Roone Arledge, both the cause and center of an uproar at ABC News, says he spiked a "20/20" story that probed purported affairs between Marilyn Monroe and both President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy simply because he thought the story needed more work.
The embattled ABC News chief, interviewed over the weekend by phone from New York, said he also thought the story needed a larger context than simply whether the Kennedy brothers engaged in separate, illicit affairs with the actress in 1961 and 1962 in Los Angeles.
He also said that his long-time friendship with Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow, played no part in his controversial decision. The 13-minute story had been scheduled to air last Thursday on ABC's "20/20" newsmagazine series, but was withdrawn on his orders.
The program's co-anchor, Barbara Walters, was not available for comment over the weekend. Neither was Av Westin, the show's executive producer. But some ABC News staffers privately complained about Arledge's action, and Hugh Downs, the show's other co-anchor, publicly said he was "disturbed" by it.
No one contacted by The Times suggested or even speculated that the Kennedy clan had asked for and gotten cancellation of the story. One source familiar both with the story and its cancellation theorized that the real reason it was axed by Arledge and other ABC News executives was that "there's never been anything like it on television, talking about the Kennedys on those terms" of illicit affairs.
The report was a revised version of a 26-minute piece that had been scheduled to air on Sept. 26, then was withdrawn. Each had its origins in a recently published book, "Goddess: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" by Anthony Summers.
"I have no quarrel with the networks' policy of controlling what goes on their airwaves," Downs said. But he said he felt the story had "air-tight documentation" and that he was unhappy by the reasons Arledge was quoted as having given for canceling the story.
What nettled him most, he said, was a New York Daily News report by columnist Liz Smith that on Friday quoted the ABC News chief as calling the segment "a sleazy piece of journalism" that was "just not good enough for us."
This, Downs said, reflected badly on a "great team" who worked on the story--correspondent Sylvia Chase, and co-producers Stanhope Gould and Ene Riisna. And, he added, "I don't work with sleazy programs and sleazy people."
Arledge, seeking to calm matters and sooth feelings, said he regretted that anyone on the show thought he was referring to them or their work: "I want to emphasize that it (his use of the word "sleazy") had nothing to do with the quality of the reporting.
"All that was absolutely first-rate."
What he told Smith, he said, was that he and other executives had deleted a portion of the original 26-minute story on grounds it hadn't proved that John F. Kennedy's rumored extra-marital affairs had left the President prey to blackmail by organized crime figures.
All that was left, Arledge said, were assertions that a private investigator hired by the late Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (a bitter foe of Robert F. Kennedy) had tape-recorded evidence of separate affairs--first between Monroe and John F. Kennedy, and later between the actress and Kennedy's brother, who at the time was the U.S. Attorney General.
Arledge said he told columnist Smith that this seemed "just a gossip story of some kind." When she asked if he would call it a "sleazy" story, he said he replied by saying, "Well, that wouldn't be my word, but I wouldn't argue too much with that. The story itself is a sleazy story without some larger context."
Arledge said he canceled last Thursday's scheduled broadcast of the 13-minute story because he thought it neither proved nor disproved that the Kennedy-Monroe affairs actually occurred. And, he said, no copies of the purported tape recordings had ever turned up.
He said three other ABC News executives--Richard C. Wald, the No. 2 man at ABC News, and two vice-presidents, Robert Siegenthaler and Joanna Bistany, had seen both versions of the story and agreed with him that neither should be aired and needed more work.
Arledge said that he thought that the shorter version also failed to put the purported Monroe-Kennedy liaisons into that larger context of which he spoke--namely, whether the affairs, had they in fact occurred, could have compromised President Kennedy or his brother.
"It was on those grounds that I said I didn't think the piece was ready," Arledge said. He reiterated that he felt that Chase and others who worked on the story for 2 1/2 months were "first-rate people" who had "done everything they could do journalistically" to nail down the story.
That the final result didn't pan out to his satisfaction is no reflection on them, he added.
Summers has suggested that Arledge's friendship with the Kennedy clan led to the axing of the "20/20" story, for which Summers was interviewed on camera. Arledge denied both this and the writer's assertion that the story's cancellation "was the result of biased news management and political pressure."
All he did in canceling the "20/20" story, he said, was to say that the troops should go back, dig some more, return with stronger evidence, and then give it a greater meaning than that of furtive high-level affairs, should such prove to have happened.
Arledge said he probably will be discussing this today with executive producer Westin. He also said that "the story is not dead," and if the show's reporters turn up the proof and context that he seeks, "it would be a whole different ballgame."