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.”
The shows are influential well beyond raw audience numbers, as a tribal ritual for the elites. For the White House, they are “an extension of governance,” as This Week’s George Will puts it, the place to start, stop, or spin a story. Bob Schieffer, host of Face the Nation, says the programs “play the role that the supercolumnists used to play; people come on to float trial balloons or respond to the other side.”
When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wants to send a message to Saddam Hussein, or Monica Lewinsky’s bow-tied lawyer, William Ginsburg, wants to send a message to Kenneth Starr, the Sunday shows guarantee Monday-morning headlines.
But the fierce struggle for viewers has spurred an identity crisis among all the Sunday shows. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it’s been hard to tell Sunday morning from Rivera Live. In their attempt to stay competitive, the shows have acquired the showbiz airs that would have been considered taboo even a decade ago. Tim Russert is a regular on Imus in the Morning, hosts Internet gossip Matt Drudge, and broadcasts from the Super Bowl. This Week covers the Boston nanny trial and interviews Ellen DeGeneres’s mom. Even straitlaced Face the Nation has added a tip sheet for “insiders” called “The Real Deal,” a gimmick that would not be out of place on Hard Copy.
The current battle to the death between Meet the Press and This Week has two arcs: the steady rise of Tim Russert and the slow decline of David Brinkley, the broadcast legend who retired as host of the show in late 1996, giving Russert his opening. Since Russert took over as host of Meet in 1991, the number of homes tuned into the show has increased a dramatic 50 percent. During the same period, Face fell 17 percent and This Week was down 15 percent.
According to sources familiar with the show, the single-minded Russert has followed a specific plan of attack on This Week With David Brinkley from the day he took over: Conquer Washington, then New York; fight for better clearances nationwide and better lead-ins in difficult markets. Within a year as host, Russert persuaded NBC to expand the show to an hour, and he soon was beating Brinkley in the all-important D.C. market.
Compared with Donaldson and Schieffer – both veteran Washington correspondents – Russert was a relative latecomer to TV news; he joined NBC as an executive in 1984. The Buffalo native had served for years as a top aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Washington (where he gave current White House press secretary Mike McCurry a job) and then to Governor Mario Cuomo in Albany.
Throughout the eighties, Brinkley owned Sunday morning, while Meet the Press, the top dog from the time it went on the air in 1947 until Brinkley debuted in 1981, languished in last place. Formats shifted, and hosts changed like the weather: Marvin Kalb, Chris Wallace, and Garrick Utley. Impressed by Russert’s command of politics in editorial meetings at NBC, Michael Gartner, then president of the news division, persuaded him to take over NBC’s Washington bureau and pinch-hit as a guest Meet panelist. Some well-placed sources insist that Gartner exiled Russert to Washington because he feared the ambitious executive had an eye on his own job; sources close to Russert say that when Gartner was pushed out in 1993, Russert withdrew his name from the short list for the top job at NBC News.
By then, Russert was already happily ensconced as host of Meet the Press. Sending up Russert’s less-than-telegenic features, Gartner had printed up TIM RUSSERT – NOT JUST ANOTHER PRETTY FACE sweatshirts. Seven years later, in his white shirts and poorly knotted ties, Russert still looks like an anxious traveling salesman, leering rather than smiling, and laughing at odd moments. But viewers seem to like him.
A Catholic-school boy, Russert worked his way through John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall law school hauling garbage, making pizzas, and driving a cab – and he displayed the same tenacity in his crusade to dominate Sunday morning. Departing from the cozy format that once characterized Meet the Press, the round-faced Russert grills his guests like a well-prepped prosecutor. Ross Perot playfully put Russert in a headlock after a bruising interview in 1992; days later, Perot pulled out of the presidential race.
Meet is built solely around Russert’s strong persona and his unabashed determination to set Washington’s agenda, even to move policy. In November, at the lavish Meet the Press fiftieth-anniversary party held at the National Building Museum, half of Clinton’s Cabinet and half of Congress waited on a long receiving line to ascend a raised platform to pay their respects to Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth. As if it were a rock concert, a 30-foot video screen behind the couple flashed their images to the assembled crowd. (Not to be outdone, ABC honchos Roone Arledge and David Westin invited le tout Washington to a glittery party at the National Museum of American History on May 7 to celebrate Cokie Roberts’s new book, We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters.)
In 1992, unhappy that neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton was offering specific plans to bring down the budget deficit, Russert pressed the issue with campaign surrogates all year. During the 1996 election cycle, with the deficit essentially licked, Russert pushed the candidates on Medicare and Social Security reform, which he claims helped set the stage for the historic balanced-budget agreement last year. (On the other hand, the numbers-obsessed Russert has to be prodded to cover foreign policy.)
Gradually, Russert turned Meet into his personal fiefdom. In his early years as host, concerned that Washington might not take him seriously as a journalist, he recruited a troupe of respected reporters to question newsmakers with him – David Broder of the Washington Post, Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, author Elizabeth Drew, and columnist Bob Novak. But over time, he has used them less and less, conducting most of the high-profile interviews himself. The troupe has been all but exiled to the end of the show, and Russert is joined only occasionally in the questioning by NBC reporters like Lisa Myers and Andrea Mitchell. Around town, people joke that the show has become “Meet the Tim.”
Russert sees Meet the Press as his personal pulpit, and his occasional moralizing has earned him the sobriquet “Father Tim.” He’s devoted four one-hour shows to the state of race relations in America, and he did his Christmas show last year on the role of morality in America with guests Mario Cuomo and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. “I want people to teach a course on it,” he says, “or use it for a homily in church.”
Russert goes his own way on major news stories that don’t fit his Beltway-centric agenda for the broadcast. When Princess Diana died last September, This Week threw out its entire show. After working through the night, “Sam did a flawless intro without an ounce of sentimentality,” says columnist Clarence Page, a This Week panelist. “I asked him who wrote it, and he said, ‘I did. I’m still a reporter.’ We kicked butt journalistically and in the ratings.” Following its own short segment on Diana, Meet the Press aired a planned policy-wonk debate on education vouchers with Pat Buchanan and Mario Cuomo.
When Mother Teresa died the day before Diana’s funeral, Russert insisted on devoting almost half his show to her. “I was determined to give Mother Teresa equal time,” he says. “It was my own upbringing being reflected on the air.” When the Lewinsky scandal broke, ABC called Cokie Roberts back from Havana, where she had planned to anchor a show on the pope’s visit to Cuba. Only Meet kept a segment on the pope, with Russert interviewing two American Catholic cardinals. (Asked about Russert’s suggestion that This Week has gone downmarket, Dorrance Smith huffs, “He’s constantly dictating the moral terms for my show. I can’t be a choirboy and put on deadpan parliamentarian Senator Robert Byrd 52 weeks a year.”)
David Brinkley had seemed disengaged from the show for months before he stepped down. One ex- This Week staff member says that on a trip to Normandy in 1994 to cover the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, Brinkley constantly confused World War I and World War II, “causing us to do some frantic editing.” Another time, this source says, Brinkley showed up at the ABC studios in Washington on Saturday, thinking it was Sunday. Brinkley’s wife and children were summoned to take him home.
But ABC brass knew that a significant segment of This Week’s audience, which skews older than the other two shows, tuned in each week just to see the wry Brinkley. Introducing the show’s roundtable once, Brinkley said, “I haven’t the faintest idea what it’ll be about. Just a little hot-stove-and-cracker-barrel philosophizing.” ABC chairman Roone Arledge was determined to prop up his friend even as Brinkley faltered, network sources say.
After the 1994 elections, Brinkley lobbied to bring back the prickly and unpopular Dorrance Smith, his first producer, who left the show in 1989 and later joined the Bush White House. A Gucci-loafered Texan, Smith returned to the broadcast, but ratings continued to sag.
In the third quarter of 1996, Meet tied with This Week in the national Nielsen ratings for the first time. Soon after, Brinkley announced his retirement. Still smarting from his forced exile, ABC sources say, Brinkley has privately expressed bitterness toward Smith and tells friends he no longer watches This Week. For his part, Smith says he was brought back to the show not to preserve Brinkley’s status but to ease him out.
With Brinkley gone, the chemistry among the principals dissipated. “Brinkley was the father at the head of the table,” says Smith, who remains in charge of the broadcast. “He maintained order. Now it’s more anarchic, but not chaotic.” ABC considered giving the show outright to Cokie Roberts – who is popular with women viewers and is a favorite of ABC president David Westin – but Donaldson, a 31-year veteran of ABC News, was already chafing in the shadow of Diane Sawyer as co-host of PrimeTime Live. Eager to keep him happy, network sources say, ABC gave him equal billing. But co-hosting arrangements are always tricky, and the Sunday show hasn’t yet found its focus.
All of the show’s principals are better separately than they are as a group. Donaldson, 64, a native Texan who grew up in an austere Southern Baptist household, used to star as himself on the Brinkley broadcast – the famously aggressive White House correspondent of the Reagan era. In one legendary contretemps, he so rattled South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings as to why the trade protectionist had his suits hand-tailored abroad that Hollings lashed back with a query about where Donaldson bought “the wig” on his head. A graduate of the New Mexico Military Institute and Texas Western, Donaldson is no less aggressive today, but he concedes that his new role has changed the dynamic on the set. “When you’re a co-anchor, you have to act differently,” he says, with a hint of sarcasm. “I have less time to show my wares.” Though he wins high marks for his journalistic prowess, Donaldson has lately been rapped for seeming ill-prepared for interviews. In one embarrassing slip-up in February, he stumbled over the basic facts of the Lewinsky case.
Cokie Roberts, 54, is a Wellesley grad and lifelong denizen of Washington’s court society – the daughter of Louisiana congressman Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs, who replaced her husband in Congress and was recently named Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican. Roberts is also the sister of famed superlobbyist Tommy Boggs and the wife of Daily News columnist Steve Roberts, a regular panelist on Wolf Blitzer’s CNN Sunday show.
Of the current cast at This Week, Roberts has the most potential to fill Brinkley’s shoes. A commentator for ABC and NPR and occasional substitute for Ted Koppel on Nightline, she is, like Brinkley, hard to typecast politically. Like Russert, Roberts is a devout Catholic; though she hails from a long Democratic tradition, she’s also anti-abortion and a sometimes acerbic critic of the feminist movement. A self-described “suburban housewife,” she prides herself on asking her guests the common-sense question that cuts through spin. Censorious throughout the Lewinsky scandal, Roberts pinned down White House adviser Paul Begala on his views on marital fidelity: “I made him choose between his boss and his wife, and he didn’t like it,” she says triumphantly. But while she has her Brinkleyesque moments, she still seems uncomfortable fencing in the free-form questioning with Bigfoot Donaldson and pointy-headed George Will.
Will, the resident conservative intellectual on the Brinkley panel since the show debuted in 1981, seems diminished in Brinkley’s absence. During an interminably silly exchange April 26 on the male anti-impotence drug Viagra, Will finally piped up with “Can I make a mildly serious point here?” Another time, Will noticeably winced, along with much of the viewing audience, when Donaldson mispronounced voilà as “voy-la.”
When Brinkley stepped down as moderator, three rotating analysts were permanently added to the lineup: George Stephanopoulos, William Kristol, and syndicated columnist Clarence Page. The sharp-witted Kristol and the thoughtful Stephanopoulos are worth listening to on any Sunday. But the audience did not immediately take to the new additions. Donaldson says that when Stephanopoulos first joined the broadcast, Brinkley’s older, conservative audience regarded Stephanopoulos suspiciously as a “White House spinner,” and many defected to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Sunday. But in his new incarnation as a Clinton critic after the Lewinsky scandal, Stephanopoulos is helping to drive ratings up again, network sources say.
Seriously handicapped by its 30-minute format, Face the Nation runs third in the ratings nationwide, but it can inflict heavy damage on its competitors in the race for first. The genial Bob Schieffer, who has anchored Face for seven years, can be a less-than-sizzling interviewer, but his show is the least ego-driven of the big three, and consistently makes as much news as the others.
Last year, thanks to a new high-tech set and a new and telegenic panelist, Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report, Face began making serious inroads against This Week. It was Borger, last November, who elicited the memorable quotation from Clinton lawyer Bennett on the president’s alleged “distinguishing characteristics.” “In terms of size, shape, direction, or whatever the devious mind wants to concoct,” Bennett somberly intoned, “the president is a normal man.”
Face producer Karin Pratt, who has been with the show since 1984, is generally regarded as one of the best bookers in the business. “She’s got half the goddamned city on hold, and I have a better show,” says a competing producer. In January, when the Lewinsky scandal broke, white-haired House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde – who would preside over any impeachment inquiry – was fought for by all three shows. Pratt cornered Hyde first, leaving him a 5:30 a.m. phone message. Hyde committed.
Meanwhile, Russert and Roberts were embroiled in a nasty tug-of-war over Hyde’s second appearance that day. “I’d known Henry for years,” says Roberts, still angry over the skirmish. “He wanted to go on Meet as well as on us. I called him, and I made it clear our friendship was involved, and he got it. I put it in very personal terms.” Russert, however, secured a promise from Hyde that Meet has first dibs the next time around. “That could come in handy when Starr makes a report to Congress,” Russert says gleefully. Sometimes, the hosts store up commitments months, even years, in advance. “Sam has a relationship with Colin Powell that we hope will some day bear fruit,” says Roberts. “You know, ‘When you make the decision to announce, do it on our show.’”
Another highly prized guest is Senate judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch. Last September, Hatch agreed to discuss the tobacco deal on Meet the Press. But Fox’s blow-dried host, Tony Snow, a conservative columnist with close ties to GOP leaders, slipped in to see the senator and got him to agree to do his show. (Fox News Sunday runs fourth in the national Nielsens, but it boasts the youngest demographics and has been placing first in major Midwest markets like Dallas, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. Sixty-three percent of Fox’s mostly conservative viewers watch only Fox, and the show has slowly been gaining on Face the Nation.) Stuck with two competing commitments, Hatch called Russert, trying to squirm out of his deal with Meet. “I told him, ‘No way. You’re committed, and I’m not letting you out,’ “ Russert recalls. “So here’s the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee calling me and asking me to call Tony and get him out of doing Fox.”
All three shows accuse one another of dirty pool. “Tim beats up on people,” complains Donaldson. “And he’ll bad-mouth us. He’ll say the This Week crowd is dumb. Or ‘Oh, Donaldson didn’t have facts straight.’ We don’t say that kind of thing about him.” (Russert denies making any such comments.)
But This Week is not above a little hardball, either. “Brinkley tried to cut a few corners and do some unethical things when they were in panic mode,” says Bob Schieffer. “We were doing the McCaughey septuplet story and we booked Art Kaplan, a medical ethicist,” adds Karin Pratt. “Then This Week offered to do it via satellite from his house and to give him more time… . It’s poaching! Kaplan calls and says, ‘I’m not going to do you. I got a better deal.’ And I said, ‘’What do you mean a better deal? You’re an ethicist!’”
When the competition began to spin out of control several years ago, the White House adopted a strict rotation system for major Cabinet officials, agency heads, and top aides, in an attempt to bring some sanity to the process. But the Press Office breaks the rotation when it needs to. When the White House decided to feature Vice-President Gore on the Sunday before 1996’s Democratic National Convention, it was Face the Nation’s turn in the rotation. But the White House, seeking a bigger audience, booked him for This Week instead. “Yeah,” admits Pratt. “I was pissed.”
Last fall, when the White House was pushing for ratification of the chemical-weapons treaty, Russert pitched a joint appearance for Albright and Defense secretary Cohen to make their case – the first time in 30 years Meet had hosted both secretaries. But Russert’s condition was that Meet retain its place in the rotation for Albright, who was planning a major trip to Hong Kong for the changeover in government.
So when the Hong Kong trip came up, Schieffer, who had taken Face to Hong Kong, had trouble securing a high-level U.S. official for the broadcast. “I was the only one of the Sunday shows over in Hong Kong, I had no guest, and Meet had Albright via satellite. I wanted Albright. I called Jamie Rubin Albright’s press secretary and told him I wouldn’t be treated this way. I was told they were committed to Tim for an exclusive sit-down with Albright. So I said I’d do the interview standing up, and lo and behold, they bought it! It was a minor victory, but it was a victory.” When Russert found out about it, “he went out of his mind,” says one source familiar with the negotiations.
For government officials, appearing on the Sunday shows is a critical rite of passage, a measure of their clout inside the Beltway. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has never been on a Sunday show during his tenure.
Other unpopular guests on the Sunday talk circuit are Attorney General Janet Reno (“She has no pulse,” sniffs George Will) and GOP House majority leader Dick Armey – widely derided as a slippery party hack. Sometimes, a freelancing Cabinet member tries to boost himself and slip by the White House schedulers. When former Labor secretary Robert Reich became embroiled in a pitched policy battle with Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, he booked himself on This Week “to pressure the president,” says a source involved in the fracas. When the White House found out, Reich was yanked off the show.
By the end of last year, This Week’s ratings were tanking. Meet had won the November sweeps handily. Worse still, the margin between second-place This Week and third-place Face had narrowed. Worried that their show may be settling into permanent second-place status, This Week staff point out that both NBC and CBS have better lead-ins on Sunday morning: NBC’S Weekend Today and CBS’s Sunday Morning. Says Donaldson, with typical candor: “We’d rather come out of black than follow Good Morning America Sunday.”
Another, more conspiratorial theory at This Week centers around Russert’s relationship with powerful Washington Post TV columnist John Carmody, to whom Russert regularly fed tips when he was a network executive in New York. By all accounts, the widely read weekly body count in the Carmody column has played a pivotal role in fueling the war. This Week complains that Russert gets favored treatment from Carmody, whom Russert calls “The Bishop.” When Russert started winning Washington, Carmody began reporting the local D.C. ratings for the Sunday shows each week, trumpeting Russert’s victories from the White House to Capitol Hill, which boosted bookings. Carmody doesn’t regularly report the local ratings for any other national news broadcast.
“These are a couple of old Irish Catholic boys,” says Donaldson, who wrote to Carmody to complain about the columnist’s apparent favoritism: “Russert brought him back a wooden cross from the pope!” Carmody says the gift from Russert was actually a set of rosary beads blessed by the pope that he sent to his dying mother. “I report the ratings straight as a line,” insists Carmody. “I can’t be bought for a rosary.”
In a bid to give both the Jennings broadcast and This Week a lift, Donaldson returned amid great fanfare to his White House beat in January, and Roberts assumed additional duties covering Congress. But the announcement was overshadowed by the debacle over the ethics of now-retired David Brinkley’s appearances as a spokesman for Archer Daniels Midland, a longtime This Week sponsor. Roberts awkwardly congratulated him on his “new role.”
Worse still was the publicity over the show’s name change. When ABC inexplicably renamed the show This Week With Sam & Cokie, Bob Schieffer went around town joking that he was going to call his broadcast Big Bob’s Face the Nation. After critics began comparing the show to Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, its producers quickly tacked on the anchors’ last names, informing Donaldson of the change by memo. (“That was the product of our decisive and informed management,” Donaldson says sourly. “And if you use that, do it with a straight face.”)
For the moment, however, the Monica mess seems to have pulled This Week, which has been especially hot on the scandal, out of its slump. Ratings for all the shows have been higher in most of the past four months than they have been since the Gulf War, but for This Week the gain has been especially pronounced. In April, This Week trounced Meet nationally on two Sundays for the first time in 26 weeks. Sex sells, even on Sunday morning.
But while This Week has provided a vivid weekly snapshot of the Beltway consensus on the scandal, it has proved a notably unreliable guide to its myriad twists and turns. On the Sunday after the story broke, Donaldson, Will, and Kristol predicted breathlessly that Clinton could be out of office within days. The next Sunday, Donaldson read out poll numbers showing Clinton’s approval rating rising; he then threw up his hands and said, “Go figure,” and the panel went on to issue the same dire prognostications served up the week before. The media is “way ahead of the public on this,” Roberts says now. “The public will understand soon enough.”
Ultimately, however, the Lewinsky coverage shows how far the Sunday shows have strayed from their high-minded roots in their bid for ratings. For more than three months now, none of the top-three Sunday shows has had the guts to drop the story, even when there was no news coming out of it. The same guests – from virtuecrat William Bennett to former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta – have popped up repeatedly, mouthing the same platitudes. Appearing on This Week at the height of the recent Iraq crisis, Secretary Albright was shunted off after ten minutes to make room for yet another rote interview with Paula Jones’s lawyers. “If there’s nothing happening on Monica, you are afraid not to do it,” Sam Donaldson concedes. “Afraid to get off the competitive merry-go-round.”