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Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Every week, "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation," and "This Week" square off in a fierce -- and sometimes underhanded -- rumble for guests, ratings, and headlines. At stake: millions of dollars and bragging rights for some of the biggest egos in network news.


As he sat in his office at NBC’s Washington bureau on friday, May 1, prepping for Sunday’s Meet the Press interview with GOP pit bull Dan Burton, Tim Russert noticed something funny. Earlier that day, the Indiana congressman, who leads the House investigation of the Clintons on Capitol Hill, had released transcripts of tape-recorded jailhouse telephone conversations of Whitewater principal Webster Hubbell’s. A lawyer by training, Russert noticed the damning transcript “was choppy and didn’t seem to flow.” He asked for the audiotapes to match the transcript, but the cassettes provided by Burton also seemed dubbed. “You could hear Hubbell say ‘Hillary,’” then it cut off, Russert recalls. By Saturday, the anchorman was in overdrive; acting on his hunch, he managed to obtain a more complete version of the audiotapes from other sources. As producers worked past midnight transcribing the tapes, he compared them with the Burton transcript. Sure enough, exculpatory material on Hillary Clinton had been carefully edited out.

By 6 a.m. Sunday, a gleeful Russert was back at the studio, rehearsing the devastating interview that -- when it aired a few hours later -- threatened to topple Burton from his position as Clinton’s chief House inquisitor. On the ropes, Burton vowed to release the full set of audiotapes if Hubbell’s lawyer consented. An hour later on ABC’s This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts, which touted its “exclusive” with Hubbell lawyer John Nields, Donaldson and Roberts scrambled to match Russert’s scoop. Rather than breaking new ground, they picked up where Russert had left off, carefully editing out any mention of Meet the Press. Asked if he would agree to release the complete Hubbell transcripts, Nields emphatically spurned the offer, and another news cycle was set in motion. The next day, the story was front-page news all across the country, cementing Russert’s reputation as the king of Sunday morning. For the moment.

For years, the Sunday public-affairs broadcasts were staid, polite affairs, steeped in civic virtue and anchored by well-mannered men in horn-rimmed glasses and off-the-rack gray suits. Now the Sunday hosts don combat fatigues, warring each week for ratings, guests, and publicity. Meet and This Week have been neck-and-neck for months, with each claiming to be No. 1 in a barrage of full-page newspaper ads. CBS’s Face the Nation runs an increasingly competitive third. Fox Broadcasting’s up-and-coming show with Tony Snow, and CNN’s Late Edition, now hosted by White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer, round out the crowded field. “It’s the last great competition in network news,” says Russert, who has hosted Meet since 1991. Washington Post TV columnist John Carmody compares the Sunday-morning clash to “the Balkans before the chaps from the U.N. moved in.”

Nowhere is the struggle more intense than in the scramble for guests -- a weekly bout that Russert describes as “one of the greatest chess games of all time.” Last May, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for the Paula Jones case to go to trial, the hot Sunday interview was Clinton’s attorney, tough-talking Washington superlawyer Robert Bennett. At midweek, the producers at This Week thought they had snagged an exclusive commitment from Bennett, only to learn by Friday that the White House wanted him to do Meet the Press as well. Because Meet’s live feed goes out at 9 a.m. on the East Coast, while This Week doesn’t go on until 10:30 a.m., the wires would pick up Russert’s interview first.

Earlier in the year, This Week’s Donaldson had fired off a blistering letter to White House spokesman Michael McCurry accusing the White House of favoring Russert with its bookings. McCurry’s latest double-dealing enraged him. “This was the White House protecting Timmy’s primacy,” Donaldson fumes. “This Week went bananas!” gloats Russert. “They wouldn’t put Bennett on after we had him.”

Refusing to play second fiddle to his archrival, Donaldson got Bennett to agree to a live interview on Good Morning America Sunday, which airs at 8 a.m. That way, This Week could still lay claim to having been first when it replayed the tape later in the morning. When Bennett backed out of that deal on Saturday, Donaldson decided to charge over to the lawyer’s home in upper northwest D.C. at 8 a.m. Sunday morning to get him on tape before he did Meet.

But Russert, who confides that he has “operatives all over,” was a step ahead. Donaldson arrived early at Bennett’s home only to be greeted by an NBC camera crew ready to interview the attorney for NBC’s Weekend Today. Both early-morning shows carried a now-famous clip of Bennett comparing Paula Jones metaphorically to a dead dog as he strolled down his walkway, but it was only Russert who ended up with Bennett as a guest that day.

This kind of cutthroat competition is new to Sunday talk. At stake is big money -- the shows are cheap to produce and hugely profitable, and the first news shows to sell out to advertisers. Meet alone made $25 million in profits for NBC last year. The Sunday shows are also the only news broadcasts that can command ad commitments on a 52-week basis, and their demographics are so desirable that ad rates are not tied to guaranteed ratings. The “sponsors” -- giant corporations with interests before Congress, like Archer Daniels Midland, General Electric, Xerox, and AT&T -- know they are reaching an elite market, from legislative leaders to corporate CEOs. Many of them compete to advertise on all three top shows -- and while ad rates for the nightly newscasts are somewhat higher, advertisers are willing to pay up to two times more per viewer to reach a relatively small audience -- an average of 3 million tune in to the top three on any Sunday.

Also on the line are network bragging rights and some of the biggest egos in TV news. “It used to be relatively dilettantish, a gentleman’s club,” says Dorrance Smith, the original executive producer of This Week With David Brinkley. Now “it’s a blood sport,” adds Meet the Press panelist Lisa Myers, NBC’s congressional correspondent. “And Tim usually wins.” But Donaldson, suggesting that the war has undercurrents of a personal grudge match, is having none of it. “Somehow, when David retired, Russert thought he had the right to be El Supremo,” Donaldson says. “But God does not confer these rights on people.”

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