BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Tom Rosenstiel, in your book, you quote David Brinkley assaying, "He was a damn fool, very nasty. He would make such remarks as, `Well, now, that is a stupid question,' which is a judgment he's not equipped to make. So we had him on, didn't bruise him, didn't rough him up, did not have him back." David Brinkley. Where did you get that?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: From Brinkley. I interviewed Brinkley at the Republican Convention and one of the things that I talked to him about was the candidates in this campaign. He'd had Perot on once, and it was the first show at ABC that Perot did. ABC was very late in discovering Perot and discovering the phenomenon that Perot really represented. And Brinkley had him on, I think, at the end of May and they were privately appalled, particularly Will and Brinkley, by the things that Perot was saying. They didn't seem to make sense, they seemed to be contradictory. And one of the interesting things, I think, that I saw in the coverage of '92 was that the kinds of private judgments that journalists were able to come to from meeting Perot in person, most of those never really got on the air.
One of the advantages of the press, its role in politics, is that they function as surrogates because they can get close to candidates, or at least relatively close, and make judgments that the public can't make with the false intimacy of television. And because of the way that Perot ran his campaign, because he dropped out in the middle and took the summer off, a lot of the insights that journalists were able to glean from close contact with Perot to the extent that they had it, they were not able to convey those to the public.
LAMB: You say that three months after he first appeared on Larry King, April the 20th-- that's three months after he appeared in February -- "World News" finally aired its first piece on Perot. And then later on you say, "Friedman had no idea how out of touch he was." Who's Friedman?
ROSENSTIEL: Friedman is Paul Friedman, who was, during 1992, the executive producer of "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings. "World News Tonight" is the evening newscast, and Jennings and Paul Friedman, really together as a team, put that broadcast together. Network television works in such a way now that the programs -- each program is an expression of its star and usually its executive producer. "The Koppel Show," as "Nightline" is referred to inside ABC, is an expression of Ted Koppel. That program was an expression of Peter Jennings and Paul Friedman, and Friedman, in particular, was very resistant to putting Ross Perot on the air. He thought that the Perot phenomenon was something of a media creation, that Perot's popularity was a function of media polls which allowed people to say, "Well, I'm not real happy with George Bush or Bill Clinton, so I'll say I like Ross Perot." He thought a lot of it was manufactured and not real and he did not want to, in the early spring, participate in something that he thought, frankly, resented. He also thought Perot was something of a fraud.
LAMB: Here's a picture from a town hall meeting that Mr. Perot participated in with Peter Jennings. What was their relationship? And what's going on in this picture?
ROSENSTIEL: When ABC finally came to the conclusion that Perot was a real phenomenon and needed to do something about him, they decided to catch up by producing an hour biography that ran in June, followed by a 90-minute, live town hall. That picture is on the set of the town hall. Perot tried to psyche out what ABC was doing with this biography. He even had a person who was in his employ and was a former ABC employee contact Jennings and say, "I used to work with Perot and I could probably help you as a kind of informal consultant." And he started calling every day, and Jennings would ask him questions and sort of talk about what they were doing on the show.
LAMB: Murphy Martin.
ROSENSTIEL: Murphy Martin was the guy's name.
LAMB: Former ABC anchorman.
ROSENSTIEL: I think maybe local. I'm not sure that he was...
LAMB: Local anchorman in New York.
ROSENSTIEL: I'm not sure that he was ever the network anchor, but I could be wrong. Jennings later found out that Martin was actually still in Perot's employ and was functioning, Jennings became convinced, as something of a spy, relaying whatever he learned from ABC back to Perot. In the preparation of this show, Perot became convinced that it was a set-up job, that he was going to be ambushed both in the biography and in the 90-minute town hall that followed. And at the last minute, he started threatening to drop out and not participate in the town hall, and there was a series of wild phone calls back and forth. At one point, Perot even said to the executive producer of the town hall and the hour special that proceeded that, a guy named Tom Yellin, "I hear from the beautiful people in New York that this is a set-up, that you're going to attack me on this show and that I shouldn't come on."
And Yellin said, "Who are the beautiful people? What are you talking about, Mr. Perot?" And Perot said, "Oh, you know who they are. It's the Republican attack machine. They're going to stack your audience, they're going to get me." And Yellin said, "Mr. Perot, this isn't true. You're mistaken. You know, if we were to do that, that would damage our credibility."
And Perot said, "Well, maybe I'm just hearing these things because the Republican attack machine is floating these rumors out to prey on your mind. You know, that's what they try and do. They try and prey on your mind, and it's working." And Yellin found this whole conversation to be very strange, very weird. He even took notes because he was so struck by it. Ultimately, Perot did appear, and Jennings put him a green room to watch the hour biography and afterwards bounded into the green room to say to Perot, "See, we were fair. There was nothing to worry about in that show. Now let's do the town hall and everything will be fine."
Many people at ABC even thought that this hour biography was sort of a wet kiss, a little too easy on Perot. But Perot had watched this show, which was fairly tepid, I think, and seethed, and when Jennings bounded in the green room to say, you know, "See what a fair group we are," Perot stared at him and said, "Jennings, I took your crap for an hour. I want 15 minutes of air time to answer all the lies you told about me." Jennings was really taken aback. He's an aristocratic Canadian and bad manners are something that they can't quite deal with because his manners are rarely out of place. So he agreed to give Perot 15 minutes of free air time to start this town hall to say whatever he wanted and to rebut the biography in whatever way he wanted. In the end, Perot, in those 15 minutes, proceeded to tell a series of stories that ABC was convinced were so at variance with the truth that the next day they did a story by Mort Dean correcting all the misstatements and falsehoods that they thought Perot had perpetrated in his free 15 minutes of air time. And, you know, this was just one of a series of encounters that they had at ABC where they got the impression that Perot was very strange and perhaps unstable and quite possibly unsuited to be in an office like president.
LAMB: I think you quote Paul Friedman as saying that 16 percent of the American people believe in witches and that that would be a suitable number of people to vote for Ross Perot.
ROSENSTIEL: Friedman said that on Election Day. As the correspondents were calling in from the various places -- you know, the Clinton correspondent calls in and says, "Clinton's asleep," and the Bush correspondent calls in and says, you know, "He went and bought a hunting license today," and the Perot correspondent calls in and says, "Perot voted today. He told us he'd voted absentee." And then it turns out that he hadn't. "He went and voted today" -- he even mislead us about this. And Friedman's reaction to Mort Dean on the phone was, "You know, 16 percent of the population believes in witches. I hope that's what Perot gets."
What it portrayed was a certain antagonism -- that's Morton Dean. You've got your finger on a certain antagonism that in private the people at ABC really felt toward Perot after these encounters.
LAMB: I wanted to ask you about Mort Dean. He was assigned to Ross Perot. What was their relationship?
ROSENSTIEL: Dean was assigned to cover Perot in late May when ABC finally recognized Perot's appeal and decided to assign a correspondent to him. The first event he covered was a speech or a rally in Orlando, Florida. And at this rally Perot said, "My wife, Margot, couldn't be here today because it was simply too dangerous for her to come and I wouldn't allow it." And afterwards, Dean, who had never met Perot, decided that was a very strange comment. What was going on? Had their been threats against Perot's wife, or what was going on? So he went backstage, and when Perot came out of this little tent that he was staying in, Dean introduced himself. And, usually, when a candidate for president meets a network correspondent for the first time, he glad-hands him and pretends that they're old friends. Perot stared at Dean with what Dean later called "CEO eyes" and Dean said, "Mr. Perot, Mort Dean from ABC. What did you mean by that remark that there was something -- that you wouldn't allow your wife Margot to attend today because it was too dangerous? Were there threats made on her life? What did you mean?" And Perot's steely gaze sort of hardened even more and he said, "How could you ask a question like that? You know what's going on around here," and turned and steamed off.
And as Dean put it later, "I've been called a jerk and an idiot by politicians before, but never on first meeting."
LAMB: Your book, "Strange Bedfellows," was started, in your mind, when?
ROSENSTIEL: Well, the book really began to form in my mind in 1988, when, after covering the election for almost the entire year, I spent one day with a CBS TV crew, Bob Schieffer and his producer Janet Leisner ...
LAMB: In '88, where were you?
ROSENSTIEL: We were in Ohio.
LAMB: I mean, you personally. What did you do then?
ROSENSTIEL: I was at the LA Times and I was covering the campaign from the standpoint of looking at advertising and looking at the press coverage of the campaign. But one thing that I had never done was spend the entire day with a network crew and watch the campaign through their eyes. And during that one day, a lot of things that I had been watching all year suddenly made sense. Bush used to have three events a day -- one in the morning that was quite subdued, one in the midday that was really wildly visual, and then in the late evening, about 6:00, he'd do one that was strictly local.
When I spent the day with a network crew, I realized that that was dictated by the behavior of the networks. They made their story decisions in the morning, so they wanted a substantive speech to decide whether it was worth covering. They were looking for visual wallpaper and attack soundbites to use in that piece, and that's why the second event of the day, at midday, had the character that it did. And then they would actually leave the campaign -- the networks leave the campaign trail about 2:00 in the afternoon and go to a local affiliate and cut their pieces, and so local reality takes over in the afternoon. The entire character of the day, in other words, had been dictated by the behavior of the networks.
And my thought was what's real for most Americans about politics is not what political reporters see out on the stump, it's not following a candidate around during the day and watching him interact with the public at a few speeches; what's real in politics is what comes through the screen in 19 inches. So why do you we see the things that we do? Why are sudden sound bites nine seconds long? Why are stories two minutes long? Why is politics taking on such a malicious character? The answers, I became convinced, were to be found in the decision-making at the networks because they were the ones who controlled those 19 inches of green screen and because the decisions they made influenced the way that the candidates presented themselves to such a profound degree.
LAMB: Why did you pick ABC over all the other television outlets to follow?
ROSENSTIEL: Well, I had access to others. NBC had given me approval to do this and CNN was interested. I chose ABC for one simple reason. They are number one in ratings, and when you are number one, the difference in terms of the profits or revenues that you accrue from that really are substantial. Being number one is much more advantageous, much more profitable than being number two in the nightly news ratings. So ABC right now has more resources and is in a position, really, to do the best job. This was an opportunity, in other words, to see the best that television had to offer.
I was also persuaded that there were problems at NBC, internal problems which ultimately resulted, at the end of the year, in the president of NBC News resigning, Michael Gartner. And I had a sense that if I did NBC, that it would have been a story more about turmoil inside that network rather than a window to look through in TV at the political process.
LAMB: Why not CBS?
ROSENSTIEL: A lot has been written about CBS already and several books, several of them good, and it would have been another book about Dan Rather and the end of the Tiffany network and all that, and I think some of that, again, would have gotten in the way of what I was really after, which is the symbiotic complicity between television, the medium, and the political culture.
LAMB: When did you first contact ABC? And who did you talk to?
ROSENSTIEL: Well, I first contacted ABC in '91. The Gulf War had ended and we were looking at a campaign that people thought would be fairly dull and they gave me tentative approval to do it. But there was...
LAMB: Who's "they?"
ROSENSTIEL: "They" was a woman named Sherry Rollins, who's actually Ed Rollins, the Republican political consultant's wife, who was the head of public relations for ABC. She required that I talk to several other people at the network and get their approval. Arledge and others basically had to sign off on this.
LAMB: Who's Arledge?
ROSENSTIEL: Arledge is Roone Arledge, who's the legendary president of ABC News, and he has several deputies, all of whom were aware of this project.
LAMB: Tell us a little bit more about Mr. Arledge. How long has he been there?
ROSENSTIEL: Arledge has been at ABC since the 1960s. He was the president of ABC Sports, and as I describe Arledge, he is not one of the seminal founders of the medium, like William Paley, but he's one of its legendary practitioners, like Don Hewitt of "60 Minutes." Arledge is the man who, for all intents and purposes, invented or developed the instant replay when he was at ABC News, the same thing with perfecting slow motion as advice to draw viewers into watching sports. He is a guy who realized that if you packaged it properly, you could take second-rate sporting events that were a week old and make them compelling by focusing on the human aspect of them and developed a show called "ABC’s Wide World of Sports." In 1971, I believe -- no, I'm sorry -- 1978, I believe, he was named president of ABC News, which at the time was a distant third in the ratings of the three networks in the evening newscasts and, since then, has over seen the development of ABC into the dominant role as the number one news network.
LAMB: Who's a gentlemen by the name of Weiswasser?
ROSENSTIEL: Weiswasser is a Cap Cities general counsel, an attorney, who...
LAMB: What's Cap Cities' relationship to ABC?
ROSENSTIEL: Cap Cities is the parent company which acquired ABC in the mid-'80s. They were a local television company that owned several local stations, most of them ABC affiliates. They acquired ABC in the mid-'80s and since then have overseen, like, all the other new owners of the networks -- cost-cutting and a more business-orientated approach, less of a programmer's approach to television. Weiswasser was the general counsel of ABC who was installed as a sort of co-equal to Arledge, looking over his shoulder. His title was executive vice president. He was looking over Arledge's shoulder, and basically, his assignment was to cut about $250 million out of the ABC News budget.
LAMB: A year?
LAMB: What is the ABC News budget a year?
ROSENSTIEL: It's in the book, but I must confess to you that I do not remember it at this time. But Arledge is famous for procrastinating, for lavish spending and for giving people a lot of freedom. He woos the best people to the network, gives them programs and positions that he thinks take advantage of their talent and then he leaves them alone. He's very much of a hands-off kind of entrepreneurial manager. And while that has succeeded in a lot of creativity at ABC, it's maddening to Cap Cities and to the people who are worried about budgets because things are difficult to control, and it's also difficult for managers to rationalize, "Why are we spending this much on this?" or, "Why are we spending that much on that?" So Weiswasser was installed in '90, I think, to find out the answers to those things, to put some managerial order to Arledge's creative madness.
LAMB: You quote someone in the book as saying, "Mr. Arledge wanted a star on the White House lawn." What did you mean by that?
ROSENSTIEL: There was a discussion, at the end of the '92 -- as the race was winding down, as to who would cover the White House after the election. If Bill Clinton won, would Chris Bury, the young Chicago correspondent who was covering Clinton, be the White House correspondent or not? Who would handle that job? Arledge wanted to follow the conventional thinking, which is that you assign a star correspondent to the candidate's plane, because then having covered the campaign, he'd be well-sourced to cover the White House. And it's important in television, at least according to the conventional thinking, to have one of your most celebrated correspondents at the White House -- somebody who people will know is at the White House and who will want to watch your broadcast because they want to see that character at the White House on the White House lawn.
Sam Donaldson was a celebrity, one of ABC's biggest, during the Reagan administration. Brit Hume was the White House correspondent during the Bush administration for those four years. And in the course of '92, they began to have a debate about whether Bury had the star quality to cover Clinton at the White House. Friedman felt that he wanted to have somebody who was not a celebrity covering the Clinton campaign plane, because he felt that if you had a big-time correspondent on the plane, then you would be forced each night during the campaign to put campaign stop stories, photo op stories and sound bite stories on the air. He felt that the networks had trapped themselves, in effect, into being passive transmitters of whatever campaign rhetoric the candidates wanted to purvey by putting a celebrity correspondent on the campaign plane. So he deliberately made a choice to let Bury, who was not so famous, cover Clinton. That would give them the freedom to do other kinds of more substantive, he hoped, stories during the campaign.
Well, one of the other things that came up was they decided to ask John McWethy, who was the State Department correspondent and something of a celebrity correspondent for ABC, if he wanted to cover Clinton and perhaps cover the White House if Clinton won the election. And McWethy, in a meeting with Friedman, said, "I came from print, from US News & World Report, to ABC, and I have covered the White House and I've seen how the networks cover it, and what you do is you turn the White House into a soundstage for your correspondent and for the president. You're not so much covering the White House as you are using it as a kind of false front for television purposes. And I don't think that's the way to cover the White House."
He said, "If I would cover the White House for ABC -- if we could assign two main correspondents, one of whom would do the daily stories for a week or two while the other big-time correspondent was there working the phones, really covering the inside of the White House -- and then we could rotate. I would then do the dailies and be on the front lawn for a couple of weeks while my counterpart was actually doing real reporting. But if you just have one celebrity who you want to have out there every night on TV on your broadcast, you're not going to be really covering the White House." Friedman was intrigued by that, but he was not sufficiently persuaded that there was a way to break away from this way of covering the White House, and so McWethy didn't get the job and they have not moved to that kind of multi correspondent.
LAMB: You talked to Sherry Rollins, running the PR operation in 1991. You talked to other people inside the network about following them through the entire '92 campaign?
ROSENSTIEL: It was not necessarily going to happen with ABC until late November, I would say, when Peter Jennings asked me to come up to talk to him off the record about how he thought the network -- how I thought the network might want to approach the campaign. And I said, "I'd be happy to do that," but that I had a potential conflict because I was trying to do a book and I wanted to do it about ABC, if possible. Jennings, at this time, was trying to inspire ABC to be more serious about its approach to the campaign since they were sort of looking on the coming campaign with a certain amount of dread and not really preparing for it.
When Jennings found out that I had this proposal in place to cover ABC and do a book about it, he became really interested. And he said, "This is great. If you're here, you'll really keep our feet to the fire. We'll do a better job if we know there's somebody looking over our shoulder. So I want to make this book happen." And so it was really Jennings' impetus that made the book possible, although in the end, I think I got much, much more access than anyone at ABC really ever imagined and, I think I got the kind of access they were actually worried about.
LAMB: When did you start following them?
ROSENSTIEL: Almost immediately after Jennings and I talked. I was there from December of '91 on -- not every day, but on a periodic basis, on a regular basis, and in contact with them by phone every day for the next year.
LAMB: What were the ground rules?
ROSENSTIEL: There were no ground rules. The ground rules were that I would negotiate with each person that I was talking to and, you know, if they thought I was not trustworthy, they might toss me out at any time.
LAMB: What kind of access do you think you had?
ROSENSTIEL: It wasn't total, but it was a lot closer then they, I think, expected it would be. There's a rule at ABC, for instance, a cardinal rule that outsiders are not allowed in the control room, but there are many scenes in the book from inside the control room. I saw budget memos, I was in budget meetings, I saw personnel-related memos, I was in story meetings. And network television is a kind of vast graffiti by committee or, more generously, perhaps, literature by committee -- done with people on the phone, on the road to the rim, the central news-gathering desk at ABC at "World News Tonight" in New York. So you can actually be involved in what decisions they're making on the road with a correspondent by listening in to their phone call. Or if a correspondent calls in from the road to talk to the rim, it's a conference call -- there are seven or eight, nine people on the phones. So every time a correspondent called in, if I was in New York that day, I would listen in to those story calls because I was just another ear on the conference call.
LAMB: Is there anybody at the network that wouldn't talk to you?
ROSENSTIEL: Roone Arledge in the end, although we had various appointments, never did sit down for a full interview. I was in some meetings where he was there and he's quoted in the book, but I never got an opportunity to ask him for his reflections after the fact, looking back on the year, partly because we ran out of time. The book was due at the end of January, just three months after the election, and he and I had had some interviews that were sort of canceled at the last minute. But I have many scenes where Arledge is present because in these meetings, there are a lot of people who were present who I was able to reconstruct those sessions with.
LAMB: There's some salty language that you report here. I actually can't repeat them. Did anybody ever turn to you and say, "That's off the record. Don't quote me saying that?"
ROSENSTIEL: Network television, particularly live television, is a kind of intense adrenaline surge like no normal mortal can imagine. Your face is out there to 10 million, 20 million households, and when you're on live, it's unscripted. Whatever pops into your head will go out across America. And if you're the anchorman, you've got people here handing you notes, you've got the executive producer and the director talking in your ear. It's a sort of mind-dividing, bizarre skill and art form.
The pressures are intense, and in the control room in particular there's a lot of cursing -- a lot of it. I mean, these are sailors in a storm, and it doesn't mean anything. It's just an expression of the tension level that exists. So people will tell people to do anatomical acts to themselves that are physically impossible, but it's forgotten a moment later.
LAMB: Bill Kovach -- you tell a story about Bill Kovach. Who is he? And what role did he play at ABC and their coverage?
ROSENSTIEL: Very little role, I think, unfortunately. Kovach is the former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, former editor of the Atlanta Journal & Constitution and now the curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.
LAMB: What's the Nieman Foundation?
ROSENSTIEL: The Nieman Foundation is a mid-year career, I mean, a mid-career year that is granted to promising young or middle-aged journalists to take a year at Harvard and study anything they want to -- sort of recharge their batteries, probably the most prestigious of the various journalism fellowships. Jennings -- to set the stage, a lot of the press, and particularly television in '91, really dreaded the approach of the '92 elections. Politics was expensive to cover. The media had been taken advantage of over the last decade, I think, by politicians -- at least that's the feeling that a lot of journalists had -- and it looked like George Bush was going to win in a walkover. And afterwards, the people at ABC, I think, felt the media were just going to be blamed again for doing a bad job and, you know, blamed for people being dissatisfied with politics. Jennings really wanted to break through this cynicism and force the network into covering the election in a more interesting, a more creative way. So he was looking to bring people in from the outside who would have meetings with the top brass at ABC and talk about new ways to cover the politics. The first person that he brought in was Bill Kovach to a lunch meeting with Arledge and the top brass at ABC -- Friedman, Hal Bruno.
LAMB: Let me just read a quote so you can tell more of the story. But the quote, after it's over, you got him saying just -- and I'll read more of it later -- "What a fool to take a day and talk to those jackasses." That's Bill Kovach talking about these people that he just met with at ABC. Why did he say that?
ROSENSTIEL: Kovach has some strong feelings about television and about political coverage in general. He's not a fan of the way we cover politics in this country. He thinks that it's mostly horse race, that we are not delivering people what they need, and that we let politicians off scot-free and we're easily manipulated. He said to the people at ABC, “Why not devote the kind of attention that you do and the kind of intellect that you do to covering sports to covering politics? You can tell me whether a fielder is -- you know, is good moving to his left or good moving to his right, whether he can hit a pitch on the outside or whether he's good, you know, just with high fastballs. If you can dissect the performance of a receiver in football or a skier or a tennis player, why can't you do that and devote that level of research to politics?”
LAMB: Were you in this meeting, by the way?
ROSENSTIEL: No. This was reconstructed for me by several of the participants --Jennings, Kovach, Hal Bruno, Paul Friedman. I got various accounts of this, and interestingly, they all agreed on the details, but they disagreed on sort of who was right and who was wrong. He said, “Why not devote that level of scrutiny to politics? Why not tell me, ‘This politician is lying. This politician is good on these issues but he's weak on those issues?’ Why not impose the same kind of judgment and intellect to politics? It would make it more meaningful for people. It would be more useful. The reason you don't do it is because you think that it's bad for ratings.”
The reaction to this sort of bold, radical and very, very critical assessment from Kovach was very negative. Jeff Greenfield, who was in the meeting, felt that Kovach was advocating that they take an approach that was way too subjective, imposing themselves in the process too much. And Paul Friedman, who's probably the most influential in the end at dictating the way that ABC covered the race, felt that Kovach really didn't know television, that if he did, he would recognize that ABC had been very substantive in the way that it had dealt with issues on "World News Tonight," had developed a segment called American Agenda, which was up to five minutes long, three nights, four nights a week on the nightly news to 20 percent of the broadcast devoted to issues every night about social policy. And they intended to turn -- and then ultimately they did turn that segment over each night to the issues and the issue positions of the candidates. So he just dismissed Kovach as someone who was talking out of his hat. And the meeting ended and everyone got up and left, and Kovach was sitting there in an empty room.
LAMB: Let me read what he said. I'll go back to the first quote: “What a fool to take a day” -- he's talking about himself -- “to talk to these jackasses.” Kovach fumed later, “They invited me and then started a damn argument. After lunch, they jumped up and left. I was left there alone. I didn't know how to get out of the damn building.” Did they ever call anybody else in for any of these meetings?
ROSENSTIEL: No. That was the first and last. It had not been a success and the view was, “Let's not invite any more people in here to tell us that we're dummies.”
LAMB: Is Bill Kovach still mad today?
ROSENSTIEL: I have not talked to him about whether his anger about that meeting has worn off, and I have not heard from Bill about the book, so I don’t know how he feels about the coverage.
LAMB: Have you heard from anybody about this book?
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, many people.
LAMB: People that you wrote about.
ROSENSTIEL: I have. I've heard from Brit Hume and Paul Friedman. I've heard from Jeff Gralnick and Jim Wooten. I have not to date heard anything negative from anybody at ABC about the book's accuracy or about the fairness of the portrayal. I know there are things in the book, even from people that I've talked to, that they wished I hadn't used, but they have not. No one has challenged anything in it.
LAMB: Can you give us an example?
ROSENSTIEL: Well, he won't appreciate my repeating it, but it's in the book. Brit Hume said to me he couldn't imagine that Peter Jennings enjoyed hearing him say that Hume thought that Jennings was a knee-jerk New York liberal. I know that there are things that Paul Friedman is quoted as saying about Roone Arledge that he wishes were not in the book. And I'm sure there are things that Gralnick -- Jeff Gralnick, who was, in '92, the executive producer and vice president for all live events -- the conventions and election night and primary night specials. Gralnick said, “You accomplished what I was worried you would do. You became paint.” In other words, I just sort of blended into the wood work and I found out more than he wanted me to. He also thought I was too harsh in my criticism of ABC.
LAMB: Do you think ABC would let you do this again if you wanted to, based on this experience?
ROSENSTIEL: Oh, I doubt it. I doubt it. And, I mean, I think it's -- writing a book about an institution like this is a little bit like a whirlwind romantic weekend with a stranger. There's a kind of intense intimacy with people you don't really know that well that afterwards it is a little strange. And my guess is that they would rather not that I come back, although they don't really have any particular complaints with the book. I also say in the introduction that I doubt that any print organization would every allow a reporter inside and invite the kind of scrutiny that this book involves. Print news organizations, particularly newspaper, tend to be geographic monopolies. They don't have to fight for audience and they don't need the kind of attention that television does. And as a result, they in general eschew scrutiny, which is a bit hypocritical but nonetheless true.
LAMB: What's your full-time job?
ROSENSTIEL: My full-time job is to cover the media and to cover politics for the L.A. Times from Washington. What I really do is I specialize in looking at how the media influences politics and political events. One of the themes of the book is that we in the media like to think of ourselves as simply a mirror. And we're an institution that reflects events but doesn't create them or influence them. That metaphor is convenient, but I think it's really disingenuous. The mirror that the media presents is sort of like a shaving mirror. It magnifies and it distorts every image that goes into it, and now in politics, politicians spend a great deal of their time remaking their image to fit this distorted and magnified lens. And what the public gets is -- they sense that they're getting something that is not entirely accurate, not quite real, and the failure of the media to acknowledge its influence on the process is one of the reasons that I think the public suspects that the media have an agenda or that they're biased.
LAMB: Where are you from originally?
ROSENSTIEL: From California, Northern California...
ROSENSTIEL: ... home of the San Francisco Giants. I'm from the San Francisco peninsula right near Stanford and grew up there till I was 18.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
ROSENSTIEL: I went to Oberlin College in Ohio, which is the first co-educational, first integrated college in the country, and went there in 1974 because of its history of integration, which was something I was especially concerned with that the time.
LAMB: Where did you get your first interest in journalism?
ROSENSTIEL: There, in high school I volunteered to go to a black ghetto high school called Ravenswood in East Palo Alto, across the freeway from Stanford, which was a desegregation program that was being set up by court order. And it was not the finest academic education I ever got, but I recognized quickly that the education was in the courtyard as much as in the classroom, and that the best way to really focus on that was by going to work for the school newspaper, and I just got totally involved in it and never really looked back.
LAMB: Did you study journalism at Oberlin?
ROSENSTIEL: No, Oberlin is a traditional liberal arts college and there is nothing ---no craft or trade program for anything as lowly as journalism. I studied English literature and then went on to graduate school at Columbia and got a craft degree for a masters.
LAMB: What kind of work were your parents in?
ROSENSTIEL: Mother is a high school principal, now retired; my father was in furniture and then in the travel business.
LAMB: They still live out in the West?
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, they live in a town called Wood Side, just in the hills above Stanford.
LAMB: First job out of college?
ROSENSTIEL: First job out of college -- two days after I graduated college, I got in my car and drove to Washington and went to work for Jack Anderson's Washington Merry-Go-Round column. I worked there for a couple years, then went to graduate school.
LAMB: Did you know Brit Hume there?
ROSENSTIEL: I didn't. Brit was long gone by then, already at ABC, famous and rich celebrity and, you know, an alumni of Anderson column.
LAMB: What'd you learn working for Jack Anderson?
ROSENSTIEL: Many skills, some of which come in handy and some of which don't. I learned how to drink clear drinks when you're trying to get a source drunk so that he can't know how much you've drunk and how much is just the ice cubes left in a glass. I learned investigative reporting and the techniques of document research and I learned how to use a Xerox machine at high speed.
LAMB: After Jack Anderson, what?
ROSENSTIEL: Graduate school at Columbia, then my first newspaper job was at my hometown newspaper in Palo Alto, a little paper called Peninsula Times Tribune where I did everything from back-shop work to starting the real estate section and then later a Sunday business section.
LAMB: Then what?
ROSENSTIEL: Then I joined the LA Times in 1983 as a general assignment business writer.
LAMB: How did you get into the media stuff?
ROSENSTIEL: I was asked by the business editor at the LA Times to write about the media business as an industry and started doing stories about media companies and their stocks and their corporate prospects. And after about year of doing that, the editor of the paper at the time, Bill Thomas, asked me to expand that into looking at the press as a national correspondent and looking at all aspects of the press' treatment of events.
LAMB: When you were following the ABC election coverage, how did you keep track of what people were saying? Notes or record it?
ROSENSTIEL: Well, in the multimedia age, through multimedia, I taped every broadcast, I had every script sent to me, I had the story logs sent tome from every broadcast.
LAMB: How about the personal conversations?
ROSENSTIEL: The interviews were done when I was at work, they were done on computer. I would have a headset and type in the interview. Every major interview was recorded on tape and then transcribed by me later. And, you know, when you're on the road, you're working out of a notebook. If you're on the bus, you're on the plane, you're on the tarmac, the tape recorder isn't necessarily much good. All you get is engine noise.
LAMB: You have a quote in here -- Ted Koppel, and it goes like this. You have to explain what this comes from. “He is a much smarter man than I am and I don't say that about many people,” Koppel said. “And he doesn't know how smart he is.” Who does Ted Koppel think is smarter than he is?
ROSENSTIEL: He's talking about Roone Arledge. Arledge is a mercurial, distant figure. He works on the fifth floor. ABC News is produced on the second and third floors in New York. And to most people, Arledge is not an intellectual. He's what I call a video savant, someone who sort of has the eye for what works on television, what the public wants. If Arledge calls into the control room during a broadcast on the room phone, which is a little red phone built into the control room console, it's usually to say something like, “Jennings' tie is askew,” or, “Tell him he's slumping,” or something like that. It's usually something very visual, very simple. And in conversation, you don't get a sense from Arledge that he's deep into issues or the subtleties of things. But Koppel thinks that there's an instinctive genius to Arledge in that he's much brighter then he's given credit for and that Arledge is deliberately being hands-off; he will give people the freedom to succeed and fail.
And Koppel is saying this in the context in late '92, when Arledge is sort of under siege at ABC, Cap Cities management has doubts about Arledge's effectiveness. They think that perhaps his visionary qualities have diminished and there's even some talk that Arledge will leave or be forced out. And Koppel is saying, “They don't” -- you know, “I hope that doesn't happen. People don't recognize the contribution that he brings.”
LAMB: Let me read that quote again: “He is a much smarter man than I am and I don't say that about many people.” Did that get your attention?
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. I think that also says something about Koppel -- his “Tedness,” as some of his critics inside ABC refer to him as. Koppel runs the "Nightline" program as his personal domain, which is the way most of the shows are run, and he is viewed by many inside ABC as the smartest on-air person at ABC and maybe in television. That is a claim that I think Jennings, you know, is uncomfortable with as another on-air personality who's perceived as being quite bright. But Koppel is aware of his intellect, and I think he's enormously self-confident and does not suffer fools. It's one of the things that makes his program effective, is that Koppel does not feel a need to demonstrate his command of issues on a nightly basis. He does not get in the way of his show. And he's very aggressive, very confident, he's willing to take risks, he's willing to risk making a fool of himself at times, and he is usually in advance of most people in television on a story.
LAMB: You talk about Richard Kaplan being a close friend of President Clinton's. Can you explain that? And who is he?
ROSENSTIEL: Richard Kaplan is the executive producer of "Prime Time Live," which is the Diane Sawyer-Sam Donaldson magazine program on Thursday nights. Kaplan considers himself an old, close, personal friend of Bill Clinton's. And the night that the Gennifer Flowers story broke in New Hampshire in late January of '92, Kaplan called Bill Clinton in a little brush factory where Clinton was holed up, panicking, wondering what to do. Kaplan called him up and said, “Bill, it's Richard Kaplan. I want to tell you what you should do to get out of the -- to escape the Gennifer Flowers story.” Kaplan was playing both sides here, both friend and TV producer. He encouraged Clinton to go on his own program, "Prime Time Live," and advised him to also have his wife at his side, for Hillary Rodham Clinton to appear with Clinton at his side and to make sure that the broadcast was live so that Clinton would have more control. “And this is part of the appeal,” Kaplan was saying, “of my "Prime Time Live" program.”
In the end -- and they had a succession of phone calls all night long -- Kaplan's advice may or may not have been instrumental, but he certainly advised Clinton to do two things that were very significant. One was to agree to go on a program immediately that night or as soon as he possibly could to discuss the Gennifer Flowers story. That decision by Clinton to do that, to go on some program soon and talk about Gennifer Flowers, was a key factor in ABC "Nightline's" decision to do the story that night and, I think, a key to factor in other broadcasts ultimately deciding that the Gennifer Flowers story was a story of some substance that they would not ignore. That's not the only factor that was involved in that story breaking.
LAMB: You also suggest here that Mr. Kaplan advised the president if he was going to do "60 Minutes" that he should either be interviewed by Mike Wallace, Morley Safer or Ed Bradley. As I remember, none of those gentlemen interviewed him.
ROSENSTIEL: Steve Kroft did the "60 Minute" interview with Clinton.
LAMB: Why would Mr. Kaplan be advising the president -- the candidate on who to be interviewed by?
ROSENSTIEL: Because he was playing the role of friend here, not TV journalist, and he was saying that, “If you're going to do this show, you need to stand up to a famous journalist. You need to have out dueled Mike Wallace or Morley Safer. If you do it with someone like Steve Kroft,” he was saying, “it won't mean as much because people don't really recognize Steve Kroft as a national celebrity.”
Kaplan may also have been trying subtly to convince Clinton not to go on "60 Minutes" because they have a procedure at "60 Minutes" called blue-sheeting, where whoever the correspondent is who first puts in the bid to do a story owns that story. It's a way of controlling the chaos at the broadcast in terms of assignments. So he knew that if Kroft had blue-sheeted that story that it was Kroft's story, and that if he was going to do it at "60 Minutes," he had to do it with Kroft.
LAMB: Is it normal for people in the media to be close friends of people like Bill Clinton and to have this kind of relationship that Mr. Kaplan has?
ROSENSTIEL: It is increasingly a problem. Journalists on television ...
LAMB: Why is it a problem?
ROSENSTIEL: Journalists in television are celebrities. They're well-paid. They're people on the society pages. They are as famous now as the people they cover. When Barbara Walters interviews a celebrity, she does it as an equal celebrity, and that's part of the, you know, appeal of the Barbara Walters programs. I think that's a serious problem in television now and is one of the reasons that we saw the rise, or have seen the rise of new media talk shows and other avenues, because people sense that the old establishment media are part of the elite from which a lot of people feel disenfranchised, that people feel are part of the problem, that have made politics so distant from their lives.
LAMB: If ABC News -- well, let me ask you this question first. There are 255 million people in the United States. How many people watch the three commercial television networks, over-the-air networks evening newscasts?
ROSENSTIEL: Thirty million households tune in to the evening newscasts every night and...
LAMB: The same 30 every night?
ROSENSTIEL: No, not the same 30 every night. You get into a little bit of guesstimating when you start to talk about how many individuals, that is, who are watching a given television set in a given house. And you're also guessing a little bit on when you ask, “Is somebody watching every night? Are they watching two nights a week or three nights a week?” But over the course of a week, you're probably talking about, cumulatively, I would guess, 90 million different households maybe catching some of the network news.
LAMB: You mean all the households catch some of it.
ROSENSTIEL: I think the number of households that never watch the nightly news ever is probably a minority.
LAMB: Question: If ABC, NBC and CBS evening news shows had not existed during the campaign, do you think the results of the campaign would have been any different? There's another way of asking that question.
ROSENSTIEL: It's almost impossible to imagine American culture now without network television.
LAMB: Well, really the question is: Did they have the kind of influence on the election that made the outcome different than it would have been if they weren't around?
ROSENSTIEL: I think the story, really, in some of the '92 election was that the mainstream press went into this campaign with the best of intentions, but they were undermined by the same old cynicism that has pervaded the media now for a dozen years and went about covering the campaign, despite their intentions, the same old way, and by spring, this election seemed quite irrelevant to a lot of people. That changed because of Ross Perot and because of interactive new media like Larry King and talk radio, which, ultimately, the networks then began to adopt.
The "Today" show began to resemble the Larry King show. They would have call-ins with viewers. That change and the reaching out to other broadcasts like MTV left the public with the impression that the political process was broadening out and reaching out to people who were disenfranchised. That is what made this election important. That is what made this election different. And the networks, in the fall of '92, began to follow that lead. They began to cover issues more because of the interactive formats in the new media. The public registered that they were really interested in those issues. I think one of the myths that's coming out of the '92 race is the idea that somehow the networks are now obsolete as a result, that you could govern the country by talk show or by town hall. That's one of the mistakes that some people in the Clinton administration have made. It's one of the problems the Clinton administration has had in trying to govern.
The old media may be old, they may even be dinosaurs, but as Jeff Eller, a key Clinton media aide said to me after the election, “There may be dinosaurs, but they're going to be around for another million years.” More people still tune into the network nightly newscasts then tune into any other single news format. Local news is very powerful, but, you know, Peter Jennings has far more audience than any local anchorman.
LAMB: You say that ABC, in 1980, spent $30 million on the conventions; in 1984, $20 million; in 1988, $10 million; in 1992, $2 million per convention making $4 million.
LAMB: What's going on and do the conventions matter?
ROSENSTIEL: What's going on is that in the days of 1980 and before when the networks controlled 95 percent of the television audience, they had more money than they knew what to do with, and they could spend any amount of money they wanted to cover the conventions. And there was a perception from the old days of television that you could win audience loyalty at the convention. So what you were investing in with a good convention coverage was luring viewers away from your competitors and building up your ratings for the rest of the year.
As their audience share has shrunk -- their profits and their revenues have shrunk -- and as conventions have seemed more to be staged commercials rather than anything related to nominating the candidates for president, the ratings for the conventions, in particular, have shrunk. So the networks have cut back enormously, as those figures suggest, on how much they're willing to spend on the conventions. And they've cut back, too, in the number of hours that they broadcast each night. No longer is it four hours a night. Now it's down to 90 minutes, an hour, two hours on big nights.
To the second part of your question, does that mean that conventions are irrelevant? I think quite to the contrary. In 1988, George Bush won the presidency in large part because of the speech that he gave, the kinder and gentler speech in which he distanced himself from Reagan and distinguished what kind of candidate he and what kind of president he promised to be. That turned around his campaign. I think in 1992, it's clear from the numbers, that Bill Clinton's campaign turned around at the Democratic convention when, apparently, enough Americans were persuaded that the Democratic Party had changed. And he gained a 30 percentage point switch in popular support during the convention week. And I think George Bush's last chance to be president ended when Pat Buchanan dominated Bush's convention more than the president did.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics, 1992." Our guest, the author,
Tom Rosenstiel. Thank you very much.
ROSENSTIEL: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.