Advertisement

Quote Heard ‘Round the Country Doesn’t Help ‘Eye’ : Commentary: CBS hyped Connie Chung’s interview with Newt Gingrich’s mother in a bid to gain huge ratings. It didn’t work and in the process, the network shot itself in the foot.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

Just between us, it didn’t help much.

The quote, that is. The one you’ve heard all week. The one in which Newt Gingrich’s mother tells CBS’ Connie Chung that her son thinks Hillary Rodham Clinton is “a bitch.”

When the quote finally aired “in context,” as the reporter put it on her “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung” series Thursday night--as part of an extended interview with Gingrich’s family--the program overall still only managed a 10.9 rating and 16% of the audience in the national survey by the A.C. Nielsen firm.

Nielsen reported Friday that the hugely hyped weekly CBS magazine barely edged out ABC’s “Matlock” (10.8 and a 16% audience share), and was clobbered by NBC’s “Seinfeld” (23.2 and a 33% share) and “Madman of the People” (17.6 and 26%). (Each rating point represents 954,000 homes.)

Advertisement

This was the interview that caused a furor that crossed the political spectrum when, in an earlier-released transcript and clip, Chung was quoted as pressing the mother of the new Republican House Speaker for the statement that the reporter said was “just between you and me.”

And, of course, millions of viewers.

This was the exchange, repeated Thursday as part of the family interview:

Chung: “Mrs. Gingrich, what has Newt told you about President Clinton?”

Advertisement

Kathleen Gingrich: “Nothing. And I can’t tell you what he said about Hillary.”

Chung: “You can’t?”

Mrs. Gingrich: “I can’t.”

Chung: “Why don’t you just whisper it to me, just between you and me?”

Advertisement

Mrs. Gingrich: “She’s a bitch.”

CBS News President Eric Ober earlier defended the story, but acknowledged, “I don’t think we should have released those quotes about just one element in the story. The timing may cause conservatives to think we were out to ‘get’ Gingrich--but in no way was that the case.”

But if Thursday’s interview thus was anticlimactic and of little help to the magazine’s ratings, skeptics will nonetheless note that all the fuss certainly aided CBS’ goal in the maniacal promotional race among the networks for viewers and exposure.

It drew attention--in advance of the Thursday program--to CBS’ morning news show, its local news and its prime-time schedule, where newsmagazines are showing slippage. The Thursday broadcast even called attention to David Letterman’s CBS series in a segment--separate from the interview with Mrs. Gingrich--in which Chung was shown going through the steps of being a guest on the late-night series.

Advertisement

And on Monday, CBS’ new late-late series with Tom Snyder, which follows the Letterman show, will have Mrs. Gingrich and her husband, Robert, as guests on its premiere outing.

All of this is strictly business--but so is TV. And a more telling moment on Thursday’s “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung” came when the host asked Mr. Gingrich about his adopted son’s divorce from his first wife.

Chung: “Did he tell you why he was getting a divorce?”

Mr. Gingrich: “Yes. And I’m not going to tell you.”

Advertisement

Not much you can do with that. And that’s the way it is.

The Thursday outing did have its fascinating moments as Chung defended her interview.

So much had happened since CBS released the material on Tuesday. The House Speaker had expressed anger, then tried to brush it off lightly. President Clinton had publicly laughed off the incident.

But the core of the debate centered around Chung’s statement that her question to Mrs. Gingrich was “just between you and me"--and the criticism from various quarters that the disputed passage broke an off-the-record agreement.

Advertisement

Chung, who has argued her point before, still felt it necessary on her Thursday broadcast to reiterate her defense.

At the beginning of the awaited segment, she said: “You may have heard one small portion of this interview. Now you will see it in context.”

The question, of course, is if it was of such newsworthy value, why wasn’t the entire context released before to avoid a sensationalistic impact? But that would have left the Thursday broadcast high and dry.

If there had been no previous release of the material and it was presented for the first time Thursday, it would have drawn attention anyway--including the criticism of the “just between you and me” statement. But at least the imagery of advance hype might have been avoided, even if some of the material had leaked out.

Advertisement

But it was CBS that released the material and, in effect, shot itself in the foot in its avid pursuit of ratings.

Nonetheless, Chung pressed on with her defense again Thursday night, saying after the segment aired:

“There’s been more talk about how Mrs. Gingrich came to tell us what she says is her son’s five-letter opinion about the First Lady than about her son’s opinion himself. Mrs. Gingrich was sitting before three cameras and television lights with a microphone on. It was clear that what she said would be broadcast.”

Just how clear may be unclear for some viewers. Mrs. Gingrich did seem to be enjoying several intimate, whispering exchanges with Chung. But having equipment on does not necessarily dismiss the possibility of a private comment if it is agreed upon.

Advertisement

Chung saved her final defense of her interview for the end of her show in a statement that “Mrs. Clinton has written Gingrich to invite him and his mother to the White House for a personal tour. ‘These things happen,’ says Mrs. Clinton. Now she hopes they can work together.”

You know, it’s time for a weekend break. That’s just between us.


Advertisement
Advertisement