(AP/Paul Morigi)

David Gregory: "My relationship with 'Meet the Press' ... was like a marriage you know is bad but can’t leave"

Book exclusive: "When I left NBC, what stung more than outright negativity was the indifference shown by so many"


David Gregory
September 13, 2015 6:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "How's Your Faith: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey"

Six years after I became moderator of Meet the Press, I was facing the lowest moment of my professional career. I was about to leave the network for good.

The ratings had been slipping at Meet the Press, and I had a new boss at NBC News, Deborah Turness, who was pushing us hard to reimagine the show. Some of her ideas were pretty unorthodox. I had been trying new ideas at the show well before she came on board, but I thought it was essential that we retain the qualities of the program that had made it popular for so long.

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Other elements were shifting, too. The TV landscape had changed. NBC and its parent company, Comcast, had seen sliding ratings on Today as well as Nightly News.

The Sunday shows were struggling to retain their place as appointment viewing. Booking guests whom viewers really wanted to see had become more difficult.

By the time I made the announcement that I was leaving Meet the Press in August 2014, NBC and I had been in discussions for several weeks. I didn’t want to leave, but I was not happy. I was getting a lot of bad press about falling ratings, and many of the stories specu­lated on whether I would be replaced. It was frustrating, because I knew that people within NBC were leaking stories—saying I was about to be pushed out, in order to weaken my position, even as my bosses were telling me that was not the case. The press coverage seemed exces­sively personal, as though I had done something wrong.

That summer I decided to stay above the fray—I didn’t talk to reporters, either privately or publicly, to de­fend myself or to tell them what was going on behind the scenes. But I needed the network to stand behind me. I knew Washington and politics. Now that there was blood in the water, it would only get worse. I told my bosses that the attention was becoming too much about me. It was bad for the show and for what we were trying to do.

My relationship with Meet the Press during that last year was like a marriage that you know is bad but you can’t leave. I was miserable, but I needed to be told the company didn’t support me before I could come to terms with the end. Although NBC backed me initially, the net­work decided late in the summer that it would not com­mit to me in the long term. Clearly, that was the signal that it was time to go. Could I have done something else at the network? In theory, yes. But as the damaging leaks kept coming, it became clear to me that they weren’t in­terested in that. It never came up as an option.

The last gasp came suddenly, and the timing was bad: Beth and I were setting off on a day of travel to pick up our kids from camp in New Hampshire. Just before the plane doors closed and I had to power down my phone, my agent called to tell me that NBC had decided it didn’t want to risk another “Ann Curry moment,” which has become a byword in the TV business for an on-air embar­rassment, after Curry’s long and tearful farewell from her job as Today show cohost. Because of this ill-conceived concern, NBC decided not to let me have a final show. They wanted this to be my last day. I was furious when I heard that. I felt like they were snuffing me out.

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As Beth drove our rental car through the bucolic New England farmlands, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to be able to say goodbye to the Meet the Press viewers. I had one of my first friends in TV news on my mind. Nolan Snook was a salesman for a station I worked at in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He had a memorable shock of white hair, and he had come from big-market television, so he knew the ropes. He told me that jobs in the news business are fleeting. “Just re­member, David,” he told me, “they’ve given you a forum. Everything you have in your relationship with the public is based on this forum. And they can take it away at any time.”

I was not going to be able to control the messaging. My cell signal kept going in and out after we turned off the interstate and onto a country road, and at some point along Route 104, I saw on my Twitter feed that NBC had leaked that I was out at Meet the Press.

This goodbye was never going to be easy. I’d been working in TV news since I was eighteen. Since I gradu­ated from school, I had rarely been off the air longer than a week, other than vacations. I worked every summer during college, and I got my first job, in Albuquerque, before I graduated. I had my sights set solidly on a job at the network for eight years until I got it, and I had planned each stage of the journey I’d take to get there. After that, it was a new set of goals. And Meet the Press was a destination that had exceeded my expectations.

After a career spent entirely in TV news, I had come to rely on being on the air. It was my way to measure how good a week I had. Other people assess their professional achievements through meetings attended, classes taught, or surgical operations conducted; for me, it’s always been about airtime. When I was a reporter, being on the air a lot was shorthand for being in the middle of covering a big story. The equivalent at Meet the Press was how well spent my hourlong show was each week, and how much pickup the interviews got. Now, in the middle of my life, I would have to completely recalibrate my ideas about productivity and worth.

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Sitting in the car that day, watching the tweets stack up about my rumored departure, I was far from at peace with all of it. I had spent so much time planning out my career. It hurt to see how far out of my control this end­ing was. There was also the feeling that I’d be seen as a failure. I’d had a big setback, and everyone was going to know it.

It was one of these moments people talk about: Something bad is happening to you, and you are watch­ing yourself in slow motion from the outside. I had feared this moment would come. As the ratings slid and the press got worse, I had played out the scenario in my head. Now it was real. And one of the things I was con­scious of was that I should handle it well.

*

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It was all coming together: Here was the time for me to live out so many of the lessons I’d been learning on my spiritual journey. I’d been contemplating living a more spiritual, meaningful existence, and now was the time to walk the walk. In a way, that day up in New Hamp­shire clarified many of the discoveries I had been making about life and faith.

It is our job in the world to strive to be our best self all the time. But the time when it matters most is when things are hard. That is the true test of our character. In the months since I left NBC, I’ve come to a conclusion: If I do not change as a result of this experience, then it was not worth it. That’s not to say the way that I left was my choice. But it happened as it happened, and I am determined to be the better for it.

One day, as the long, drawn-out drama of my depar­ture from NBC was coming to a head, I met the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore at his Capitol Hill office. It was already feeling inevitable that I would leave, and Erica’s question “Who would you be?” was weighing on my mind. I asked Dr. Moore how he would answer some­one who came to him asking, “Who does God expect me to be?”

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Dr. Moore answered me with his own questions. “The fundamental question here is ‘Who are you?’” he said. “Whether you have a national profile, or you are the guy running a hardware store in a small town, you are ultimately facing the same question, which is: Do you define yourself by your work or as someone created in the image of God? Are you the owner of the hardware store or someone who must give an account to God?”

He quoted Matthew 26, in which one of Jesus’ fol­lowers lashes out at the men who come to arrest him, cutting off one man’s ear with a sword. “Put your sword back into its place,” Jesus tells his follower. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Dr. Moore said that one of the ways he likes to inter­pret that Scripture is in terms of ambition. Jesus was re­minding his follower that kindness and humanity matter above all. Anyone who views himself primarily in terms of ambition can start to dehumanize, “to become the sort of person who claws and fights to keep what they want,” he said.

Those words held some truth for me. It’s no secret that TV news is a rough business. And I’m as guilty as the rest of putting myself first on the route to the top. I’m a product of it—TV news is the only industry I have ever been a part of, other than the hospitality industry, if you count working at a restaurant in high school. My effort to rise above the rancor of the TV business has been a long, shaky process. I think sometimes about a day during my final spring at NBC when Erica came over to study with me in my office at Meet the Press.

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She overheard me on the phone, complaining about a lack of support from my bosses, and when I hung up, she said, “David, you are using all these warlike themes in your speech.” Defensively, I said something like “Well, they’re going after me, what else can I do?” But as I thought through the conversation I’d just had, I realized I had said, “I may be bloodied, but I’m still standing” and “I just gotta hunker down and get through this.” She was right: Many of my instincts are from the survival bunker.

“I don’t hear you using the language of love,” Erica said. It seemed almost laughable to me then, the idea of speaking the language of love when I was being made a target by the press and undermined by superiors who seemed to have only a tepid interest in dealing with the problems at the show. But then Erica quoted Proverbs

4:26: “Consider the path of your feet, and all your paths will be established.”

I did not know right away what she meant by those words, but we really studied them that afternoon and considered their meaning. If you’re inside a maze on the ground floor, Erica told me, you have a single perspec­tive. But if you can climb up to the balcony, you can see much more; you can figure out where you’re headed.

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Later, she told me that what she wanted to help me do was “create the habits and language of mindfulness. Then you will have that language, even when others are speaking to you using a different vocabulary, of mean­ness.” She reminded me that I should try to speak my new spiritual language all the time, not just at home, when I feel like being the good dad and making pancakes for the kids. With my colleagues and my boss, too.

“Consider the path of your feet, and all your paths will be established.” Your feet must be pointed in the right direction at all times. I printed out those words and kept them on my desktop computer at NBC as a reminder throughout the last months.

*

Leaving my job at NBC was a humbling experience. It was good for me—I mean it. I have to laugh about how the hits keep on coming: for instance, the people who have come up to me in the months since I have been off the show, to tell me that they love me on Meet the Press and never miss a single week. It’s all I can do not to blurt out, “Well, you can’t love me that much if you haven’t noticed I’ve been gone for months now!”

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My departure from NBC made for some awkward in­teractions initially. Often I’d be playing a guessing game, trying to work out whether someone knew I wasn’t on the show anymore. When I was on the American University campus for an event, a student stopped me and said, “I know you must be really busy prepping for this Sunday’s show, but could you take a picture with me?” I didn’t want to go into it, so I just said yes and posed with him, feeling like a bit of an imposter.

I always appreciate viewers like the woman who did a double take at me from across a clothing shop and yelled, “Big mistake! And I don’t watch anymore.” I told her that I was trying to be classy about the whole thing but as­sured her, “You don’t have to be!”

I have to admit, however, that losing my job was more than a humbling moment. Over time, I’ve had to grapple with a real loss of identity. That pain and sense of loss is not something that even my spiritual search has helped me completely overcome. But I know that being grounded in faith and humility from this period will help me find my new identity—my true identity.

I may have been on my spiritual journey for many years, but I have not yet arrived at the final destination. The experience of leaving NBC showed me how much I have to do before I get there. There’s a very specific way that I have resolved to change. I want to get better at developing and sustaining community.

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I think I could have done more, across my career, to build a supportive network of journalists, coworkers, and friends. I should have been the kind of colleague whom people wanted to stick their necks out for, to stand up for. But in a fickle town and an often venomous business, I don’t think I was that guy for many people. Some of my colleagues saw me as just out for myself, because I was openly ambitious and succeeded young. I regret that. When I left NBC, what stung more than the outright negativity was the indifference shown by so many. Many people thought it was par for the course in the TV news business for one guy to go out and another to come in. But it was not a seamless, happy transition. And yet I heard from very few colleagues at NBC. Now I think that if I had given more, perhaps I would have gotten more in return.

Nevertheless, I received an outpouring of support: emails from fans I’d never met and people I had lost touch with from my childhood in California; calls from administration officials and senators; kind letters from colleagues in the journalism world.

One day that summer, after an especially bad pound­ing in the press, I received an email from a guy you could call the consummate Washington insider. He began by telling me that he once found out through the media that he was being fired from his job running a presidential campaign. No one ever told him to his face that he was losing his job. Then he wrote:

I learned from this experience three lessons that I pass along to you for whatever value they have. Number one, life isn’t always fair, sometimes you get screwed and it’s not your fault and it just sucks.

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Two, you learn who your real friends are and who your fake friends are and the love and support of the former is a treasure beyond measure for life. And three, the pendulum always swings back, and quality people come out on top, most often even better than before, in ways you can never imagine. You are sharp enough to know all of this and much more, but I wanted to send you this reminder of these truths, and let you know that I’m thinking of you and wishing you the best.

Reading that, I realized I had been given a gift of knowing who really cared about me at a time when it was not pop­ular to care about me. It taught me something about the community I do have. The letter was especially moving to me because this is a guy I don’t know very well. He just wanted to demonstrate that he was in my community and was moved to share his own humbling experience in the hope of making me feel better. I’d like to think I would do the same.

The day I left NBC, Erica wrote me a simple note. She suggested that at this tough time, I should put my trust in God and in all those who love and care about me. She closed with a prayer from Isaiah: “I am He, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

Excerpted from "How's Your Faith: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey" by David Gregory. Published by Simon and Schuster. Copyright 2015 by David Gregory. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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