NBC Gives Free Therapy to Haiti Reporters; Anderson Cooper in Brave New Territory; Bob Balaban on Late Night

93294940 NBC Gives Free Therapy to Haiti Reporters; Anderson Cooper in Brave New Territory; Bob Balaban on Late Night

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, as NBC News employees return from the disaster zone, they will get the opportunity to relate their experiences to work-sanctioned therapists.

“There is an impact on reporters from seeing all these things,” Alexandra Wallace, a senior vice president at NBC News, told The Observer.

According to Ms. Wallace, for years NBC News has offered counseling to staffers returning from such places as war zones. But in the wake of Haiti’s particular horrors, managers back in New York have stepped up efforts to remind staff members of the service. “It’s always here,” said Ms. Wallace. “But this time, we did outreach to say, hey guys, you saw some really bad stuff. … The thought of people buried alive in some cases is a particularly awful thing.”

Counselors hoping to help first responders (such as police officers or firemen) to cope with potentially PTSD-inspiring events encountered in the line of duty have long run up against a culture of stoicism. Just doing my job. Correspondents in the field often feel the same way. “That’s partially why we made a push about counseling,” said Ms. Wallace. “I’m not sure how many people would raise their hands. After all, we’re journalists. We go. We cover.” (And in the case of Anderson Cooper, uncover.)

To date, NBC News has sent several dozen staff members to Haiti, including NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams. Ms. Wallace said that managers have discussed setting up group therapy sessions in the future, but to date all of the counseling has been done on an individual and voluntary basis.

“After 9/11, you could see who was really struggling with stuff,” she said. “I like that we work in an environment where people can say, ‘Hey, seems like you’re having a tough time, you might want to go talk to someone.’

“These are people who have been in tough conditions in the past and will be in tough conditions in the future,” she added. “But like anything in life, if you don’t talk about something, it festers.”

 

Speaking of Anderson Cooper! He’s traveled the world for CNN, reporting from tsunami-ravaged coast lines to Middle Eastern war zones and seemingly every hellish place in between. But on the night of Jan. 22, American TV viewers saw the peripatetic anchor pop up in a previously unimaginable territory—namely, MSNBC.

To wit: On Friday night, MSNBC joined twenty or so other broadcast and cable networks in airing the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, despite the fact that the benefit largely revolved around the star power of an anchor from its rival network.

As it turns out, the decision to air the telethon involved a last-minute, behind-the-scenes push by power brokers inside MSNBC. 

On the morning of the telethon, MSNBC executives woke up planning to stick with the network’s usual programming. As the day progressed, according to multiple sources, a vocal group inside the network began lobbying MSNBC president Phil Griffin to turn over the MSNBC airtime to the worthwhile cause.

One of the Newtonian laws of television journalism is that anchors never willingly preempt their own airtime. But according to sources, it was Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow who led the charge, despite the fact that the event with Mr. Cooper and company would push them out of prime time.

Mr. Griffin soon agreed to put on the telethon. However, there was one problem. MSNBC didn’t have the rights to air it. In the subsequent scramble to secure the rights from MTV Networks, which was coordinating the production of the event, Mr. Griffin picked up the phone to enlist the help of a longtime acquaintance with some sway in the telethon—Anderson Cooper’s boss, Jim Walton, with whom Mr. Griffin had worked in the early, primordial days of CNN.

In the end, while Fox News stuck with its original programming and remained a no-Coop zone, MSNBC joined CNN in successfully airing the telethon. All told, the benefit raised an estimated $61 million.

 

“Being the president of NBC is nothing I would wish for myself in real life,” said the actor Bob Balaban.

It was the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 25, and Mr. Balaban was on the phone while driving through the tail end of a rainstorm, en route from his house in Bridgehampton to appointments in the city. In recent weeks, like everyone else in show business and beyond, Mr. Balaban had been following NBC’s late-night debacle.

“I have met Jeff Zucker a couple of times in person,” said Mr. Balaban. “He is in such a difficult position. But he’s a really good guy—as is Conan, as is Jay. The irony is that you have a war here where everyone is actually very nice.”

Mr. Balaban knows a thing or two about the comedy and drama that can be inspired by network bigwigs. Twice during the ’90s, he acted the role of a top NBC executive on the small screen. On NBC’s Seinfeld, Mr. Balaban played Russell Dalrymple, a humorless entertainment chief who eventually abandons 30 Rock for anti-whaling expeditions with Greenpeace. And in HBO’s 1996 movie The Late Shift, based on Bill Carter’s nonfiction book by the same name, Mr. Balaban played Warren Littlefield, a real-life NBC executive caught up in the midst of the bloody battle between Mr. Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson as the host of NBC’s The Tonight Show.

How would America’s most famous fictional NBC executive have solved the network’s very real problems in late night?

Mr. Balaban said that if he were in charge, he would have (1) moved Mr. O’Brien and his staff back to New York; and (2) split the 11:35 time slot between Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Leno, with each comedian getting to host The Tonight Show from opposite coasts on alternate nights. “Between the two of them, they’d get every demographic, everywhere,” Mr. Balaban added diplomatically.

What’s the key to evoking the essence of an NBC executive on the small screen? Is it the convincing double talk? The perfect flop sweat? The baring of the teeth, just so?

“I have no idea,” the actor said.

Back in the mid-’90s, before committing to playing Mr. Littlefield, Mr. Balaban tracked him down and asked permission to play the part. “I didn’t want to go around lampooning somebody, who was my friend, if it would upset him,” said Mr. Balaban.

Mr. Littlefield not only granted permission but passed along a nugget of insight from years of fighting his way up the NBC executive ladder. “He told me one thing,” said Mr. Balaban. “Make sure you wear really good ties.”

Recently, various observers have suggested that Mr. Carter of The New York Times should write a sequel to The Late Shift. Mr. Balaban said he was open to enhancing his peacock cred in the movie version.

“I could play Jeff Zucker,” he said. “Although it’s possible that Jason Alexander should play Jeff Zucker. I’m not sure.”

fgillette@observer.com