Clinton-Kaplan friendship worries some critics

February 08, 1994|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

When ABC News installed Rick Kaplan as executive producer of "World News Tonight," it put an FOB -- a friend of Bill Clinton -- in charge of the United States' most-watched evening newscast.

Mr. Kaplan and President Clinton have known each other since the late 1970s, and during the 1992 presidential campaign, Mr. Kaplan occasionally advised his friend about how to handle the press.

Friendships between journalists and people they cover are not uncommon. As Richard Wald, a senior vice president of ABC News, said: "It is perfectly reasonable in life to meet people, like them and stay friendly."

But conservative media critics say Mr. Kaplan went beyond friendship during the campaign by advising Mr. Clinton while working as executive producer of ABC's "PrimeTime Live."

"Being a friend is one thing, but he was more than a friend," said Brent Baker, executive director of the Media Research Center, a watchdog group. "He actually advised Clinton. That's becoming a participant in the campaign. He crossed a line."

It's a blurry line, however, if only because friends routinely offer casual advice to one another.

Other reports from the campaign and from inside ABC News suggest that the friendship is close and that, at least once, Mr. Kaplan used his position to soften ABC's coverage of Mr. Clinton. Consider:

* When Gennifer Flowers alleged she had been Mr. Clinton's mistress in February 1992, Mr. Kaplan called Mr. Clinton to ask him to come on "PrimeTime Live." In "Strange Bedfellows," a book by reporter Tom Rosenstiel about TV and the '92 campaign, Mr. Kaplan is quoted as telling Mr. Clinton: "Do the toughest interview you can. If you want to prove your credibility, you don't want to do it on 'Good Morning America' or the 'Today' show. And you won't get ratings in the morning. You have to go for the largest audience."

After Mr. Clinton decided to go on "60 Minutes," he again talked to Mr. Kaplan, this time at 4 a.m., according to Mr. Rosenstiel's book. Mr. Kaplan then advised him to talk to a famous name at CBS -- Mike Wallace or Morley Safer or Ed Bradley -- so the interview would have maximum impact. Mr. Clinton ignored the advice and did the interview with Steve Kroft.

* A 1993 Washington Monthly story said Mr. Kaplan played a role in arranging Mr. Clinton's radio interview with Don Imus, a popular New York deejay, before the New York primary. Although the two are friends, Liz Noyer, an ABC News spokeswoman, said Mr. Kaplan did not set up the appearance.

Late night card game

The night before the interview, Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Clinton stayed up late playing cards and talking about how to deal with the unpredictable Mr. Imus. Mr. Clinton handled the interview deftly, joking that a "bubba" is just an Arkansas version of a New York "mensch."

* Despite their friendship, Mr. Kaplan supervised the production of two "PrimeTime" interviews with Mr. Clinton, one just before the election and one before the inauguration.

While producing the first interview, Mr. Kaplan told anchor Sam Donaldson he had been too tough with Mr. Clinton, according to Mr. Donaldson. Mr. Kaplan suggested that Mr. Donaldson temper the harshness of the interview by ending it with a positive comment on the air. As a result, Mr. Donaldson praised Mr. Clinton for his whirlwind campaign style and said, approvingly: "That's commitment."

Mr. Rosenstiel, who covers the media for the Los Angeles Times, said Mr. Kaplan probably should have removed himself when "PrimeTime" covered Mr. Clinton.

But he also said "some amount of chumminess is helpful" when it adds to a journalist's understanding of those in power. With Mr. Clinton in the White House and Mr. Kaplan in charge of "World News," Mr. Rosenstiel said: "The issue now becomes: Look at the work of his broadcast and is he letting that friendship influence the coverage?" There's no evidence he is. This week, in fact, "World News" plans to broadcast an unusually long investigative piece on Clinton's involvement in an Arkansas land deal.

Mr. Donaldson said: "Since Clinton's been president, he [Mr. Kaplan] has never come to me asking me to pull a punch."

Brit Hume, ABC's White House correspondent, said: "I'll be doing my job as usual, and I expect that everyone else will be doing their job as usual. I have seen no indication that personal relationships play a role in this, and I don't expect they will."

By no stretch does Mr. Kaplan have sole authority over Clinton coverage on "World News." Mr. Hume, who makes no secret of his own politically conservative views, is an important voice, as is anchor Peter Jennings.

Some are concerned

Still, some ABC insiders say they are surprised that Mr. Kaplan's ties to Mr. Clinton have received so little media attention. "There are close calls that come along, and you never know whether this could come into play," said one correspondent.

Others say Mr. Kaplan, 46, who was previously an executive producer at "Nightline" as well as "PrimeTime," will do all he can to be fair, particularly since conservatives are now watching ABC's coverage closely.

"Rick is very careful in dealing with Clinton," said Mr. Wald. "Yes, it is sensitive. I've never hidden that fact. And Rick hasn't either."

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