“They fought back hard,” said Brian Ross.
It was Friday afternoon, and Mr. Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, was on the phone with The Observer. He was discussing NBC’s preemptive response to his latest story—set to air that night on ABC’s 20/20—which would raise troubling questions about Dateline NBC’s hit show, To Catch a Predator.
The buzzy Predator, in which Dateline investigators, working with law enforcement officials, conduct sting operations designed to expose and arrest potential child molesters, has turned into a surprise hit among NBC’s struggling prime-time lineup. Now Ross was readying an investigative report that aimed to shine a spotlight on Dateline’s sometimes questionable methods.
For weeks, said Mr. Ross, NBC producers and executives had declined to comment for his piece. Then, last Wednesday, NBC News president Steve Capus had publicly questioned Mr. Ross’ motives in an interview with USA Today. “I chalk this up to the usual network silly competitiveness, in a territory that deserves much more of a serious handling,” Mr. Capus told the paper. “The competitive wars right now are at a very high level. That’s fueling this.”
To NYTV, Mr. Ross batted down Capus’s implication. “Implicit in that was that we’re all in a club and we shouldn’t criticize or report on each other,” said Mr. Ross. “I don’t think that’s the way you should operate. It’s like the blue wall of silence with cops.”
Mr. Ross had never watched an episode of To Catch a Predator until this summer. But he grew interested in the story when a group of fellow reporters alerted him to the tragedy surrounding a sting operation that the show, coordinating with local police, had carried out in Murphy, Texas, outside of Dallas. During filming, one of the operation’s targets had committed suicide rather than face exposure on national television. To make matters worse, the local prosecutor eventually dropped all charges against all 23 would-be pedophiles caught on camera, citing flaws in the joint NBC/police investigation.
Mr. Ross was intrigued. “People said, ‘You’ll never go after NBC.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re not going to go after NBC. But we are going to take a look at this.’”
The show, which aired Friday night, used outtake footage, never aired by NBC, to detail the intimate working relationship that Dateline forged with the local police chief’s office, and the extent to which the show’s production requirements influenced police procedures—ultimately leading to the collapse of the D.A.’s case.
Mr. Ross said he was surprised by NBC’s defensiveness, contrasting the experience with his critical reporting on CBS, during the Dan Rather “Memogate” controversy of 2004.
“I remember talking to [CBS president] Les Moonves and he said, ‘You really opened our eyes,’” said Mr. Ross. “I thought that was commendable. CBS was straightforward. They answered our questions. They dealt with us. That was not the reaction we got at NBC from Capus.”
MEMO TO CNBC EMPLOYEES THINKING about jumping ship to the Fox Business Network, set to kick off October 15: Get your Kevins straight!
That advice comes a little too late for Eric Bolling. In June, Mr. Bolling, a high-rolling commodities trader-turned-charismatic CNBC talking head, informed his cable news bosses that he was quitting as a commentator on the market-analysis show Fast Money.
Publicly, Mr. Bolling has since suggested that he wanted to spend more time with his family (don’t they all?). But CNBC executives suspected otherwise, thanks in part to an e-mail in which Mr. Bolling’s lawyer chewed over the enforceability of a non-compete clause in the pundit’s contract. Mr. Bolling, according to court documents, had intended to forward the message to Kevin Magee, a senior executive at the Fox Business Network, but instead directed it to CNBC honcho Kevin Goldman.
In July, Mr. Bolling and his lawyers sent CNBC a letter arguing that he should be released from his contract, freeing him to sign on with a competitor. In an affidavit, the multimillionaire argued that CNBC never treated him as an irreplaceable asset: “I was not highly compensated, was not provided with a wardrobe, and received no benefits or even a car service.”
CNBC, unsurprisingly, saw things differently. Billable hours ensued.
“Eric Bolling signed a contract,” CNBC’s Goldman told NYTV. “And we expect him to abide by his contractual obligations.”
You can’t blame CNBC for taking a hard line. In recent months, rumors have swirled around the cable news world about efforts by News Corp. execs to poach CNBC talent. Still, Mr. Bolling’s attorney, Steven Mintz, told us he was amazed at the lengths CNBC was going to try to keep “a talking yak-yak” from continuing his television career elsewhere. “We think they are using nuclear weapons when maybe a small hand grenade would be appropriate,” said Mr. Mintz. (Of course, the media high road is littered with the roadkill of news organizations that thought they could defend themselves against Rupert Murdoch using small-caliber weapons.)
As for Fox, it’s not exactly hiding its intentions. Last month, a top executive filed an affidavit with the court stating, “If Mr. Bolling were free to work for the Fox Business Network, we would be very interested in hiring him.”
ON MONDAY, CBS MADE IT OFFICIAL: As of next Monday, Shelley Ross will be taking over the reigns of The Early Show as senior executive producer.
Early has long been mired in third place, and Ms. Ross, who made her name in part by helping take ABC’s Good Morning America from last to almost first, appears to have been given the authority to make sweeping changes. But a 1998 memo, written by Ms. Ross while she was at ABC, suggests that she may not have driven the key personnel decision at the heart of GMA’s revival—the choice of Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer as the show’s co-anchors.
“An easy choice for anchor is Jack Ford who is very smart and very watchable,” Ross wrote. “I have liked watching him since Court TV and through the OJ trial—especially on Larry King with Cynthia McFadden. I think he can play well off a variety of co-hosts.”
She went on: “The female anchor choice is much tougher … I understand Connie Chung is under discussion for an interim solution. She is a pleasure to work with and watch on air … I still believe the best candidate is Elizabeth Vargas.” CBS executives are mum about what her arrival might mean for the show’s current anchor team, but NYTV is guessing that Jack Ford isn’t in the running.