I’ve said more than once that if there’s any rule to live by in television news, it’s that management always has your back — right up until the second they put their hand against it and shove you out the door. David Gregory would be wise to keep this in mind right about now. Even though just one month ago NBC News Senior VP Alex Wallace said out loud that the network was “doubling down” on Gregory — “I cannot be more declarative… David is our guy, is going to be our guy, and we are really happy with him,” were her exact words — that assurance amounts to exactly nothing in television. NBC has proven in the past that it’s more than willing to put on a happy face publicly while it’s both planning and carrying out a hit on a veteran on-air staffer. A good portion of the time, if you begin to actually hear whispers outside of a newsroom that there’s trouble coming down, that means the talk is deafening inside that newsroom. And that usually means a decision has pretty much already been made.
That being said, there’s always the possibility that the buzz being generated by Sunday’s Washington Post piece on David Gregory doesn’t really portend much of anything. Given MTP‘s ongoing terrible ratings and the fact that their dive directly correlates to Gregory’s takeover and continued presence on the show, it would be shocking if there wasn’t talk of replacing him. What the Post learned from NBC — that either a psychological or brand consultant, depending on whom you believe, was brought in to examine Gregory’s case — isn’t really all that important because even if the network were truly disseminating information designed to make some kind of case against Gregory and prepare him for a fall, it wouldn’t gaslight the poor bastard. What it would do is what it’s done plenty of times before: make the call, drop the news on the person getting the sack, and coordinate with that person in a way that allows him or her to save face by either making a “lateral move” or going on to a really important new emeritus-level gig the suits have magically pulled out of their asses.
Cenk Uygur admittedly has some experience with losing a hosting job at NBC. After six months or so at the reins of the 6PM weekday hour at MSNBC, Phil Griffin reportedly told him that the network had decided to go in a different direction and wanted to maybe move him to a farm league spot on the schedule, something that wasn’t the prime-time lead-in. Cenk’s ratings were inconsistent and that had concerned Griffin throughout his tenure; he and the rest of MSNBC’s management made no secret of that. Add to this the fact that Cenk Uygur’s name wasn’t on the show — it was just called MSNBC Live — and it wasn’t as if Cenk had some kind of guarantee that he’d be there for the long haul. Once it became known that MS was considering bringing in Al Sharpton to replace Cenk, he did the smart thing and seized the narrative, ambushing MS by announcing on the Young Turks channel that he was bailing and claiming that the reason for this was that MSNBC was too establishment to handle him. Cenk’s ridden that pony hard ever since, taking any opportunity to call out his former employer and remind his audience that he supposedly could’ve traded his integrity for big bucks but chose not to.
I bring this up because Cenk Uygur is now giving David Gregory advice — you know, one NBC casualty to another. On his Tuesday show, Cenk spoke directly to Gregory, saying, “Dude, read the writing on the wall — you’re a goner.” He then proceeded to describe how he knew this, again bringing up his own history of being knocked off an NBC perch. The only problem is that a lot of what he had to say was crap and a lot of that crap sounded arrogant, paranoid, and of the sour grapes-flavored variety. Yes, Cenk was probably on his way out at MSNBC; at the very least he was going to have to settle for a weekend shift, which he likely considered an insult. But in commiserating with Gregory he reveals a little too much about what he felt were the Machiavellian machinations going on behind the scenes to prepare the way for his ouster in 2011.
Cenk claims that what’s being done to Gregory is the same thing that was done to him three years ago — namely that the network is leaking damaging insider information and skewed ratings intel to the press on purpose to make Gregory look bad. According to Cenk, MSNBC made sure the media knew about the months in which his show underperformed in the ratings but neglected to mention to anyone that — see? see? — he showed improvement in his last quarter on-air. He says this as if TV numbers aren’t relatively easy to get information on, as if they need to be “leaked” by the network. “Those numbers don’t come out by themselves,” he says. Well, no, not technically. But any good media reporter can get his or her hands on them, despite Nielsen claiming they’re proprietary. Networks are always happy to release “ratings spin” to their advantage, but the ratings themselves can be found in a variety of ways. (One of them is by going to the competition, which is always more than happy to tout the failure of a rival, but there are in fact direct routes to the information, particularly cumulative numbers and trends from quarter to quarter and particularly now that a lot of ex-network staffers work as online media reporters.)
Cenk goes on to accuse NBC of “leaking” the worst of MTP‘s ratings specifically to Mediaite, citing what appears to be a column written by Mediaite in the wake of the Post piece that explains that the final quarter of 2013 was the worst the show had in 23 years. Cenk apparently thinks NBC’s media hit squad is planting negative reports about Gregory the way it did about him three years ago. Except that, right on cue, Mediaite is debunking that theory, saying basically what I just said — that the numbers have always been there for the taking and NBC didn’t leak anything to them. The site mentions that news of Gregory’s very bad end-of-2013 was reported by, among others, Dylan Byers over at Politico back in January. But really, several outlets were noting MTP‘s “ratings plunge” and the questions about Gregory’s future all the way back in August of 2013. “You don’t go through all this effort of leaking to all these different places if you’re not planning on replacing the guy,” Cenk says. Well, Cenk’s completely wrong about one “leak,” and he’s wildly speculating about others with nothing in the way of proof to back it up.
None of this is meant to suggest that David Gregory isn’t on his way out at MTP and maybe, if tradition holds, NBC itself. The NBC brass swear they’re behind him all the way, but they have to say that. And they’re going to go on saying that right up until the moment they decide they can’t say it anymore. Putting contradictory stories out into the ether, while lending an entertaining touch of conspiratorial cloak-and-dagger underhandedness to the proceedings, doesn’t make an ounce of sense. NBC doesn’t need to engineer a public justification for pulling Gregory because as it turns out, yes, his numbers really are that lousy. And God knows it never needed any public justification for pulling Cenk three years ago. Only his inflated sense of self-importance would lead him to think the network might feel it had to jump through the proper hoops in order to get rid of him. He wasn’t and he isn’t David Gregory. Cenk Uygur was the interim host of the weekdays-6PM hour on MSNBC for six months; David Gregory is a 20 year veteran of NBC News. Cenk had an internet show; Gregory was filling in for Matt Lauer on Today by the time he was 33 and went on to host the longest running show in television history.
Does any of this make David Gregory a great political journalist or a worthy custodian of Meet the Press? Absolutely not. But it does go to show that, regardless of whatever comparisons he may be drawing in his own mind, Cenk honestly has no idea what Gregory is going through — nor, apparently, does he really know all that much about network television.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.