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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

Unplugged   

AJR senior writer Alicia C. Shepard talks to Ken Bode about the abrupt end of his five-year tenure as host of PBS' "Washington Week in Review."

Related reading:   Not a Black Hat Kind of Guy

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


THE LETTERS POURED in from people at Notre Dame University and Iowa public television, a friend at NBC, an attorney in Indianapolis, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, an investment adviser in California, a couple in Peoria, former Sen. Bill Bradley--even actor Paul Newman. The messages were similar: Shame on PBS for abruptly and thoughtlessly knocking "Washington Week in Review" moderator Ken Bode out of his seat after five years.
"I suppose that you could call this a love letter," wrote Joan Boram of Ferndale, Michigan, "but not to worry; I'm long past the age for stalking. I've been a devoted fan of `Washington Week' for years, an admirer of your obvious integrity and good humor and the way you handled the strong personalities on the panel. All my friends know I don't answer the phone between 8 and 8:30 on Fridays."
"Washington Week" has long featured journalists' sober analysis of issues of the day, and is worlds apart from the combative, sometimes shrill talk shows that are now so prevalent, particularly on cable (see "White Noise," January/February). Bode, whose final show aired February 19, says he was told the station wanted the program to be jazzed up with more attitude and edge. He and its hard-core fans were not eager to see it go in that direction and made their opinions known.
Bode, 60, a former NBC national political correspondent and now dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, received some 3,000 e-mails and 300 letters. "Washington Week" got about 1,100 responses and 600 phone calls, "not all of a single voice,'' says Elise Adde, a spokeswoman for WETA, the Washington, D.C., station responsible for the 32-year-old public affairs program.
But there's little question that WETA mishandled the situation. PBS President Ervin Duggan has called the flap "a most unfortunate incident."
Station officials will not discuss specifics, but one thing is clear: Bode's contract was not renewed after it expired in February. "We are not remotely interested in re-airing what should have been a private personnel matter," Adde said in April, two months after Bode's departure.
While there may be some tweaking of the show's talking-head format, the station has no intention of remaking "Washington Week" into a food fight along the lines of many of the other TV talkfests. In April, it began a promo: "All Talk, No Shouting." Says Adde, "We are looking at...subtle, incremental changes."
The saga began shortly after WETA hired Dalton Delan in November as the talk show's executive vice president. In February, Delan began discussing changes in the show as Bode's contract came up for renewal.
"The whole thing was just badly handled and got out of hand," says Paul Duke, the show's moderator for 20 years, who was plucked from retirement to temporarily take over for Bode.
"WETA took a beating," he adds. "People did not want it to change and become like so many other discussion shows. Fundamentally, it's always been a reporter's program. There's none of this ideological stuff. The great fad in show business journalism now is get somebody on the left and somebody on the right and somebody to give outrageous opinions."
Bode made a strong public case against adding an edge to the admittedly sometimes stodgy show--one letter said Bode "cleaned [WETA's] clock in the PR wars!"--and the uprising clearly had a chastening effect on the station, which at presstime had not chosen a successor. Here is an edited transcript of Shepard's April interview with Bode:


AJR: Now that the dust has settled and the reaction is past, what do you think happened?
KB: A new producer came on and decided that he wanted more edge, attitude and opinion in "Washington Week in Review." He wanted two regular panelists, which we never had. We always had a rotating panel. The regular panelists might not be journalists, two regular people, liberal vs. conservative, at least that was the implication. And that he wanted to have handheld cameras for the opening--kind of an MTV look. The model for the new format was a program called "The View" on ABC where you have different perspectives from different generations of women. His theory was we needed to catch the channel switchers with a hard opener.
Our audience is not channel switchers. One of the things in television that is the most valuable thing you can have in public affairs television is an appointment viewing audience. We have people who make Friday nights available to us. I'm walking through the Pittsburgh airport or the Washington airport or O'Hare or in a restaurant when someone will stop me and say: "I never miss it. If I have to be out on Friday night, I set my VCR."
I don't want to attribute this to Dalton Delan, but there's always been this feeling in public affairs television that the audience is too old.
AJR: What does that mean? That you shouldn't program for people over 50?
KB: What it means is the prime audience for advertisers is the audience that is 24 to 45. But as you also know if you watch the evening news, if you don't have the 50-and-up audience, you don't have a public affairs audience. Look at what's being advertised on evening news shows: It's always pharmaceutical products.
AJR: Wait a minute. I thought public television is not supposed to rely on advertising.
KB: I know. My point is you have to respect the audience you have.
AJR: Talk about the response.
KB: I talked to someone at WETA yesterday who said they had 2,800 e-mail responses in the first week. I have a notebook that has close to 3,000 pieces of e-mail in it. Three hundred letters. Some of them were just: "Mr. Bode, we wanted you to see the letter we sent to public television." Others of them were personal letters. Donna Shalala. Bill Bradley called from New Hampshire. Paul Newman. North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. Just loads of people who said: "This is crazy."
AJR: What specifically were they saying?
KB: They were saying, "If what WETA is trying to do is give us more shouting on television, we don't want it. We've got plenty on cable. We don't need edge, attitude and opinion." Many of them said congratulations for standing up for what you thought was right.
AJR: Were they all in favor?
KB: They weren't running 99 percent in my favor, they were running 100 percent.
AJR: Were you willing to quit over this? Or were they trying to kick you out because you didn't have edge, attitude and opinion?
KB: That's an interesting question. I never really figured out whether I quit or I was fired. It was really quite clear if that was the direction they were going, I was the wrong guy to do the show. I wasn't going to do that. I valued that show for what it was, which was an opportunity to work with some of the very best reporters in this town. And to find them [via satellite remotes] when they are off doing their work in different parts of the world or different parts of the country.
AJR: The hallmark was people covering one specific thing?
KB: I'd say it was reporters who were on the beat covering the news they came to talk about who had full notebooks from a week's work and could give perspectives on: "What does it mean?"
AJR: How did you prevent them from giving their opinions?
KB: Because it's a strong culture of the show that they were there to report. We had a pattern on "Washington Week." I was more involved than my predecessor in the broadcast. But the reporters would ask each other questions that demonstrated a knowledge of what was being talked about. But then [we] reached for more knowledge out of the one person who was doing the main reporting.
AJR: Did you ever ask: "What do you think?"
KB: Sure, you might ask: "Do you think these polls overstate?" I might ask [Washington Post political reporter and columnist] David Broder, "Polls show George Bush Jr. way out ahead now. How much of this is his father's name recognition?" But we did not invite reporters to express a lot of opinion, like, "What does this mean?"
AJR: What's the danger with the proliferation of cable shows and pitting liberals against conservatives?
KB: One of the things I had to constantly wrestle with, and I had to be patient, is that people would say to me, by phone or letters or in the airport: "That panelist is very critical of the president. Who is going to defend him?" I would say, "Stop. You may have found him to be critical of the president. But we don't try to bring people on to try to give pro-Clinton or anti-Clinton attitudes: the McLaughlin kind of, `Crossfire' sort of, on the one side this, on the other side that, that has bled over into people's expectations. We are not trying to spin you or change your mind. We are trying to give you information. You are smart."
AJR: Do you think people want to be told what to think?
KB: No. There's a certain entertainment quality [to the shout shows]. People will say to me: "I turn on McLaughlin to get a laugh, then I turn on you guys to get information."
AJR: How long have you been fighting the push toward spin?
KB: Not at all.
AJR: You can see it happening on NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week with Sam and Cokie."
KB: Right, Kristol vs. Stephanopoulos. I didn't have to fight it. There was no thought of going in that direction until Dalton Delan showed up with this idea.
AJR: What did you think of Delan's ideas?
KB: I made it clear I thought he was going in exactly the wrong direction. I had a job I liked. I thought I was doing pretty well, and I wanted to continue to do the job at least for the time being. So I didn't pick a fight frivolously.
AJR: Was there any pressure before Delan came to jazz up the show?
KB: Elizabeth Piersol [Bode's producer, who also lost her job] had been working on a new opening for the show. The traditional opening was I'd go around the table and introduce the reporters. We were going to have a video open that would show [NPR's] Mara Liasson in the White House standing asking questions at a press conference. We would have Alan Murray at the Wall Street Journal doing something with his computer.
AJR: What about a "man on the street?" How valuable do you think that is?
KB: That was another thing Delan wanted to do. He also wanted to have high school journalists on and famous guests like Bill Gates and Jay Rockefeller. Like anybody else, I don't mind a conversation with a cab driver or man on the street, but I'm not going to grab them and put them on the show.
AJR: Do people get paid to be on the show?
KB: Modestly. I think it's $300.
AJR: There are no regulars?
KB: No. We tried that once and abandoned it.
AJR: What shows do you watch to get information?
KB:I watch a lot of CNN. I watch a little less MSNBC, although I do watch the Brian Williams show.
AJR: Do you watch CNBC? Do you watch Geraldo? Chris Matthews?
KB: No. I just don't. I don't watch a lot of television. I had two jobs, and I was reading five newspapers a day. I wake up to National Public Radio every day and listen to it while I'm driving. I also try and see an evening newscast. What I'll do with that is I'll start wherever the TV is on and when they go to a commercial I'll go someplace else until they do a story I've already seen and then switch.
AJR: You are the kind of viewer that would drive them crazy.
KB: Yes.
AJR: Does it surprise you that "Washington Week" stayed the same for so long in such a competitive environment?
KB: No. People like the show. People would sometimes stop me in the airport and say: "My favorite panel is Tom Friedman, Alan Murray, Gloria Borger and Gwen Ifill."
AJR: Sounds like it was hard for you to get through the airport.
KB: I'm telling you, sometimes I would walk out in Chicago at the airport wanting to go to the bathroom and be stopped twice before I could get there.
AJR: So will the show stay the same?
KB: If they didn't get the message from their audience, they have a very steep learning curve ahead of them. They have to have learned that there is a good, solid audience available. [WETA says the show has 3.2 million viewers.]
AJR: Do you miss it?
KB: Sure, I miss it.
AJR: Do you watch it?
KB: Haven't watched it since.