CNN Cancels Gore's Hosting Gig
By Howard Kurtz
As late as 4:30 p.m., Gore was preparing for a prime-time platform with Oprah Winfrey as his star attraction. But after a day of mounting criticism, King's producer asked the veteran host to return last night, bumping Gore to the status of mere guest. And Winfrey, who had agreed to be on the show as a favor to Gore, quickly pulled out.
A wide range of critics contended that the network was handing the leading Democratic presidential candidate an hour of free air time, unfettered by questions, just as the 2000 White House campaign was heating up. The program was to focus on the aftermath of the Colorado school massacre.
In a letter to King, Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson said the Gore appearance "raises serious concerns. . . . Knowing you as I do, I feel certain you will not be comfortable if your fine program is turned into a contribution of free air time to the 'Gore for President Campaign.' And that is precisely what I fear is happening on CNN."
The RNC also sent an e-mail urging Republican activists to call King and CNN and demand that the same opportunity be offered to the GOP candidates and to Democratic contender Bill Bradley.
King told viewers that CNN rescinded the offer "after taking a long, hard look at the political calendar" and that "the vice president graciously agreed to give me back my microphone." Gore thanked King and said that the Littleton tragedy "ought to be separated from politics."
In a statement, Wendy Walker Whitworth, King's senior executive producer, said the Gore booking was in the show's "tradition" of having "celebrity and political hosts." But "upon further reflection, we decided that it was too close to the oncoming political season and felt it would be more important to move the vice president to the guest's seat."
CNN spokeswoman Kelly Keane said that Whitworth made the original booking and that CNN Chairman Tom Johnson was aware of it. Whitworth also decided to drop the idea, Keane said. Repeated requests to interview a CNN executive about the matter were rejected.
Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, said the vice president "saw it as a great chance to talk about . . . a very serious issue. But whether it's as a guest or as a host, either chair works for us. We understand [CNN] is in a difficult position."
Lehane added that "it was extremely gracious of Oprah Winfrey to agree to appear on this program when the vice president was going to serve as host."
Earlier some network staffers vociferously took issue with the decision. CNN White House correspondent John King said that Gore's appearance "raises questions about our objectivity. If we are going to give him an hour, how can we defend not giving every other candidate the same opportunity?"
A rival could have challenged the appearance on CNN's top-rated show as an "in-kind" corporate contribution to the Gore campaign. The Federal Election Commission filed suit last year over 1996 candidate Steve Forbes writing his regular column in Forbes magazine, calling that an illegal contribution, but later dropped the case.
Tom Rosenstiel, who heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that CNN executives were "giving an unfair advantage to a candidate for president by lending him their credibility, their anchor chair, their air time. It really does smack of a Kurt Vonnegut or Christopher Buckley novel."
The program would have given the famously stiff Gore a chance to play the role of empathetic talk show host. The other scheduled guests were the Rev. Robert Schuller, the prominent televangelist, and William Pollack, author of "Real Boys."
Larry King promoted Gore's appearance Wednesday night during an interview with Ross Perot, saying: "Vice President Al Gore will host the show tomorrow night. The topic is 'After Littleton, what we parents can do to help our kids,' and there'll be some surprise guests."
Gore and candidate Bill Clinton appeared on the King program during the 1992 campaign, when such talk show interviews were still novel, and Gore has returned a number of times, most notably when he debated Perot on the North American Free Trade Agreement a year later. Perot, Mario Cuomo and other political figures have occasionally guest-hosted the show, but not as a candidate during a campaign.
Gore played a prominent role in a recent MSNBC town hall meeting on youth violence, but it was hosted in New Jersey by Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley, with the vice president appearing by satellite with a smaller audience in Des Moines.
CNN's attempt to showcase Gore is certain to fuel attacks on what conservatives call the "Clinton News Network." Critics on the right often note that CNN President Rick Kaplan had been a longtime Clinton friend and that CNN Chairman Johnson was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson.
One CNN staffer wondered why Republican Pat Buchanan had to give up his co-host chair on CNN's "Crossfire" to run for president while Gore was invited to host a show as the incumbent vice president.
The writer appears on CNN's weekly media program.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company