At 39, David Gregory has already been on television for two decades, driven by an early and unwavering desire to be a newsman in the mold of the late, great Peter Jennings. As a college intern at Tucson's KGUN, Gregory's first newsroom job, he put Jennings' picture on his desk, a talisman that propelled him forward.
“His goal was to be a network anchor,” says Ray Depa, KGUN's news director at the time. “Peter was his hero. There was a ledge that ran down the line of cubicles, and there was Peter looking at him every day.”
Last December, Gregory marked one year in the moderator's chair at NBC's Meet the Press, taking over after the sudden death of the inimitable Tim Russert. But if succeeding Russert was a formidable challenge, Gregory has a habit of exceeding others' expectations of him.
To say that Depa and the rest of the staff at KGUN were less than enthusiastic at the prospect of a college intern would be an understatement. Gregory's father, Depa recalls, called in a favor with a friend in KGUN's corporate office to get Gregory the internship, certainly not unusual as internships (and parents) go. But KGUN had just been forced to lay off six staffers.
“I told David,” Depa recalls, “don't be real surprised if the red carpet isn't rolled out for you.” Indeed, he was roundly hazed by senior staffers, given every grunt job imaginable.
“Nothing fazed him,” Depa points out. “As the summer wore on, our assignment editor started giving him stories to do.”
As Gregory headed back to American University that fall, Depa suggested that the young journalist serve as the station's Washington stringer. Gregory worked the congressional beat, filing enterprise stories. By the time he returned to KGUN the following summer, the staff there considered him a full-fledged reporter.
“He had all the tools; smart, tremendous amount of initiative, great journalistic instincts, ethics and integrity,” Depa says. The only obstacle standing in his way, according to Depa, was that Gregory actually looked 19.
“I was very ambitious,” Gregory says. “But I just don't know a whole lot of news directors who would put a 19-year-old on television. As I look back on it, I always think how extraordinary it was that [Depa] did that. And having someone who was willing to take that kind of chance only encouraged me.”
After graduating in 1992, Gregory worked at stations in Albuquerque and Sacramento before landing a job at NBC News. While covering the 1997 trial of Timothy McVeigh for NBC, he met Beth Wilkinson, one of the Justice Department prosecutors on the case. She would go on to prosecute McVeigh accomplice Terry Nichols. By then, Gregory and Wilkinson were married, and Gregory had to recuse himself from reporting on the case.
At NBC News, he was an indefatigable presence in the White House press room during the George W. Bush administration. When Russert, who had built MTP into a Sunday powerhouse, died suddenly in 2008, NBC installed Tom Brokaw on an interim basis to smooth the transition. Gregory is now firmly established at NBC's storied inside-the-Beltway franchise.
Betsy Fischer, who was in Gregory's graduating class at American and has been the executive producer of MTP since 2002, says Gregory's strength as a broadcaster is his versatility. “He can roll with the punches,” she says. “He can do the very serious, tough on-the-hot-seat interview. But he can also do an interview that is thoughtful and draws the guest out.”
With just over a year in the moderator's chair, Gregory has hung on to the top spot among Sunday political shows. MTP is averaging 3.1 million viewers this season, and it leads in news' target demographic of 25-54-year-olds. (Fewer than 50,000 viewers separate second-place ABC's This Week and CBS' Face the Nation. But Nation has overtaken Week in the demo, according to Nielsen data through Jan. 24.)
Staying on top, Gregory says, “is huge. It's what I expect and it's what's expected of me. “It was certainly not a given that a year later I would still be number one, having to succeed Tim Russert. I'm not entitled to anything that the program had before me. I've had to work very hard to keep us where we are.”
Yet it's no surprise to Depa, who well recalls that smart, driven 19-year-old KGUN intern: “You knew he was destined.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie
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