ABC: Anyone but Conservatives

Maher, Steve (SD-MS) SMAHER at GI.COM
Wed Feb 25 16:46:00 MST 1998


from CAS list:

ABC: ANYONE BUT CONSERVATIVES

BY BOB ZELNICK
WALL STREET JOURNAL
FEBRUARY 24, 1998

Last week I was forced to leave my position as a
correspondent for ABC News. What happened to me
illustrates something of what is wrong with TV news
today.

In December 1996, following a dinner conversation
with my publisher, Alfred Regnery, I agreed to
undertake a biography of Vice President Al Gore. Early
the following month I phoned Richard C. Wald, the ABC
News executive who tends to the business of
editorial standards, to describe the project and
secure his permission to proceed.

Mr. Wald asked if I intended to write a
"straightforward" biography or one with a distinct
point of view. I replied that except for opinions I might
develop during my research, the book would be
reasonably straightforward. Mr. Wald then inquired
what I thought of Mr. Gore. I replied that I knew the
vice president only slightly, but had a generally
favorable impression of him, shaped by his
pro-defense views in the Senate and his critical
support for the 1991 Gulf War resolution. I added that
my sense was that his environmental views might be
a bit extreme.

'You Have My Permission'

Late in the conversation, Mr. Wald remarked: "If you
write a book about him, you probably can't cover him
for us." I told him I thought that writing a book on the
vice president would enhance my credentials to cover
him. "Now that I think of it, you may be right," said Mr.
Wald. "We'll have to see. In any event, you have my
permission."

I conducted scores of interviews. I hired a researcher
who performed more than four months of full-time
work. I traveled to Harvard, where Mr. Gore went to
school, and to Tennessee. I came up with fascinating,
previously unpublished material on both Mr. Gore and
his father, also a former Tennessee senator, and
mined a rich lode of background material on
Tennessee politics. My sense was that the project
would prove helpful not only to my own career as a
television correspondent but also to ABC's coverage
of the 2000 presidential campaign.

But last September, just days before my contract with
ABC was to expire, the network informed me that if I
wished to sign a new one, I would have to break my
contract with Regnery, return the advance and
discontinue all work on the Gore book. ABC's new
position was that there was an inherent conflict
between writing a book on a subject and covering that
subject.

In a written appeal to Roone Arledge and David Westin,
respectively chairman and president of the news
division, I objected to the ruling as unjust, contrary to
ABC's own standards and procedures, and repugnant
to the First Amendment values we all endorse. I
pointed out that the decision was wildly excessive as
regards any valid interest of ABC News, in that I was
willing to submit the manuscript months before
publication in order to address any editorial problems
the company perceived. I noted that most news
organizations encourage their correspondents to
write books on subjects they cover, then point to
them with pride as indicating staff depth, scholarship
and authority. Examples from the print press are
legion, but even in television, where a career spent
writing 90-second spots can erode the ability to think
and write in depth, correspondents such as Marvin
Kalb, Bernard Kalb, Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson and I
have published books on subjects close to our beats.

Nonetheless, Mr. Westin's written reply explained that
"we cannot have a Washington correspondent writing
a book about one of our national leaders whom that
correspondent will undoubtedly have to cover."
Otherwise, we could be "held up to ridicule that our
reporting is influenced by views you/we have formed
about the individual involved."

I eventually decided to complete the book and to leave
ABC News after 21 years. Mr. Wald, asked by a
newspaper reporter why he had granted permission
in the first place, concocted a tale that I was about to
be fired when I approached him, and he didn't want to
impede my earning a living by writing books. Thanks,
Dick.

Would I have faced the same problem if I were an
avowedly liberal journalist undertaking a book that
made conservatives mildly uncomfortable rather than
a moderately conservative one writing about a liberal
icon? Had the proposed title been "Gingrich: A Critical
Look at the Man and His Climb to Power," would I have
been forced to choose between my book and my
career? I rather doubt it.

Nor does the double standard stop with books. My
friend and former colleague Sam Donaldson is again
covering the White House six days a week. On the
seventh day he does not rest, but rather appears on
"This Week With Sam and Cokie," where he is free
with his concededly liberal opinions. Sam is a gifted
reporter, and in 21 years I have never seen evidence
of deliberate bias in his work. I think ABC is wisely
using his talents. But where is his conservative
counterpart, licensed both to report and to ruminate?

My original sin may have been my earlier book,
"Backfire: A Reporter's Look at Affirmative Action,"
also published by Regnery. In 1996, when "This Week"
decided to interview Gary Aldrich--author of yet
another Regnery book, "Unlimited Access: An FBI
Agent Inside the Clinton White House"--and I was
asked to prepare the set-up piece, George
Stephanopoulos, then a White House spinmeister
(now an ABC commentator), blasted ABC News for
anti-Clinton bias, specifically citing my limited
involvement with the program. Months later, Jane
Mayer, a New Yorker reporter, did the same. Is this
what Mr. Westin had in mind when he said he feared
"ridicule"?

Like others at ABC News, I committed my life, my
fortune and my sacred honor to the furtherance of the
First Amendment and the pursuit of truth. Along with
a brave and resourceful crew, I was thrown into a
Moscow prison for refusing to stop interviewing a
dissident on her way to court. I accompanied soldiers
who came under fire in South Lebanon and Somalia. In
these times I was conscious of the far greater
physical dangers that other correspondents had
faced in times and places as different as Gettysburg,
Normandy, Khe Sanh and Srebrenica.

But the principal dangers that threaten television
journalists today are not those of an errant bullet, or
even a well-aimed one. Rather, they spring on the one
hand from the merciless demands of the news cycle,
the dumbing down of public affairs programming and
the belief in viewers' shrinking attention span. The
end results of these dangers are poorly sourced,
factually insubstantial, overly sensational stories that,
in the end, harm our credibility and make us easy
targets for political demagogues.

Ideological Orthodoxy

The other danger--the one that led to my departure
from the industry--involves ideological orthodoxy,
political correctness and a complete lack of
self-confidence regarding the management of a news
organization, partly because so many of those at the
top have little or no background as working
journalists.

For most of my career I felt honored to serve as a
correspondent for ABC News. But the ABC News I
served did not practice prior restraint.

The ABC News I served did not demand that its
reporters shatter their integrity by breaching
contracts.

The ABC News I served did not look for a rock to
crawl under when the Jane Mayers of the world
attacked.

The ABC News I served did not seek to destroy
correspondents who had performed for the company
over two decades with dignity, integrity and
excellence.

The ABC News I served did not break its word, ignore
its standards or brazenly lie to explain its actions.

Sad to say, the ABC News I served is not the ABC
News I left.



Mr. Zelnick is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.



More information about the Rushtalk mailing list