Q&A: NBC News Chief Steve Capus

Steve Capus has had his hands full over the past year, to say the least. As the president of NBC News with purview over cable sibling MSNBC, he has managed his team through a hotly contested election cycle, the sudden death of his top political talent and the embarrassing benching from the anchor desk of two of his highest-profile personalities. 

It hasn't always been easy, as Capus has navigated a particularly dodgy political minefield. MSNBC was an early target for the ideological bent of hosts Chris Matthews (whose on-air displays of affection toward Barack Obama irked Republicans, not to mention Hillary Clinton) and the George Bush-bashing Keith Olbermann. In the end, the duo were removed from anchor duty. (Rachel Maddow, whose show launched in September and is beating CNN's Larry King Live, has elicited less conservative ire, no doubt in part because she has never tried to conceal her opinions under the mantle of anchor.) But the sudden death of Meet the Press host and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert—who was viewed both inside NBC News and by the competition as a tough but fair newsman—only exacerbated the disarray. 

NBC News, like most media companies, is weathering budget cuts and layoffs. Despite a mountain of challenges, the network will finish the year with the top-rated morning program (Today), Sunday news program (MTP) and evening news program (Nightly News). And though MSNBC is still the third-place cable news network, it finished 2008 with its highest viewership in key dayparts. 

Capus talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about the year that was, the year ahead and whether or not Chris Matthews is really going to run for office.

Has anybody had a more eventful job than you this year?

It's been unbelievable. It's been absolutely a blur.

Is that good or bad?

Look, it's been a year you never forget. It had some of the most incredible highlights imaginable and absolutely devastating losses at the same time. I can remember talking to Tom Brokaw after Sept. 11 and telling him that I thought that he had been absolutely brilliant. And Tom said, “This is what you train your whole career for.”

And I feel like 2008 has been the same for those of us who have been here running the show. You think about the election coverage; it was incredible and fascinating and challenging. I'm incredibly proud of what our team's pulled off. And it culminated with an Election Night nobody will ever forget. And in the midst of it we stopped in Beijing. And that was extraordinary and unforgettable, the political conventions, on and on and on. It's incredibly gratifying to see the performance of Nightly News, the Today show, Meet the Press, and MSNBC's phenomenal growth.

MSNBC has gained on CNN at 7 and 9 p.m., and still beats CNN at 8.

I'd like to think it's because we have a strategy. I don't want to take anything away from what CNN did, like, say, on Election Night. They had a big night. But we have a strategy that is not just built around big nights. We have an ongoing strategy for success. The growth at MSNBC has been steady for the last two years. As somebody who has a lot of blood, sweat and tears over at MSNBC, I can't tell you how proud I am of what the folks at MSNBC are accomplishing right now.

Keith Olbermann has made much hay criticizing George Bush. What's the strategy for the Obama administration?

Keith and Rachel [Maddow] and Joe [Scarborough] are not one-trick ponies. They don't do [shows] that are only about going after one person. They have been and will continue to be relevant if they are seen as the place for creative programming and production and smart dialogue with the brightest minds in the field. Keith has become must-see-TV, as has Rachel [Maddow] and Morning Joe. Every day you look at that guest list; it's A-list every single morning.

And to all the people who sat around here and said, “Well, let's just see if MSNBC can pull it off after the election,” I would say that they haven't been watching very closely because again, it's not just one gimmick. It's the place where the smartest conversations are taking place in the morning and in the evening.

There have been some low points, as you said. What has been the hardest part of the past year?

Without a doubt, the loss of Tim. I can't tell you how much his loss meant both personally and to the division overall. It sounds a little egotistical to say it, but his was a loss to the country as well. He was just such a strong presence. To say he was at the top of his game doesn't even give him his just due. This is a guy who meant the world to this news division, and in an instant he was gone. It was a gaping void that we did the best we could to fill. But we knew there was no way it could possibly be closed entirely.

Do you think you would have endured the criticism you did during the Republican convention if Tim Russert had been there to level the scales?

I always thought that that was overblown during the convention. I thought that there were a couple of people who were practicing the art of politics. It wasn't even art; it was the game of politics. And they decided to play the game during the convention to try to score political points. Honestly, we knew that our news division was doing a great job without going at it from a political point of view. If you go after one host or another because of their views, that's fine. But be fair in terms of what you're targeting.

Everybody talks about MSNBC being this one thing. But MSNBC is a lot of different things. It's Morning Joe [which is hosted by a former Republican congressman]. It's the daytime programming. It's a lot of different strong voices. David Gregory anchored the 6 o'clock show. David Gregory anchored election coverage alongside Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. So the people who went after us were truly partisans. I actually think that they would have pulled the same shenanigans during the convention whether Tim was here or not. The private side of the relationship I had with Tim is we would have compared notes and we would have figured out the right way to respond. Of course, that was tough not to have his good counsel.

He has become one of our MVPs. It's hard for me to remember somebody who's come on the scene in such a short period of time and made his presence felt in such a dominating way. So many of the people you see on television these days have nothing but hot air to offer to the discussions and tired old talking points. Chuck brings real reporting to the table. That's what's been rewarded here. Chuck is going to have a long career at NBC News with tremendous opportunity. He is a force on both sides of the camera for us, and we're very lucky to have him.

With the first non-white person in the White House, what are your thoughts on getting more minorities in the ranks of Washington correspondents? Is it an opportunity? Is it an obligation in some ways?

I don't think it's an obligation. I do think that what this new administration deserves are our best people on the job. And whether that is someone with a diverse background may or may not be the case. I want to put the best people we have in those critical jobs right now. Diversity is something we obviously think about all the time.

You look at Meet the Press all throughout the election season: Tom Brokaw was the right guy to go in there after Tim passed away, and I believe David Gregory was the right guy to go in there full-time. I think he proved that [during his debut on Dec. 14]. I also think he proved with the selection of the guests [which included Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell].

There's a lot of good people around right now. And they've been showcased very well. And we'll continue to keep that commitment to diversity. But I don't think that that should be the only criterion when we look to fill these jobs.

I have a personnel suggestion: Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush. I think he needs a job.

[Laughing] If we can get him out of jail.

He could be Keith's co-host.

I think the Philadelphia Phillies are going to sign him to pitch. What an arm.

Yes, he managed to hurl both shoes at the President.

It was an amazing piece of video.

I think he would be a great addition to MSNBC.

There you go. Hardball

In this kind of economy, where are the opportunities for growth?

We are still seeing growth on both MSNBC platforms, online and cable. Part of my mandate is to do what we have to maintain that growth. I’ve not seen a softening in either place yet. There are some [down] aspects of MSNBC.com—the typical display ad money has fallen off—but we’ve been able to make that up in video and some other areas. MSNBC cable has just had such a phenomenal run over the last couple of years that we really are in a good position to maximize that. 

One of the things I like about the way we’re set up at MSNBC is we’re not just relying on big events. I look at one competitor in particular and I see a big-game strategy, which is fine on big nights. But it hurts them when things go back to quote-unquote normal. We have a place that’s built for the long run and big nights and quiet nights, and that’s why MSNBC has done so well.

Many of your on-air personalities have made news. And Joe Scarborough did recently when he let an F-bomb slip on the air. Ever since, Morning Joe has been on a seven-second delay where, say, Don Imus never was. Do you see any irony in that?

I honestly don’t think he knew what he said. I think it just kind of came out. It was obviously a mistake. He apologized and we moved on. I think [the delay] is the safe and prudent thing to do. Every once in a while we put a delay on; if we’re showing live some bozo leading police on a high-speed chase, we’ll put that on seven-second delay because you don’t know what’s going to happen and you want to be careful. I think it’s OK. It’s the ultimate reality show, right? It’s live, it’s unscripted. Anything can happen, including something bad, so why not guard against that?

Cable news is awash in pundits. Do you think that’s good for political discourse?

I think there are a lot of people who are on TV these days who think they should have the final word on everything. And I’m always a little suspicious of people like that. OK, I’m glad you have a point of view. But don’t tell me that just because I might disagree with you that I don’t know what I’m talking about or I’m somehow less of a human being than you are. And don’t tell me what’s appropriate discourse one way or the other because I’m going to rebel at that sort of thing.

Well, do you think Keith is one of those people?

I think Keith is very respectful of other people.

Right, Mr. Zaidi could take over for Chris when Chris goes off to run for office.

[Chris Matthews] is not running for office.

He's not?

I don't think so. Well, look, if he were running for office, he wouldn't be on TV.