It was a story that literally blew up in NBC's face. On Nov. 17, Dateline NBC aired a report titled ''Waiting to Explode?'' questioning the safety of some General Motors trucks. To try to ensure dramatic footage, the show's producers allowed incendiary devices to be strapped to trucks for a crash-test demonstration. When GM discovered the setup, the carmaker sued NBC for defamation and temporarily removed its ads from the network's news programs. Then came the ultimate embarrassment: Dateline anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips were ordered to read a 3.5-minute on-air apology to viewers and GM.
In a statement to his staff, NBC News president Michael Gartner said, ''The best thing to do when we make a mistake is to admit it.'' But not everyone at . the network was satisfied. ''They gave Jane Pauley, who's never done anything wrong in her life, the lead role in the apology,'' one NBC correspondent says. Adds an NBC News producer, ''If I were Jane, I would have no more read that f---ing apology than I would have jumped in front of a semitrailer. She had no connection with the story.''
The incident was the most devastating in a series of ugly controversies that has seriously damaged the reputation of third-place NBC News over the last few years. ''When they read that apology, everyone who has ever been associated with that place was embarrassed,'' says former NBC News president Reuven Frank. ''Morale is in the toilet,'' adds a veteran NBC producer. ''Most people who've been here a while feel there's nobody at the rudder.''
Some staffers blame Gartner a former newspaperman hired in 1988 even though he had no background in TV news for trying to satisfy parent company General Electric's bottom-line mentality by replacing veteran journalists with cheaper, less experienced reporters and producers. After GE took over the network in 1986, says one NBC correspondent, ''they threw out the policy manual and put in the profit manual and this is the result.''
NBC and Dateline officials, who are conducting their own probe of the incident, refused comment, but heads may roll. The at-risk list includes:
*Dateline executive producer Jeff Diamond, formerly senior producer of ABC's 20/20. ''No story goes on Dateline without Diamond having tight control of it,'' an NBC producer says. ''If anybody's going to be the fall guy, he ought to be it.''
*Robert Read, producer of the GM segment. Colleagues point to Read's training at the tabloid TV show Inside Edition as evidence of the network's lowered standards. ''If you hire people like that,'' says a fellow NBC producer, ''you're bound to get into trouble.''
*Correspondent Michele Gillen, who reported the GM story. Gillen was said to be up for an anchor post on a new NBC prime-time newsmagazine a prospect that now seems less likely.
The scandal is a potentially crushing blow to Dateline, NBC's 18th try at duplicating 60 Minutes' popularity. The program had appeared to be on the verge of success. ''NBC seems to have a voodoo curse on its ability to field a competitive show,'' says media critic Jon Katz.
Competition among network newsmagazines there are now six on the air has contributed to the atmosphere of ethical corner-cutting. ''It's a descending escalator of journalistic values. You go down very slowly,'' says former NBC correspondent Marvin Kalb. The proliferation of such shows also depletes the talent pool of reporters and producers. ''There aren't that many good people in this business,'' says 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt. ''Sooner or later you start scraping the bottom of the barrel.''
TV's need for sensational images, however, seems to have been the driving force in Dateline's case. To get a picture of an exploding truck, the show broke basic journalistic rules against staging events. ''Producers are under phenomenal pressure to illustrate everything with strong visual images,'' Katz says. ''Ironically, they had a fairly substantial story they simply illustrated it inappropriately.'' (In fact, four days before GM sued NBC, the automaker lost a $105.2 million suit brought by the parents of a Georgia teen who was killed when his pickup exploded.)
The impact of the Dateline debacle will no doubt be felt in newsrooms far beyond NBC's. ''This reminded everybody, 'Hold your horses when you're going to report on a major advertiser,''' says Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. ''NBC did a disservice to itself and to the news business.''
''There's a great sense of pain when you see the Peacock lose a couple more feathers,'' a veteran NBC reporter laments. ''We don't know how many are left.''