An interview between Leonardo DiCaprio and President Clinton that sparked a feud this week between ABC News and the White House may never be broadcast, a network official said Friday.
ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said it remained unclear how much of the March 31 session between the star of "Titanic" and Clinton would be included in a planned Earth Day special to air later this month. Seeking to quell the furor over the interview, which has brought criticism from both the White House and ABC correspondents, she said producers of the program were now solely concentrating on its editing.
"There has been an awful lot of controversy about this, and any judgment about our programs should be made on what we put on the air," Murphy said. "This has not been on the air. We're taking a step back now and having our producers move forward. It will go through the normal process, and then we will make a decision. We can't say at this point whether those portions will even be included."
Sources at the White House predicted that the interview would air. "They're sort of damned if they do and damned if they don't," said one official who requested anonymity. "But everything got all mixed up in this news and entertainment thing."
The problems for ABC began when its own reporters reacted angrily to news that a celebrity had been granted access to the president on behalf of the network.
ABC News executives said that producers arranged for DiCaprio to visit the White House merely to take a "walking tour" with Clinton to look at the building's energy-saving features, such as weatherstripping. But instead of the tour, they said, the two spontaneously sat down for an interview about environmental issues.
That explanation didn't play well at the White House, where press officials said that ABC from the start had requested an interview with Clinton for DiCaprio. They said that the network had misrepresented the negotiations between ABC and the White House to the news media and called on ABC News President David Westin to set the record straight.
"I don't think we're ever going to be on the same page with this," ABC's Murphy said Friday. "We believe even more strongly that they knew our primary interestwas a walking tour with the president, to discuss environmental changes. They continue to believe we wanted a straight interview."
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said Friday, "We think the idea of a special that will educate young people about climate control is a great idea. But there was a problem with this, and the trouble was one of ABC's own making."
Clinton and his staff took several digs at ABC Thursday night during the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Assn. dinner in Washington.
Red and green "Free Leo" buttons and stickers were given to attendees. And Clinton was introduced not with the traditional "Hail to the Chief" fanfare but with the strains of "My Heart Will Go On," the hit theme from "Titanic."
Clinton also weighed in with several jokes about the controversy.
"ABC doesn't know whether Leo and I had an interview, a walk-through or a drive-by," the president quipped, adding, "I'm not sure whether all this damage control is worth the effort: It's a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the set of 'This Week With Sam and Cokie,' " the network's flagging Sunday morning public-affairs show.
In a dig at ABC's attempts to spin its own version of the events, Clinton said, "Don't you news people ever learn? It isn't the mistake that kills you, it's the cover-up."
He also joked that he had recently been interviewed by ABC's Diane Sawyer, which he said went fine until she asked him to draw some "crayon pictures," a reference to the "Good Morning America" anchor's recent interview--ABC called it a "visit"--with 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez.
Responding to the jokes, Murphy said Friday, "We thought it was very funny. If the president had been giving a serious speech, it would have been another matter. But it was a humorous set of remarks."
Before the dinner, ABC wasn't taking a lighthearted view of the furor. The network physically barred some reporters from entering a pre-dinner reception hosted by ABC News President Westin.
Staff writers Greg Braxton reported from Los Angeles and Elizabeth Jensen from Washington.