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ABC: Expanded Profile

By Lowell Ponte
Discover The Networks
2005


The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) is one of the three biggest television and radio networks in the United States, rivaled in size only by NBC and CBS. Since 1996 it has been owned by The Walt Disney Company, a media conglomerate that changed the corporate name of these networks to ABC, Inc.

ABC was created out of the NBC Blue network because NBC was pressured by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to divest one of its two parallel networks. (NBC today is the continuation of the network its owners and management chose to keep, NBC Red.) 

On October 12, 1943, the Federal Government approved the sale of NBC Blue to the American Broadcasting System, Inc., a company put together by Edward Noble. A condition of approving the sale imposed by highly-partisan “Trust Buster” FCC chairman James Fly (appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt) was that Noble and ABC agree to sell advertising airtime to the American Federation of Labor.

Noble, the owner of Lifesaver candy and radio station WMCA in New York City, paid $8 million for the network he promptly renamed the American Broadcasting Company.

In the early 1950s, when few cities or towns had a third television station to air a third network, struggling ABC merged with cash-rich United Paramount Theatres (UPT).  The government permitted this after some divestment, despite UPT’s stake in the fading DuMont network.

As early as 1951 International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) had offered Noble $22 million in stock for ABC and was refused. Noble would not sell for less than $28 million.

On December 7, 1965, ITT (then the ninth largest employer in the U.S.) announced a merger with ABC.  The FCC approved this merger on December 21, 1966, but the U.S. Justice Department fought it, citing ITT’s high proportion of foreign owners who might try to influence ABC’s news reporting. After years of political and legal wrangling and delays, ITT chairman Harold Geneen called the merger off on January 1, 1968.

ABC in the 1970s found a measure of success through producer Roone Arledge, who re-oriented towards a younger audience. Arledge is widely credited with creating the “Up Close and Personal” approach ABC introduced to sports programming that focused not only on sporting competitions but also on the past and personalities of individual athletes.

Arledge became President of both ABC News and ABC Sports in 1977. He died in December 2002.

Arledge is responsible not only for the selection of Peter Jennings as anchorman of ABC’s “World News Tonight” but also for competing anchors Tom Brokaw at NBC and Dan Rather at CBS. By offering to lure both of these rising stars to ABC with lucrative contract offers, Arledge prompted NBC and CBS to promote Brokaw and Rather quickly to their evening anchor chairs rather than risk losing them.  Brokaw had been Arledge’s first choice to become ABC’s star anchor. Only after Brokaw refused it was the job offered to Jennings.  

ABC merged with media conglomerate Capital Cities in 1986, creating Capital Cities/ABC, in a deal generally described in the business press as Cap Cities buying ABC for $3.5 billion.

Ten years later the Walt Disney Company purchased Capital Cities/ABC for $18.5 billion.

Both Peter Jennings and the anchor of “Nightline,” Ted Koppel, have at  times been the subject of controversies. One ongoing issue has been that the American Broadcasting Company selected for these top anchor jobs two people born and raised outside the United States – Jennings in Canada, Koppel in England. Both anchors see the world with “foreign” eyes, some critics charge, and this makes both Jennings’ and Koppel’s selection of stories and reporting at times seem detached, un-American or in some cases almost anti-American.

“My mother…was pretty anti-American,” acknowledged Jennings in a September 6, 2002 interview on CBS with David Letterman, “And so I was, in some respects, raised with anti-Americanism in my blood, or in my mother’s milk at least.”

“We may tell you all the time that our principal aim in life is to communicate and assist, inform,” said Jennings in 2001 on CBS News. “But if you see injustice and you can get people to do something about it, ahh, it’s just a glorious feeling…. There’s nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy.”

ABC Television during the Vietnam War era was sometimes disparaged by the anti-war left as the “Silent Majority Network” because its coverage was often more positive and patriotic than that aired by NBC and CBS. 

But following ABC’s acquisition by Disney, ABC Television has become more liberal in tone and content. 

The host chosen in June 2002 to anchor ABC’s Sunday news program “This Week” is George Stephanopoulos, a left Democratic partisan who served as Senior Advisor and Press Secretary in President Bill Clinton’s White House. This show remains home to one of ABC’s only two identified personalities on the political right – Washington Post columnist George Will. (The other is John Stossel, an anchor of “20/20,” who is a Libertarian.)  Will used to appear as the principal commentator on “This Week,” but with Stephanopoulos in control Will has been diluted and given only a few seconds of airtime each week by making him one of a panel of two or three pundits, each of whom is typically liberal. With liberal Stephanopoulos in charge, this stacks the deck two or three to one against Will’s polite rationality and tilts the program heavily to the left. Since Stephanopoulos’ ascent to this anchor chair once occupied by David Brinkley, viewership of “This Week” has plummeted.

Mark Halperin “has been the Political Director of ABC News since 1997 and has covered politics and campaigns through four election cycles,” reads one of his 2004 biographies posted by ABC. “As Political Director, Halperin is responsible for the planning and editorial content of all political news on the network.”

“Halperin manages the editorial coverage of politics throughout the ABC News universe,” says another official ABC biography, “and contributes frequently to ABC News broadcasts.”

Mark Halperin weeks before the 2004 presidential election issued an October 8 internal memo to the staff of ABC News that, when it became public, led to controversy.  Critics charged that Halperin was directing ABC reporters to tilt their coverage – telling them to ignore or minimize misstatements by Democrat Senator John F. Kerry but to attack any misstatements by Republican President George W. Bush. Halperin’s memo claimed that the Bush campaign was trying “to get away with as much as possible….” No such criticism was made of Democratic candidate Kerry.

Halperin is the son of Morton Halperin, a former advisor to President Clinton deemed so radical that a Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate refused to confirm him to the position of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Democracy and Peacekeeping. Morton Halperin is a close ally of left Daddy Warbucks George Soros and Vice President of the Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress (CAP).  Mark Halperin is also the brother of David Halperin, a former speechwriter for President Clinton.

During the 1992 presidential campaign Halperin violated journalistic ethics by providing to then-Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos a copy ABC had obtained of Mr. Clinton’s youthful “I loathe the military” letter written to his ROTC commander, according to Tom Rosenstiel’s book about ABC Strange Bedfellows. Halperin thereby gave candidate Clinton days of advance warning to prepare his response before facing reporter questions about this letter Clinton had no reason to believe still existed.

Having helped Clinton win, Mark Halperin then covered the President-elect’s transition to power and “was assigned to White House coverage for the first two years of the Clinton Administration.”

Apparently it concerned neither ABC nor Halperin that this network’s White House reporter was the son of high-level Clinton appointee and controversial presidential advisor Morton Halperin.  In 1997, the same year Mark Halperin was promoted to Political Director of ABC News, his brother David began a four-year stint as speechwriter to President Clinton.

If ABC News discovered that the public watchdog over a corporation was the son of one high official in that corporation and the brother of another, ABC rightly would report this as a scandalous conflict of interest and a betrayal of public trust. ABC never notified its audience that its reporter Mark Halperin was covering a Clinton White House that employed two members of his immediate family.

Since 1994, and especially since his 1997 promotion to Political Director of ABC News, Halperin has played a major role in shaping, editing and aiming the network’s political coverage and on-air discussions.

Halperin’s 2004 Bush-criticizing memo caused controversial not only for its content but also for its timing. It was delivered to ABC News personnel including “Good Morning America” co-host Charlie Gibson only hours before Gibson was to select audience questions for and to moderate the second Presidential Debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry. It is hard not to see this as Halperin trying to have an anti-Bush influence on how Gibson framed the debate.

“Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections,” wrote Halperin in his daily web log for ABC called “The Note.” These journalists, he wrote, share “liberal political positions” on issues such as gun control, homosexuality, abortion and religion.

The liberal establishment press, wrote Halperin, “believes President Bush is ‘walking a fine line’ with regards to the gay marriage issue, choosing between ‘tolerance’ and his ‘right-wing base.’” 

These journalists, Halperin wrote, share “a belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation’s problems; that more taxes on corporations and the wealthy are good ways to cut the deficit and raise money for social spending and don’t have a negative effect on economic growth; and that emotional examples of suffering (provided by unions or consumer groups) are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories.”

The press, Halperin wrote, “by and large, does not accept President Bush’s justifications for the Iraq war in any of its WMD, imminent threat, or evil-doer formulations. It does not understand how educated, sensible people could possibly be wary of multilateral institutions or friendly, sophisticated European allies.”

When told that during an already-scheduled interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel he would be asked to explain his statements about liberal bias in the establishment media, Mark Halperin cancelled the interview.

Rick Kaplan was a producer for Walter Cronkite in 1977 when he met the obscure Attorney General of Arkansas named Bill Clinton. “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,” wrote David Margolick in a January 1998 Vanity Fair profile. “’I just remember he was a terrific guy,’ Kaplan said. ‘Fun.’

“If anything,” wrote Margolick, “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 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.”

During the 1980s Kaplan helped talk Bill Clinton out of giving up politics to take a million-dollar job on Wall Street. After Clinton’s much-ridiculed speech at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, writes Margolick, “it was Kaplan’s shoulder Clinton cried on, over Chinese takeout…” and Kaplan who persuaded Clinton that his political career was not over.

After a stint during the 1980s as Executive Producer of ABC’s “Nightline,” Kaplan was promoted to Executive Producer of ABC’s “Prime Time Live.” In 1992 he dispatched reporters to work undercover as employees at the supermarket chain Food Lion, then a target of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) trying to put the company out of business. The ABC reporters got Food Lion jobs by using credentials and references ABC faked with the help of the UFCW.

The resulting expose, aired by ABC around election time that year, depicted Food Lion as an unethical seller of outdated and contaminated foods. Food Lion sued, and a jury that saw the 45 hours of video from which Kaplan and ABC distilled a 10-minute hit piece awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages for fraud committed by Capital Cities-ABC against the company.

Such a judgement is extremely rare because it requires clear evidence not only of wrong and false information but also of malice, a calculated and knowing use of falsehood by journalists to cause damage to an innocent party. These damages were greatly reduced by subsequent liberal judges, and a jury fine of $35,000 against Kaplan himself was overturned by a judge.

What the un-aired videotape revealed was that in several instances the wrongdoing ascribed to Food Lion was actually committed by or at the direction of these ABC producer fake employees. In one instance, when a genuine Food Lion employee noticed and cleaned a dirty meat slicer that ABC was preparing to film as evidence, one of the ABC producers could be heard “muttering obscenities.” It was evident that ABC was covering the story with a pro-union, anti-company agenda and was stacking the deck to produce the propaganda it wanted to air. The man in charge of this Leftist smear piece was Executive Producer Rick Kaplan.

But by 1992 Kaplan was beginning to leave any pretense of journalistic ethics behind. “Kaplan,” wrote Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, “has been the prime example of a TV news producer who did not just blur, but demolished the wall between reporting on liberal politicians and openly helping them.”

With Bill Clinton at risk of extinction in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Kaplan reportedly influenced ABC News to delay reporting for three crucial days its discovery of the 1969 Clinton letter to Col. Eugene Holmes. This is the notorious letter, as described by Accuracy in Media, in which “Clinton confessed to having tricked Col. Holmes, getting him to violate federal law to get him ROTC deferment” and in which Clinton “said he loathed the military.” The delay gave Clinton time to prepare damage control to blunt the letter’s impact.

While Executive Producer of ABC’s “Prime Time Live,” Kaplan in 1992 advised candidate Bill Clinton how to deal with the Gennifer Flowers affair issue, recommended that the Clintons appear on rival CBS’s program “60 Minutes,” and advised the Clintons on how to handle that interview.

In his 1994 book Strange Bedfellows, a study of press coverage of the 1992 campaign, Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosentiel described, in Margolick’s words, “a frantic evening when Clinton called Kaplan repeatedly, baring his soul and seeking strategic advice.”

“Weeks later,” reported Graham, “when Clinton’s campaign struggled in the New York primary, Kaplan rode to the rescue again, getting Clinton booked on the Don Imus radio show. Kaplan not only arranged the interview, he prepared him for it – and ABC cameras taped both ends of the conversation and aired it on ‘Nightline.’ Later, Kaplan did not deny a Spy Magazine report that he boasted of attending Clinton campaign staff meetings and helped set up the campaign’s press office.”

On the eve of the 1992 election ABC reporter Sam Donaldson had taped interviews with both President George H.W. Bush and candidate Bill Clinton. Kaplan ordered Donaldson to do a tag line to his Clinton interview “to make it clear that you don’t hate Clinton.”

This tag, of course, weakened Donaldson’s credibility and the power of his questions, leaving an impression that the reporter was somehow biased and that the interview therefore should be taken with a grain of salt. The effect was to tilt the two interviews more in Clinton’s favor.

Kaplan “played golf with Bill shortly before the inauguration,” according to the liberal magazine The New Republic, “and watched movies with both Clintons at the Governor’s mansion.”

In 1993 Kaplan spent the first of his nights in the Lincoln Bedroom in the Clinton White House. He was among those thus rewarded for services to the Clintons at least as valuable as the $100,000 they would charge mere political donors for a single night’s stay in this public property.

In late October 1994, “Kaplan killed [ABC reporter] Jim Wooten’s exclusive interview with an Arkansas state trooper who claimed a Clinton aide had tried to muzzle him,” reported Margolick. “After that, Wooten refused to do any more pieces on Whitewater.” Another ABC news producer told Margolick that “the bar kept getting higher” for such investigations into Clinton dealings with Whitewater.

“Phone logs revealed that on the night Vince Foster killed himself Kaplan called Hillary Clinton….” wrote Margolick. “When Webster Hubbell resigned, he called him too. ‘I happen to like Webb,’ Kaplan said.”

In February 2003 ABC re-hired Kaplan as a Senior Vice President to oversee “World News Tonight,”“Nightline,” the ABC News Political Unit gearing up for 2004 election coverage, and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” MSNBC, presumably with an offer of serious money, hired him away from ABC.

By 1997, after Kaplan moved to Cable News Network (CNN) as one of its chieftains, with evidence of campaign fundraising improprieties threatening to submerge Bill Clinton, CNN unleashed a Kaplan-produced special. U.S. News & World Report found that Kaplan had ordered CNN reporters to “limit the use of the word ‘scandal’ in reporting on Clinton’s campaign fundraising.” The message to CNN reporters was clear: go easy on the boss’s friends in the White House.

One of ABC’s newest national reporters seen with Jennings on “World News Tonight” is Jake Tapper, a former correspondent for the left webzine Salon.com and former Press Secretary to a liberal Democratic congresswoman. ABC shows no signs of an affirmative action effort to find or recruit reporters from the right side, America’s current majority side, of the political spectrum.

Like several of the other major networks, ABC maintains alliances with the print press. ABC maintains a special relationship with the liberal Washington Post, one ongoing manifestation of which is the ABC-Washington Post Poll. CBS has a similar special relationship with the New York Times. So does NBC with the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post’s corporate sister Newsweek Magazine. National Public Radio (NPR) provides airtime for liberal Slate.com and satellite uplink help for Pacifica Radio and an adjunct radio show of the hard left The Nation Magazine. Cable News Network (CNN) cross-promotes its corporate big brother Time Magazine. ABC and CNN have discussed the possibilities of pooling their global news operations to create what has been dubbed “ABCNN,” but no agreement to do this has yet been struck.

If ABC Television is liberal, ABC Radio has in some ways been a bastion of conservatism. Rush Limbaugh was launched to national stardom by former ABC Radio Vice President Ed McLaughlin, and Limbaugh’s affiliates in some of his biggest markets such as New York City and Chicago continue to be ABC owned and operated stations. 

Limbaugh protégé Sean Hannity was launched to national stardom from New York City’s WABC Radio, which remains his flagship, and he is syndicated by ABC. In San Francisco ABC Radio affiliates include centrist KGO Radio and conservative KSFO Radio, home station of Michael Savage. Paul Harvey, whose weekday conservative newscasts air on more than 1,200 stations, broadcasts for ABC from Chicago. ABC Radio News boasts that its features and newscasts air on more stations than do any of its competitors.



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