Vanity Fair’s May issue pulls the curtain back on the drama behind the scenes at NBC News and it’s explosive.
Among new revelations is everything from Brian Williams‘ sensational rationale for fibbing about his Iraqi helicopter being shot down to the Comcast conundrum that has spelled trouble for news division.
As new NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack officially starts his job this week, he’ll have a full primer on what he’s getting into, courtesy of the magazine’s extensive expose.
Here’s TheWrap’s 5 biggest takeaways:
1. Brian Williams‘ Brain Tumor?
Brian Williams, currently in the third month of his NBC News suspension, apparently couldn’t utter the word lie when explaining his Iraqi helicopter exaggeration to his bosses.
Instead, he surmised he might have had a brain issue, according to an NBC insider:
“He couldn’t say the words ‘I lied,'” an NBC insider told VF. “We could not force his mouth to form the words ‘I lied.’ “He couldn’t explain what had happened. [He said,] ‘Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?’ He just didn’t know. We just didn’t know. We had no clear sense what had happened. We got the best [apology] we could get.”
Other than knee surgery, there’s been no other medical issues made public in relation to Williams, so the brain tumor rationale might have been Williams’ in-the-moment, at-a-loss for words explanation. Either way—it’s a pretty remarkable explanation.
2. Post Tim Russert’s Death, Brian Williams Ran Wild
The heart and soul of NBC News, Tim Russert was bothered by Brian’s lack of interest in “what mattered”—politics and world events. After his death, Brian Williams apparently sucked up the power vacuum.
“There is NBC News before Tim died and after Tim died,” says the recently departed correspondent. “Tim was our soul, our conscience…. When Tim died, and Brian pushed out John Reiss, there was no one who could influence Brian in a significant way, who could say, ‘Goddammit, Brian, you have to do this.’ ”
As Williams started to “feel his oats a bit,” he began to insert his will, driving away investigative correspondents, Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers, because he had “little interest in their work.”
He also started to decline leaving New York and going on tough assignments. As Comcast took over, Williams grew his corporate politics prowess: dining in the 51st-floor-executive dining room, conveniently showing up whenever NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke arrived.
Williams reportedly grew a knack for “taking someone down a notch”—one person in particular was Steve Capus, former NBC News President and “Nightly News” Executive Producer:
Capus had a number of issues, including a combative streak and a temper. But those who watched Williams in action think he “very quickly came to believe that he was the person running the news division, not Capus,” says one of the former NBC executives quoted above. “As Capus was kind of dissed more and more to and by Burke and, ultimately, Pat Fili, Brian just saw that as an opportunity to run a truck through the news division and get whatever he wanted.
3. NBC News Chief Deborah Turness “doesn’t have a f-cking clue”
The piece goes through Turness finding out about Williams fibbing and her being dumbfounded at his lack of a cogent explanation.
But the piece then turns sour on the NBC News president, quoting insiders who suggest the inmates are running the asylum.
“News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a fucking clue,” says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. “She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.”
Another insider gave her more benefit of the doubt: “Look. Deborah Turness: I have seen no evidence she knows what she’s doing, but in fairness, she walked into a complete shitstorm there,” says a former top NBC executive. “Today is a horror show. Brian Williams? He didn’t give a rat’s ass what Deborah Turness says. But this is fundamentally not a Deborah Turness problem. She’s just a symptom of the problem…. This is a Comcast problem.”
Turness was “overmatched” from day one, insiders told VF:
“It was almost unfair to give Deborah this job,” says one NBC observer. “She was basically overmatched. From day one, it was difficult, even just managing the daily job. Because it’s a big job, it’s got a lot of intricate parts to it, and you know she had a rough time with it. She was not terribly accessible. People came out of meetings and said she’s overwhelmed.” One NBC insider terms Turness’s early performance “a hot mess.” Another adds, “She was trying to do so much; she was all over the place, like she had A.D.D., and that caused a lot of stress for everyone.”
4. The Comcast Conundrum
NBC News was in the midst of a golden age when owned by General Electric in the 2000s, as “Today,” “Nightly News,” and “Meet the Press” were all number one. Top NBC News executives were also close to GE executives, including Jack Welch.
But the financial downturn hit the company hard, forcing it to sell NBC to Comcast. What followed was the unraveling of that ratings streak.
“They [Comcast] didn’t believe in talent management,” says another former executive who worked with Comcast executives. “I’m telling you … they just didn’t believe that mattered.”
Comcast inserted Steve Burke as NBCUniversal CEO, a “no-nonsense type who wouldn’t be easily swayed by the glamour of television news.”
“Just look at Steve Burke’s eyes,” says one NBC executive who worked closely with him. “He is a cold, calculating guy.” Burke had an initial victory—convincing Matt Lauer to renew his contract—but later played a large—but hidden part—in what many believe was the beginning of NBC News’ downslide: pushing Ann Curry out at the “Today” show.
Burke was the principal player [who made the decision to demote her], though he hid desperately behind this. Finally he makes a deal for her to go away and then gets cold feet about pushing her to announce it. Despite pleas from everyone, Burke would not push the situation. He just felt uncomfortable doing it, and he wouldn’t explain why. Which leads directly to this thing being a national ‘Oh, poor Ann Curry’ story, which was the furthest thing from the truth.”
5. Tom Brokaw vs. Brian Williams
It’s been documented before that Brokaw never had the warm and fuzzy relationship with his successor Williams—this expose goes a step further.
Brokaw was sent into “spasms of anger” when now-former NBC News Chair Pat Fili-Krushel arranged Williams to introduce him at a charity event honoring Brokaw. Williams introduced Brokaw, telling stories of when the two reported from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The problem: Williams showed up the next day, while Brokaw was actually there to report from the historic event.
When Williams’ Iraqi helicopter debacle unraveled, Brokaw’s lack of a relationship Williams played a part:
“Tom will never say this for the record, but I’ve talked to him about this, and I can tell you for a fact Tom is livid about this,” a friend of Brokaw told VF. “Tom didn’t push Brian out, but he didn’t try to save him, either.”
One friend of Williams said Williams is “bitter” over the suspension, and pointed to Brokaw.
“I talked to Brian about this,” says one friend, “and I’ll never forget what he said at the end. He said, ‘Chalk one up for Brokaw.’ ”
As Andrew Lack begins his job as NBC News/MSNBC Chairman, he’s undecided on Williams’ fate—but one idea floated by an NBC “partisan”—Jeff Zucker snags Williams to come over as Larry King‘s long-sought-after replacement.