ABC News' Connie Chung last week proved why The Get is the Holy Grail of network news. Scandal, or the whiff of one in this case, is the television equivalent of a trashy summer beach novel. It was bestseller stuff last week.
Chung's half-hour live-to-tape interview with embattled Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) garnered the network a 17.0 rating, 29 share and 23.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research's fast nationals. That made Prime Time Thursday
easily the most-watched program of the summer, followed by the July 30 episode of NBC's Fear Factor, for which 15.4 million households tuned in.
(Those ratings also made the show the most-watched newsmagazine show since Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky in March 1999. Walters, the acknowledged "Queen of The Get," scored a 33.8 rating/48 share with that piece.)
Chung's interview began with about 30 seconds of rapid-fire questions, ending with this one: "Did you kill Chandra Levy?" "I did not," responded the Congressman. After that, it was clear this session would be no chummy chat around the coffee table.
Ultimately, Chung told BROADCASTING
she was "quite shocked that he didn't answer the question about his relationship with Chandra Levy."
Chung failed to get Condit to admit anything other than he and intern Levy were "very close," but she overwhelmingly succeeded with her real mission: proving herself as hard-nosed as any journalist and scoring astronomical ratings for the network.
"I think it will go right up there as one of the more difficult interviews I've ever done," she said, "and maybe the most difficult."
The whole spectacle must have been tough to take for the 24-hour cable news outlets. It has been CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC that have gone wall-to-wall with the Condit/Levy story since May. As a reward for their efforts, they got to spend the week promoting Chung's interview somewhere else. CNN's Larry King tried to upstage Chung by running an interview with Vanity Fair
reporter Judy Bachrach one hour before Chung's. She had interviewed Condit earlier in the week for the magazine's December issue.
ABC faced some criticism prior to the program for allowing two ground rules to be set: The interview would be limited to 30 minutes, and it would be unedited. In the end, though, neither ABC News brass nor critics thought the rules made any difference.
"It's not unusual to agree to a set time that's unedited," Chung said, although she thought the interview would have been easier if she could have had time to warm up with Condit in front of the camera, as well as more time to explore a six-page list of questions she had prepared.
"She asked all the questions that should be asked," said Victor Neufeld, ABC News' senior executive producer of news magazines. "His responses were basically up to him."
"A 30-minute interview was enough," says CNN's Jeff Greenfield, whose show ran during Chung's interview with the subtitle "We're Not Watching." "Nobody's crossed a Rubicon here. The dilemma of a live-to-tape interview is, you don't have time to both try to hammer evasiveness and try to cover other grounds. The problem with the interview was not Connie Chung. The problem was Gary Condit."
Chung's interview was the start of a week-long media blitz by Condit—with interviews and stories appearing last week in Vanity Fair, People
and on a local Sacramento television station—but reviews of Condit's performances suggest he would have been better off staying quiet.
"It reminded me so much of Bill Clinton's interview in August 1998, after he testified before the grand jury," said Meet the Press
host Tim Russert Friday morning on NBC's Today
"It took Bill Clinton a good year to finally come forward, acknowledge wrongdoing, pay a fine and put that issue to rest."
Condit also taped an interview last Thursday with Jodi Hernandez, a reporter at CBS affiliate KOVR(TV) Sacramento, whose newscast typically finishes third in the market. Tracy Ketchum, the managing news editor, said she believed the station was chosen for its "responsible and fair coverage" of the budding scandal; Hernandez, she said, may have been recommended by Condit's 33-year-old son, Chad.
"I felt it was very rehearsed," Hernandez told CBS's Bryant Gumbel the next morning. "We heard nothing new, and I felt it was the same old thing that we've heard from his people. We conducted our interview after the Chung interview, and he seemed to not have a lot of energy, was rehearsed, distant and cold."
Prior to the interview, ABC News President David Westin acknowledged that the story of Condit's relationship with missing intern Levy was "of some importance but not of preeminence. It's not the nation going to war, it's not a change of power, it's not something we'll look back in history as a turning point. And that's how we've covered it."
Chung studied The Get while she was a fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University in 1998 and, in a paper, explained how the process of getting the big interview is a "symbiotic world where it's hard to tell who is manipulating whom: the media or the newsmakers. And it is radically changing the way journalists and news organizations carry out their mission."
She dismissed rumors that she had won the interview because of a friendship with Condit publicist Marina Ein or because her husband, Maury Povitch, knows Condit lawyer Abbe Lowell. "My husband competes with me; he doesn't help me get interviews," she laughed.
"I just worked it," she said, giving credit to her producer Santina Leuci, who helped her write letters, make phone calls and hold meetings.
Chung starting seeking the interview a few days after the story broke last May and found out she had gotten it on August 20, her 55th birthday. A member of Condit's camp called her and said, "Happy birthday. I have a present for you." Chung said she doesn't know exactly why Condit wanted to do the interview with her but she went after it in a persistent but "low-key" way.
—Additional reporting by John M. Higgins, Allison Romano, Susanne Ault, Ken Kerschbaumer and Richard Tedesco