Outgoing NBC news chief sees changed climate. Had differences with GE over how to economize

Even the air of button-down gentility couldn't hide the excitement among employees at NBC's New York headquarters. A small group of reporters was filing through last Friday to the office of outgoing network news president Lawrence K. Grossman for his final press conference. It had already been announced that Mr. Grossman, one-time president of the Public Broadcasting Service, was being replaced at NBC by Michael G. Gartner, general news executive of the Gannett Company and USA Today.

The NBC News staff, which only a year or so ago numbered more than 1,400, had been pared down to fewer than 1,100, and employees knew that at least 100 more would be leaving when the Republican convention ends later this month. It was also known that Grossman had at first fought the cuts ordered by the network's current owner, General Electric, then acquiesced, provided the cuts could be made gradually and without serious damage to the operation.

Rumors were flying in concentric circles: Word had spread that Tom (Brokaw), who had become a buddy of Bob (Robert Wright, NBC president and former executive of General Electric), had persuaded Wright to replace Grossman with somebody with a stronger background in news.

In fact, it had been known inside the industry for some time that NBC was searching for a new news chief, and it was clear now that Grossman had not been told directly he would be replaced - an ignominious way, some would say, to treat a person who had done so much to restore the reputation and ratings of NBC News.

This morning, Grossman had invited a small group of familiar reporters to meet with him - ``unofficially,'' since the invita-tions did not come through the network's press department.

A few months ago, when I had interviewed Grossman, it was in his huge, luxuriously furnished corner office. Now, he was ensconced in a sparsely furnished room of about half that size, to which he had been moved last January. The only decoration consisted of six clocks high above his desk, which ticked off the time in various cities round the world.

With a panel of TV monitors behind him tuned to network game shows - ``Wheel of Fortune,'' ``Win, Lose, or Draw,'' ``The Price Is Right'' - a shirt-sleeved Grossman told us, ``It's been a wonderful four years, and I'm very proud of what we have accomplished together. ... At the same time, it's a great relief, because the last couple of years have been a tremendous burden. This has evolved out of discussions I've had with Bob Wright - a mutual decision. The news division will be a lot better off under this [GE] administration with their own person in charge. I'm delighted they've picked somebody who is obviously a serious news person.''

Grossman went on to admit that it was necessary ``to get our economics in order. The news division had to stand on its own two feet. When I arrived, I said it was important to turn the news division from a loss leader, if not into a profit center, at least into a break-even operation. The only issue I had with the new management was how that was going to be done. I regret that issue became public, but I felt it had to be done in a way that was sensitive and measured, concerned with the individuals rather than across the board.''

Grossman then fielded questions. Asked if he might return to public broadcasting, he said, ``I have great affection for PBS and am proud of what was done there, but it is time to move on.''

Confronted with the assertion that he lacked news experience, he said, ``It is a perfectly legitimate concern. I would have been a lot better off if I had had more experience in news. But Michael Gartner would be a lot better off if he had more experience in television. ... The important thing is to have concern about people and an interest in the world.''

Why was Grossman forced to leave?

``Style and priorities changed, and inevitably everybody felt they would be more comfortable with their own person in charge.''

How does Grossman feel about Tom Brokaw's growing power in NBC News?

``The network anchor is inevitably the front-line person for the news division. He is in charge of flagship programs and also in charge of crisis coverage and, in fact, the spokesperson for the news division. Clearly he should have a strong voice. That's appropriate. Insofar as all the rumors about Brokaw and myself, I always had a straightforward professional relationship with Tom.''

What does Grossman feel is his proudest legacy to NBC News?

``It's very significant that four years ago, there was a study that showed whenever there was a major crisis, NBC News was the last network people turned to. Now, NBC News tends to be the first place. I think that's very important.''

What does the future hold for Grossman?

He shrugged his shoulders. ``There are many options: producing, public service - who knows?

So, the last press conference ended on a note of vague ambivalence rather than harsh recrimination. Grossman shook hands with the group, and, as we left, I noticed that the NBC monitor on the wall behind him was now displaying a soap opera - ``Days of Our Lives.''

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