No second takes for Leonardo DiCaprio

ABC warns White House to "make sure you have your facts straight," but interview with Clinton will air without refilmed questions.

By Jonathan V. Last
Published April 19, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

ABC News hasn't run away from its now infamous Leonardo DiCaprio-President Clinton interview as it looked, for a time, that it might. But David Westin's embattled unit doesn't seem to be 100 percent behind it, either.

After DiCaprio interviewed the president March 31 for an ABC News special, the network came under immediate fire, first from high-level in-house staff, then from the press.

Initially, ABC was at odds with itself and the White House. In an internal e-mail, Westin, the news division president, said, "We did not send [DiCaprio] to interview the president. No one is that stupid." At the same time, ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy was telling reporters that ABC News had sent DiCaprio to do a walking tour/interview with the president. And all the while the White House insisted the DiCaprio interview had been a long-standing, planned event, initiated by ABC News itself.

After that, a source inside the White House says that on April 3 one of the producers from the special actually called 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and told them menacingly to "make sure you have your facts straight."

There was also, apparently, a minor fracas over DiCaprio's questions. After the interview ended and the president left, DiCaprio and the camera crew re-shot some of the questions from the interview. While this "re-ask" is common practice in TV journalism, it is highly unusual in interviews with the president. It's one thing if Barbara Walters filmed re-asks without, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones present. It's quite another to do it with a head of state, where a subtle change in a question could potentially alter the meaning of an answer. In a show of its displeasure, the White House sent a subtle signal to ABC by declaring that it would release the full, original transcript of the interview (which had been recorded by a White House communications agent) when and if the show aired.

Then late last week came rumors that ABC might quietly drop the interview -- or perhaps the entire Earth Day special -- altogether. The network hadn't cleared air time for the show and the deadline for printing at TV Guide was looming.

However by Friday the Mouse House was somewhat in order. The Earth Day special, now titled "Planet Earth 2000," is scheduled for prime time Saturday. It will include parts of the DiCaprio interview, but it will not include any of the re-shot questions, because, according to Murphy, "They don't meet with our policy." And they have resolved the question of what Westin knew and when he knew it. Murphy said publicly last week that the ABC News president did not know that DiCaprio was interviewing the president in the White House on behalf of his organization and that when he sent out his e-mail denial, "he was not fully informed about what we did at the White House and what we intended to do at the White House."

Even so, they are trying to downplay the interview. ABC News maintains that the interview lasted only 15 minutes, while deputy White House secretary Jake Siewert made clear on the cable show "First Producer's Club" that the interview took 30 minutes. A good indicator of how deep network support is for "Planet Earth 2000" will come later this week. Normally, network news specials receive promotional support from other shows in the news division. If "Planet Earth 2000" is promoted heavily on "Good Morning America," "Nightline" and Peter Jennings' nightly news Thursday and Friday, then the network is clearly behind it.

The entire ordeal has been somewhat humiliating for ABC. Under Westin the news division has been treading water. "Good Morning America" has shown small ratings gains, but the Sunday flagship show, "This Week," showed a staggering 23 percent drop in viewership last quarter.

And while Westin may have escaped the DiCaprio interview intact, his lack of control doesn't bode well for his future. Sources close to the network report that Westin's relationship with Disney head Michael Eisner isn't solid and may get rockier as the year goes on and the news division takes a higher profile because of the presidential election. Many in the industry are speculating that Westin could be gone around the same time Clinton leaves office.

But if Westin has a panoply of enemies both inside and outside his division, his list of friends right now is even more telling. Tabitha Soren, a former correspondent for MTV News, defended the DiCaprio interview in the New York Times by pointing out that "fighting to keep the distinction between news and entertainment is, after all, pretty self-serving for journalists." And recently a New York Post columnist wrote, "In my humble opinion, ABC News should be celebrating the forward-looking, youth-oriented efforts of David Westin, instead of condemning his efforts." That last endorsement is from noted journalist Liz Smith.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for The Weekly Standard.

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