When Rick Kaplan was named president of MSNBC a year ago, many analysts expected the towering television executive to start throwing his weight around.
Instead, he has moved incrementally and quietly, so quietly that the normally bombastic Kaplan has turned down virtually all interview requests. While he is putting together a couple of new shows — including a daytime program with Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley, a former personal assistant to Richard Nixon hired from Fox — colleagues say Kaplan's main achievement has been in boosting morale and forging a tighter partnership with NBC News. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
"Rick came in and got the stench out," says Phil Griffin, MSNBC's vice president for prime time, referring to the constant turmoil of the past. "Yeah, he's demanding. But there were rumors when he first came over here and everyone Googled him and all these outrageous things that were said about him. I haven't quite seen that guy."
Other staffers, however, say Kaplan has accomplished little beyond tinkering. Some insiders say he stumbled after the South Asian tsunami by going on vacation without an aggressive plan for live coverage, so that days later the network was airing Deborah Norville reruns on obesity, alternative medicine and surrogate mothers. (MSNBC defends the tsunami coverage as adequate.)
Carousel of change
The third-place cable news network had gone through a dizzying array of personas and personalities (John Hockenberry, Alan Keyes, Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura, Laura Ingraham, Curtis Sliwa, Michael Savage, "Buchanan & Press," "The News With Brian Williams" and, later, John Seigenthaler) by the time Kaplan arrived. Only recently has Kaplan begun making his mark, luring conservative commentator Tucker Carlson from CNN with the goal of having him replace Norville.
The 6-foot-7 Kaplan has ordered each program to write a mission statement and has regularly questioned whether its segments were furthering those goals. He staged MSNBC's convention coverage at outdoor plazas, and when GOP keynoter Zell Miller angrily challenged Chris Matthews to a duel, Kaplan told the "Hardball" host through his earpiece to stay calm and "not give him the duel he may have wanted. . . . I've never seen such passion in a guy," Matthews says of Kaplan.
Before election night, Kaplan spent days drilling Matthews with flashcards so he could instantly react when projections had to be made. And he barred any pre-scripted game plan, frustrating correspondents who wanted to know what their roles would be. Kaplan has also launched blogs by his anchors and gotten more cable promotion on NBC News shows.
MSNBC, which has a news alliance with The Washington Post, is at a disadvantage because it has few reporters, relying instead on NBC's staff. But Kaplan has persuaded such NBC stars as Andrea Mitchell, Jim Miklaszewski and David Gregory to make more appearances or do expanded versions of their broadcast pieces. On Inauguration Day, Brian Williams and Tim Russert appeared after finishing their NBC coverage, and Williams reported from Baghdad after yesterday's elections.
Kaplan is also moving "Imus in the Morning" next week from its Queens radio studio to the network's Secaucus, N.J., headquarters.
A hands-on chief
"Countdown" anchor Keith Olbermann says former MSNBC chief Eric Sorenson "didn't get out of his office a lot. Rick's in the makeup room, the control room, on the set. I saw him more in the first week than I saw Eric in the preceding year."
Olbermann says Kaplan suggested that the taped opening for "Countdown" be shorter and punchier, but changed his mind after a week-long effort. The message, says Olbermann: "You can talk me out of bad ideas."
One much-touted change is to offer four new angles each hour on the day's top story rather than what MSNBC calls "recycled" headlines. Kaplan led classes on the new 15-minute format with groups of staffers. "The idea was not to come in here and revolutionize the place because we know that doesn't work," Griffin says.
Mark Effron, vice president for daytime, says Kaplan restored some jobs that Effron had proposed cutting for budgetary reasons. "There's much less of a feeling of being a stepchild," Effron says.
Others say Kaplan can be a micromanager. He insisted that each program put up corkboards with index cards about planned segments so he could see them as he strolled around, and once got angry when a board was moved, staffers say. And he often dominates meetings, they say, sometimes giving off smartest-guy-in-the-room vibes.
Some critics question whether MSNBC is veering to the right by scheduling consecutive hours hosted by Carlson and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. "They've been so outflanked by Fox, so out-promoted by Fox, they're trying to be like Fox by going with a heavy conservative lineup," liberal radio host Ed Schultz told listeners.
After years of running ABC's "Nightline," "PrimeTime Live" and "World News Tonight," Kaplan is at heart a producer. In the late '90s he was president of CNN, where he sometimes drew flak for being a personal friend of Bill Clinton's and was tarnished by the retracted story alleging American use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War. Kaplan returned to ABC after being ousted in the management shakeup that followed America Online's 2000 takeover of CNN parent Time Warner.
For the 10 months last year after Kaplan took over, MSNBC's ratings were down 23 percent, to an average of 250,000 viewers. But all the cable networks were down from the audiences attracted by the Iraq war and its aftermath — Fox News Channel by 11 percent, to 937,000, and CNN by 28 percent, to 486,000. MSNBC prefers to highlight a 60 percent jump in prime-time viewers in the last quarter of 2004 (to 470,000), compared with a 15 percent jump for CNN (to 1,041,000) and a 77 percent rise for Fox (to 2.6 million).
Can that change? Kaplan is unveiling two new weekend shows this week — "MSNBC at the Movies" and "Entertainment Hot List" — and is said to be high on the Reagan-Crowley program, which will air twice during the afternoon. So why isn't Kaplan talking to the press? Maybe he's waiting until he has more to brag about.
CBS News executives are furious at former correspondent Tom Fenton over his forthcoming book accusing his longtime employer, and the other networks, of skimping on foreign coverage.
As reported last week, Fenton says in "Bad News" that the "CBS Evening News" cut from his 1997 report from Saudi Arabia any mention of Osama bin Laden on grounds that the story had "too many foreign names."
But, as CBS News Senior Vice President Marcy McGinnis points out, the network did air two Fenton pieces the following month that included the passages on bin Laden. Fenton says that after the evening news killed the material he "snuck it into a Sunday morning piece" that re-aired on the next day's morning show — and promises to clarify the situation in his book.
Jeff Fager, who then produced the evening news and is now executive producer of "60 Minutes," denies Fenton's charge about "too many foreign names" and is "appalled" by his accusation that "navel-gazing executives" slighted foreign news, McGinnis says. Fager created a segment called "Assignment" for which foreign correspondents could go anywhere. And contrary to the book, McGinnis says, CBS reporters, including Fenton, identified the Kurds as victims of Iraqi attacks.
As for Fenton's charge that the London bureau just "packages" news gathered by others, McGinnis says: "It is insulting to the many CBS reporters, photographers, producers, editors and technicians who travel all over the world reporting, producing, shooting, editing and transmitting stories, at great expense, to our viewers back home. Tom's former colleagues who are currently risking their lives in Iraq, who spend weeks in Indonesia and Sri Lanka reporting on the tsunami . . . will be amazed and disgusted at Tom's portrayal of their work."
Says Fenton of his book: "It's a polemic, an argument for more news and better news."