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The Palm closes in Dallas, but a scrumptious interview with Robin Leach lives on

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Note to readers: The downtown Dallas edition of The Palm restaurant is closing on Friday, June 30th after a 33-year run dating to May 1984. Your friendly content provider didn’t get there very often because, well, the prices. But just over a year after The Palm opened, I had a still unforgettable lunch interview with Robin Leach, who was perfectly comfy with the high-cost menu. He was in the heyday of his signature show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which ended up enduring until 1995. Leach proved to be a delicious fount of gossip and pointed quotes, which is the way I’ll always remember The Palm. This article was first published on July 17, 1985.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Robin Leach is in Antigua, bawling loudly in that whiny cockney accent about “the ultimate playpen in paradise for the rich and famous!”

You’d need a butcher knife to cut through the goo.

“It was good to see ‘Lizer’ again,” he says, speaking of “old friend” Liza Minnelli.

You’d need a hacksaw to cut through the glop.

“She’s the star who gave it all up for love -- and is now right back in the swim of things!” This time Leach is talking about Esther Williams.

You’d need a bloody chain saw to cut through the effervescence flowing through each and every edition of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Leach nods agreeably from a table at The Palm restaurant, where the walls are thick with drawings of national and local celebrities. He has the shape of a Gummi Bear and a nose for gum-drop gossip. Sure, The Love Boat is hard-edged drama compared to Lifestyles.

And you know what?

So what.

“The show is fluff,” Leach says. “I take no umbrage when critics say we’re 60 minutes of bubble gum. Absolutely! But it’s the best bubble gum on television. It’s the best fluff on television. It’s the best champagne and the best silk sheets on television.”

It’s winning its time slot here every Sunday at 11:30 p.m., when Channel 5 draws 25 percent of late-night viewers to the spectacle of Leach interviewing Julio Iglesias and then saying, “Julio Iglesias, truly a conquering hero!”

“Johnny Carson has called me a toady,” Leach volunteers. “A lot of people have said that my last name fits the job that I have to do. But all I ask is that you remember the title of the show. It’s Lifestyles. If it was ‘crucify’ or ‘attack’ the rich and famous, I’m quite capable of doing that.”

Some of the rich and famous at first were reluctant to let the former tabloid reporter show America their boardrooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. During the first four months of the show, which premiered in March 1984, Leach says, he called on a lot of “semi-friends” to help get things rolling. Now Lifestyles is in 165 media markets. Stars are standing in line to be petted.

“Some of them thought it was going to be an expose of the wealth and waste and the conspicuous consumption,” he says, “and that it would come complete with editorial comment condemning this horrendous misuse of money. But we didn’t. Nobody appointed me judge or jury.

“I also believe that stars are made by the public, so why destroy the very person that t he public wants to be a star in the first place? People want to see celebrities. And nobody has ever come on television before, I don’t think, showing celebrities getting out of bed or getting out of bathtubs or taking showers. But people want to see whether the bathtub is 20-carat gold. They want to see whether the sheets are silk. They want to see whether they sleep nude or in pajamas. You see that on our show. We’ve done it.”

Well, sort of. Dallas native Morgan Fairchild trusted Leach to the point where she willingly got into a bathtub for him while his cameras recorded the moment for Lifestyles. Sensational? Yes, says Robin. Scandalous? No. It was all in good taste, after all, and viewers didn’t see any more of Morgan than they could by watching her between the sheets in a prime-time potboiler. But the very idea of Morgan taking a bath while Lech bubbled -- why, it’s . . . sensational!

“I am a great believer,” Leach says, “that you can be sensational without being scandalous.”

He explains the difference.

Years ago, while interviewing actress Susan Anspach, he learned from her that she had two “illegitimate” children, one by actor Jack Nicholson.

Leach says he “broke” the story, but in a nice way.

“Instead of saying Jack Nicholson is a creep for having this baby, it was about why single motherhood can be important and can be beautiful,” he explains. “It was a sensational story, but it wasn’t scandalous.”

Leach was in Dallas to do a piece on T. Boone Pickens, the nationally known corporate raider. Leach gets to Texas fairly often. During the show’s first season, for instance, viewers were given a tour of Midland, home of “more millionaires per square mile than anywhere in the world.”

Texas has a “tremendous amount of the nouveau riche wealth in America,” Leach says. “It say it with love and affection that Texans know how to earn money and they spend it just as hard as they work to earn it. So it’s a perfect stomping ground for me, because they do like their diamonds and their big houses and their chauffeur-driven limos.”

A native of Harrow, England, Leach was weaned on British tabloid journalism before coming to the States, at the age of 21, in November 1963. His first job, during the Christmas rush season, was in the shoe department of a New York department store. He worked six months as a reporter for the New York Daily News before quitting to freelance for a variety of publications, including the National Enquirer and Star tabloids.

His first experience in television was frequent guest shots on The Mike Douglas Show.He became a regular on Vidal Sassoon’s short-lived Your New Day program, reported Hollywood news for New York- and Los Angeles-based morning talk shows and worked with CNN for 18 months on a show called People Tonight.

His self-described “bizarre voice of mine” went nationwide on Entertainment Tonight, on which Leach seemingly attended every New York party and then gushed about it. He left E.T. in August 1983 to get Lifestyles in shape for production by his own Leach Entertainment Features. He also produces Steve Allen’s The Start of Something Big, which premiered in April and is carried here at 5 p.m. Sundays on Channel 11.

There is a message, Leach contends, behind the swimming pools, movie stars and other gilt trips presented weekly on Lifestyles. The message was spelled out in a recent “Rags to Riches” segment about millionaire developer Ken Behring.

“Dedication pays big dividends,” Leach said after Behring had showed off his mansions, his antique cars and his personal wine taster.

Lifestyles is “wrapped up in 18-karat gold sugar,” Leach says, “but underneath is a pill. It says if you work hard and if you pull up your socks and you get off your backside, there is no reason why in America you cannot have the same. That applies to every income level and every ethnic group in this land.”

America must fight, he says, for truth, justice and the filthy rich.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong in being rich or being successful,” Leach preaches. “If it wasn’t for the rich people in America, half of your hospitals wouldn’t exist. Rich people should never be condemned for their wealth. I come from a country where socialism was proven not to work. I come from a land of handouts to people who won’t work. And what happens is that the poor soak the rich, so that the rich are no longer rich. And then the poor don’t have anybody to get money off.”

That said, Leach say she would “love nothing more” than to host a program called Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown. A pity, he says, that such a show would have “the lowest ratings in the world.”

“So if there’s any blame to be laid at the feet of what television is in this country,” he says, “it’s the viewers themselves, totally.”

Leach’s lot in life, then, is to traipse through Antigua another assorted play lands and palaces. “Silk pajama journalism,” as he calls it, can be found almost anywhere a star is living the life expected of him or her. There are holdouts, though. Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino -- they’ll never let Robin magnify their lives. Robin doesn’t care, either.

“They’re boring,” he says. “First of all, these people don’t talk, which is very important. Those people mumble. Those kinds of people can’t express themselves. They can’t put sentences together. They can’t deliver good conversation unless they’re memorizing the lines written in somebody else’s script.

“The people who share themselves with the public last a long than the people who don’t,” he contends, using Joan Collins as an example. “I don’t think the same charismatic excitement exists today about Robert Redford, whom you rarely hear about. You think of all these legendary names like Meryl Streep, De Niro, Pacino. I hate to say it, but they are not blockbuster box office.”

Leach say he has had only one uncomfortable scene with a star in 25 years of covering show business. In this case it was a star made by Leach, whose “world exclusive” interview with Margaret Trudeau was an international sensation. Leach’s story, which he says he censored, nonetheless included “fairly lengthy anecdotes about the night she slept with 21 men.” Four months after the interview was published in People, The Star and other magazines, Leach and Trudeau met again at New York’s Studio 54 disco.

“She came over to me, she slapped my face and she drove a six-inch stiletto heel through my shoe,” he recalls. “I would say that is a fair description of being angry.”

They made up, Leach says, after he told her, “I did not a print a thing that you did not say. The whole story was written by Margaret Trudeau, every word of it.”

And so it goes.

“To be in show business journalism, one has to be a psychiatrist,” Leach says. “You’ve got to listen to an awful lot of rubbish and an awful lot of ego. You’ve got to have a lot of patience. They’re very suspicious people. Their friendships tend to be very, very small in numbers.”

But in Leach they trust. And no wonder. Where can Julio Iglesias have it said, “He never forgets his fans and always finds time to thank them?”

On Lifestyles, of course, where “it never rains,” says Leach, “and the roses are always in full bloom.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

"A novel of television and murder:" Tracking back to Bill O'Reilly's very first book, which he pumped with telling bombast

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Note to readers: All of the trademark bombast and hyperbole were in place when Bill O’Reilly wrote his very first book in 1998. This one was a serial killer novel titled Those Who Trespass. And O’Reilly claimed to know where every last body was buried during his stop in Dallas to promote it. He’s since gone on to pen a long string of bestsellers, all of them in the non-fiction arena. Here’s how it all began for the recently ousted Fox News Channel personality.

This article was first published on July 2, 1998.


By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Bill O’Reilly knows where the bodies are buried. This helps when your first novel’s protagonist is a vengeful TV journalist turned serial killer. “Everything in the book, except for the actual crimes, is true,” he says during a recent stop in Dallas to promote Those Who Trespass.

O’Reily, host of the Fox News Channel’s week-night The O’Reilly Factor, says television news is by and large a shark-infested cesspool. He’s been taking notes since the late 1970s, when he was a guppy in the Dallas-based WFAA-TV (Channel 8) newsroom.

“I started keeping diaries every day of what happened to me and the crazy things I saw, with an idea that someday this stuff is going to be golden . . . Diaries, diaries, diaries.”

They “piled up to the ceiling in my cellar” during O’Reilly’s careening career through ABC, CBS and the syndicated Inside Edition, which he anchored for six-and-a-half-years until March 1995. He then had six months to kill before beginning class at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Dear diary, seize the time.

“It was either go to the beach or bang out a book,” says O’Reily, who likes to get to the point quickly. “I didn’t want to do a whining, oh-it’s-a-terrible business book. I mean, guys out collecting garbage aren’t going to feel sorry for some national anchorman whining about how tough life is. So I figured I’d write a thriller.”

His resultant “novel of television and murder” is a swift, entertaining 288-page read without literary pretensions or genuflections. It’s O’Reilly’s way of sparing readers the boring details. To be or not to be . . . ah, shaddup.

“The reason I’ve been successful in every venue I’ve been in is because I speak for blue-collar America,” he says. “I think that way, I write that way. I don’t spend four pages describing the lampshade. I move it along, and people respond to that.”

By Page 7, womanizing White House correspondent Ron Costello already is breathing his last after being assaulted in a hotel room by a former colleague.

“No network can help you now,” he’s told. “You are an evil person. You hurt and use people. And now you are going to leave us in a rather painful way.”

Costello exits with a silver spoon in his mouth -- and through his brain stem. It’s a giant step beyond staring daggers.

“I’m getting standing ovations in local newsrooms around the country,” O’Reilly says. “They’re telling me to write another one quick. Kill more people! Fifty percent of people in television news management are what I call morally challenged. They will do whatever they believe they have to do to survive or prosper. And a lot of people get hurt . . . It’s like the Nazi Party. You have all these people trying to get up there so they can do whatever they wanna do. I’m not equating television executives with Nazis. But it’s the same kind of ‘I want to rule’ mentality.”

“I don’t think the business could get any more ruthless,” he adds. “Not unless Murder Inc. is going to buy a chain of television stations.”

Not that he’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. O’Reilly admittedly has burned bridges, copped attitudes and taken his turns in the muck. Without cable, he might not have much of a job anymore. But on the fledgling Fox News Channel, his abrasive O’Reilly Factor is aftershave on a razor cut, iodine on an open wound. It works for him in times when too many interviewers come off as graduates of Namby Pamby U. That’s why O’Reilly says he told potential guest Tom Selleck to “take a walk” when he supposedly wanted to keep some subjects off limits.

“I’m not gonna sell myself out to try to get guests to come in,” he says. “That’s what’s corrupted the television news business. I don’t want to be friends with these people, all right? I’m not in the club, and they don’t want me in the club. They’d let me cut the front lawn, but they won’t invite me in for lunch. Fine.

“I don’t want to go to the Hamptons and schmooze with these people. Because then you won’t ask them the hard questions. Yeah, you’ll be able to wave your hand and get them to come over so you can interview them for 30 seconds about nothing. About zippo. But I firmly believe that my confrontational style is what people want. I never slay the guests so that they’re embarrassed. When I know I have them on the ropes, I go back to my corner. I’m not interested in destroying anybody. I am interested in getting to the truth.”

So there. O’Reilly, who dubs his show “Nightline with an attitude,” says he’ll continue to ask the questions Larry King won’t. He also tells viewers what he thinks, while Fox slaps an “Opinion” disclaimer on home screens.

“I enjoy the hell out of this,” he says. “This the best job I’ve ever had. I don’t care about protocol and I don’t have 15 ‘suits’ looking over my shoulder.”

He’s also writing a second book, this one on the world of tabloid TV. His years at Inside Edition served to prime the sump pump.

“It was like the Wild West. It was just a bunch of crazy guys running around,” he says. “I was the sane one. I mean, how frightening is that?”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Rich Little makes a good first impression

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Rich Little effortlessly regales the Reagans. Getty Images


Note to readers: In November 2002, Rich Little blew through nine American presidents during a one-man, six-day show at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. He began with John F. Kennedy and ended with George W. Bush. Before The Presidents, Little sat down for an anecdote-loaded interview that dropped names ranging from Reagan to Richard Nixon to Johnny Carson, whom he briefly portrayed in the 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift. Little lately is supporting Donald Trump, in part because he thinks the country needs a dramatic change. More to the point, though, “From my perspective I’ll have a wealth of material,” Little told an interviewer in July during an engagement in Las Vegas.

This article was first published on Nov. 12, 2002.


By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Rich Little once hung up on President Reagan, thinking he was an imposter doing a bad impression.

Johnny Carson once hung up on Jack Benny, thinking he was Rich Little.

And Rich Little still has a framed letter from an adoring fan who praised all of his great contributions to show business, particularly “Tutti-Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” It was meant for Little Richard.

“Maybe he’s got some letters telling him, ‘Your John Wayne is outstanding,’ “ Little says. These stories and many more might someday be in a book he’s been messing around with for the last five years. Tentative title: People I Have Known or Been.

“True stories. Well, what you don’t remember you make up. But basically they’re true.”

Makeup is essential for The Presidents, which begins a six-day run at the Majestic Theatre Tuesday night. Billed as both “touching and hilarious,” it stars Little as the last nine American presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy. Gerald Ford’s former press secretary, Ron Nessen, co-wrote the script for a production that includes four other actors in supporting roles, principally Ginger Grace as all of the First Ladies. For his part(s), Little will be juggling wigs, fake noses and various other adornments in a game effort to keep looking presidential.

“Each time it’s done in less than two minutes,” he says. “And when you go from Kennedy to LBJ, that’s a big change. You don’t want the nose to fall off in the middle of a scene.”

Trim, tanned and jocular, Little is a nicely preserved 63-year-old who’s been doing impressions for his entire adult life. Canadian by birth, his first American TV appearance was in 1964 on Judy Garland’s acclaimed but short-lived CBS variety show.

“So I came along at the right time for me, and got my name pretty well known by doing a lot of television,” he says. “Today I don’t do any television because when you get over 50 they don’t want you.”

Little was just shy of his 25th birthday, and getting a pair of pants fitted at a Canada tailor shop, when he heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. A popular young Kennedy impressionist named Vaughn Meader saw his gainful career end overnight.

“After the assassination, the comedy was over,” Little says. “You can imitate and make fun of people that die a natural death or get older or whatever. When you’re tragically killed, though, the humor really goes away. So we do Kennedy in the context of history. It’s not a Saturday Night Live spoof. It’s a history lesson, a true portrayal with a lot of the humor coming out of the paranoia of a couple of presidents and the idiosyncrasies of others.

“It’s a slight exaggeration of facts, like (Richard) Nixon going over his enemies list or Kennedy talking to Marilyn Monroe while trying to work on the Bay of Pigs situation and getting the phone lines mixed up. That’s funny. It probably never happened, but you never know.”

Little has met a majority of the presidents he’s portraying. Ford is the toughest to flesh out, he says.

“Not too exciting. A nice man, though. I told him I was going to be doing this show. And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Is there any tripping or falling?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’ “

Reagan, whom Little considers a pal, “was a little vague and a little out to lunch even back then as president . . . He loved to tell jokes and talk about his movies. He’d tell me these long, involved jokes. Sometimes they’d go nowhere, and there was no punch line.

“One time he wanted to know how my impression of him was coming along. I told him that his head is always bobbing and he looks down a lot. And he said, ‘Well, you’d look down, too, if you owned a horse ranch.’ “

He first met Nixon at a garden party in California several years before Watergate undid his presidency.

“Debbie Reynolds just literally threw me at the president and said, ‘Rich is going to do you.’ I don’t know what he thought of that. I started to do him, and he didn’t have a clue that I was doing him. He just looked at me and said, ‘Who’s this? Why’s he talking like this?’ He must have thought I was a complete lunatic.”

But seriously, folks, Little has an even better Nixon story, this one told to him by a friend who owned a Mexican restaurant in San Diego.

“Nixon loved Mexican food, so he went there for lunch. When he finished, he suddenly stood up and said, ‘Can I have your attention, please? I have an announcement. I would like to congratulate you on an excellent beefy taco.’

“An excellent beefy taco! That’s hysterical! That’s all he had to say! That is so typically Nixon.”

Little encountered Bill Clinton at a fundraiser in Las Vegas.

“ ‘I’m afraid to meet you,’ he told me. ‘God knows what you’re doing to me.’

“And I said, ‘Well, you’ve written me a lot of good material.’ And he laughed at that.”

Little’s catalog of impressions numbers about 200, some of them all but retired.

“Oh yeah, my Spiro Agnew and George McGovern aren’t too popular right now,” Little says, referring to Nixon’s first vice president and the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.

On request, he does Agnew anyway -- for the first time in 30 years: “Let me give you a little background on myself and clarify the discrepancies promulgated by those who close their eyes to the pernicious influence of the spirit of national masochism encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs.”

There’s a kicker.

“I have no idea why, but that was Jack Benny’s favorite impression. He’d say, ‘Give me a little Spiro. God, that Spiro Agnew kills me.’ “

Some impressions still elude Little. He perfected the late Steve Allen’s laugh, but could never nail the voice. “And I can’t do Ed McMahon either except for the ‘Ho ho ho.’

“A lot of the film stars of today I’m not imitating,” he adds. “They’re impossible to do. How do you do Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise or even Harrison Ford? There’s not a lot of call for Jon Voight either, and my Val Kllmer isn’t too exciting . . . Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Ross Perot and Truman Capote -- they came in about five minutes. They already were caricatures. Jack Nicholson’s easy to do, too. But Robert Redford, how would you do that? I have no idea. And even if you did him well, people wouldn’t respond.”

Little later seizes an opening when his interviewer foolishly tells him that everyone thinks he can do at least one impression. This leads to a very lame attempt to do Howard Cosell while the master feigns approval. Far better to end with another of Little’s show biz stories.

“I once did a benefit where Gerald Ford and Frank Sinatra were in the front row. I had a podium made out of cork so I could trip into it and it would fall apart. I overdid it. I hit that podium so hard that it flew into a million pieces and I fell off the stage and landed in Gerald Ford’s lap!

“And cork’s coming down and Frank’s pounding the floor scuh-reaming with laughter. And I put the mic up to Gerald Ford and he goes, ‘Whoops.’

“Frank and I became friends after that. He liked anyone who could make him laugh, and he thought that was the funniest thing he’s ever seen. Gerald Ford got a great kick out of it, too.”

Pause, one-two. “Anyway . . .”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Comedy has its coming out party at 1992 Democratic convention

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1992 re-do: Bill, Hill and Chelsea at his nominating convention.

Note to readers: Our last in a series of national political convention look-backs journeys to 1992, when comedy made its first major impact on these quadrennial gatherings. The Democrats nominated Bill Clinton for the first time in a pre-ordained exercise in choreographed showmanship. Comedians responded by ridiculing the process on a nightly basis while old-line journalists said they really couldn’t be blamed. This article was originally published on July 16, 1992.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NEW YORK -- It’s a convention that has seen television screens turned into fun house mirrors.

A convention where the Comedy Central cable network has landed NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and an array of other serious-minded politicos and media stars for its nightly two hours of coverage. And where the ubiquitous Brokaw concludes his workdays by joining Jay Leno to twit the Democrats on The Tonight Show.

Short of news and long on made-for-TV theatrics, the convention is being punched silly, often to the delight of media types who used to take these matters much more seriously.

“The problem is, this is a Super Bowl, but you know the final score,” said CNN’s Larry King, who was a guest on Comedy Central on Monday night. “I wonder what would happen if a Martian came down. What would he watch -- Comedy Central or CNN?”

Comedy Central’s Indecision ’92, anchored by Saturday Night Live’s Al Franken, has included:

***Nightly discourses on the “Don’t Know” factor by American Enterprise Institute pollster Norman Ornstein, who also dressed up as a pilgrim Tuesday night to debate the president of the Home Shopping Channel.

***Comedian Joy Behar’s live convention-site interviews with King, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and McLaughlin Report host John McLaughlin, who was asked whether he wears women’s underwear.

*** Crossfire co-host Michael Kinsley’s moderating of a panel of comic impressionists.

***Republican image-maker Roger Ailes’ attempts to superimpose Bill Clinton’s head on a chicken during an interview with Franken.

Veteran NBC reporter-commentator John Chancellor, who was forcibly ejected by security guards during the 1964 Republican National Convention, says that today’s “pastel pageants of patriotism” are getting the lampooning they deserve.

“I do think that taking the news out of the convention has brought all of this on,” Chancellor said. “If the parties want to emphasize the trivial aspects, then they’re asking for it.”

Chancellor, who is retiring from NBC at the end of this year, said he “roared with laughter” Wednesday morning after reading that the Fox movie Revenge of the Nerds III had higher ratings than the convention coverage on NBC, ABC or CBS.

He said he hasn’t gotten a chance to watch Brokaw’s appearances on Tonight, “but I understand he’s been very funny.”

Brokaw’s Tuesday night Tonight schtick erased the lines between news and entertainment.

“Reporting” from NBC’s Madison Square Garden skybox, he held up a bogus New York Times front page headlining some decidedly odd political developments. Earlier, Comedy Central floor correspondent Buck Henry had used the same false-fronted Times while Brokaw was wearing his serious newsman’s hat as co-anchor of the combined NBC-PBS convention coverage.

“Some stunning political news,” Brokaw told Leno. The Times’ top story, he revealed, was Ross Perot’s decision to pick Oprah Winfrey as his running mate.

Leno rejoined, “It’s comforting to know that while the Democratic convention is going on -- which could change the fate of the nation -- the head anchorman is writing comedy bits for The Tonight Show.”

While discussing speculation that Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder was considering running with Perot, Brokaw cracked, “It might turn out that Wilder is Oprah Winfrey in drag.”

In an interview, Brokaw said that he wouldn’t be moonlighting on Tonight if the Democrats were holding more than an orchestrated pep rally for the fall campaign.

“This is a buttoned-up convention,” he said. “We all know what’s gonna happen before we get there.

“What we have here is kind of a yeasty situation in which the party is trying to redefine itself . . . My earliest memories of political coverage are Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and David’s wonderful kind of droll observations of what was going on. So I was weaned on the attitude that it’s serious business, but not to take yourself too seriously.”

Brinkley, who is co-anchoring ABC’s convention coverage, had said he is “too busy” to be interviewed, a network publicist said. Party officials did not return calls for comment.

Other network executives say the convention still deserves to be treated as serious business. But they don’t find fault with Brokaw’s tightrope walk between the news division’s “Decision ’92” coverage and The Tonight Show.

“If some of the folks want to have a little fun at times, it seems harmless to me. It’s a zapper world we live in today, and viewers can drift or shuttle quickly from channel to channel,” said CNN vice president Ed Turner, whose network is spending $2.4 million covering the convention. “But I think they’re all smart enough to discern the difference between news and comedy. It just doesn’t trouble me.”

Clinton advisor Harry Thomason, who with his wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason produces CBS’ Designing Women and Evening Shade, said he isn’t particularly worried about the Democrats being portrayed as buffoons on some channels.

“I even agree that the Comedy Central thing is a good idea if it gets young people to watch,” he said. “They’ll be poking fun at us, but so what?”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox News Channel pins down the donkey at 2004 Democratic convention

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Skybox palooza at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.

Note to readers: In this seventh in a series of look-backs at past national political conventions, it’s Fox News Channel arriving unbowed at the 2004 Democratic gathering in Boston. This article originally was published on July 26, 2004.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
BOSTON -- Fox News Channel again finds itself in the belly of the beast, namely the donkey-themed Democratic Party’s quadrennial national convention.

It’s otherwise a different story. The “Fair and Balanced” network saunters into town as a solid No. 1 in the cable news Nielsen ratings. It must be doing something right, and not necessarily always right of center. Former ABC News stalwart Brit Hume, who joined Fox news at its inception in 1996, said he’s not looking for conservative angles, just new ones.

“It’s not so much addressing an imbalance in coverage, but just doing it in a different way,” he said after his regular stint as a panelist on Fox News Sunday. “Get it right and be different. It’s a huge element of what we do. It’s what I think our viewers appreciate.”

Four summers ago, Fox enjoyed a ratings surge during the Republican convention but remained well behind front-running CNN. At the subsequent Democratic gathering, though, Fox fell with a thud into third place in the cable news wars, even trailing ratings-starved MSNBC. It cemented a prevailing perception that Fox and its viewers greatly prefer the company of elephants.

“It’s possible that CNN will win the ratings here. I wouldn’t consider it all unlikely,” Hume said. “If we don’t win here, people will say, ‘You see, it’s a right-wing network.’ But if we go to New York and win the Republican convention, will people say the same thing about CNN that they’d say about us? I wonder.”

At a production meeting earlier Sunday morning, Hume also wondered aloud whether Fox should devote any on-air attention to CNN’s newest wrinkle, a convention floor anchor platform that might be blocking the view of several state delegations.

“The question is whether CNN’s little floor stage is worth a . . . well, it’s a hoot,” Hume said.

Meanwhile, at least two high-level Democrats played ball with Fox on Sunday morning. New Mexico governor and convention chairman Bill Richardson and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell parried with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, who told them “Great job” afterward. There was an easy camaraderie among the three, with Wallace jokingly telling Rendell, “I can ask the meanest question I want, and you just go right to your talking points.”

Wallace left ABC News late last year to take over Fox News Sunday from Tony Snow. He quickly landed Democratic guests who previously had shunned the network, most notably Hillary Rodham Clinton. National Public Radio commentator Juan Williams, who regularly supplies a left-of-center voice on the program, said he feels less pigeonholed at Fox than he did as a co-host of CNN’s Crossfire.

“At CNN they’d say, ‘You really have to hold up the left portion, and you have to be the black guy.’ Here it’s more intellectually free. They have that strong, conservative position anchored, so I’m the variable. Sometimes I even agree with Brit.”

Still, Fox enters the Democratic convention in the crosshairs of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Co-produced by the openly liberal MoveOn.org, the new documentary film features former Fox news personnel saying they regularly received Republican marching orders from their bosses.

“I’ve seen the film,” Wallace said. “It’s about as biased and intellectually dishonest as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit: 9/11, but without any of the sense of humor or productions qualities. It doesn’t bother me because it’s so foreign and unrepresentative of the place I work. Has it made it more difficult to get Democrats on the show? Not a bit.”

Hume said that Fox is fair game for envious enemies.

“We had a choice,” he said. “We could be liked and accepted and popular with our competitors, or we could be No. 1. We couldn’t be both.”

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