David Zurawik

Maybe CBS News, not ABC, should have taken victory lap on Obama same-sex interview

Thursday morning, ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper posted a TwitPic of "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts with the cutline "woman of the hour."

I can appreciate a newsperson congratulating a colleague, and I have to admit I was glad ABC News and not NBC News got the exclusive interview with Barack Obama to which the cutline referred. Headlines and history were made in the interview with Obama saying he was in favor of same-sex marriage.

But the image struck me as part of a wrongheaded discourse generated by ABC and propagated by many of my critic colleagues celebrating Roberts and the network for getting this "scoop." And it is part of a larger problem of a press that seems more interested in sucking up to governmental power and reaping the favors than performing its watchdog role and accepting the blowback as the price of serving the public first and foremost.

Look, this is to take nothing away from Roberts, who was professional and perfectly competent in the interview. Nor is to take anything away from ABC News, which would be crazy not to toot its metaphorical horn.

But ABC News did little more than allow itself to be used by the White House, while CBS News served the public with an interview on the morning after Obama made history with his words. The interview was among the very best TV reporting on this story -- really.

The CBS "This Morning" show interviewed Max Mutchnick, co-creator of "Will & Grace."  During that conversation,  Mutchnick said he was at a "private function" in Los Angeles two weeks before Vice President Joe Biden announced his support of same-sex marriage on  "Meet the Press."

The conventional wisdom all week among political analysts has been that Biden's off-the-cuff remarks last Sunday on "Meet the Press" forced Obama into making a statement on the matter three days later with Roberts. Read a textbook version of Bloomberg News swallowing this spin and then recycling it here.

But what Mutchnick heard and saw two weeks earlier in Los Angeles, particularly with someone from the White House recording Biden's Hollywood encounter at the "private function," led him to believe the statements by Biden and Obama were "very choreographed." Mutchnick uses the perfectly apt show biz metaphor of an out of town tryout for what the administration did with Biden in Los Angeles where he said "verbatim" what he later said on "Meet the Press."
What Mutchnick says is important, because, at the very least, it makes you question Obama presenting his support for same-sex marriage as a moment of pure conscience. It also makes you question the White House account of Biden "apologizing" to Obama for his "Meet the Press" remarks. And what about the tape of the Los Angeles tryout? Was that used for focus groups on to see how the public -- or, perhaps, fund raising audiences -- might respond to the president supporting same-sex marriage?
In my opinion, this is more evidence that this White House is every bit as media manipulative as the Reagan or Nixon White Houses. Note, I didn't say as media savvy as the Reagan crew. Team Obama is capable of big mistakes in its major media moves, like the attack on Fox News. But it seems to be always scheming -- and it seems to have no respect for the First Amendment or the role of a free press in a democracy as far as I can tell.

(By the way, I interviewed Mutchnick in connection with my Book, "The Jews of Prime Time," and consider him not only one of the smartest producers in Hollywood, but also one of the most candid.)

You can see the videotape of Mutchnick below. But here is the transcript bite that matters:

CHARLIE ROSE: Max, you said “we were at a private function” — “we” being?

MUTCHNICK: My husband and I were at a private function in Los Angeles and Vice President Biden was talking to a small group and he made the reference to “Will & Grace” in that room and called me out at that moment. He was also being recorded by a White House —

ROSE: And that said to you what?

MUTCHNICK: It says to me that this was all very choreographed. I mean, look, I’m just a man who experienced this, but Vice President Biden made it very clear that day these were his views, and so much so that they wanted to record them. 

Really, ABC News did little more than allow itself to be used by Team Obama, which is in high media wheeling and dealing mode with the campaign officially underway. It is amusing that Brian Williams and NBC News, the bowing anchorman and the network that insists Chelsea Clinton  has been preparing her whole life for a job in network news, did not get this White House gift.

Memo to Williams: This is what happens when you suck up as hard as you guys do to the mighty -- they take you for granted and make you bow deeper and deeper for smaller and smaller scraps.

As hard as it is to believe, doing puffball interviews and hiring the secretary of state's incompetent daughter are not enough to get all the "scoops" now that it's game-on time for Election 2012. The White House has to be thinking, why not own "Good Morning America" and "Today"  instead of just "Today?" Heck, GMA might even by number one by November.

Here's a summertime idea, Brian: How about starting a junior internship program at NBC News and hiring Sasha and Malia.

I know, I'm a bad person for even mentioning their names, because families are supposedly off limits. That's what all the politicians say anyway -- until their kids need jobs.

That's what the Clintons said until their 31-year-old daughter didn't get her Ph.D. and needed a job. George and Laura Bush said it, too, although I'm pretty sure they never thought a Ph.D. was in the cards for Jenna, another of the great journalists at NBC News.