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Union Says Lockout Affects ABC Clinton Coverage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ongoing labor strife between ABC and its technical employees is handicapping the network’s news division in providing balanced coverage of congressional impeachment hearings regarding President Clinton, union officials maintained Tuesday.

Top Democratic Party officials and staff generally have refused to appear on ABC News programs since early November, when the network decided to lock out more than 2,200 members of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) after they staged an unannounced work stoppage on the eve of a “Monday Night Football” game and the midterm congressional elections.

In the most recent example, former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta canceled a scheduled interview on “This Week,” the Sunday morning panel program hosted by Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

“ABC News has really been blacked out from any Democratic response, period,” said Elaine Hogue, a locked-out ABC News producer based in Los Angeles.

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The dearth of Democrats willing to be interviewed by ABC News has stretched to such programs as “Nightline,” “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight.”

ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy acknowledged the refusal of many key Democrats to engage in on-camera interviews “makes it more difficult, but not that much more difficult” to cover the hearings. Democrats will still talk to ABC reporters off camera, she noted, and the network has access to all news conferences and other public forums.

“We feel we have been able to cover the impeachment story quite effectively,” Murphy said.

Despite the defections as well as an increase in on-air technical glitches (the union encompasses camera operators, technicians, editors and desk assistants), ratings for ABC programs have not suffered directly from the lockout since it began.

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Still, NABET spokesman Tom Donahue contended the lack of exclusive interviews has seriously compromised ABC News in covering the story, saying: “We have received tremendous support from the Democratic Party and individual lawmakers since the lockout began. . . . The numbers continue to climb in terms of Democrats who won’t talk to the network.”

ABC problems first surfaced on Election Night, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sought to bar ABC cameras from covering her victory celebration, and Vice President Al Gore pulled out of an interview at the last minute.

The network’s difficulties have extended beyond the political realm. On Monday, representatives of the National Basketball Assn.'s players organization--locked out by their league’s ownership--declined to appear on “Nightline” out of solidarity with the NABET workers.

Various celebrities also have refused to appear on ABC shows. Recently, talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell said she wouldn’t go on the ABC daytime program “The View” or “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” which is produced by Disney out of the network’s flagship station, WABC-TV in New York.

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Negotiations between the network and NABET are currently being overseen by federal mediators under a news blackout. Tensions remain high, however, with the union angered by ABC’s decision a week ago to terminate health-care benefits for locked-out employees.


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