Brian Nalesnik ’90 Directs “Face the Nation” with efficiency, savvy and humor
By Geoff Gehman
Brian Nalesnik ’90 was a Little Leaguer when he earned the big-league nickname “Nails,” a simplification of his last name and a description of his hammer-tough character. Steely nerves have served him well during a 20-year career as a director of live television shows about sports, finances and politics. His latest job is perfect for a control-room quarterback who loves hard news.
Last winter Nalesnik began directing “Face the Nation,” the long-running, top-rated public-affairs program airing Sundays on CBS. Supervising everything from cameras to graphics, he’s had a ringside seat for debates about everything from transgender bathrooms to the presidential-campaign circus. He aims “to make everything easier for everyone,” especially host John Dickerson, who last June succeeded iconic moderator Bob Schieffer.
Tom Nelson, his first TV mentor at Wilkes, says Nalesnik’s success is not surprising. “Brian has the stuff that TV directors are made of,” says Nelson, now associate professor of communications at Elon University. “He never rattles. He’s the kind of person you’d like to follow into a battle.”
It was Nelson who introduced Nalesnik to a TV career during the course “Introduction to Television.” A student who was admittedly more passionate about sports than academics, Nalesnik was inspired by Nelson’s blunt, bold personality and his honest portrait of TV news as a fast-paced, high-pressure team game. Impressed by Nalesnik’s intelligence and tenacity, Nelson steered him to an internship at a small station in North Dakota, a state where Nelson once worked. Only Nalesnik, he figured, could thrive in faraway, frozen Fargo.
Nalesnik rewarded Nelson’s faith, enjoying everything from preparing shot sheets for the sports anchor to driving 90 minutes in a whiteout to shoot video of a high-school hockey game. Back at Wilkes, he tried to simulate the unbelievable camaraderie of his Fargo crew. He helped set up a TV studio and a TV news show, “Wilkes Today” (now “Wilkes Now”). According to his adviser, Jane Elmes-Crahall, he grew remarkably as a theorist, an interviewer and a critic. He was “poised, respectful, a very solid writer, a very logical and visual thinker, a natural leader,” says Elmes-Crahall, a professor of communication studies who remains one of Nalesnik’s mentors.
After graduation, Nalesnik began practicing Elmes-Crahall’s tips: “Work as much as you can. Network yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be up front.” He spent five years at WBRE, the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. He moved to CNBC, where he directed daytime financial shows and helped launch “Squawk Box,” the popular morning news/talk program. At MSNBC, he supervised “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” hosted by the fast-talking, take-no-prisoners politico.
Along the way Nalesnik learned to get along with difficult anchors and producers. The experiences prepared him for a 2003-08 run on the MSNBC show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” starring the often cantankerous, sometimes controversial commentator. Nalesnik says he worked well with Olbermann, who appreciated the director’s efficiency and levity. The two bonded over sports statistics, trivia and hockey games pitting Olbermann’s favorite team, the New York Rangers, against Nalesnik’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We have a nice little friendship,” says Nalesnik. “I know Keith is an eccentric who has a reputation for not being the most pleasant person. I think it helps that I’m part of his sports world and not part of his political world.”
Nalesnik followed “Countdown” with stints for the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and Bloomberg. Free-lancing with the “CBS Evening News” brought him to the attention of “Face the Nation” officials, who hired him last December to help cover the unusually contentious and colorful race to the White House.
Nalesnik serves “Face the Nation” as a sort of on-air traffic controller. In New York he sets up the CBS graphics studio for the show’s statistics expert, commuting from the Poconos home he shares with his wife, Tina, and their two children. Every week he travels to Washington, D.C., the program’s headquarters, where he choreographs camera operators as they track panel discussions and live and recorded interviews. In the control room, also known as “the front row,” he’s watched moderator John Dickerson grill former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about her private emails about federal business and Donald Trump about his weathervaning views on abortion.
One of Nalesnik’s primary duties is to make life easier for first-time TV host Dickerson, a longtime political reporter and CBS’s political director. “John is well versed and well respected in the political realm,” says Nalesnik. “He gets along with everyone—even Trump. What I love is that he’s fairly green to this medium, which means I can play a part in his progression. My job is to give him security and confidence when I throw changes his way…..You have to gain the trust of any anchor-or any producer, for that matter. One of the most difficult jobs is to simulate a vision for a producer or an anchor, to get into their head.”
Mary Hager, executive producer of “Face the Nation,” calls Nalesnik a first-rate teammate. “Brian is very quick on his feet,” says the 25-year veteran of CBS News. “He’s creative; he has lots of great ideas about graphics that don’t involve spending a terrible amount of money. He doesn’t yell about problems. He’s fabulous about following up. He’s fabulous.” The director, she adds, is also a fellow fan of Bruce Springsteen, who grew up near Nalesnik’s hometown of Marlboro, N.J.
Nalesnik’s short-term goals include building a snappier “Face the Nation” set that matches Dickerson’s youthful Beltway savvy. His long-term goals include teaching. In March he was a guest in Elmes-Crahall’s “Controlling Spin” class, where he described media manipulation as art, craft and war.
After a quarter century in TV, Nalesnik still relishes the adrenaline rush, the long hours, the break-neck complexities of breaking news. “In this field you’re going to fail a lot,” he says. “You’ve always got to prove yourself; it’s like a constant trial. It’s a bit of a grind, but I love it. It’s fascinating, it’s fun, you meet a lot of great people. I don’t consider it work; it’s television.”
Brian Nalesnik ’90
Bachelor of Arts, Communication Studies, Wilkes
Career: Director of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” one of television’s longest running programs.
Notable: Has worked on some of television’s most popular news and public affairs programs, launching CNBC’s “Squawk Box” and directing MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olberman” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
Favorite Wilkes Memory: Pulling all nighters during the final exams. “The sense of accomplishment after acing finals was exhilarating.”