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The resulting expose, aired by ABC around election time that year, depicted Food Lion as an unethical seller of outdated and contaminated foods.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.