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CyberAlert -- 10/07/1997 -- Video Clears Clinton; Reno Not Castigated; "Blunt" Admission of Mistake

Video Clears Clinton; Reno Not Castigated; "Blunt" Admission of Mistake

  1. Sunday night and Monday morning the networks stressed how the video showed Clinton did nothing improper; only one reporter raised a question about Reno's competence and only NBC noted the audio gap.
  2. "Blunt" is how ABC described a White House claim of an "honest mistake." It's all a big game to Tom Brokaw: "The White House said 'whoops' it turns out we have videotapes..."
  3. Letterman's "Top Ten Signs You're in Love With Janet Reno."

1) Time magazine's revelation about the existence of videotapes of the White House coffees, which forced the White House to show the tapes to reporters on Sunday, led the networks newscasts Sunday night, Monday morning and Monday night. But for all the time devoted to the issue, viewers were hardly well informed as only one or sometimes no network highlighted some important implications.

The networks could have played the story as an incident displaying obstruction of justice by the White House. After all, the White House informed Attorney General Reno of their existence on Saturday, the day after she announced that the coffees did not violate any law. And, the White House denied they had any tapes when congressional investigators issued subpoenas months ago. Or, the networks could have portrayed the disclosure as an example of Reno's incompetence given that the Justice Department never realized the tapes were available.

Instead, Sunday night (October 5) the networks emphasized how the tapes showed that Clinton didn't do anything illegal:

ABC's World News Tonight. The story by Linda Douglass, MRC news analyst Gene Eliasen noted, never mentioned obstruction of justice or how the White House had ignored earlier subpoenas, but Douglass did say that what the Justice Department investigators "have not found is any evidence of the President himself soliciting any money on federal property and that really is the central issue that would trigger, possibly, an independent counsel investigation."

CBS Evening News. Anchor John Roberts introduced the day's big story by framing the issue on White House terms, MRC news analyst Steve Kaminski documented. Roberts declared:

"There is a new twist in the campaign fundraising controversy tonight. It turns out there is a videotape taken at some of those now famous coffees held at the White House. The big question: do the tapes show that the coffees, held for big political donors, were actually illegal fundraising events as Republicans are charging?"

The subsequent story from reporter Sharyl Attkisson made no mention of how the tapes were suddenly discovered just after Reno cleared the White House on the coffee matter. Nor did Attkisson raise the phrase "obstruction of justice." Attkisson told viewers:

"The newly released tape shows 100 minutes of edited video from 44 fundraising coffees at the White House including one that was actually held in the President's Oval Office."

But Attkisson failed to point out how that contradicts White House assertions that the coffees were always held in residential rooms. She continued by pushing the vindication spin:

"But none of the tapes appears to show blatant violations of law. There is video of the coffee in which fundraiser John Huang allegedly made an illegal pitch for money. But the camera stops rolling before Huang's speech. And nobody in the administration is heard illegally making promises in return for donations. Still the release of the tapes is outraging Republican investigators who subpoenaed all material relating to the coffees eight months ago...."

CNN's The World Today offered the toughest story of the night, but CNN's John King still asserted at the top of his piece:

"Investigators say there is no evidence so far that Mr. Clinton or anyone else broke the law by directly soliciting campaign contributions on federal property."

King, MRC news analyst Clay Waters noted, went on to raise the issue of Reno's incompetence, the only reporter to do so Sunday night:

"Attorney General Janet Reno didn't know about the tapes when she concluded the coffees were legal. Some Republicans say this is more proof that her investigation suffers from incompetence."

King aired soundbites from White House defender Jack Quinn, Senator Arlen Specter and Senator Orrin Hatch who accused Reno of acting as a defense counsel for the White House. King concluded:

"Unlike Richard Nixon's secret Watergate recordings, these tapes aren't likely to provide direct evidence of wrongdoing within the walls of the White House. But Republicans say this sudden discovery is proof of Clinton White House stonewalling, and proof that Attorney General Reno's investigation lacks credibility."

Monday's Washington Post brought the news that of all 44 tapes one was missing the sound -- the tape of the meeting at which John Huang, according to an attendee who testified to the Senate committee, asked for donations.

Of the three morning shows on Monday, only one noted this development:

ABC's Good Morning America didn't mention the audio gap, but Ann Compton did stress how the tapes failed to show any direct fundraising.

On CBS's This Morning Scott Pelley relayed a similar spin:

"...The tapes are remarkable for what they do not show. Only the first few minutes of each coffee was taped by the White House crew. The camera appears to be ushered out before any business is discussed."

Pelley explained: "No sooner is the word generous uttered as the cameraman finds himself in the hallway. The distinction is important because asking for money in the White House offices may violate the law. No direct request for money is seen in any of the tapes but Mr. Clinton is seen with John Huang...."

Only NBC's Today acknowledged the sound gap. Claire Shipman explained:

"Now some sources say there actually may have been one occasion at a White House coffee when fundraiser John Huang made an appeal for contributions. That happened on June 18 we're told, but there is no audio on that particular tape. This isn't good news for the White House and another embarrassment for Janet Reno who just a few days ago had said there were no grounds for further investigation of the coffees."

2) Monday night, October 6, ABC painted too much money as the cause of all the fundraising problems; no network reported how the White House's excuse is based upon looking up "fundraising" not "coffees" when first asked for material on the coffees they insisted were not fundraisers; and neither CBS or NBC highlighted how video of an Oval office coffee contradicts the White House claim that the coffees were legal since they all took place in residential rooms. No reporter uttered a word about the missing audio.

ABC's World News Tonight. Peter Jennings began by asserting that the video had sidetracked attention from what's really important:

"We're going to begin tonight with money and politicians and videotape. This is the week that we're supposed to see the first real attempt in many years to reduce the influence of money in politics, but it isn't going very well. We'll get to that in a minute."

But first, ABC ran three stories on the videotape. John Donvan hailed as "more blunt" a White House claim that it was all a big mistake:

"The President said it was an accident that his lawyers didn't find those tapes sooner. But one of his aides was more blunt, calling it quote 'an absurd, ridiculous, stupid, idiotic, but honest mistake.' If it was a mistake, it was a series of them." Donvan noted that the Senate asked in April for tapes, but the White House said it did not have any tapes. Senate investigators asked again in July and "last week, tapes were found."
Donvan played a soundbite from Lanny Davis: "When we tried searching with another type of word, in this case coffees, up came the information that there were videotapes."

Stop the tape! An alert CyberAlert reader alerted me on Monday to this sentence, from an October 6 New York Times story, on why the White House didn't find the tapes earlier: "One official said aides mistakenly searched in a database for material filed under the word fundraising and not under the word coffee."

There's you lead. The White House always claimed that the coffees were not fundraisers. But when subpoenaed for material about them, staffers searched their computer database using the term "fundraising." But none of the broadcast networks Monday night pointed out the slip.

Back to Donvan. After a soundbite from Senator Fred Thompson, he concluded with a spin that surely made Peter Jennings proud by painting too much money in the process as the culprit:

"The White House says the tapes exonerate the President because he is not see asking for or accepting money. Whatever the White House says, the tapes show how in politics people with money get through the door."

Next, Linda Douglass reported that the Justice Department is now looking at whether the "White House deliberately withheld the tapes from Attorney General Janet Reno." And only Douglass Monday night spelled out the importance of the Oval office event:

"Reno wrote that the coffees were legal in part because they were held in residential areas of the White House where fundraising is allowed. But the tapes show, for the first time, that at least one coffee was held in the Oval Office where fundraising may be prohibited..."

Finally, before getting to campaign finance reform, Peter Jennings asked Jeff Greenfield:

"And do you think, just based on what we've seen today, that they have real impact because there's no evidence yet that they even resemble the Nixon tapes."

CBS Evening News. Dan Rather announced:

"A new caffeine headache tonight for the Clinton camp. There may be many more White House fundraising coffee videos yet to come. This on top of the 44 pumped out in the last 24 hours, months after congressional investigators issued subpoenas. The President's aides say they released the tapes as soon as they discovered them and that they show nothing illegal."

Scott Pelley's report began with Clinton's claim that the delay was an accident. He showed some clips of Clinton meeting Huang and an associate of Riady. Bob Schieffer then relayed congressional committee reaction, noting the interest in a man who says to Clinton that "James Riady sent me."

Next, Phil Jones began a sidewalk interview with Harold Ickes:

"Harold Ickes told CBS News he knew nothing about the tapes and he scoffed at any suggestions of White House cover-up." Skipping the substance, Jones inquired of Ickes: "We're looking at these videotapes now of the coffees. The appearance, is this going to be a problem, here people are being escorted through the Oval Office and is it going to look unseemly to the American people?"

NBC Nightly News. To Tom Brokaw the tape withholding was not a serious matter, but just part of a big game. Brokaw opened the show:

"It's one of those rich, Washington moments. Just when it looked as if the White House was winning the controversy over fundraising handily -- after all, the Attorney General had cleared the President on a number of questions and the congressional Republicans were making no headway politically -- just then the White House said 'whoops' it turns out we have videotapes of the President meeting with contributors. These tapes are not in a league with Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes, but for the moment they have given the Republicans a major advantage once again."

Reporter David Bloom gave a clause to saying that the GOP claimed it's an example of obstruction of justice and concluded with a skeptical take on the White House spin:

"Keep in mind that these coffees were videotaped by a White House camera crew which follows the President around constantly, casting doubt Republicans say on the White House explanation that no one here remembered the tapes until last week."

3) From the October 3 Late Show with David Letterman, a rather harsh "Top Ten Signs You're in Love With Janet Reno." Copyright 1997 by Worldwide Pants, Inc.

10. To simulate being with her, you close your eyes and hug a minivan.

9. Typical entry in your diary: "Today she wore the brown frames."

8. Every Christmas, you send her a pair of her favorite size 16 pumps.

7. You become a notorious drug lord just to get her attention.

6. You're the Vice President, and you make illegal fundraising calls in the hopes of getting "probed."

5. You start a new web site called ""

4. Your towels are marked "His" and "Reno's."

3. Your favorite "In Search Of..." episode: Sasquatch.

2. Instead of buying an ordinary inflatable doll, you steal a balloon from the Macy's Parade.

1. Most of your sexual fantasies involve a stepladder.

Hey, the network news division's won't say anything bad about her so I had to fill in the gap with other material.

-- Brent Baker