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Profile: Sam Donaldson

Sam Donaldson was a participant or observer in the following events:

Roone Arledge.Roone Arledge. [Source: Slate (.com)]Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports, becomes president of ABC News as well. Arledge brings some of the techniques he pioneered as head of the sports division to ABC’s news broadcast practices, including what many call his “up close and personal” approach to politicians and others of interest to the news. Many at ABC opposed Arledge’s ascension, as he lacks any formal training as a journalist, and they fear Arledge will “dumb down” the way news is presented. Many fear he will bring “glitz, glamour, and lower standards to the network,” as Ken Bode will write in 1994. ABC anchor Ted Koppel will later remember: “Peter Jennings and I were convinced hiring Roone was a big disaster. We went to see Fred Pierce, who was then president of ABC.… Roone was famous for having the vision in sports to look at things like slow-motion television and the ability to freeze a frame and the instant replay that flowed out of that. Others invented those technologies; Roone was the man who saw them and said, ‘Here’s a way of doing something on television that’s never been done before.’ And we all gave him credit for that. But we didn’t believe that was what was needed to turn ABC News into a more powerful news division.… [Pierce] listened to us explain why Roone should never become president of ABC News. Then he very politely ushered us out and ignored us.” Arledge will function as head of both the news and sports departments for 17 years; under his guidance, ABC News will earn a number of prestigious awards and lead the ratings for many years against its two network competitors. “Roone created the forum for each of us,” Koppel will later say. “Barbara Walters got 20/20, Peter Jennings got World News Tonight, I got Nightline, Sam Donaldson got PrimeTime Live, and ultimately Roone created This Week With David Brinkley.” CBS News producer Don Hewitt will say after Arledge’s death in 2002, “Just about everything that’s good in television has a Roone Arledge trademark on it.” [New York Times, 3/13/1994; New York Times, 12/29/2002; Disney Legends, 2007] Jennings will recall, “There are only a few people in the business who are really good at looking at a piece in draft, either on paper but particularly on tape, and moving it around so that the up-close-and-personal nature of journalism was front and center.” Arledge will focus ABC’s news broadcasts far more on personalities, sophisticated camera and electronic innovations, and “feature” presentations, and less on issues and so-called “hard news,” transforming the way Americans perceive the news. [New York Times, 12/29/2002] In 2002, Robert Weintraub will deplore Arledge’s penchant for turning journalists and news anchors into celebrities. “[S]ome of his schemes, however brilliant at the time, have made TV sports painful to watch and news almost impossible to finance,” Weintraub will write. “If network executives want to know why TV news is hemorrhaging money, they can start by looking at the anchors’ movie star salaries.” [Slate, 12/29/2002] Bode will write in 1994: “He [was] determined to give the viewers what they were interested in, not necessarily what they needed to know. On the day Elvis [Presley] died in 1977, Mr. Arledge made that the lead story on the ABC evening news; the other networks led with a Washington story about the Panama Canal treaties. It may be the truest measure of Mr. Arledge’s influence on television that on a comparable news day today, all the broadcasts would lead with Presley’s death.” [New York Times, 3/13/1994]

Entity Tags: Barbara Walters, ABC News, Ted Koppel, ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, Robert Weintraub, Sam Donaldson, Ken Bode, David Brinkley, Don Hewitt, Fred Pierce, Peter Jennings, Elvis Presley

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

According to media analyses performed by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and by the team of Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman, the Sunday talk show coverage of the Bush-Gore conflict in Florida between November 12 and December 10 is heavily skewed towards painting George W. Bush as the legitimate president (see After 3:30 a.m. November 8, 2000) and Al Gore the losing contender who continues to carry on after having legitimately lost the election. On December 3 and December 10, panelists on ABC’s This Week refer to Bush’s future presidency 27 times. Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, does so 19 times and calls Bush’s running mate Dick Cheney the “vice president.” In a December 3 interview, Russert asks Cheney if he feels Gore is being a “sore loser” (see November 24, 2000 and After). On December 3, ABC’s Sam Donaldson attempts to get Gore’s running mate, Joseph Lieberman, to concede the election on-air. ABC’s Cokie Roberts attempts to get a concession from Gore campaign representative George Mitchell. Jamieson and Waldman later determine that in the five Sunday shows aired by the three networks during this time period, the word “concede” appears in 23 questions. In 20 of these questions, the hypothetical conceder is Gore. In the other three questions, the hypothetical conceder is no one. Similarly, the hosts and guests on these talk shows, and on other network news broadcasts, frequently warn of “dire consequences” to America’s constitutional democracy if the Florida question is not settled immediately. The hosts also issue frequent warnings that the citizenry’s patience is at “the breaking point,” though polls consistently show that most Americans are content to let the recall process work itself out. CAP later notes, “The Baker-Bush team [referring to James Baker, the head of the Bush campaign’s ‘quick response’ recount team—see Mid-Morning, November 8, 2000] worked hard to create this crisis atmosphere in the hopes of increasing the pressure on Gore to relent for the good of the country, the markets, and the maintenance of world peace.” During this time period, Russert tells viewers, “We could have chaos and a constitutional crisis.” NBC’s Tom Brokaw tells viewers: “If the Florida recount drags on, the national markets are at risk here. National security is involved.” Pundits on ABC’s This Week warn of “turmoil” if Gore does not concede; pundits on CBS’s Face the Nation remark on “spinning out of control.” Columnist David Broder says this period of US history is worse than the turmoil the country weathered after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. [Center for American Progress, 12/9/2010]

Entity Tags: George Mitchell, Tom Brokaw, Center for American Progress, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., ABC News, Tim Russert, David Broder, Sam Donaldson, Paul Waldman, James A. Baker, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Joseph Lieberman, NBC News, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Cokie Roberts

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections

Several journalists question a recent White House press conference that was entirely scripted and orchestrated by the White House with the knowing complicity of the reporters present (see March 6, 2003). Journalist Russell Mokhiber, who attends the conference, later says it “might have been the most controlled presidential news conference in recent memory.… The president had a list of 17 reporters who he was going to call on. He didn’t take any questions from reporters raising their hands.” White House communications director Dan Bartlett later retorts, “If you have a message you’re trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction.” However, “In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer.” [PRWatch, 4/2003]
'Deferential Reporters' - ABC political reporter and commentator Sam Donaldson, a fixture of the White House press corps during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations, later recalls “wincing” as he watched “deferential reporters” questioning President Bush during the “scripted” conference. Donaldson will say: “People ask me, ‘Do you wish you were back at the White House?’ And I say, ‘No, not really.’ [But] there are moments like Thursday night when—yeah—I want to be there!” Veteran White House reporter Larry McQuillan of USA Today says Bush’s “call sheet” of preselected reporters “demeaned the reporters who were called on as much as those who weren’t.” Another correspondent at the conference later says: “They completely played us. What’s the point of having a press conference if you’re not going to answer questions? It was calculated on so many different levels.” New York Observer commentator Michael Crowley notes that the press corps itself must share some of the blame: “Although some asked reasonably pointed questions, most did with a tone of extreme deference… that suggested a skittishness, to which they will admit, about being seen as unpatriotic or disrespectful of a commander in chief on the eve of war. Few made any effort to follow up their questions after Mr. Bush’s recitation of arguments that were more speech-like than extemporaneous: Saddam Hussein is a threat to America, Iraq has not disarmed, Sept. 11 must never happen again.… The press corps seemed mainly to serve as a prop, providing Mr. Bush with an opportunity to deliver another pro-war speech while appearing to bravely face the music.” ABC’s Terry Moran reflects that he and the rest of the press corps shirked their duty: “The point is to get [the president] to answer questions, not just to stand up there and use all the majesty of the presidency to amplify his image.” [New York Observer, 3/16/2003]
'Kabuki' Conference - Salon’s Eric Boehlert will later write: “The entire press conference performance was a farce—the staging, the seating, the questions, the order, and the answers. Nothing about it was real or truly informative. It was, nonetheless, unintentionally revealing. Not revealing about the war, Bush’s rationale, or about the bloody, sustained conflict that was about to be unleashed inside Iraq. Reporters helped shed virtually no light on those key issues. Instead, the calculated kabuki press conference, stage-managed by the White House employing the nation’s most elite reporters as high-profile extras, did reveal what viewers needed to know about the mind-set of the [mainstream media] on the eve of war.” [Salon, 5/4/2006]

Entity Tags: Sam Donaldson, Eric Boehlert, Dan Bartlett, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Larry McQuillan, Terry Moran, Michael Crowley, Russell Mokhiber

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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