Rundown of New 'CBS Evening News' Executive Producer Kaplan's Clinton Connections

As noted Thursday morning on NewsBusters, CBS News has hired Rick Kaplan, a former Executive Producer of ABC's World News Tonight and Nightline who later ran both CNN and MSNBC, to serve as Executive Producer of the ratings-challenged CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

As documented in a Thursday MRC CyberAlert posting reprinted here, Kaplan has had a long record of friendly relations with former President Bill Clinton, advising Clinton on how to respond to the Gennifer Flowers scandal in 1992 and blocking anti-Clinton stories from appearing on Nightline. Kaplan has also been hostile to conservatives and once even declared that disgraced CBS anchor Dan Rather's "legacy" was "the gold standard journalists today have struggled to live up to."

My headings over excerpts, see below, from a 1998 Vanity Fair magazine profile of Kaplan: "Clinton Cries on Kaplan's Shoulder/Kaplan Hired Hillary," "Helped Clinton Play Media to Overcome Flowers," "Donaldson Says Kaplan's Pro-Clinton Bias Showed" and "Kaplan Called Hillary the Night Foster Died."

David Bauder's March 7 AP dispatch updated on March 8, in which Bauder described Kaplan as "a large, opinionated man with a booming voice" who "was also a good friend of President Clinton."

After the announcement, TV Week reported online the praise for Kaplan from CBS News President Sean McManus and anchor Katie Couric:

"'Few broadcast journalists have a list of accomplishments and the history of success that Rick has had -- the list is truly extraordinary,' Mr. McManus said. 'I'm very much looking forward to working with Rick and having the benefit of his vast experience and knowledge as we continue to build the best evening news broadcast at CBS News.'

"'Rick Kaplan is a big personality with big ideas,' said Ms. Couric, the broadcast's anchor and managing editor. 'Though I've never worked directly with him, I know Rick is an extraordinarily experienced producer who has exciting plans for our broadcast. I'm thrilled he has decided to come home to CBS News.'"

At the News and Documentary Emmy Awards presented by the National Television Academy at a September 19, 2005 ceremony, which honored Dan Rather, Kaplan asserted that "Dan was meticulously careful to be fair and balanced and accurate" during his career. Kaplan then lashed out: "When did we allow those with questionable agendas to take the lead and convince people of something quite the opposite? It's shameful." Kaplan went so far to declare that Rather's "legacy" is "the gold standard journalists today have struggled to live up to."

For a video clip of those remarks, in Real and Windows Media formats, check the March 8 MRC CyberAlert.

During a May 16, 1999 commencement address Kaplan delivered at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, while President of CNN, he complained that Ken Starr is "putting obsession ahead of the best interests of the nation" while Bill Clinton has had "extraordinary" achievements. For a Real video clip, as well as MP3, of some of what Kaplan told the students, go to the March 8 MRC CyberAlert.

Here's a hunk of Kaplan's 1999 commencement address which matches the video:

In the past eighteen months, we have seen a Congress damage itself in the shameless partisanship of the House. We have seen a Senate run from the light to debate the future of a President in secret. The independent counsel law seems destined to die but Ken Starr is still around and many believe still putting obsession ahead of the best interests of the nation. And then there is the President, who if not guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, well, it may have been because our Founding Fathers never thought a President would get caught acting in such a manner.

Is there a lesson here? We have learned more about perjury and fidelity in the presidency of Andrew Johnson than I ever thought imaginable. Our young children learned more about sex than I may know right now. But if in the wake of this national tragedy, how many of you now believe that with the right connections, you can get away with anything. The President got impeached but he didn't lose his job so did he get away with it? I'm here to tell you that there is always a price to be paid. Not always paid on demand but paid in the end, always.

As many of you may know, I've been privileged to be a friend of Bill Clinton's for more than twenty years and like many, I had high expectations for his presidency. His intellect and his heart and his drive to help people should have guaranteed his success, his greatness. But as it stands now, when history writes this President's story, his accomplishments, while noteworthy, even extraordinary at times, will be listed after an explanation of who Monica Lewinsky was. He kept his office, but at a very high price and I'm only talking about his public life. Well, before it's all over others will pay, I trust, as well. But remember there is always a price. You are not going to be perfect. We all make mistakes.

A "Friend of Bill" (FOB), who ran CNN from 1997 to 2000, after a multi-decade career with ABC News, re-joined ABC News in 2003 as Senior Vice President, the number two slot he held until shortly before jumping to MSNBC in early 2004 where he remained until mid-2006.

While serving as President of CNN, Kaplan played golf with President Clinton, stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom and participated in a mock debate session with Al Gore. When he was Executive Producer of Nightline in 1992 he advised presidential candidate Bill Clinton on how to handle the Gennifer Flowers revelation and later as Executive Producer of World News Tonight he blocked anti-Clinton stories from getting onto that newscast.

Now, as lifted from the November 19, 2002 CyberAlert, the rundown of Kaplan's liberal political activities over the years while serving as a network news executive. This is divided into two parts: a) Rick Kaplan's close ties to President Bill Clinton; and b) Kaplan's activities on behalf of Clinton while at ABC News.

A) Rick Kaplan's close ties to President Bill Clinton:

# From the April 11, 2000 CyberAlert:

CNN President Rick Kaplan, who stayed overnight in Clinton's White House while at ABC News, spent another night there with his daughter last Thursday night after the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner, USA Today disclosed. But Kaplan doesn't see anything wrong with it.

In his "Inside TV" column for April 10, USA Today's Peter Johnson revealed:

CNN president Rick Kaplan, who took some heat when he worked at ABC News for staying overnight at the White House during President Clinton's first term, spent another night there Thursday -- after Clinton roasted ABC News over "Leogate."

"No, I do not feel embarrassed, ashamed or compromised in any way, shape or form," Kaplan said Friday, after sleeping in the Queen's Room while daughter Alexis, 21, slept in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Generally speaking, it's an ethical no-no for journalists to get too cozy with people they cover. But Kaplan, a former Nightline, PrimeTime Live and World News Tonight producer, said Clinton's gesture won't affect CNN's coverage of him.

"Everyone has relationships," Kaplan said. "We met each other before either of us knew we'd amount to anything. He doesn't expect anything from me, and I don't expect anything from him."

Kaplan, a Clinton friend for 30 years, said the president gave Alexis an "amazing" 2 1/2-hour White House tour. "It was extremely nice of him to do it. In the waning months of his presidency, I felt, 'What the heck?'"

(Back in 1994 Knight-Ridder's Marc Gunther noted in a profile story that ran in the February 8, 1994 Detroit News: "Kaplan and Clinton have known each other since the late 1970s, and last year the ABC producer played golf with the President and spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom....")

# From the December 5, 2000 CyberAlert, a couple of months after Kaplan left CNN:

Was former CNN President Rick Kaplan involved in advising the Gore campaign while he was still running the cable news network? Did he have special behind-the-scenes access because of his close personal connection to Bill Clinton? Those questions are raised by an intriguing sentence in the November 20 Newsweek.

In early September Kaplan was let go by CNN, but back in March he was still President of CNN/USA. Keep that in mind as you read this paragraph from Newsweek's massive "The Inside Story" treatise on the campaign. This appeared about 30 pages into the series of articles which listed Eleanor Clift as the reporter with Gore, on page 65 in "Spring Fever" section:

"Yet even after Gore had sewn up the nomination, he kept on robotically attacking Bradley in primaries that were, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. At a rehearsal for a California debate on March 1, former CNN President Rick Kaplan joked, 'Let's do the debate now.' Gore's sparring partner, Tom Downey, intoned, 'I'm going to kick you're a--.' Without missing a beat or cracking a smile, Gore mechanically launched into his standard rap, attacking Bradley's health care plan."

Were Kaplan and Clift advising or observing? We'll probably never know because journalists didn't and don't care about a journalist advising a liberal candidate or President.

# From the October 9, 1997 CyberAlert, how Kaplan's personal views directly impacted CNN content:

A two-hour CNN special on campaign finance was produced by CNN President Rick Kaplan, who U.S. News reported had demanded that CNN staffers "limit the use of the word 'scandal' in reporting on Clinton's campaign fundraising woes."

I wondered: "Can you do a two-hour show on Clinton's 1996 fundraising and not use the word 'scandal'?" A rhetoric question, or so I thought. But incredibly enough the answer is -- yes!

The October 7 show titled "Democracy for Sale" wandered well beyond Clinton to examine Republicans and to argue for campaign finance reform, but summarizing charges against Clinton took up a significant portion of the show. Nonetheless, the phrase "Clinton scandal" was never uttered.

B) Kaplan's activities on behalf of Clinton while at ABC News:

# From the August 6, 1997 CyberAlert, details on how in February 1992, while at ABC News, he advised Clinton on how to respond to the Gennifer Flowers story:

Shortly after he took over World News Tonight, this is how Knight-Ridder's Marc Gunther opened a profile story that ran in the February 8, 1994 Detroit News:

"When ABC News installed Rick Kaplan as Executive Producer of World News Tonight, the network put an FOB -- friend of Bill, President Clinton, that is -- in charge of America's most watched evening newscast. "Kaplan and Clinton have know each other since the late 1970s, and last year the ABC producer played golf with the President and spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom....But conservative media critics [that's the MRC] say Kaplan went beyond friendship during the 1992 campaign when he operated as an occasional and informal adviser to Clinton, while working as Executive Producer of Prime Time Live."

From the March, 1997 MediaWatch, an excerpt from the Revolving Door column detailing how Kaplan crossed the line during the 1992 campaign:

Clinton's Slumber Party

The names of several media executives were sprinkled among the 831 names made public of overnight White House guests in Clinton's first term: CNN founder Ted Turner, CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves, and Rick Kaplan, a long-time ABC News executive recently in charge of specials in ABC's entertainment division....

Kurtz noted that Kaplan was the Executive Producer of World News Tonight when he "stayed at the White House with his wife in the summer of 1993." So, is there anything wrong with accepting an invitation from Clinton, whom Kaplan calls a longtime "friend"? Not as long as you keep it secret, Kaplan suggested in the March 3 Electronic Media: "It's nobody's business." Kurtz summarized Kaplan's view: "Kaplan said his visit did not create an appearance problem because it was never made public until now. He said his ties to Clinton had no impact on his work." He assured Kurtz: "The idea that you could suddenly decide to gild the lily or twist the news, it's a non-starter."

Kaplan is 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."

Two months later as Clinton's campaign floundered in New York, aides suggested an appearance on the Don Imus 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."

In the overnight calls after the Flowers story broke, Gunther noted that 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 don't 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 Clinton's went on with Steve Kroft.]

Of course, if Kaplan were acting as a newsman and not a political adviser he would have used his friendship to get Clinton to appear on an ABC show.

# Illuminating excerpts from a January 1998 Vanity Fair profile which detailed how Kaplan once hired Hillary Clinton; how he not only advised Clinton about how to counter Gennifer Flowers, but had earlier counseled Clinton on how to recover from his too-long 1988 convention speech; how he had been a political operative for a liberal presidential candidate before jumping to journalism; how he made calls to console Hillary Clinton after Vince Foster's death and to Web Hubbell after he resigned; how he killed a Whitewater piece from ABC's World News Tonight, discouraged reporters and producers from pursuing the topic and only ran an in-depth look one night in 1994 because Nightline was about to grab it; and how he slurred conservative media critics who see liberal bias, specifically Reed Irvine and MRC President Brent Bozell, as "liars."

That's quite a piece about a political activist in the guise of a news man.

And here are a few of the most interesting excerpts from the January, 1998 Vanity Fair profile of Kaplan written by David Margolick:

-- Clinton Cries on Kaplan's Shoulder/Kaplan Hired Hillary:

"Clinton and Kaplan met in early 1977, when Kaplan was a producer for Walter Cronkite, and Clinton was Attorney General of Arkansas. (The matchmaker was Susan Thomases, one of Hillary's best friends from Yale Law School.) Both gregarious, both personable, both deeply interested in politics, both news junkies, both charmers, both voracious eaters (their first encounter, appropriately enough, was in a restaurant), they hit it off instantly. 'I just remember he was a terrific guy,' Kaplan said. 'Fun.'

"When, in the 1980s, Clinton considered trading politics for a million-dollar job on Wall Street, he sought out Kaplan's advice. It was Kaplan's shoulder Clinton cried on, over Chinese takeout in Nightline's New York studio, following his much-ridiculed 32-minute speech-a-thon at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. 'He was sitting there saying, 'My career is over. I'll never be anything,' Kaplan recalled. 'And we all said, 'You know, have a sense of humor about it. If you joke about it first, everyone else will joke about it.' Then he ended up going on The Tonight Show, and, by being great, he actually vindicated himself.'

"If anything, Kaplan was at least as close to Hillary, who shares his Chicago roots; he even hired her to work on coverage of the 1980 Democratic convention. When Chelsea Clinton was searching for a 49th-birthday present for her dad, Kaplan sent along a titanium golf club fashioned from a melted down Soviet missile. After Kaplan's younger daughter underwent serious surgery in 1994, calls from both Clintons helped a near-miraculous recovery, Kaplan said."

-- Helped Clinton Play Media to Overcome Flowers:

"When Clinton needed airtime to defuse his Gennifer Flowers problem, Kaplan became a player in presidential politics. In his 1994 book, Strange Bedfellows, a study of the press coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign, Tom Rosentiel of the Los Angeles Times describes a frantic evening when Clinton called Kaplan repeatedly, baring his soul and seeking strategic advice. Kaplan advised Clinton to
stay off lower-rated shows such as Today and Good Morning America; if you do 60 Minutes, he said, go with a tough interviewer such as Mike Wallace or Morley Safer. To his critics, Kaplan had crossed the line.

"Kaplan maintained that his only objective was to get Clinton on PrimeTime Live, or at least on ABC. But then Clinton chose 60 Minutes and asked Kaplan what he thought. 'What am I supposed to say? Tell him to screw off and come back to ABC?' Kaplan asked. 'He'd made up his mind, at which point I said to him, 'If you're going to do 60, do 60 and don't be concerned about who the toughest interviewer is; the tougher the interviewer, the better you are.' Clinton then asked Kaplan what to say if asked whether, quite apart from Flowers, he'd had any extramarital trysts. 'And I just said, 'Whatever answer you give, I'm going to run it myself 100 times between now and Election Day, so good luck.'

"'And that was the total extent of it,' he continued. 'It's the kind of stuff journalists say to politicians, whether they're friends or not. There isn't a journalist in the world who hasn't given advice of that sort.'"

-- Donaldson Says Kaplan's Pro-Clinton Bias Showed:

"Ten months later, on the eve of the election, Sam Donaldson did taped interviews with Clinton and President Bush. Donaldson was in what he called 'my manic, take-no-prisoners mode,' he recalled, and was 'equally bad or equally good' with both candidates. But to Kaplan, Donaldson had been much harder on the challenger. 'You've go to do a tag line to make it clear that you don't hate Clinton,' Kaplan told him. This Donaldson dutifully did ('That's commitment,' he stated, referring to Clinton's campaign style), but begrudgingly Donaldson called Kaplan 'a terrific Executive Producer,' but added, 'I think that, without meaning to, Rick was letting his feelings get in the way there.' Kaplan insists it wasn't Clinton he was protecting, but Donaldson."

-- Kaplan Called Hillary the Night Foster Died:

"Kaplan has taken some precautions during the Clinton era; there have been no more presidential golf games. Inevitably, though, as investigations widened and documents proliferated, his name periodically popped up. Phone logs revealed that on the night Vince Foster killed himself Kaplan called Hillary Clinton. 'I knew they were all great friends and you know that she's gotta be totally depressed, so it was just like to say, 'Hey, I'm really sorry,' Kaplan said. When Webster Hubbell resigned, he called him too. 'I happen to like Webb,' Kaplan said. 'I would have just said, 'Good luck,' or something.'"

-- Stopped Whitewater Stories from Airing on WNT (at the time Kaplan was Executive Producer of the show):

"In late October 1994, Kaplan killed Jim Wooten's exclusive interview with an Arkansas state trooper who claimed a Clinton aide had tried to muzzle him; after that, Wooten refused to do any more pieces on Whitewater. Wooten clearly likes his former boss, whom he called 'a character in an age without them.' But on Clinton, he said, Kaplan had 'a blind spot.' Also convinced that 'the bar kept getting higher' for putting Whitewater stories on the program, Chris Vlasto, World News Tonight's investigative producer for Clinton-related stories, would sometimes shop them around to other ABC News shows. True, in February 1994, World News Tonight devoted an extraordinary 18 of its 22 minutes to a primer on Whitewater. But that segment had been held for a month, and ran only after Nightline tried to run it first."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center