BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Larry Sabato, author of Feeding Frenzy, you dedicate your book "For my piranhas, who remind me why I chose to teach." What's that all about?
LARRY SABATO, AUTHOR, "FEEDING FRENZY: HOW ATTACK JOURNALISM HAS TRANSFORMED AMERICAN POLITICS": Well, I'll tell you the real story because some people have misinterpreted that and thought I was referring to the press when I talked about piranhas and sending me in another direction professionally. But, in fact, this was a group of young people at the University of Virginia, where I teach and have a faculty position -- mainly undergraduates; some graduate students -- who worked with me during the three years when I was researching the book. They were just a wonderful group of young people, many of whom conducted interviews for the book, did a lot of the original research. Some of them have gone into journalism and politics. One of them is currently David Broder's assistant. Another is associate editor of the Hotline, which is, of course, the bible for all of us who follow politics day to day. They are a great group of young people, and I'm very, very proud of them.
LAMB:Anybody irritated with your book?
SABATO: Anybody? We'd take up the whole hour if I recounted the calls, the letters -- none questioning the accuracy of the quotations because I tape-recorded every interview in full. I'll give you just a couple of anecdotes because I think they're very, very revealing. It's interesting to put the press on the other side of the table sometime. I had one very senior journalist whose name would be instantly recognizable, who actually reviewed the transcript of his remarks. I had a few interviewees who insisted upon doing that, something that most of us don't have the privilege of doing when we're quoted in their articles. But I agreed to do it because I couldn't have gotten the interview otherwise. This particular individual did, indeed, delete a number of passages and lines from the transcript so that I couldn't quote it. Well, he called me up after he had seen the book for the first time, very upset about one particular quotation. I pointed out to him that he was one of a handful of interviewees who had gotten a chance to review the transcript. These are his exact words: "I thought you would have better sense than to quote that part."
So, imagine what would happen if a public official called up a reporter and said something of that sort. I've had other comments along the lines of, "I was very surprised not to find my name in the index." That seems to be the most common comment; that is, they were involved in one of the frenzies that I studied and for some reason were not interviewed. As I pointed out in the preface, if I had tried to be comprehensive -- that is, if I had tried to interview every reporter who covered every one of these frenzies -- first of all I would beat "War and Peace" in terms of the number of pages, and, number two, I wouldn't have spent three years, I would have spent a lifetime researching the book. So I couldn't interview everyone. I tried to interview a sampling of people.
LAMB:What's a feeding frenzy?
SABATO: A feeding frenzy is a circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leaps to cover the same scandalous subject and usually does so intensely and often thoughtlessly. I can't define for you "critical mass of journalists," but it's like pornography -- you know it when you see it.
LAMB:What's your favorite one?
SABATO: Probably the Dan Quayle frenzy because it was a mega-frenzy. This wasn't a minor little incident that happened on one or two days. It stretched out into really weeks and, to some degree, the remnants of the frenzy are still around us and pop up on "Johnny Carson" and "David Letterman" at least once a week.
LAMB:What are the remnants?
SABATO: The image of Dan Quayle really as caricature, as somebody who is completely not up to the job, which is not the view of Washington insiders, as someone who should never have been selected in the first place, and you can argue that one way or the other. I don't know anyone who contends that he was the best qualified candidate for vice president, but I think the people who know him and follow him realize that he has made contributions in the job and has done a reasonably good job as far as vice presidents go. So I would say that Quayle was probably the most interesting of the recent frenzies because it was so expansive.
LAMB:Any of these make you personally mad when you look back on them?
SABATO: Oh, a lot of them make me mad. Aspects of the Quayle frenzy make me mad. Aspects of Michael Dukakis's frenzy, just to be bipartisan about it, where . . .
SABATO: This was the frenzy involving the accusations that Dukakis had seen a psychiatrist, the implication being that he was another Tom Eagleton. This first arose at the Democratic National Convention in '88, and it was spread by the followers of Lyndon LaRouche and the LaRouchies put leaflets under doors and that kind of thing. It later arose -- I think it was three or four weeks later -- during the interim between the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and it began to creep into print because it was being spread not just by the LaRouchies, but also by some of the Republican operatives in Bush's campaign.
I thought that was terribly unfair, mainly because it was totally untrue. If, in fact, he had had psychiatric problems, that would have been a perfectly legitimate subject for press exploration, but in truth he had not. One of my basic points in the book is that if it is rumored, then it is completely improper to print it unless you have the evidence to prove it. It's happening more and more. More and more reporters in publications are publishing rumors without proof, using as the justification that it's affecting the political actors behind the scenes. "It's affecting the campaigns, and, therefore, we ought to tell our readers and listeners about it." I think that's highly improper, and most of the senior journalists in this country agree that it's highly improper.
LAMB:Do they participate, though?
SABATO: Some of them do. One of the, I think, very legitimate criticisms of my book that's appeared in reviews since its publication is that I did not frequently distinguish between the high-minded comments made by some of the journalists I interviewed and their actual behavior in some of these frenzies. I think that is a legitimate criticism. If I had it to do over, I might make that distinction more frequently than I did.
LAMB:If you had to name people who you think are responsible journalists -- I know that list could either be very long and too long to name, or maybe very short -- but to ask you the question, who do you consider to be responsible?
SABATO: Oh, gosh, to me it would be a very long list.
LAMB:Who first comes to mind?
SABATO: Probably David Broder, simply because I regard -- and I should mention that I don't think he's particularly happy with the book because of some things that are in it, but nonetheless I admire him a great deal because I think on many occasions he served as the conscience of journalism. He's not hesitant to criticize the behavior of other journalists, and in an early stage of my project he strongly encouraged me to ask tough questions and to be critical of some of the journalistic practices that I focused on.
LAMB:Why wouldn't he be happy with you?
SABATO: I interviewed him for the book and he was very frank and honest with me, as many journalists were, and I quoted many of those frank and honest statements. I think some of them, in cold, hard print, perhaps didn't sit well with him, and that's true of many of the journalists that I interviewed. But that's a good thing because it's important for them to experience what many public officials experience on a daily basis, being interviewed and then seeing what they've said in cold, hard print. Maybe it's in context, maybe it's out of context, but frequently they're not terribly happy with what they see or they feel that it's unfair.
LAMB:Where are you from?
SABATO: I'm from Norfolk, Virginia. I grew up down in Tidewater. My parents still live there. I'm a Virginian, even with a name like Sabato.
LAMB:Where did you go to school?
SABATO: I went to school in Catholic schools, from elementary through high school, and then I went to the University of Virginia. I more or less never left. I went to Princeton to the Woodrow Wilson School to graduate school for a year, and then I went over to Oxford and eventually worked on my doctorate. I taught there for a while and returned to the University of Virginia where I've pretty much been ever since.
LAMB:Professor of what?
SABATO: Professor of government and foreign affairs. We don't admit that politics is a science, so we don't call our department political science.
LAMB:All along the way in those different majors, what were they? Undergrad, what was your major?
SABATO: Government. I always tell people that I'm not a renaissance man. I live, eat, breathe politics and government, and that's what I've always enjoyed and that's what I've always focused on since I was very small.
SABATO: I've got a doctorate in politics.
LAMB:Do you teach now?
SABATO: I teach. I teach most semesters.
LAMB:What kind of classes?
SABATO: I've got a couple of classes that are my favorites. One is a very large introductory course in American government that has 400 or 500 students in it. It's a real challenge just to keep their attention. In a class that size, if you ever lose them, you might as well shut down the class for the rest of the class period because you've lost them for that period. I've got another small course, a seminar called "Campaigns and Elections," and this draws some of the ablest political students, people who at the age of 18, 19 and 20 have already been involved in a dozen or more campaigns. It's absolutely incredible what some of these kids have done at a very early age.
LAMB:How did you get interested in government?
SABATO: Neither of my parents is particularly political. My dad was Hatched. He worked for the federal government for 36 years. My first political . . .
LAMB:By the way, what does that mean, he was "Hatched?"
SABATO: He was Hatched, meaning he was under the Hatch Act and could not participate in politics. Actually, my first political memory was of watching the 1960 political conventions, the national conventions, and for some reason I was very engrossed by what was happening on the screen; that is, I was watching people marching around and carrying signs and doing all kinds of silly things and they seemed to be having a wonderful time doing it. I just became very interested in politics and one thing led to another.
LAMB:Have you ever worked for a politician?
SABATO: Yes, I did. I had an active political period as I was growing up, really, in high school and college. At that time I worked for Democratic candidates. I'd always had kind of an academic frame of reference and academic mind, I suppose, and it was inevitable that I would move out of active politics because I tended to want to think too much about what had happened during the day and I probably didn't get as much done as I should have.
LAMB:What's your favorite period in history for government?
SABATO: My favorite period in history -- well, I'm very much drawn to the days of strong parties and big-city machines and, of course, I'm repulsed by the corruption. But I'm also intrigued by the social order. You know, parties have a terrible reputation, but, in fact, they did great things in that era. They were the social welfare agencies for people, and back then relatively few people fell through the cracks. It's not like today. I don't believe the machines would have permitted quite so many homeless on the streets because they saw as one of their duties to house them and feed them and get them on their feet, to get their children educated. Of course, it was for a purpose. It was to get their votes. But that's perfectly all right. They did some good things along the way.
LAMB:When it comes to today, what do you think of the government? That's a big word, but is it working?
SABATO: I don't think it is. I think in many respects we have a kind of gridlock among the branches, among the layers of government. Part of it, frankly, is because of the decline of party, because people don't see the connection between politics and their lives and party labels and their lives anymore. People are always complaining about the president and Congress constantly fighting, but they have to understand it's because they elected a Republican president and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. The same is true on many of the state levels where you have a governor of one party and a legislature of another. This is a direct consequence of the choices people have made.
LAMB:How many books have you written?
SABATO: I've written 14 books total, and about half of them have been about national politics and half of them about the politics in my home state.
LAMB:How many of those were commercial books; that is, they were written to be sold on the commercial market vs. a university press?
SABATO: Most of them were academic texts that were circulated to, I suppose, a handful of my brethren and colleagues and students who were forced to buy them. I've had, I guess, four or five commercial books of the order of Feeding Frenzy.
LAMB:Which sold the best?
SABATO: The best seller was "The Rise of Political Consultants: New Ways of Winning Elections," which was published back in 1981 by Basic Books.
LAMB:This is published by Free Press. Who is that?
SABATO: The Free Press is a division of Macmillan, and it really is a superb press. They've had a number of very fine books coming out of their house recently, and they're an excellent group to work with. I've rarely had as much fun working with a group as I've had working with the Free Press.
LAMB:Is this your most visible book?
SABATO: It has been to this point. You know, visibility has its advantages and disadvantages. It's been very visible to this point. I'm delighted to say it's done well. We've been surprised because political books usually don't do all that well. But so far so good, and I guess I can attribute some of that to the visibility.
LAMB:Where did you get the idea for it?
SABATO: It really came to me as a consequence of watching politics as closely as I do and analyzing it over the years. I've kind of set a goal for myself in my career of trying to analyze each of the key components of campaigns, which is my real passion and love, so I've done books on political consultants, I've done books on campaign finance, I've done books on political parties. And now I just turned to the press because it was the next logical component, and it's looming ever larger in importance.
LAMB:Has your life changed at all since this book came out?
SABATO: I think I have a lot more enemies. That's one change.
LAMB:Are they all the press?
SABATO: Primarily, and I'm sorry to say that. I should add that many senior members of the press corps, and even some junior members, have called me, and they may have had complaints about one portion or another, but they've been supportive and they've suggested that I did make some reasonable statements in the book. But remember, it was Edward R. Murrow, the great CBS newsman, who said, "The press is not thin-skinned. It's no-skinned." I'm afraid I have discovered that in at least a dozen or two dozen cases, I guess, since the publication of the book. I've been surprised that people have been as thin-skinned as they have, many times for offenses that they've interpreted that I certainly didn't mean. They were inadvertent slights of one sort or another. But you can't write a book like this without expecting that kind of thing. If you're going to make an omelette, you're going to break some eggs, and I think I have broken some eggs to write this book.
LAMB:What are the most damaging things you've said here, in your opinion?
SABATO: I didn't think I said anything particularly damaging about specific individuals. What I have tried to say, and what's most important to me, is that first of all public officials, even those running for the highest office, deserve some reasonable zone of privacy, and that we are gradually obliterating the line between public and private. That bothers me enormously, and it ought to bother everybody because the standards applied to public people will eventually be applied to the rest of us. It's only a matter of time. The second problem that I think is central and which infuriates me is the publication of rumor without evidence, of which we talked earlier.
LAMB:You live in Virginia, you teach in Virginia, and in Virginia we've had a fairly visible feeding frenzy, would you call it, over Senator Chuck Robb.
SABATO: Yes, I'd say that's a feeding frenzy.
LAMB:Do you know him?
SABATO: Yes, I do.
SABATO: I would not say I know him well personally, but we were in school together. He was in law school, I was an undergraduate, and I've followed his career very closely since I've lived in Virginia during the entire time in which he's been running for statewide office.
LAMB:What have you publicly been saying about his situation? I assume people have come to you as a professor and as an expert in this area and said, "What do you think, Professor Sabato?"
SABATO: As you know, I've got a chapter in the book partly devoted to the Chuck Robb incident because my general point of the book is that the press goes too far and overscrutinizes the private lives of public officials. But I've also noted in one chapter the other side of the story; that is, that occasionally they don't go far enough. They don't look closely enough at some legitimate items that the press and the public have a right to know. I think that's true in Chuck Robb's case.
I should tell you that in 1987 when the controversy about Senator Robb first arose, I defended him in print because I could not imagine that the Chuck Robb that I thought I knew had been attending parties with drug dealers, had been attending parties where cocaine was openly displayed and used. I was stunned to discover in the course of research for this book -- and I had extensive research and interviewing on the Robb matter -- I was stunned to discover what the truth was, which was that Senator Robb attended dozens of parties where cocaine was openly displayed and used, and I believe that he knew of the use of the cocaine at these parties. It was not in a back room. The cocaine was everywhere. I might add the sources are many and varied, from former members of his staff to members of the police protection unit in his gubernatorial term to people who were at the parties.
I did grow up down in Tidewater and I have access to some people there. So my point is that the press has focused on the wrong thing with Chuck Robb. As usual, they've gravitated to the superficial elements and the sexy elements and the titillating elements -- that is, Tai Collins and the whole affair that he had with her, and there are other women involved, too. To me a much more significant and important question is whether the governor of Virginia -- the chief law enforcement officer of Virginia -- attended parties where drug use was common. To me that goes to the heart of his responsibilities as governor. Now, I should add he denies everything, but I should also add that I don't believe him.
LAMB:What information do you have that we don't have in your research? How did you get to the point where you said, "He's not telling the truth."?
SABATO: At a certain point after you have been given eyewitness accounts of where the drugs were, how much cocaine was present at the parties, whether anyone viewed people using cocaine directly in front of Chuck Robb or right there in his presence, at a certain point the evidence in one's mind becomes overwhelming, and it is impossible to deny. Senator Robb wouldn't believe this because he's heard my conclusions, but the truth is that I did everything I could to try and find out that it wasn't true because I didn't want to believe it. I didn't believe it. In fact, I'd already stated so publicly, and I really didn't want to believe that it was the case. You can disagree with a public official about his or her views and his or her ideology, but to say something that is very damaging about them personally is another matter entirely. I criticize the press for printing rumor without evidence, so I felt a special obligation to try and find substantial evidence, some of which I've reported in the book. Now, Robb is a very small part of the book. He's four or five pages. This is not a major focus of the book, so obviously I haven't included anywhere near everything that I gathered in the course of the book.
LAMB:For the time being, let's take his case as an example and begin at the beginning to show how a feeding frenzy starts. You said earlier that the press was slow in getting to the story.
SABATO: They were very slow in getting to the story.
SABATO: I tried to explore that in the interviews with the reporters and editors involved, many of whom I know very, very well. They admitted to me a number of things. Number one, they didn't believe it, either. I'm just as guilty as they are, and I've admitted that in the book. I didn't believe it. It contradicted everything we knew about Chuck Robb. The image he had projected and his staff and consultants had projected for years was that of the milk-drinking, ex-Marine who went to bed early. I mean, they literally told stories about how he drank a glass of warm milk before retiring at 9:30 and so on and so forth. So it was incredible in a sense. People didn't believe the rumors.
Secondly, Chuck Robb was the most powerful and popular politician in Virginia -- and I underline "was" because I think a great deal of his aura has deteriorated or evaporated. He was a very powerful man. He was guaranteed to win that United States Senate seat in '88. The Republicans nominated just a joke of a candidate -- a nice man but not someone who could seriously contest the Senate seat. As one editor admitted, and I'm quoting, "It's damn hard to go after a man as popular as Chuck Robb." His supporters out there would jump on the press, write letters, call the editors, complain viciously about what was being done to their senator. Of course, it was because they didn't believe it either, and they thought it was all partisan.
LAMB:Where did it start? The very first negative information that you found that started the feeding frenzy.
SABATO: The first nugget was actually a story published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in May of 1987 by two reporters, Jeff Shapiro and Mike Hardy. They reported that Robb had been present at parties where drugs were allegedly used, and that police and DEA agents who had been investigating the drug scene in Virginia Beach had been shocked to find that Chuck Robb was going in and out of some of the places under surveillance.
LAMB:In '87 what was he doing?
SABATO: Chuck Robb? He was between his term as governor and his candidacy for the United States Senate.
LAMB:Had he announced yet?
SABATO: No, he had not announced yet, but it was generally assumed that he would either run for president or vice president in '87, or run for the Senate in '88.
LAMB:Why would a newspaper publish a story at that time when he was not a public official?
SABATO: Well, because he was the immediate past governor. His successor was closely tied to him, and it was clearly understood that he had further ambitions and would be running for office in all likelihood again.
LAMB:What were the dynamics of how these two reporters at the Richmond Times-Dispatch got the original information?
SABATO: As I understand it, they had good sources even with the federal prosecutor, and, of course, with political figures who were aware of Robb's problems. Robb had been warned by a number of his own associates and even by his attorney general at one point, who became his successor as governor, about the kind of company he was keeping. Now, he apparently did cut off contact with at least one individual, but for many others he did not cut off contact. So he had plenty of warning, and this was circulating in state political circles.
LAMB:What I'm getting at here is that these two reporters were sitting at their desk and all of a sudden the phone rings, or were they pursuing a story?
SABATO: As I understand it, it was both; that is, they had discussed the matter or some state political figures had mentioned the problems to them, but they had also sought out some people in the prosecutor's office and elsewhere.
LAMB:And they published the story in 1987 that referred back to what year?
SABATO: Referred back to the years of Robb's gubernatorial term, which were 1982 to 1986.
LAMB:Once that story was published, what happened?
SABATO: The story essentially died; that is, most people viewed it as unbelievable. The general explanation that I heard and that I gave -- it was quoted in the newspapers as supporting -- was that, a) it contradicted everything we knew about Robb, and, b) in this day and time, lots of people may attend parties where drugs are used and they may not know about the drug use; that is, the drug use may be occurring in a back room. I think that was the assumption.
LAMB:At the time you were a professor at the University of Virginia in '87?
SABATO: That's right.
LAMB:What led to you speaking out publicly on behalf of the ex-governor?
SABATO: I was just called by reporters seeking a comment about it.
LAMB:You didn't write an article?
SABATO: No, I didn't write an article about it, I just was quoted in newspapers commenting on the Times-Dispatch revelations.
LAMB:Why would they call you? How does this work? For somebody that never has been involved in something like this, do they have a list? Do they go down a list and say, "Oh, Professor Sabato is here. Let's call him."?
SABATO: I think most reporters have a Rolodex full of analysts and commentators, and that's one of the things that I do in my career. I don't consider it a particularly important part of my career compared to writing and teaching, but it is a part of what I do.
LAMB:When they call you, do they quote you as being a non-partisan, uninvolved observer, or how do they characterize your comments?
SABATO: They just characterized me as being a professor of government at the University of Virginia, as I remember it.
LAMB:Now, you could have just as easily said you believe the story and you think he is guilty of this. Would they have printed that?
SABATO: That's a good question because, generally speaking, I think reporters seek comments and quote comments in their stories that parrot what they already believe; that is, I don't think they would be inclined to use a comment that they view as off-base and out of the ballpark. At that time, virtually nobody believed that Robb could have been involved in these activities, and therefore they might very well not have published it.
LAMB:So the story was published in the Richmond paper, which is the state capital. You made your comments, and everything got quiet.
SABATO: Got absolutely quiet, really, until another Virginia newspaper, the Virginian Pilot, which is published down in the Tidewater area, came into the picture. They had had a very good investigative reporter, in fact, a team of people really, counting the editors -- Rose Ellen O'Connor, Dale Eisman, Jim Raper, Sandy Rowe, a number of people down there -- interested in working on, in some aspect, the Robb story, and they spent about a year investigating it, interviewing some of the drug dealers who were at the parties and so on and so forth. That article was published in August of 1988, which was after Robb had been nominated for the U.S. Senate but before the general election.
LAMB:Did they quote you in that article?
SABATO: No, I was not quoted in that article, and I was not interviewed by that set of reporters.
LAMB:What was different about that article than what the Richmond paper had done?
SABATO: It was much longer and more extensive. It was based on a year's worth of investigative work, which was, if anything, over-distilled and downplayed. It was a front-page story, but the headline didn't lead one to understand the full import of what Robb had been doing. Only if you read the whole story, which was the banner headline and the top part of the front page and a full page of newsprint inside, only when you had read all of that and thought about it did you understand the implications of the article. Now, they tell me that they did that on purpose, and I can understand that, because they didn't want to appear to be hyping or sensationalizing what Robb had actually done. On the other hand, it seems to me that a reader -- a casual Sunday reader with not much time, who allocates a half an hour to reading the Sunday newspapers -- would have missed the significance of the chief law enforcement officer in Virginia attending cocaine parties.
LAMB:Going back to Richmond and the Times Dispatch in '87, did any other media pick up the story?
SABATO: There were little bits and pieces from time to time, but, by and large, there really wasn't another significant look at this until Robb's Senate term, into the spring of 1989 when he had begun his Senate term.
LAMB:So the Norfolk paper in August of '88, the Virginian Pilot, published this second story. Did anybody pick up from that and make an issue of it, like the television or radio media?
SABATO: Not really. The Republican candidate attempted to make an issue out of it, but he just wasn't a serious candidate. No one really paid him much attention. He tried to do -- I think he did do one television ad based on the subject, but there was really very little going on. I should also mention that the Republicans were active and involved in stoking the rumors and trying to find out new information and spreading that around, so that put a partisan cast on it. Then connected to that, but somewhat separate from it, was an effort by a Virginia Beach private detective, Billy Franklin, to investigate the Robb matter. There were some Republican connections to that. He eventually published a book, an entire book, just on the Robb episode which includes rather explicit allegations against Robb actually using drugs. I do not so allege. I have tried to say publicly only what I could verify and what I could convince myself of with what I felt was an overwhelming body of evidence.
LAMB:But up until August of '88, you wouldn't call this a feeding frenzy yet?
SABATO: No. It was not a feeding frenzy. Not at all.
LAMB:He went on and got elected in that November to the United States Senate.
SABATO: He got elected to the United States Senate, he went on to serve, and the issue really percolated behind the scenes, for the most part, for the better part of a year.
LAMB:Where are you in your own head at this point?
SABATO: Well, it's interesting. I was by this time researching my book, and I put together a list of 100 case studies that I thought qualified as feeding frenzies. I eventually had to cut it down to 36 because my publisher didn't want to do two volumes, so I cut it down to 36. I originally included the Robb example as a case where I thought the press might have gone too far; that is, allegations had appeared in print that didn't have substance or proof attached. It was only in the course of doing the interviews and doing my research that I discovered that in fact it was quite the reverse -- that if anything, they hadn't gone far enough.
LAMB:By the way, going back to those two newspapers, were either one of them editorially opposed to Chuck Robb to be elected to the Senate?
SABATO: The Richmond Times-Dispatch has not always been friendly to Robb. I cannot recall off the top of my head whether they actually endorsed him or not, though I can also tell you they'd had some very, very positive editorials about his governorship. So I wouldn't say that they were permanently and unalterably opposed. The news staff was completely separate from the editorial staff. They fight like cats and dogs internally, as is true at most newspapers. The Virginian Pilot had been very friendly to Robb, and I know -- really until recently -- I think the editorial staff of the Virginian Pilot has been inclined to regard Robb as innocent. I think there have been some shifts and some changes as new facts have been revealed.
LAMB:Is there a lot of pressure on a newspaper not to publish something like this? Did you talk to either paper and get some sense that the pressure came from somewhere and said, "You'd better not publish this story because if you're wrong you're really going to mess this thing up."?
SABATO: There's lots of pressure, and this is one of the hidden stories of the press. It's not pressure on the reporters so much as it is pressure on the editors and the publisher of newspapers. They frequently get calls from powerful people in their communities. In the case of the Virginian Pilot, there were lawyers involved on the Robb side pressuring, attempting to go over the stories. There's always the hint of suit involved. I mean, that's what the threat really is, the hint of a libel suit So absolutely there were pressures, and it took no minor degree of courage to go ahead and print what they did.
LAMB:Senator Robb comes to Washington, begins his term in January of 1989. When does the feeding frenzy begin?
SABATO: The frenzy really began long after that. This was in the spring of 1991. NBC News, through their "Expose" program, had been investigating the Robb matter for about six or seven months. They had hired the same investigative reporter, Rose Ellen O'Connor, who had been working for the Virginian Pilot and in between had worked for the Los Angeles Times. Marion Goldin, who is a very well-known producer who works on the NBC "Expose" program, became very interested in the Robb subject, and they started doing a lot of their own poking around and talking to people.
So did the Washington Post, I should add. The Post, and particularly reporter Don Baker, was working pretty extensively on this subject as well. Of course, there were various and sundry leaks about what might happen, but the real event occurred on April 28, 1991, when NBC News aired the "Expose" show that evening. It was half devoted to Robb. The first half, the first 15 minutes, was devoted to the Robb matter, and in that particular episode the allegation was made that he did attend parties where drugs were used. Unfortunately, in my view, attention was also given to Tai Collins, and she was presented as the woman who'd had the affair with Robb. Probably the most serious new allegation that was raised in that show was that the Robb staff had used intimidation against some of those who were trying to come forward and tell what they knew about what Senator Robb had done at these parties. Of course, it's partly that intimidation that has gotten some of the former Robb staffers -- former because he had to let them go as a consequence -- in trouble.
LAMB:Now, when did you change your mind?
SABATO: When did I change my mind about the frenzy?
LAMB:When did you change your mind about Senator Robb being perhaps involved?
SABATO: I would say that the critical time came in the summer of 1990.
LAMB:Because of the research on the book?
SABATO: Because of the research on the book, because of the accumulated evidence, which was, I felt, pretty overwhelming. I had a long interview with Senator Robb in early July, 1991, at which I found him, shall we say, rather unconvincing.
LAMB:Now, had you interviewed him before?
SABATO: Oh, I've seen him for many years in many different circumstances.
LAMB:Have you ever worked for him?
SABATO: Absolutely not, no.
LAMB:Did you see a change in the way he dealt with you once you got to these questions when you interviewed him in 1991?
SABATO: Well, he wasn't exactly comfortable with the line of questioning. He wasn't comfortable dealing with these subjects, and I think I know why. So, I wasn't surprised that he wasn't terribly happy, but you have to do what you have to do.
LAMB:Did he know that you were coming to ask these questions?
SABATO: Oh, yes. He was well aware of what I was working on and what I had been asking others. In fact, there was a rather long memo prepared for him by one of his staff members which not only suggested the questions that I might ask, but suggested Robb's answers to those questions.
LAMB:When did you first go public with your change of opinion on Senator Robb and this whole issue? I mean, you were asked questions in '87, you said you didn't believe it, he didn't do these things. When did the people that follow your utterances hear you first say you thought he was guilty?
SABATO: I'm not sure about this because I can't recall every conversation I've had, but I believe it was about the same time, in the summer of 1990, that I began talking to reporters and telling them the conclusions I had reached. Partly it was because I wanted to make sure that some of the others who had been looking into this had reached similar conclusions, or they might have had evidence that I didn't have access to; I might have had evidence that they weren't privy to. So it's a matter almost of comparing notes, because even at that point it was still very upsetting to me. It was not a conclusion I reached lightly, nor one that I wanted to reach.
LAMB:We came up to the NBC "Expose." What happened after that?
SABATO: After that, of course, it all went to Tai Collins -- or a great deal of the attention went to Tai Collins and her relationship with Chuck Robb while he was governor. At the same time, of course, the new controversy arose about the Robb staff having the illegally recorded tape of one of [Virginia] Governor [Douglas] Wilder's private cellular phone conversations, and the fact that they possessed this tape eventually led to the resignation of three top Robb staffers, and there's a grand jury looking into this in Virginia.
LAMB:For a lot of people that don't live in Virginia and don't follow either Gov. Wilder or Senator Robb that closely, along the way what are the different points where people decide that this is worth putting in a newspaper, this is worth putting on NBC "Expose." What is it that reporters see that feeds this frenzy, as you call it? What do you need as a reporter to convince you that this is worth putting out in public?
SABATO: I suppose most reporters would say their editor's permission.
LAMB:You know what I'm talking about. Rumors run all over this town, and we could probably just throw about 10 of them out here right now of things that have never been published. What do people need in order to get it into print?
SABATO: I think first of all it has to be of importance; that is, there must be something that is of substantial importance to the public's right to know, at least as that reporter or that editor or that news organization conceives of it. Secondly, there has to be some general relevance to current events; that is, the person has to be serving in a major office or running for a major office or maybe there is a current investigation underway that has some connection to it, so I think relevance is important. I think most reporters and editors and producers would be honest enough to admit that they take into account whether the public would be interested or whether they could get the public interested in the subject. I'm not going to say that nothing's ever published that they don't conclude the public wouldn't be interested in, but that certainly comes into mind in terms of the play that the story will get.
LAMB:Okay. Go to Marion Goldin and NBC and the program "Expose." What got them interested, do you think, and got it on the air?
SABATO: They took a very different stance than I did. I focused almost entirely on the drug angle because to me that was what was most important. Maybe I was influenced partly by the problem we had at the University of Virginia with some of students being busted in fraternity houses, arrested and sent to jail or being sent to jail for drug offenses. They committed wrong and they're being punished for it -- I'm not disputing that. But I think there is a qualitative difference between an offense committed by an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia and a governor, the chief law enforcement officer, associating himself with drugs. There's just a qualitative difference there, so I found it difficult to explain to my students why some of their colleagues were going to jail, and yet Robb was rewarded with a United States Senate seat. It is difficult to explain to young people when you really sit down and think about it.
LAMB:But NBC, though. What is it that got this story -- you gave the reasons why this stuff finally gets on the air. What do you think NBC's motive was?
SABATO: I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought there. They took a very different stance. There were two women at NBC working on it, as I mentioned, Marion Goldin and Rose Ellen O'Connor, primarily. They felt the main story was Senator Robb's view of women and treatment of women. They were viewing it not just from the perspective of Tai Collins, but also other women that they had interviewed who had claimed to have had relationships with Senator Robb. There were details there that I just don't care to go into because they were the ones who investigated that part and I did not. But they felt that was very significant, and that's why I think they focused on Tai Collins as much as they did.
LAMB:Here's what I'm getting at: Go back to the Richmond Times-Dispatch then go to the Virginian Pilot and then on to NBC. A lot of people in our audience would say what's really driving all of those people is selling newspapers and ratings for television shows. That's what I guess I want to ask you about. There are three different scenarios; there are three different organizations. Do you think selling newspapers in the first two cases was their motive, and in the third case getting ratings for a television show?
SABATO: In the first two cases, in the case of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginian Pilot, I really don't think that was the primary motivation. Obviously, they want to sell papers. Obviously, they want to have as wide a reading public as possible. But for any given story, I don't think they sit down and think, "Let's see now, will this sell an additional 20,000 papers tonight?" I just don't think that comes into the reporters' heads or the editors' heads. It may come into the publisher's head, but that's another question entirely. No, I think they did it because they thought it was an important story that people ought to know about.
LAMB:Can I interrupt just to ask you, in the Richmond and the Virginian Pilot case, there's no competition?
SABATO: Well, in the Richmond case, there are two Richmond newspapers but they're owned by the same parent company, Media General. The same is actually true in Tidewater.
LAMB:In other words, there's not a competitive situation there that they would say, "If we don't publish this story, the paper across town is going to."
SABATO: That's a good point. There is not a competitive situation in their media market, but, of course, they compete with the other major newspapers in the state and the Washington Post. So they do have competitors, just not in their media market.
LAMB:Competing for what? Prizes or . . .
SABATO: Prizes, prestige, the fact that they got the story first. So there's still an element of competition, even if it's not in their market.
LAMB:Okay, go to NBC, then. What's their motive?
SABATO: At NBC, the designers of "Expose," the show, will have to speak for themselves. It's received a lot of criticism. On this particular segment, there's no question in my mind that ratings was part of it because it involved a very sexy topic. It was no accident that Tai Collins was featured as heavily as she was and with the camera longingly dwelling on her figure. So, clearly that was part of it. But, again, knowing the reporter and the producer involved in this, I do know that they were genuinely interested in the story for its merit and its substance, and they were highly critical of Senator Robb's actions. So as is usually the case with human beings, it's a mix of motives.
LAMB:But if they hadn't had the competition and the ratings problem, would they have focused on the alleged drug association or do you think they still would have gone with the Tai Collins part of it?
SABATO: That's a very good point, and I just don't know what the answer is. I personally wish that they had focused more heavily on the drug part of it. I also wish they'd taken the time to do it right, and I might add that I believe the producer and the reporter feel exactly the same way. The executives at NBC, or some of those in charge, were the ones who made the decision to cut that back from a full program to half a program and they, in my view, substantially damaged their case by so doing.
LAMB:Let's finish the Senator Robb part of this thing and go on to some other things. Along the way, how did Senator Robb handle himself, and could he have done things differently and made his case better?
SABATO: I would be surprised if even Senator Robb would disagree with the observation that he could hardly have handled the whole situation worse than he did. It's hard to imagine a public figure self-destructing in quite the same way that Senator Robb did. For example, on the "Expose" show, he ended up having his aides show the entire interview with NBC -- I think it was two, two-and-a- half, three hours, something like that -- and release the transcript of the entire interview, which included many, many allegations and questions about involvements the senator had had with prostitutes, for example, that were never aired on the show. So they, themselves, introduced into the public domain matters that will inevitably come back and haunt Senator Robb.
LAMB:What is his future politically?
SABATO: I think his national career is over. I think that the Democratic Party moguls understand just what is out there about Senator Robb. I think a Democratic nominee for president would be just this side of crazy to put someone on the ticket like that who would generate an immediate feeding frenzy about the drug allegations and other things. I can't imagine after the damage to his reputation and also his own handling of the case -- his admission that he is not rocket scientist, among other things, and just the way he handled himself -- probably has disqualified him from national office. The Senate seat is another matter entirely. There it just depends on who runs against him in '94. He still retains a measure of popularity in Virginia. He is no longer the god of the political wars that he once was, but he would have to have a strong candidate to run against him. The Republicans have nominated a series of weak candidates in Virginia, so he might very well get re-elected to the Senate.
LAMB:Is the public better off because the press was there in this case or worse off?
SABATO: I'm going to have to reserve judgment on that until 1994. I want to see whether or not the emphasis is put on the right things as opposed to the wrong things. If you forced me to answer right now, I would say it's a very, very mixed case where some of the truth has come out, but the focus has frequently been on just the wrong things. I'm hoping the press will do a better job in 1994, but we'll see.
LAMB:How many journalists did you interview for this book?
SABATO: We interviewed 150 journalists plus a number of campaign managers and activists. There was a total of 208 individuals.
LAMB:You also say in your acknowledgements, only about a dozen interviews that were requested were denied. Can you tell us any of those that denied you access?
SABATO: I'll just mention one that comes to mind immediately -- Bill Moyers, who I tried repeatedly to get a hold of and made numerous requests to. He couldn't do it. These people are very busy, and I understand that, though a number of very busy journalists did make time, and I'm very grateful to them for making that time. Some of the interviews, incidentally, went on for five, six, seven hours. I just couldn't believe that they were giving that much time, and I'm very, very grateful to them -- including some very busy people.
LAMB:When they said no to you, did they give you any reasons that you were suspicious of?
SABATO: No, not particularly. I'm sure they're deluged with requests for interviews, and probably for some of the journalists, particularly television journalists who are addicted to the celebrity politics or celebrity journalism, I would think that a scholar's request for an interview would be well down on the list. You can't compare to Johnny Carson and David Letterman.
LAMB:In the back of your book -- I just happened to turn to this as you were talking about this -- I wanted to ask you about this chart. First of all, what is it?
SABATO: We wanted to show in a graphic way how many of the television journalists have given in to the worst impulses of celebrity journalism and have gone ahead and submitted to interviews on "Johnny Carson" and on "David Letterman" and, in a sense, have become entertainers, not just journalists. Some of those people are outstanding journalists, and some of them privately admitted to me that they felt guilty about it, they felt badly about it, they were embarrassed about it, they had been strongly urged -- read at least in some cases, they claimed, "ordered" -- to go on the shows to try and broaden an audience. But to me it's just indicative of the decline of standards of television news. The kind of things these people are doing is just unforgivable.
LAMB:Don't they all have contracts?
SABATO: They have contracts, sure.
LAMB:Do those contracts force them to go on these shows?
SABATO: I asked them about that, whether they were forced to do it, and they generally hemmed and hawed. Now, I have no doubt had they put down their foot -- their collective feet, I should say -- they would not have been forced to do so. Many of them enjoy the celebrity. They enjoy it, and they went ahead and willingly did this. I think it diminishes them in the eyes of other professionals. You know, I got the complaint frequently during interviews with television journalists that they're not taken as seriously as their print colleagues, and they're very concerned about this. Well, I would just suggest to them that one reason why a number of people don't take them as seriously as print journalists is because their own actions make it very, very difficult to do so. Again, I'm overgeneralizing. There are many fine television journalists who have not done this, and I don't think would go on a Letterman show or a Carson show.
LAMB:Who is your favorite television journalist, or favorites?
SABATO: Oh, my favorite television journalists . . . well, I probably would have to favor some of the correspondents whose work I follow closely. People like Britt Hume, for example, on ABC, Wyatt Andrews on CBS, Andrea Mitchell on NBC -- some of the reporters whose work I follow; and I've just left out, I'm sure, 15 or 20 people who will resent the fact that I didn't mention them. I'd have to see a list and go down them in order to be fair to everybody. But the reporters who have been at their work for a long time and know their subject well and also who are thoughtful about what they do and are self-critical about what they do, they're the ones, naturally, that an academic would admire.
LAMB:I'm going to quote one of your journalists in here. "I looked at two networks that evening. One correspondent and one anchor, both of whom have children born less than nine months after marriage, were doing the story. They handled it very straightforwardly, but I guess that knowing them I recognized a bit of hypocrisy, a double standard there." What's that all about?
SABATO: That was ABC correspondent Ann Compton commenting on the coverage of Pat Robertson's miracle baby; that is, the fact that he and his wife had a child less than nine months after their wedding day. She was noting the hypocrisy of having reporters and anchors who were in the same situation -- or had been in the same situation at some point in their life -- reporting rather harshly about Robertson's personal matters. On the other hand, the reporters weren't running for public office. They weren't running for the presidency. Nonetheless, I think it is a good idea to keep in mind that there are very few reporters who could stand even a tenth of the scrutiny that public officials are put under -- or analysts, I should say.
LAMB:What do you think is going to happen to the television news business?
SABATO: I fear that the quality of it will continue to decline, and I should add that many of the journalists I respect on television feel exactly the same way. Some of them are deeply depressed. I had one just the other day in response to my book who was talking to me -- and he works for one of the major networks and one of their news shows, not the evening news but another news show -- and he said, "I am really depressed about what's happening. I've got a good job, I've got a great contract, I make loads of money, but when I propose a serious subject for this show, it just gets shot down. We have to have sex, crime, mayhem. Everything is ratings." That's the way he summed it up -- "everything is ratings." Now, I don't think every news show fits that category, but I do feel that's the direction that television news is moving in, and I regret it.
LAMB:What's your favorite thing in this book? In other words, "There's something that I've got in this book that everybody should focus on and think about."
SABATO: Well, I think it's really the concluding section about the remedies. I think, for example, that every news organization ought to have an ombudsman or a public editor. Not just the newspapers. Some newspapers have ombudsmen who criticize the work of that news organization. I also believe that television news shows ought to have ombudsmen. I think that every television news show ought to have a senior figure, independent of that show, who comes on for two or three minutes a week and criticizes the coverage that that show has exercised during the previous week or the previous two weeks, whatever it may be. We need more talk-back in news organizations generally as a circuit breaker for feeding frenzies, and we especially need the talk-back on television.
LAMB:The book is called "Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics" by Larry Sabato, University of Virginia professor. Thank you very much for joining us.
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