Ken Tucker says the network should have commended Leo, not buried his segment

April 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

ABC news bungled the DiCaprio-Clinton interview

Having read about how Leonardo DiCaprio had conspired with ABC News to undermine the credibility of network news with the interview he taped some days ago with President Clinton for a special called ”Planet Earth 2000,” you can bet I was front and center Saturday night to watch the broadcast of this shocking breach of journalistic ethics.

In case you missed it, the star of ”Titanic” spent just under five minutes of the hour-long program asking the star of ”Lewinsky” such head-scratchers as ”Do you think we can eventually become a role model?” (DiCaprio was asking Clinton about environmental issues, not moral ones, and so the President felt free to answer in the affirmative.)

After weeks of print and rival-network criticism over the ABC News division’s use of DiCaprio as a surrogate reporter, network execs obviously felt themselves hamstrung: They had the most popular young actor in the world interviewing the leader of the free world, and now they felt they couldn’t make media hay out of it. You can bet that, had ABC News not caved in to such chastisement, DiCaprio’s Clinton segment wouldn’t have been buried in the last segment of the show and would have been promoted extensively.

What cowards these ABC News people are. What DiCaprio did — toss a few softball questions at a political figure — is no different from what 99 percent of all ”legitimate” TV news correspondents do in the same situation. Honestly, when was the last time you saw ABC’s Sam Donaldson or NBC’s John Palmer or CBS’ Bob Shieffer or CNN’s Judy Woodruff or any Washington correspondent ask the Commander in Chief a tough question?

If anything, DiCaprio should be commended for flexing his star power to get an hour-long special about the environment into prime time, even if it was the dead zone of Saturday night at 8 p.m., when most of Leo’s fans were probably out at the movies seeing ”U-571.” ABC News should have been proud that, for at least one night, one guy on its air was trying to shed some light on an important subject.

Given the drubbing it took from hypocritical competing networks and media pundits over the DiCaprio interview, ABC probably would have preferred to scrap the whole thing and rerun its most recent greatest hit: The ghastly spectacle of ”Good Morning America”’s Diane Sawyer wheedling quotes out of little Elián Gonzales. Now that the poor kid has been returned to his father, let’s hope his dad has the courage to slam the door in ABC’s face the next time it shows up with cameras and a sympathy-squeezing correspondent: That would make him as big an idol to some of us as Leonardo DiCaprio himself.

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