MediaWatch: August 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 8

Revolving Door: CNN's Clintonista

CNN has tapped Rick Kaplan, a Friend of Bill who advised Clinton on how to overcome the Gennifer Flowers story and was rewarded with a stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, to take control of its news operation. A top ABC News producer who has run Nightline, Prime Time Live, and World News Tonight, Kaplan was named President of CNN in early August.

And who picked Kaplan? Tom Johnson, a Democratic political adviser turned President of CNN who now holds the title of Chairman of the CNN News Group. Tom Johnson served as Deputy Press Secretary and later Special Assistant to President Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s, sticking with the former President when he moved back to Texas.

Kaplan was among the 831 names made public earlier this year of overnight White House guests in Clinton's first term. He stayed in 1993 while serving as Executive Producer of World News Tonight. But he's more than just a one-night guest. While Executive Producer of Prime Time Live in 1992 he provided Clinton campaign strategy when the Gennifer Flowers story broke. "Clinton called Kaplan for advice," Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel recounted in his campaign book Strange Bedfellows. On the way to the airport, Clinton made another call to Kaplan and the "night ended for Kaplan at 4am, when Clinton called one last time."

Rosenstiel quoted Kaplan as telling 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 Clinton decided to go on 60 Minutes, during the 4am call, Rosenstiel learned, Kaplan advised Clinton to face down a famous name like Mike Wallace or Morley Safer. Voters "are going to remember that you stood up to Mike Wallace." The Clintons appeared opposite Steve Kroft.

Two months later as Clinton's campaign floundered in New York, aides suggested an appearance on the Don Imus radio show. "The appearance was clinched," CNN producer Matthew Saal recalled in the January 1993 Washington Monthly, "when Rick Kaplan...called the radio show host to see if he could get the pair together. The answer was yes."

Kaplan "sees no conflict between being a friend of the President's and running the country's top-rated cable news operation," USA Today's Peter Johnson relayed on August 6. "'I have 28 years of making news judgments behind me,' Kaplan said. 'And I'm not the first news executive to know a President.' He said he'd make news calls about Clinton coverage as a journalist, not a friend. 'If your job is to report, you report.'"

Moonlighting Moonves

Kaplan's not the only Clinton buddy to take control of a network. In early August CBS promoted Leslie Moonves to President of CBS Television from his previous perch running the entertainment division. Moonves, who also stayed overnight in the White House and plays golf with the President, maxed out to the Clinton-Gore campaign with a $1,000 donation and pitched in another $5,000 last year to the Democratic National Committee.

In July Clinton named Moonves Co-Chairman of the Gore Commission on digital broadcasting and the public interest, i.e.: free airtime for political ads.