It has the makings of a French farce.
And it would be funny if serious questions of journalistic ethics were not involved.
It has former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and television personality David Frost shouting at each other during a taping session last week; it has NBC executives scurrying around the New York studio in a frenzy wringing their hands and demanding Frost come out of his dressing room. It has Kissinger storming out of a taping session without speaking to anyone.
More important are allegations that Kissinger changed the rules of the interviews after the fact and that NBC executives were intimidated into agreeing with him. It involves Kissinger, in a fury, allegedly dictating new conditions to NBC executives, and Frost, in a rage, refusing them. And finally, it involves a final Saturday taping session with Kissinger and Frost cancelled at the last minute after an explosive conversation with Frost and Bill Small, new president of NBC News, yesterday afternoon, a letter of outrage to NBC by Frost and an attack on the ethics of NBC and Kissinger by Frost as he pulls out of the project.
"This," signed Frost exhaustedly, "is the most painful 24 hours I have every spent in my entire life.
"Henry Kissinger is a great artist in the use of power, as we know, But I never realized he would have this sort of power over a news organization. And certainly nobody relishes having this kind of confrontation with both NBC News and Henry Kissinger."
"David Frost is a new phenomenon to me," says Small. "He was chosen because he did a good job on the Nixon interviews (last year). But let me assure you that NBC standards have not been compromised and never will be as long as I'm head of it."
According to Frost and his British project director, John Birt, the scenario goes like this:
Henry Kissinger as part of his NBC contract was paid a lot of money to do two 80-minute interviews, to be cut down to a one-hour special.
David Frost, who is British, was hired by NBC News for a substantial sum to do the interviews with Kissinger.
NBC, Kissinger and Frost were all happy with this arrangement. Frost and Kissinger had been social friends for years.
Frost brought over his friend Birt (who produced the Nixon interviews) to be an adviser on the project. He also put together a team of three people to help prepare him for the interviews. William Shawcross, British journalist and author of "Sideshow", a book critical of Kissinger's Cambodia policy; Leslie Gelb, now with the Carnegie Endowment, formerly with the State Department, and Walter Pincus, a Washington journalist who works for both NBC and The Washington Post.
A first taping was scheduled for last Wednesday, Oct. 3, in preparation for a broadcast Thursday, Oct. 11.
That, said Birt, is when the trouble began. When he arrived from London Frost learned that at Kissinger's request (1) the tapings had been cut from two 80-minute sessions to two 40-minute sessions; (2) that Kissinger had an agreement that he would be allowed to review the entire editing process though he supposedly did not have editing control; and (3) that NBC had agreed that the Indochina section of the interview would compose no more than 40 percent of the one-hour broadcast.
All of this, said Birt, "was a bit of a blow."
When the Wednesday session got going on the subject of Cambodia, it went on for about 50 minutes on that subject alone, with Kissinger sitting still for some serious grilling and occasional lecturing by Frost.
"I would say it was tense and terse," chuckled Frost.
"It was plain at the end Kissinger didn't like it," said Birt. "He walked out without saying a word. He went straight to his dressing room. Our problems started there."
That afternoon, according to Frost and his crew, they were under tremendous pressure from NBC executives Small, Les Crystal and Nigel Ryan to alter their hostile stance for the planned taping session the next day.
Meanwhile, Kissinger was declaring that he would never again set foot in the studio with David Frost.
According to Frost and Birt, "They resented our approach. They didn't think it was proper," said Birt, "didn't want the questions taken to a point where a former secretary of state was made to look as if he were having doubts about his own policy. They were genuinely offended by it."
Kissinger asked for and was given additional time for the Thursday taping. This was agreeable to Frost & Co. He also requested a special Saturday taping to sum up his Cambodia policy in one minute -- or so the Frost people believed. That, too, was agreeable to them.
The atmosphere was tense before Thursday's taping. Kissinger also had demanded to have copies of documents that Frost had referred to during the first taping, specifically a telegram to Frost from Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. Frost and Birt were in the dressing room, looking for the documents from the day before. Birt recalls that a slightly hysterical NBC producer pounded on their door, telling them that if they didn't come out of the dressing room instantly Henry Kissinger would storm out and never come back.
The taping finally came off, ran over an hour and was reportedly not very exciting, certainly compared to the day before.
Then, afterward, according to Birt, the Frost people learned that NBC had promised Kissinger a further 10-minute rebuttal statement, which they would tape Saturday. And it was the Frost people's understanding that Kissinger had been told by the network that if they didn't produce the documents he wanted to see, the network would agree to delete relevant areas from the Wednesday taping.
Small disputes this version.
At no time," said Small, who joined NBC at the end of August, "was Kissinger promised that he could make a 10-minute rebuttal statement, and at no time was he told he could have a say over what goes on the air."
Furthermore, said Small, Kissinger never had any right to review the editing process and never asked for it. "We don't let the interviewee have any say about what goes on the air. It's an NBC policy."
At any rate, Frost, believing that Kissinger would be making a rebuttal and that the former secretary would have some say over what finally went into the broadcast, wrote NBC producer Nigel Ryan a letter, pulling out of the project altogether.
In Frost's letter he objected to a series of negotiations between NBC and Kissinger in which, unbeknownst to Frost, various new agreements were made.
"Had I known of what had been agreed in advance," wrote Frost, "I would not have considered it proper to proceed. . ."
"This agreement transgresses fundamental journalistic ethics: and it was quite improper in my view for NBC News to enter into it. . ."
Said Small: "It's very difficult for Frost to pull out. The tape exists and he's on it. If he does pull out it just means that he'll have no input in the editing. Somebody else will have to do it."
"I presume there will be a broadcast," he says, "they have all that material."
Frost himself hasn't thought that far in the future. "I've no idea what will happen," he says.