ABC: Anyone But Conservatives

by Bob Zelnick
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
The Wall Street Journal (February 24, 1998)

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

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

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

'You Have My Permission'

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

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 I came up with fascinating, previously unpublished material on both Mr.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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