to be separate.
Gartner says that the magazine show is the result of "a program-development group that Brandon heads" but that "the show is an NBC News show" and that "NBC Entertainment is not a co-producer." He does concede, though, that for a time, John Cosgrove, producer of NBC's tabloid "Unsolved Mysteries" series, participated in the planning. Gartner says Cosgrove is no longer involved.
"Sid Feders is in total control," says Gartner.
As for Chung and her demands, Gartner says there were "things financial and journalistic that were not in the best interests of NBC, and I didn't agree to them. I like Connie. I think she's nice. I think she's talented. What she was asking for was just not proper for me to agree to.
"But there's no bitterness at all. Certainly not on my part."
Is the current round of musical chairs over at the network news divisions, or will there be further shifts? These are turbulent times for network news generally. The corporations that now control ABC, CBS and NBC continue to push for economy measures and for shows that get big ratings, just as they expect entertainment shows to do.
"A lot of people are uneasy with change, but change is what keeps an organization growing and zestful," Gartner says. Friends of his at NBC News say that while some insiders may not like the way he is running the operation, many others support him.
"There are fun days and days that aren't so fun," says Gartner of his position, which he's held for less than a year. "I'm basically happy in any job I'm in. There are a lot of challenges.
"Midst all the gossip about morale and the anonymous carping, people aren't necessarily looking at our journalism, which is the most important aspect." What some of Gartner's critics fear is that for those who now own the networks, journalism not only isn't as important as it used to be, but that it's something of a nuisance besides.