Leonardo DiCaprio had an idea. Now ABC News president David Westin is in trouble. Last week, the 25-year-old actor conducted an interview with President Clinton for an upcoming show produced under the aegis of Westin's beleaguered news division.
The how is both fantastic and illuminating.
Late last fall, DiCaprio and friend Chris Cuomo (brother of HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo) were kicking around ideas about the environment. DiCaprio is slated to chair the national Earth Day celebration later this month, and Chris Cuomo is a correspondent on ABC's "20/20." DiCaprio thought ABC needed a special on Earth Day and the environment and so, according to his spokesman, Ken Sunshine, he approached ABC News about putting together a project.
Or maybe not. "I don't think that's exactly the way it happened," says ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. "We've done environmental specials before ... Several of the producers that work in [senior vice president] Phyllis McGrady's unit were thinking about doing another one."
Regardless, DiCaprio told ABC News that he would be happy to lend the network his celebrity for an Earth Day special if it devoted "a serious hour to it," according to Sunshine. By December the project was a go -- a serious hour-long special scheduled to air on or near Earth Day, April 22. The show landed in the lap of McGrady, one of Westin's most trusted lieutenants.
In February, an associate producer for the show contacted the Council on Environmental Quality, one of the White House's executive agencies. Murphy claims this contact was "only for research purposes." The council told ABC that it had recently worked with CBS to do a walking tour of the White House where it showed off the various environmental improvements implemented by the president: weather-stripping, eco-safe light bulbs, new insulation. ABC loved the idea, and told the White House that it would like to do a tour just like the one CBS received, but with the president as the tour guide and DiCaprio as the curious guest. "It always, from our perspective, was intended to be an informal walking tour around the White House," Murphy says.
Around noon on March 31, DiCaprio and an ABC News crew arrived at the White House. "At that point," Murphy continues, "we were told that they were unable to do the tour and what they wanted to do instead was a sit-down interview." Which is just what happened. For 15 minutes, the young man who coined the term "pussy posse" interviewed the president of the United States on behalf of one of the most respected news organizations in the free world.
By Friday afternoon there was panic at the ABC News bureau in Washington. During the morning press briefing at the White House, the DiCaprio interview was mentioned, and the ABC senior staff was unhappy. The next morning, Westin sent an e-mail to the troops trying to reassure them. "In case you were calling about the Leonardo DiCaprio issue," he wrote, "here's the truth. We did not send him to interview the president. No one is that stupid."
"I had a call from Phyllis [McGrady] yesterday morning that DiCaprio was visiting the White House (at the request of the White House) at the last minute and would have a crew," Westin wrote. He goes on to say that he had known DiCaprio would walk through the White House and thought "the president might make an appearance."
"We'll take a look at whatever they've done and decide whether we can use any of it; it's quite possible we'll use none," he suggested. And on the mixing of news and entertainment, Westin was clear: "All roles of journalist must be played by journalists (duh!)."
Immediately, Westin had problems. He claimed that the White House requested ABC's presence. Murphy said ABC requested the audience. Westin said he wasn't sure DiCaprio would even meet the president. Murphy said ABC News knew all along that DiCaprio was scheduled to do a walking tour/interview with Clinton. Westin was forced to posit that the interview with the president was being done on spec -- maybe they would use it, maybe they wouldn't. Presidential interviews are simply not done on spec.
It got worse for Westin. White House spokesman Jake Siewert told a very different version of events: "In February, some time ago [ABC News asked] the president to answer some questions for an ABC News special. And ABC News indicated that it would be Leonardo DiCaprio that would ask the questions." In a formal interview request submitted by ABC on March 29, the duration of the event is listed at 30 minutes: 10 minutes for a short walk around the White House and 20 minutes for a sit-down interview with the president. The next day, the White House informed ABC that there wasn't time for the full 30 minutes. The producers, says Siewert, agreed to eliminate the walking tour and spend their 15 minutes on a sit-down interview.
On March 31, the ABC News crew arrived at 9 a.m. to set up for the 12:30 interview. The ABC contingent eventually numbered 20. According to Siewert, DiCaprio was prepared with questions and note cards. Asked about the discrepancy between the stories from Westin and the White House, Murphy demurs, "We'll have to agree to disagree."
Was Westin lying? Incompetent? Both?
There is one other possibility. In October 1999, Miramax agreed to give $35 million toward the financing of DiCaprio's next movie, "The Gangs of New York." Two weeks later, DiCaprio agreed to be the subject of a cover package for Talk magazine. A week or two after that (no one seems to know exactly when) he and ABC came together for the Clinton interview. All three entities -- Miramax, Talk and ABC -- are owned by Walt Disney Co.
Westin has had his problems here before, a dubious "Good Morning America" "interview" with the Pets.com mascot (Pets.com is partially owned by Disney) and allegations that he spiked an investigative story on Disney theme parks in 1998. Occam's razor aside, there is present the distinct smell of synergy. Murphy insists: "None, zero, absolutely not. This has nothing to do with corporate synergy."
In any case, it doesn't look good for Westin. Either he's the victim of imposed corporate synergy, he's out of the loop in his own division or he is pimping ABC News out to the celebrity-entertainment world.
At least this much is clear: Beware of movie stars with ideas.