Just between you and me, I think Connie Chung is. . . well, if I may paraphrase Barbara Bush, let's just say she rhymes with Povich.
Oh, what the heck. Let me be blunt, and on the record. You can quote me:
I think Connie Chung is rich.
That's right, and I'm not talking about money, though she and hubby Maury have plenty. By rich I mean the 12th definition listed in Webster's New World Dictionary--the colloquial form meaning "abounding in humor; very amusing" and/or "absurd; preposterous."
What is preposterous, absurd and amusing about Connie Chung and her cohorts at CBS News, of course, is the way they have redefined the phrase "just between you and me" to mean "just between you and me and a TV audience that potentially numbers in the hundreds of millions."
Perhaps you're tired of this topic, but a lot of us ink-stained wretches find it as aggravating as it is laughable. Gee thanks, Connie. Our image was bad enough already. Now the people we interview may be that much more reluctant about speaking in confidence, wondering whether all of us newsdoggies are as trustworthy as the Conmeister.
Not since Tonya Harding walked out on her in Lillehammer has Connie Chung been so newsworthy. Here, once more with feeling, is the critical exchange from her recent interview with the mother of House Speaker Newt Gingrich:
Chung: "Mrs. Gingrich, what has Newt told you about President Clinton?"
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?"
Mrs. Gingrich: "She's a bitch."
If you caught the video, Mrs. Gingrich was plainly proud, flattered, delighted and just itching to gossip with her famous new confidante about her "Newty's" take on Hillary Rodham Clinton. Who could blame her? If Connie Chung had matched Mrs. Gingrich's coy "I can't" with a sweet "Oh, come on, you can tell meee, " or an aghast "My goodness! It must be awful! Did he call her a counter-culture McGovernik baby-killing Commie masturbation teacher or what?", Newty's mom no doubt would have said what she was dying to say before long. Science, remember, has found strong links between personality and DNA.
Alas, Chung sweet-talked herself into an ethical corner. Newt's private opinion of Hillary Clinton is hardly surprising, but it was the hottest video this interview produced, and CBS decided to go with it. Newt Gingrich and his mother were mad as heck, though Newt himself may have been smiling inside, since CBS News somehow managed to have people feeling sorry for a guy who wants to take children away from poor moms. But who would have thought that CBS News, the station of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, would so blithely air video that shows one of their star correspondents betraying a smarmy confidence?
"Mrs. Gingrich volunteered an unsolicited view," CBS brass explained in a statement. Odd, but that same Webster's says that solicit means "to ask or seek earnestly or pleadingly," or "to tempt or entice (someone) to do wrong," or "to approach for some immoral purpose, as a prostitute does."
After airing the full 12-minute interview on her show "Eye to Eye" last Thursday, Connie Chung exonerated herself of solicitation charges, explaining: "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." Gosh, all that technical gear--but nothing to edit with.
Finally, CBS News President Eric Ober, speaking before a meeting of the Television Critics Assn., noted that Mrs. Gingrich spoke in an obvious stage whisper. (If only she'd spoken in a normal tone of voice . . .)
Rich, rich, rich.
When Newt Gingrich said Chung's interview tactics were "unprofessional" and "despicable," Chung accused him of trying to deflect "attention away from a controversial statement he has not denied he made with an attack on the 'liberal' media.
"It seems very apparent to me that Mr. Gingrich has whipped up a frenzy about this, drawing attention away from the question about the issue of what he said about the First Lady," Chung said.
Now, just who is trying to divert attention here?
The issue isn't hidden. It has little to do with Hillary-bashing, Newt-bashing or liberal-media-bashing. It has everything to do with ethics. Connie Chung, as the saying goes, just doesn't get it. People don't care about Newt Gingrich's private observations to his mother because they were just that--private--and would have remained so if Connie Chung cared more about her own credibility and that of her profession.
Reporters often venture into gray areas and encounter unique circumstances that affect our judgments. We assume different standards for interviewing for public officials and, say, their mothers. Even the most careful, scrupulous reporters are ultimately accused of making factual errors, of misquoting somebody, quoting something out of context, of violating someone's privacy, or of quoting someone on the record who thought he was speaking off the record.
Often the problem is rooted in a simple misunderstanding. Indeed, journalists themselves seldom agree on the finer distinctions between such phrases as "off the record," "not for attribution," "on background" and "on deep background." Often, anonymity is what the source wants. It isn't unusual for reporters who obtained information off the record to persuade these original sources to agree to go on the record with at least some of the information. Sometimes, this works; after all, the effort itself is a sign of good faith. Connie Chung probably could have charmed the amenable Mrs. Gingrich after the fact.
In TV news it seems that good faith doesn't count as much as good ratings. In breaking the "bitch" story, CBS hyped its "Eye to Eye" broadcast. Perhaps CBS could pat itself on the back for being honest about its duplicity; hey, it's not like they rigged a truck to explode. The triumph of "infotainment" over news is evident in the fact that Connie Chung expresses no apparent moral qualms about the meaning of "just between you and me."
You see, this wasn't so much a journalist doing her job as it was a performer, a star, speaking a line of dialogue. To CBS News, this "Eye to Eye" episode wasn't an interview so much as it was improvisational theater, complete with a stage whisper. Connie Chung herself doesn't seem the least embarrassed that her dialogue might be taken literally, and with good reason. The overriding value is entertainment. As Shakespeare said: "The play's the thing."
Murrow, meanwhile, is reported to be turning in his grave.
Film at 11.
Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: YQTU59A@prodigy.com).
More Scott Harris: * A collection of the most recent columns by Scott Harris can be found on the TimesLink on-line service. Sign on and "jump" to keyword "Harris."
Details on Times electronic services,B4