NBC says Bush shuns 'Today' show in favor of ABC's morning program

October 09, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Blacklists, enemy lists, secret deals and interviewers avoiding certain questions.

The talk this week about the morning TV talk shows has taken an ugly turn. In the wake of five straight appearances by President Bush on ABC's "Good Morning America," while Mr. Bush has yet to appear on "Today," the executive producer of "Today" says that "Good Morning America" has been making deals with the president and has "crossed the line of journalistic integrity."

"GMA" says it did not cut a deal with Mr. Bush, and the White House seconds it. But accepting the ABC morning show's position depends on how you define the term "deal."

Either way, the answers offer a glimpse into why certain candidates have been appearing with greater frequency on certain morning shows and the process of negotiating those appearances. It's a process that raises questions about the lines between entertainment and news and the kind of information voters are getting about the candidates.

Here are the facts. Mr. Bush has appeared on "GMA" five times, "CBS This Morning" once, and never on "Today." Ross Perot, the independent candidate, has appeared on "Today" more often than any other show: a dozen times compared to six appearances each on "CBS This Morning" and ""GMA." Democratic challenger Bill Clinton has spread his appearances evenly among the morning shows, according to all parties.

Mr. Bush's five appearances on "GMA" this week and last week -- with another scheduled for today -- comes on the heels of "60 Minutes" correspondent Leslie Stahl telling a group of broadcast executives in San Antonio two weeks ago that Mr. Bush has a "blacklist" of TV journalists who he will not grant interviews.

According to Ms. Stahl, the list includes: Dan Rather of CBS, Peter Jennings and George Will of ABC, Bill Moyers of PBS, and Tim Russert and Bryant Gumbel of NBC.

To Jeff Zucker, executive producer of "Today," the rumored blacklist and Mr. Bush's refusal to appear on "Today," while showing up day after day on ABC, is the two plus two that equals a four-square deal.

"I have no way of knowing if there really is a blacklist," Mr. Zucker said yesterday. "But the president's reluctance to appear on our show has certainly served to give it credibility. . . . And 'Good Morning America' has taken advantage of it in a way that crosses the line."

Mr. Zucker charges that "GMA" "allowed Mr. Bush to set the agenda" for the six appearances, telling the show's producers what topics could and could not be discussed.

The six topics that could be discussed were: taxes, economy, crime, health care, education and welfare reform. What could not be discussed was the Iran-contra issue.

" 'Good Morning America' abided by the condition of no Iran-contra," Mr. Zucker said, "and you can't allow yourself to be part of that ethically."

According to a "GMA" spokeswoman, the show did have a

pre-interview agreement as to what six issues would be discussed, but never agreed not to discuss Iran-contra.

"We don't make those kinds of deals," said Kathy Rehl, a spokeswoman for the show. Ms. Rehl said the interviewers -- Charles Gibson and Joan Lunden -- didn't choose to ask Mr. Bush about Iran-contra.

Mr. Rehl said "back and forth" about the six topics that would be discussed happens all the time and is part of the process of getting guests in the fiercely competitive world of morning TV. Mr. Zucker and Ted Savaglio, the executive producer of "CBS This Morning," agreed that there is often negotiation or attempts at negotiation in booking guests.

"The candidates do search for the most friendly forum," Mr. Savaglio said yesterday.

But Mr. Savaglio and Mr. Zucker said the big difference is that "Today" and "CBS This Morning" are part of NBC and CBS news, respectively, while "GMA" is not part of ABC News. It is instead part of the network's entertainment operation.

"We have somewhat different standards as a result," Mr. Savaglio said.

Mr. Zucker offered an example. He said "Today" national correspondent Jamie Gangel was sitting in a waiting room with Mr. Perot shortly before going on for a live interview with him.

Mr. Perot told Mr. Gangel that there could be no questions about Ed Rollins, who had resigned as the candidate's campaign consultant and was criticizing him.

"You can't tell me what I can ask," Mr. Gangel said, according to Mr. Zucker. Mr. Zucker said Mr. Perot stormed out of the room, but he did the interview.

"We weren't even thinking of Rollins, but when he said we couldn't ask, we decided as journalists that we had to," Mr. Zucker said.

All the journalism talk by Mr. Zucker and Mr. Savaglio aside, in the end, morning TV talk is mainly about ratings.

"GMA" and "Today" are locked in a bitter ratings battle, with "CBS This Morning" a distant third. The candidates have been very good for ratings and are expected to be even better down the stretch.

So, has "Today" washed its hands of Mr. Bush in light of the president's demands and preconditions?

Not on your life, Mr. Zucker said. "Nothing's going to be happening next week with the debates. But the week after, we'd really like to get Bush on. We're talking about it with them. Coming the last two weeks of the campaign, it might turn out to be even better."

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