Part 2—A curious tilt under Welch: Everyone talks about Rupert Murdoch. No one discusses Jack Welch.
On its face, this differential treatment might seem a bit hard to explain.
For all previous reports in this award-winning series, click here.
Murdoch and Welch are both enormously wealthy people with well-known political outlooks. Each man has run one or more major American news org—Welch during the Reagan/Bush and Clinton/Gore years, Murdoch to this very day.
Murdoch invented the Fox News Channel, which is routinely said to operate in its owner’s political image. It’s rarely asked if NBC News ever adjusted its political coverage to reflect the perspective of Welch, its long-term owner.
Did anything like that ever occur? As we ponder The Houses of Nantucket County, we would guess that it did.
Here’s the basic background:
In 1986, Welch, the chairman of General Electric, became corporate owner of NBC. That same year, Welch named his friend and subordinate, Bob Wright, president and CEO of NBC.
NBC includes NBC News. No one has ever disputed the fact that Welch was a hands-on owner of NBC, especially in the arena of costs.
Here’s something else that’s hard to dispute. For whatever reason, that network’s news division produced some truly horrendous “journalism” during Welch’s tenure, especially in the later Clinton/Gore years.
Welch retired from GE in 2001. The “journalism” to which we refer almost surely tracked his political views.
NBC News did some horrible work under its hard-right owner. But how odd! To this day, we’ve rarely seen a word of speculation or comment about the possible role of Welch’s politics in that astoundingly bad journalistic performance.
Indeed, it’s rare to see that astounding performance discussed in any way at all. The gong-shows of Fox get discussed all the time. The gong-shows of NBC in the Jack Welch era have disappeared beneath the swells surrounding Nantucket County.
As our award-winning series continues, we’ll ask you to consider the strangely differential approach to the tenures of Murdoch and Welch. For today, let’s consider the way the late Tim Russert rose within NBC News.
For starters, let us say this: Welch is often described as a genial, likeable person. As far as we know, those descriptions are perfectly accurate.
Welch was also known as “Neutron Jack” for the way he would shed employees as a corporate manager. We aren’t going to tell you that he was wrong to do so.
Instead, we’re going to look at the news division built under Welch. We’re going to look at the puzzling “journalism” eventually practiced by that news division.
Our story starts in 1984, when Russert was hired by NBC News. In his self-glorying book, Big Russ & Me, Russert explained what occurred when GE and Welch took over:
RUSSERT (page 303): In 1986, I experienced what millions of American workers went through during that decade: the company I worked for was taken over, and some people lost their jobs. In our case, the world’s oldest television network (NBC) was taken over by one of the world’s largest corporations (General Electric). Two years later, Larry Grossman was ousted as president of the news division, and a new executive. Michael Gartner, was brought in. As Larry’s right-hand man, I expected that I, too, would be let go, and that I would finally get a chance to dust off my law degree.From there, the humble young Russert was off to D.C. In fairly short order, he was hosting Meet the Press.
But Jack Welch, G.E.’s chairman, came to my office with a different idea. “You’re thirty-eight years old,” he said, “and you have a bright future here. You’d be a good person to head our news division, but first you’ll need to demonstrate that you can run something. We know you’re a good deputy, but are you also a good manager? Let’s find out. What would you like to run?”
This was all a bit sudden. “I haven’t thought about it,” I said, “but I’m comfortable with news.”
“Well then, what’s the most important news bureau?” he asked
Depending on what you want in a newsman, there was certainly nothing wrong with Welch’s assessment of talent. During the years when Welch ran GE, Russert became the most important and influential broadcaster in the nation.
In certain ways, he also became a bit of a partisan player, although his remarkable stature within the guild stifled almost all criticism.
Russert became a robotic advocate of Social Security reform, a position he relentlessly advocated with a tightly scripted assortment of misleading and erroneous talking-points. At the time, this was the favorite political crusade of the plutocrat community.
He became a bit of an attack dog with respect to President Clinton and Senate and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In last year’s book, This Town, Mark Leibovich said Russert “despised” both Clintons, a point he fleshed out in some detail. This claim will rarely be discussed in D.C., however obvious or significant it might seem.
A person might imagine that Russert’s animus extended to other Democratic candidates. During Campaign 2000, for example, he hosted Candidate Bush on Meet the Press in November 1999. Candidate Gore took his turn in July 2000.
It would be extremely hard to miss the differential treatment Russert dished to these hopefuls. As we’ve described in the past, his hour with Candidate Bush resembled a soapy sponge bath.
When he spent his hour with Candidate Gore, a different Russert appeared. Within the press corps, he was widely praised for the “prosecutorial” approach he took toward Gore.
Time’s Margaret Carlson was most effusive in voicing this widely-expressed group judgment. “Russert chopped him up in little pieces,” she said on the Imus radio program. “Russert was a prosecutor,” she told her admittedly brilliant host. “Russert was like a prosecutor, and he did a very good job.”
On a journalistic basis, we'd say that Russert’s performance with Candidate Gore was extremely poor. But it didn’t begin to resemble the love fest he staged with Candidate Bush.
Did this behavior, in any way, reflect a desire to please Boss Welch? We know of no way to answer that question. But in 2003, Sallie Brady described the cocooning among the NBC crowd in The Houses of Nantucket County.
We posted this passage in our last report. It’s worth a second look:
BRADY (8/03): In summer, Nantucket is a remarkable re-creation of Washington politics, fundraisers, and restaurant life, confined to a 3.5-by-14-mile resort island.Welch was no longer in charge by 2003. Wright was still “Russert’s boss.”
Tim Russert remembers the first time he visited. It “was in 1972. I had graduated from college,” Russert recalled in a Nantucket Magazine profile. “About 20 of us drove up, and we all jumped on the [Steamship Authority ferry]...and as soon as I stepped off I said, 'This is something special.’”
Russert is part of the Nantucket NBC crowd, one of the cliques that fuels the isle’s social engine. It was Jack Welch, the story goes, the 20-year chairman and CEO of NBC's parent company, General Electric, who drew network folk to Nantucket.
Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, began summering on Nantucket in 1992. Russert has said he can go days without leaving his house except for a bike ride to get the newspapers. Then he'll sit in his rocking chair and watch the grass blow in the breeze.
Russert does make it back for Meet the Press, the show that made him and that helped finance the Nantucket hideaway he acquired in 1999. The sprawling gray-shingled house, with rooftop sundeck and cutting garden, lies down an unmarked dirt path through a secluded forest. Hanging over the portico, a wooden sign bearing the cottage's name says it all: SUNDAY MORNING.
Russert’s boss, NBC CEO Bob Wright, is also on the scene. Add to the cocktail chatter the latest tidbits from the Oval Office, care of White House correspondent David Gregory, who was married on Nantucket and returns with his wife, Beth, for vacations...
Although Welch retired in 2001, he's still a power magnet. He holds court from a massive gray-shingled home festooned with window boxes, near Sankaty Head Golf Club. It was there that Welch once played Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, only to discover that two of the richest men in the world routinely bet only $1 a round.
In June 2008, the Cape Cod Times reported that Russert’s Nantucket home was valued at $7.2 million. In This Town, Leibovich described the tongue-in-cheek sign which sat outside:
“The House That Jack Built”
In 2004, another member of the NBC crowd found his way into The Houses of Nantucket County. Chris Matthews, long-time political king of NBC’s cable news arm, purchased a summer home on the isle for $4.35 million.
Russert and Matthews both became wealthy under Welch. While much of Russert’s coverage had been quite poor, it was Matthews who produced two years of coverage during Campaign 2000 which was flat-out crazy.
Starting in March 1999, Matthews spent twenty months trashing Candidate Gore in every imaginable way, and in a few others besides. He trashed Senate Candidate Clinton in memorable, ugly ways.
According to standard reports, Matthews’ salary rose from $1.1 million to $5 million as he produced this relentless, horrendous coverage. We’ve never seen anyone in the “press corps” explore any part of this package.
Today, Matthews is one of the press corps’ most slavish admirers of Hillary Clinton. Obviously, this new approach has kept Matthews in line with his channel’s current orientation.
Back then, his coverage of Candidate Clinton was pure poison—and his coverage of Candidate Gore was marked by several rather peculiar flip-flops.
Was Matthews producing this ludicrous work to please the corporate boss who was making him rich? Given the way Rupert Murdoch is covered, it’s amazing that no one has ever asked this blindingly obvious question.
Even more startling is the fact that Matthews’ astounding journalism during this era has never produced a word of discussion. To this day, his absurd journalistic behavior has gone completely undiscussed within the mainstream press. This represents an astounding indictment of the deeply obedient hustlers who constitute our national “press corps.”
The code of silence surrounding our “press corps” is extremely strong. In Part 3 of this award-winning series, we’ll start to explore the ludicrous work which seemed to give Matthews the keys to The Houses of Nantucket County.
Is it just our imagination? Or did Matthews’ astounding behavior gain him the scratch which allowed him to purchase the second “House That Jack Built?”
Also coming: The humor of NBC County