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NBC News President Stands by Assertion That Division Had "Gone to Sleep"

News division staffers are "outraged," but Deborah Turness is unapologetic

Deborah Turness
Jesse Dittmar

NBC News president Deborah Turness, who recently marked one year at the helm of the organization, is unapologetic about comments she made in a New York Times piece that ignited a firestorm of internal criticism at a time when NBC News is attempting to right itself after multiple setbacks. Turness told the Times' Bill Carter in an interview posted Sunday night on the paper's website: "People in the organization from top to bottom recognized that NBC News hadn't kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years. I think the organization had gone to sleep."

Top executives at the network and veteran anchors from Tom Brokaw to Matt Lauer and Brian Williams took umbrage at the remarks, multiple network sources tell THR.

"Her comments were outrageous and a rookie mistake," says a former NBC News executive, who adds: "It's damaging internally and externally."

When the New York Post's PageSix posted an item late Tuesday night revealing what the paper characterized as "apoplectic" reactions from current and former NBC News personnel, Turness sent an email to senior staff clarifying that her remarks reflected the network's digital and technological infrastructure, not editorial or news gathering. And though she is currently on vacation, she called in to the division-wide 9 a.m. editorial call on Wednesday to reiterate that point.

"It didn't go over well," says one NBC News executive.

Multiple NBC News sources who received the email and were on the call characterize Turness as unapologetic. Instead, say multiple sources, she claimed her words were taken "out of context" and blamed PageSix for enflaming the controversy.

An NBC News spokesperson disputes that interpretation.

"Deborah felt it was important to address this directly with the staff on this morning's editorial call. She explained that what she said in the story was what she has said many times before: NBC News for a long time has been in need of an investment in technology and digital infrastructure," said the spokesperson in a statement to THR. "She made it very clear that she stands by her words and was not taken out of context. She was gratified by the positive and appreciative responses she received following the call."

But what rankled NBC News insiders the most is that Turness seemed to be dismissing the news division's storied legacy while her own admittedly short tenure has yet to produce results. True, the vanquishing of the Today show's unprecedented 16-year morning news winning streak came well before she was tapped to lead NBC News. But ABC's Good Morning America has so far this season widened its lead over Today among total viewers (by 4 percent) and, more critically, among those in the 25-54 demographic (by 70 percent). Meanwhile, ABC's World News has bested Nightly News With Brian Williams, still the season-to-date evening news leader, for seven of the past eight weeks in the demo. And Turness also has come in for criticism over how she handled the recent ouster of David Gregory from Meet the Press, which has fallen to third among Sunday morning public affairs programs behind CBS' Face the Nation and ABC's This Week.

"For over 15 years NBC News arguably may have been the most successful news division in network TV history," points out a veteran NBC News executive. "CBS News may have had a great history but it never had a morning show like Today with Katie Couric, it never had a Sunday morning show like Meet the Press with Tim Russert, and [it] never [was] able to launch a cable news network like MSNBC. I hardly think Tom Brokaw or Katie Couric or Tim Russert were asleep."