The Blog

FULL-COURT PRESSURE

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By FRED BARNES
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FORMER FBI AGENT Gary Aldrich's scheduled appearance on the June 30 This Week with David Brinkley drove White House officials to the phones. Leon Panetta, the chief of staff, called Robert Murphy, vice president for news coverage at ABC, and urged him to cancel Aldrich. George Stephanopoulos conveyed the same message to Murphy and, in a separate call, to Virginia Moseley, the associate producer of the show. Ex-congressman Tony Coelho, an unpaid political adviser to the White House, also called Moseley. John Emerson, a deputy assistant to President Clinton for intergovernmental affairs, got in touch with Robert Iger, the president of Capital Cities/ABC in Los Angeles. Another Clinton aide called Michael Ovitz, the president of Disney, ABC's parent company. Democratic national chairman Chris Dodd called Dorrance Smith, the Brinkley show's executive producer. And in Lyon, France, where the president was participating in the G-7 summit, press secretary Michael McCurry pulled aside Robin Sproul, ABC's Washington bureau chief, for a closed-door meeting and declared it outrageous and unacceptable for the Brinkley show to put Aldrich on the air.


Though you'd hardly know it from the press coverage, this was an unprecedented effort by the White House -- any White House -- to exert pressure on a news organization to keep a critic of the president off television. Not since the Nixon administration tried unsuccessfully to block publication of the Pentagon Papers twenty-five years ago has a White House leaned so aggressively on the media to alter a news decision. And the remarkable thing is the heavy-handed pressure may have paid off.


True, ABC hung tough and Aldrich appeared on Brinkley. But the White House probably helped shape how he was treated. And afterwards, Aldrich became persona non grata in the mainstream media. What happened to the Aldrich menace? "We killed it," boasts Stephanopoulos.


What's also amazing about the whole incident is how unperturbed the rest of the media was. Normally when a White House throws its weight around with the press, the guardians of the First Amendment go berserk. But editorial writers and reporters and journalistic societies were all but silent in this case. Columnist Margaret Carlson of Time even trashed ABC for not succumbing to White House pressure. Would she have been so indignant had the Reagan or Bush White House been doing the arm-twisting? Not likely.


Pre-Aldrich, the Clinton White House already had a well-earned reputation for pressuring the press to get more favorable coverage. McCurry has called in media bosses to grouse about their correspondents' pieces. Stephanopoulos lobbied CNN president Tom Johnson in 1994 to keep coverage of Paula Jones off the air when she first accused Clinton of sexual harassment. But to combat Aldrich, who chronicles his experiences at the Clinton White House in his new book Unlimited Access, the White House took more drastic action.


In urging Sproul to get the Aldrich interview canceled, McCurry made clear there would be consequences if ABC didn't go along. The interview that President Clinton has agreed to do this fall with Barbara Walters would be in jeopardy. ABC might run into unspecified difficulties in covering the administration. And, McCurry added, future bookings of White House and other administration officials on ABC shows like Brinkley's might be curtailed.


"We thought it important enough to elevate this," says McCurry. Stephanopoulos insists the White House was "facing a hemorrhage. This guy was going to be everywhere, even breaking into prime time." As for Unlimited Access, "it's patently clear it's a fabrication," argues Stephanopoulos. More broadly, McCurry contends the Aldrich case is a fresh example of the " marked shift" downward in the threshold for getting an allegation into the mainstream media. "The fundamentally untrue and demonstrably bizarre gets wound in with everything else," he says.


In their assault on ABC, White House officials operated from the same talking points. By letting Aldrich appear, ABC would be "lowering the threshold" of what's acceptable in the media, they said. Dodd asked Smith, the Brinkley producer who was attending his brother's wedding in Buffalo: " Isn't there a threshold?" Smith, who worked as a media adviser to President Bush, responded: "Do you know Gary Aldrich?" Dodd said he didn't. Smith said he'd dealt with him for two years at the White House and found him strait- laced, bureaucratic, and nerdy, but not a nut.