After many years in front of and behind the television camera, on the radio airwaves and in newspaper newsrooms, much-sought-after newsman Jerry Nachman has returned to the East Coast as vice president and editor-in-chief of the ratings-impaired cable network MSNBC. He also has his own show, “Nachman,” which he hosts on the same network. Nachman has an impressive résumé: He has a long history at NBC and CBS, and was editor-in-chief of The New York Post, executive producer of ABC’s “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” and a staff writer on a weekly scripted drama, “UC: Under Cover.” His talents have netted him the Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and an Emmy.
THE SHUTTLE SHEET: What is the most politically incorrect thing you’ve done at MSNBC?
JERRY NACHMAN: I attack the network for having a severe impulse-control disorder, and I do it on the air. You don’t get to do that a lot of places. They seem amused by my irascibility. They’ve permitted me to do what I call anti-television with MSNBC and specifically with my show. It’s so quirky.
SS: What do you mean by quirky?
JN: You look on the TV and say, “Who is this guy? Why did they put him on television?”
SS: How do you describe your role at MSNBC?
JN: I’m editor in chief. It has nothing to do with hiring and firing. I’m closer to a newspaper ombudsman. I’m Internal Affairs. I keep an eye on stuff. I yell about spelling on the bottom of the screen.
SS: How do you balance your on-air show with your management role?
JN: The job offer labeled the talk show coequal or more to my duties as editor in chief.
SS: Why should we watch MSNBC rather than Fox News Channel or CNN?
JN: CNN is really all news radio; it’s really a wire machine. Fox is this brash pinball machine with flashing lights. You don’t want the white bread and you don’t want the jalapeNo peppers. That leaves us a big middle.
SS: Then why aren’t your numbers better?
JN: Because we allowed ourselves to get outflanked. CNN was there first. Fox came along and tapped into a lot of the rage out there.
SS: We see so-called experts regularly on MSNBC and other 24-hour news networks. As an ombudsman, what criteria do you think make an expert and expert?
JN: I ask this question every day. I don’t want some putz who has a Ph.D. What did he do? A lot of the people we use invented the protocols that we’re describing: people who invented profiling, hostage negotiating. Now they’re retired and are consultants, but they have credits.
SS: But are they good television? Do they talk in memorable sound bites?
JN: That’s the second question I always ask: Can he or she talk? A lot of people with great credentials are Ralph Kramden. We try to make sure they’re legitimate and they have something to say. During the [Washington, D.C. -area] sniper coverage, the newspaper pages were citing the same experts that they were criticizing us for airing. It was very difficult to name an expert on any of the cable news networks who wasn’t quoted or cited in the newspapers.
SS: Who were the copycats?
JN: We were going first because we’re on 24-hours. You can’t cover stories without watching television. That’s why newpapers have moved into analysis and investigation.
SS: Where does the Internet fit in the mix?
JN: It’s the new kid on the block. It’s changed a lot of the ethical rules.
JN: It’s immediate. All of the retractions during the Monica [Lewinsky] story were on the Internet. I tell the guys I teach to always ask their reporters if they’re filing for their Web site. If so, you can’t say in the middle of an investigation, “Hold it until tomorrow.” [In the past,] a cop or any source could tell a reporter x on Tuesday knowing it wasn’t going to come out until Wednesday after next of kin were notified. All of the retractions I saw during the Monica story were [on] newspaper Web sites. That’s because they had stuff and the Web site ran with it before the usual vetting went on. It wouldn’t have gotten into a newspaper past the filtration system, but it got on the Web site.
SS: Tell us about the class you’ve been teaching at the FBI Academy.
JN: The three-week course is called The First Amandment in a Free Society. Students are CEOs or COOs of the largest police agencies in the world. A typical class might include the chief superintendent of Scotland Yard or the L.A. County sheriff. I talk to them about the media and how it works. They all know that they’re more likely to be murdered professionally through the barrel of a camera lens than the barrel of a gun.
SS: You’ve held so many jobs. How do you think you’re viewed in the industry?
JN: My employers see me as a journalist-an outsider in a corporate world. But they also know that generally I’m housebroken, so they keep giving me big responsibilities and hold their breath. I’ve been Jesuit-trained. I’ve worked for CBS in the Paley years, the Tisch years and the Westinghouse years, and for NBS in the RCA years. Other guys back then took the risk. I’m responsible… but I’m scary.
SS: How do you feel about the potential merger of ABC and CNN? How will it affect MSNBC?
JN: Newspapers have been doing this forever. Whenever you hear of a paper that has two names- the Herald Tribune- it was two papers. It’s a very competitive business. The prime mission of a journalist today is to survive.
SS: You work with many young reporters- what changes do you see in them today?
JN: The younger generation is less ambitious, less purposeful about careers. The people who are the most obsessive-compulsive about their careers have the best careers, although they may never be the happiest people.
SS: How do you think this new generation of anchors will stack up against Brokaw, Jennings, Rather?
JN: The new generation is going to have a much tougher mandate, because those guys were the last guys to rack up huge audience shares, because there are only three of them. You can’t bea Ken doll in this business anymore. I can’t tell you how much homework I do for this job. It’s like taking the college boards everyday. Live TV betrays your ignorance. My mandate for me is to be an electronic Rosetta stone.