Sir David Frost, who has died aged 74, established himself as an interviewer par excellence when he extracted an apology out of disgraced former US President Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. http://bit.ly/2DeVSVd
The Nixon Interviews were a series of interviews of former U.S. President Richard Nixon conducted by British journalist David Frost, and produced by John Birt. They were recorded and broadcast on television and radio in four programs in 1977. The interviews became the central subject of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon in 2006.
After his resignation in 1974, Nixon spent more than two years away from public life. In 1977, he granted Frost an exclusive series of interviews. Nixon was already publishing his memoirs at the time; however, his publicist Irving “Swifty” Lazar believed that by using television Nixon could reach a mass audience. Frost’s New York-based talk show had been recently cancelled. As Frost had agreed to pay Nixon for the interviews, the American news networks were not interested, regarding them as checkbook journalism. They refused to distribute the program and Frost was forced to fund the project himself while seeking other investors, who eventually bought air time and syndicated the four programs.The interviews were also broadcast on radio by the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Nixon chief of staff Jack Brennan negotiated the terms of the interview with Frost. Nixon’s staff saw the interview as an opportunity for the disgraced president to restore his reputation with the public and assumed that Frost would be easily outwitted. Previously, in 1968, Frost had interviewed Nixon in a manner described by Time magazine as “so softly that in 1970 President Richard Nixon ferried Frost and Mum to the White House, where the Englishman was appointed to produce a show in celebration of the American Christmas.”
Frost recruited James Reston, Jr. and ABC News producer Bob Zelnick to evaluate the Watergate minutiae prior to the interview. Their research allowed Frost to take control of the interview at a key moment, when he revealed details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson. Nixon’s resulting admissions would support the widespread conclusion that he had obstructed justice. Nixon continued to deny the allegations until his death in 1994, and it was never tested in a court of law because his successor, Gerald Ford, issued a pardon to Nixon one month after his resignation. Nixon’s negotiated fee was $600,000 and a 20% share of any profits.
The 12 interviews began on March 23, 1977, with three interviews per week over four weeks. They were taped for two hours a day, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for a total of 28 hours and 45 minutes. The interviews were managed by executive producer Marvin Minoff, who was the president of Frost’s David Paradine Productions, and by British current affairs producer John Birt.
Recording took place at a seaside home in Monarch Bay, California, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Harold H. Smith, who were both longtime Nixon supporters. This location was chosen instead of Nixon’s San Clemente home, La Casa Pacifica, on account of interference with the television relay equipment by the Coast Guard navigational-aid transmitters near San Clemente. Frost rented the Smith home for $6,000 on a part-time basis.
The interviews were broadcast in the US and some other countries in 1977. They were directed by Jorn Winther and edited into four programs, each 90 minutes long.
On Sunday evening May 1, 1977, CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast an interview of David Frost by Mike Wallace. This was the same network that Frost had “scooped” (CBS had negotiated to interview Nixon, but unlike the news organization, Frost was willing to pay for the sessions). Frost talked about looking forward to Nixon’s “cascade of candor.”
The interviews were broadcast in four parts, with a fifth part containing material edited from the earlier parts broadcast months later.
The premiere episode drew 45 million viewers, the largest television audience for a political interview in history — a record that still stands today.
In part 3, Frost asked Nixon about the legality of the president’s actions. In the context of American national security, Nixon replied: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Part 5 opened with Frost’s blunt question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”
A Gallup poll conducted after the interviews aired showed that 69 percent of the public thought that Nixon was still trying to cover up, 72 percent still thought he was guilty of obstruction of justice, and 75 percent thought he deserved no further role in public life. Frost was expected to make $1 million from the interviews.