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ABC Pulls Story on Misdeeds in Congress

Journalism: Piece includes charge of alleged sex harassment by Rep. Bono. Executives say it was unsubstantiated, but critics call it corporate censorship.

May 17, 1997|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In a move that caused concerns about possible corporate censorship at ABC, network news executives killed a story about alleged congressional malfeasance that was to have aired Friday night on the newsmagazine "20/20."

The story--which was based on a new book, "Inside Congress," by journalist Ronald Kessler--included allegations of sexual harassment against Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs) and of sexual activities by other unnamed lawmakers.

ABC officials said the story was shelved because it was weak and unsubstantiated. But Kessler charged that it was killed because ABC was fearful of Congress.

ABC News producers said that they feared the decision reflects new conservatism under ABC News Chairman Roone Arledge and ABC News President David Westin.

"Everything that was in the TV piece is in the book," said Kessler, who previously collaborated with "20/20" on a story about his book "Inside the White House." "I think ABC killed it out of fear of congressional regulation and sensitivity on the part of David Westin about having some congressman talk about Westin's own personal life."

Westin, who was named president of ABC News in March, recently has been the subject of several articles about his reported romantic relationship with ABC public relations executive Sherrie Rollins, who worked for him in his previous job as president of the ABC Television Network Group.

"Westin is a former corporate lawyer from Washington, and Disney [ABC's parent company] has regulatory issues pending before Congress," said an ABC News producer who asked for anonymity. "There's fear here that this piece was killed because the network didn't want to take on Congress."

ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy strongly denied that there were any non-journalistic reasons for yanking the story.

"Roone killed the story and Westin agreed with the decision," Murphy said Friday. "There were serious problems with the story. We're not afraid to take on Congress--we do that all the time in stories on ABC News. This story said that sexual harassment was rampant in Congress but it did not support those allegations."

Sources at ABC said that the story had been cleared by network lawyers before Arledge and Westin made their decision Thursday. The network already had sent out press releases saying it would be on Friday's broadcast.

In the piece, a former intern in Bono's office says that she was sexually harassed by the congressman. Bono has denied the charge.

The story also was said to include interviews with former Capitol police who say they know of members of Congress who have had sex with their employees. It also contained an interview with former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) about the Senate giving Federal Express a special exemption from certain labor laws.

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