The Center for Media and Public Affairs has discovered something sure to ruin the lunches of Al Gore groupies. In studying the evening news shows for the first five and a half months of 1999, they've discovered presidential candidate George Bush has attracted 20 network stories. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole drew 14 stories. Presidential candidate Al Gore was the subject of 14 stories.
But Hillary Clinton trounced them all, with 33, or almost the same as Bush and Gore combined.. Sure, a First Lady running for federal office after her tenure in the White House is unprecedented. What does it say about the networks that they find her campaign more interesting, more important, than a presidential race?
Some journalists, like CNN's Jeff Greenfield, are quick to point out that studies like this deal only with numbers, and not content. And they're right. A numerical study from 1992 would show Dan Quayle getting a tremendous amount of press - none of which he wanted.
But the tone of TV stories on Hillary is downright rapturous. Start with ABC "Good Morning America" host Diane Sawyer, as the first stirrings of a Senate campaign were surfacing, on March 12. "Finally, last November, 1998, Hillary Clinton showed the world what she could do on the campaign trail without him. Political mastery, every bit as dazzling as his, the thoughtful speech, unapologetically strong, emboldening Democrats, electing Senators. So her friends say she has really earned this campaign, this moment, if she chooses, earned it by changing herself, searching, stumbling, and at the end, by standing, not by her man, but by herself."
When we last heard from Sawyer on this subject on ABC, she was offering magazine editor Tina Brown her back yard as a site for a party honoring the First Lady in Brown's new magazine.
The encomiums aren't limited to television, either. On April 1, Washington Post reporter Peter Baker made an April Fool of himself from Hillary's press pool in Egypt: "How does a woman who eagerly told an audience this morning about education and economics in Guatemala and Uganda turn her attention to the pork-and-potholes issues that arise in places like Utica and Ithaca? How does a woman whose international profile is so high that bystanders in Africa two years ago referred to her as 'the queen of the world' adjust to becoming a low-ranking member of the seniority-conscious Senate?" Yes, that's a "news" report.
As Hillary carefully parcels out network interviews, each encounter is dutifully laced with wonder and praise. On CNN, Christiane Amanpour felt her pain: "A lot of the women that I meet from traveling overseas are very impressed by you and admire your dignity. A lot of the people you meet are people who suffered, people you saw today, and who believe that they identify with you, because they have seen you suffer." On CBS, Dan Rather cooed: "Once a political lightning rod, today she is political lightning." Rather also offered her a free shot at critics: "You now have a chance to reflect a little. Of all the allegations, accusations, charges made, what do you consider to be the most unfair attack?"
Both ABC's "Good Morning America" (in a live, 45-minute post-Littleton encounter group with students) and NBC's "Today" (in a segment plugging financial help for high school music programs) have given the First Lady free time that has not been offered to her potential Republican opponents.
The most obvious crush comes from the staff of CNN's "Inside Politics," the program that presents a daily Hillary update for weeks on end. One show began with her face super-imposed on the Statue of Liberty, no less. CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno sputtered in disbelief when New York columnist Jimmy Breslin tossed cold water on the Anointed One: "You say she's gonna be a terrible candidate. Everybody who knows Hillary Clinton or has heard her talk say she's smart, she's quick, she's committed, she stands for something, children among them. That she would be a formidable candidate." Sesno then trashed a potential foe: "I m gonna bring you back to Giuliani again. There are lots of folks who say he's an autocrat, he's worn out his welcome, and he might play in certain parts of New York City but he won't play elsewhere in the state."
The clearest signal of the triumphant tone is the total absence of controversies in the televised tributes. How much money is the American taxpayer forking over for her pile of trips to New York this year? Why are taxpayer-funded White House employees working on her campaign? How can the First Feminist stand by her husband, who won't deny rape charges?
The Gore groupies have to envy both the amount of TV news stories and the sheer, embarrassing cheerleading in them.