No news would (briefly) be welcome news

Posted: May 01, 2007

Steve Capus graduated from Temple with a degree in communications, but judging by the last few weeks, he should have majored in crisis management.

As president of NBC News, camera-shy Capus has been in the eye of not one but two media hurricanes in which his decisions have been heatedly debated on the national stage.

From the ho-rrible (Don Imus) to the horrific (Virginia Tech), Capus found himself in the hot seat twice in short order.

"At this point, a slow news week would be as welcome as a beautiful spring day at the end of a harsh winter," says Capus, 43, a Bucks County boy.

If that sounds a tad lyrical, well, consider that Capus, a would-be musician since his days at William Tennent High School, still plucks his Rickenbacker electric bass during boring conference calls at NBC.

Capus hit a sour note with viewers April 18 when NBC aired portions of the self-made videotape of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho. Capus was accused of being insensitive to the victims' families.

Seven days before that crisis, there was the Imus debacle.

After meeting with distraught African American staffers, Capus canceled Imus' MSNBC simulcast because of the DJ's racist on-air comments. Critics raked Capus for sacrificing the First Amendment.

News executives are meant to be heard, not seen, but Capus, NBC president since '05, resolutely defended his judgments on NBC, MSNBC, CNN and even, last Tuesday, with Oprah Winfrey Herself.

"Go figure," he says. ". . . I'm a guy from Warminster who landed in a good job. I never thought it would propel me into the guest seat of Oprah."

Technically, Capus was in the studio audience. Anchor Brian Williams, mind-melded with his boss since they worked together at Philadelphia's WCAU in the late '80s, sat with Winfrey.

To Williams, Oprah meant reaching a different audience.

"It was bothering us that some people didn't seem to understand what we do for a living," he says. "We can't always use public opinion as a barometer of whether to do a story."

When Cho's package arrived at NBC April 18, Capus and his staff debated for some seven hours about what to air from the 25 minutes of raw video, 43 photos and 23 pages of ramblings.

By that evening, NBC had decided to show a few snippets - immediately picked up by virtually every news outlet on the planet.

By 11, after thousands of irate e-mails, Capus ordered NBC to cut back on the video. Others followed suit; ABC and Fox News Channel dropped it altogether.

"My only regret is that we knew showing the video would cause pain," says Capus, a father of three. ". . . I didn't feel we had any choice, given that people were already airing photographs of Cho."

Nationally syndicated radio host Bill Press says it was, and still is, a bad call.

Capus "caused a lot of additional pain and suffering for the families and the community at Virginia Tech. It enabled Cho to stalk the campus one more time, even after death."

If criticism bothers Capus, you'd never know it. Unfailingly placid, he rarely raises his eyebrows, never mind his voice. He was the same way as a self-described geeky Temple undergrad.

"I never saw him rattled," recalls journalism professor Tom Eveslage. "It wasn't smugness or arrogance. It was a quiet self-confidence."

That composure belies a Zen-like steel core, says Williams. Capus "realizes there is great dignity and strategic value in keeping your cards close to the vest."

Capus knew at age 7, when he got his first transistor radio, that he wanted to be a broadcaster. After stops at several area radio stations, he hired on at WCAU as a part-time newswriter in '86.

Capus was so focused, he didn't realize he had missed his own graduation until he looked up at a newsroom monitor and saw tape of Bill Cosby addressing Temple's commencement.

Capus was one of five newswriters named Steve. When a producer needed a writer, "he yelled, 'Get me a Steve!' " reporter Cherie Bank remembers.

Steve (Capus) "was an island of sanity in my day," Williams says. "His hair wasn't on fire like everybody else's in the newsroom."

Sartorially, Capus was in his "sweater-vest and green sneaker era," Williams says. "Luckily, he was already walking upright and was able to consume food."

WCAU producer Kathleen Gerrow says she and Capus still joke about his "billowly 'clown pants' with elastic on the bottom."

After a six-year run at KYW, Capus, in a ponytail and Eagles sweatshirt, went to NBC News Channel, an affiliate news service in Charlotte, N.C., in '93.

He joined MSNBC at its launch in '96, executive-producing its signature show, The News With Brian Williams. In '01, he moved to NBC to helm Tom Brokaw's Nightly News.

In December '04, Capus oversaw the transition from Brokaw to Williams. By this point, Capus and Williams were finishing each other's sentences.

They share similar backgrounds. Both have 19-year-old daughters in college. Both are NASCAR freaks. Says Williams: "It's porn for us."

Capus' career still feels slightly unreal to him.

"We often reminisce that this all started in a newsroom in Philly," Williams muses. "The conversations always start with something like, 'Can you believe this?' "


Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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