National Security Adviser William P. Clark called ABC News late Wednesday afternoon to ask that the network delay by 24 hours its exclusive report that President Reagan had ordered the transfer of an aircraft carrier and four AWACS planes over the weekend in moves designed to discourage Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, from, as ABC put it, "starting a war."
After consultation among top ABC executives, the network decided to go with the report, prepared by chief Pentagon correspondent John McWethy. It led the 6:30 (or first feed) of Wednesday's "ABC World News Tonight."
According to ABC News, McWethy had already delayed release of the story a day at the request of his sources.
Both "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News," alerted by the ABC telecast, had shorter versions of the story in their broadcasts that night, although NBC's report made only its second, or 7 p.m., feed.
The report was subsequently brought up at the presidential press conference later Wednesday evening.
Presidential assistant Clark initially attempted to contact ABC News president Roone Arledge Wednesday afternoon. But Arledge was then unavailable, and Clark was referred to Ed Fouhy, the ABC News bureau chief in Washington.
"I don't feel I should go into details of the conversation," Fouhy said yesterday. "But I can say the White House was unhappy with the story and that he asked us to delay it. Not cancel it, delay it."
Fouhy said that McWethy had been working on the story for several weeks, but after Clark's call "we took another look at it, double-checked our sources and then a lot of us here and in New York discussed it."
Arledge, who is also ABC Sports president, had been busy in New York that day with major league baseball negotiations.
He was eventually contacted and joined the discussions, along with his top aide, David Burke, and senior news president Richard Wald, in a conference call with the Washington bureau.
Fouhy, meanwhile, had discussed the report further with Clark's deputy on the National Security Council, Robert McFarland.
Burke said yesterday that "McWethy had been terribly responsible in his reporting on the story, and I think the network behaved responsibly, too."
He said he understood the reason for "Judge Clark's call entirely."
Both Burke and Fouhy declined to characterize the White House call as an example of undue pressure or as being out of place.
Sources at the White House yesterday said that Clark's request for a delay "was for intelligence reasons, involving sources and methods."
In his report, McWethy said that "ABC News has learned that the United States has secretly deployed four early-warning AWACS planes to Egypt on short notice and has rushed the aircraft carrier Nimitz and three escort ships from the coast of Lebanon to Libya."
"Unofficially," McWethy said, "intelligence sources say the sudden movement is a direct result of a military buildup by Libya in the southeastern corner of that country . . . which U.S. sources fear is part of a plan to overthrow the shaky, pro-American government of Sudan, headed by President Jaffar Nimeri."
McWethy reported that President Reagan made the decision last weekend and that "if Libya did move militarily, Egyptian fighters, being guided by the AWACS, will make the intercept."
CBS News said yesterday that correspondents Bob Schieffer and Lesley Stahl had quickly confirmed the McWethy report and were able to get a brief story in at the end of the first feed of "CBS Evening News."
The story led the second "CBS Evening News" feed.
NBC aired the story only midway in its second feed after White House correspondent Chris Wallace had made a check . . . Moving Right Along
The NBC News bureau in Washington has signed Jamie Gangel, formerly of WTOP radio here, as a general assignment reporter . . .
She comes from WPLG-TV in Miami, where she has been a reporter and anchor . . .
CBS Entertainment's contribution to the spirit of Lent, "Dixie: Changing Habits" (starring Suzanne Pleshette as a madam sentenced to 90 days in a convent), attracted a 19 percent audience share in New York, a 24 in Chicago and a 23 in Los Angeles, according to Nielsen overnights for Wednesday . . .
As local viewers are all too aware . . . each of the three network affiliates keep telling us how proud it is of its Blizzard of '83 coverage starting last Friday . . .
But news executives at Channel 7 are up in arms over Channel 9 on-air promotions in which they suggest that WDVM was "first" . . .
WJLA executive producer Jeff Marks said yesterday "we went live Friday morning at 6:15 for the next 45 minutes and they never did catch up" . . .
WDVM counters that Jane Van Ryan was live out in Montgomery County in the snow on Thursday night . . .
WJLA also isn't particularly taken with the WDVM claim that Gordon Barnes is First Weatherman just because he predicted the storm, via sunspots, back in November . . .
Says Marks: "Our Gary Shore predicted the storm Wednesday night on the 11 p.m. broadcast and that was the first legitimate call" . . .
Captain Airwaves, who deplores a fight, certainly won't get in between Gordon and Gary on this one . . . but he did confide to the TV Column that considering how often all the local TV weathermen had been wrong about snow this year up to last week, he considers the current bragging unseemly on all sides. . .
Despite (or maybe on account of) the Very Vivid Writing that has lately crept into Dan Rather's nightly copy . . . "CBS Evening News" continues to plug right along in first place in the network news derby . . .
Meanwhile, in the yo-yo race for second between ABC and NBC, it was "ABC World News Tonight's" turn to be runner-up for the week ending Feb. 1, with "NBC Nightly News" coming in third . . .
And ABC's "Good Morning America" won (again) in the early morning race, with its highest weekly rating (a 6.3) since the week of Jan. 15 last year, when the Air Florida jet crashed here . . .
A little help from "The Winds of War" overnight audiences and the week-long reunion of old screen stars are credited with the audience boost during the week ending Feb. 11 . . .
Meanwhile, "CBS Morning News" finished too far behind NBC's faltering but still second-place "Today" show for the week to even nip at "Today's well-chewed heels. . . If You Can Stand It
Here's couple of more ratings highlights from the local Arbitron book for January . . .
"Good Morning America" continues to lead from 7 to 9 a.m. in this market with a five rating and a 30 percent audience share, compared with "Today's" 4/23 and "CBS Morning News'" 2/13 . . .
The Phil Donahue show on Nine continues to kick around the competition between 9 and 10 a.m., but Four's combination of "Tic Tac Dough" and "Just Men" was a solid second, while Channel 5's combination of "I Love Lucy" and "My Three Sons" outscored Seven's Richard Simmons and "Good Morning Washington" for third place . . .
From 7:30 to 8 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, "M*A*S*H" reruns on Five with a 20/33, easily outdistanced Four's "Family Feud" (13/22) and Seven's "Entertainment Tonight" (10/17) . . .
Nine's new acquisition "Lie Detector" recorded a 7/12 in the two nights it made the Arbitron January book while its predecessor, "PM Washington" averaged an 8/13 . . .
Locally, "CBS Evening News" was the favorite on Nine with a 13/22 average, followed by "NBC Nightly News" on Four with a 10/17 and "ABC World News Tonight" on Seven with a 9/16 . . .
We'll dazzle you with some more numbers next week, TV Column fans, and we know you can hardly wait! . . .