After criticism from high-ranking news executives at CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox, ABC News on Wednesday defended its decision to broadcast a controversial story in which anonymous California police officers claimed that drugs had been present at parties in the home of then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
"It's a story because he was governor of the state of California," said Joanna Bistany, vice president and assistant to the president of ABC News. "He was responsible for the people who enforced the laws in that state. . . . At the same time that (the alleged presence of marijuana and cocaine) was occurring, people were being arrested in California for use of marijuana and cocaine."
But speaking at a Beverly Hills luncheon hosted by the Hollywood Radio and Television Society on Tuesday, officials at the nation's other major television news outlets all said they would not have pursued the story, even offering it as an example of what's wrong with TV's coverage of the election.
"We have to get away from that kind of story," said Jeff Zucker, executive producer of NBC's "Today" show. TV news, he said, should concentrate on the issues facing the nation, rather than on the personal lives of the candidates.
Lou Dobbs, senior vice president and business news managing editor for CNN, accused journalists of hypocrisy for what he called self-righteous reporting of the so-called character-issue stories that have dogged the candidates in this presidential campaign.
"How many people here today have ever been in a room where drugs were present?" Dobbs asked the 650 journalists and television executives who made up the audience. When hands were raised at every table, Dobbs said, "I have a problem . . . with journalists acting as if they'd been in a cellophane bubble all their lives."
Joe Peyronnin, vice president and assistant to the president of CBS News, said that CBS was offered the same story as ABC, but decided not to air it.
"We knew it was going to be on ABC," Peyronnin said. Had the network decided to pursue a version of the story, he said, "we would have handled it differently, given the devastating nature of the questions."
Stephen Chao, president of the newly created news division at Fox Broadcasting, also said that he would not have aired the story, and blamed a puritanical streak in American society for creating an atmosphere where such stories were encouraged.
But political consultant Roger Ailes, who moderated the discussion (to which ABC had been invited but did not send anyone), suggested that competition would in the end force all of the news agencies to continue to rush to air with scandalous character stories.
Bistany, meanwhile, denied that there was anything improper about ABC's report. "The story was in the works for a long time, for weeks and weeks," she said. "We put it on the air only after it had completed a very rigorous final review process."
After the ABC report last week, California State Police launched an internal investigation of the accusations but closed it Tuesday, saying it had found no officers who could substantiate the allegations. Brown denied the accusations after ABC's broadcast.