Why the Cisneros Indictment Story Tanked

Put yourself back in 1985. Imagine Ronald Reagan's HUD Secretary has just been indicted on 18 felony counts of lying to the FBI about payments he made to a mistress. Imagine it was the second Reagan cabinet official to be indicted that year. (For good measure, imagine a third Reagan cabinet member who most assuredly would have been inidcted but for a fatal plane crash.) Now imagine the press reaction, the magazine cover stories, the shrieking network leadoffs. Of course, nothing of the sort ever happened on the Gipper's watch and yet the media's operative phrase, repeated countless times year after year, was the "sleaze factor."

Now come back to 1997. This time it's for real. Bill Clinton's HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros is the indictee. He's the second Clinton cabinet member indicted this year. (Ron Brown would have been number three.) The totality of coverage for this latest scandal? Time, 29 words. U.S. News two paragraphs. Oh, Newsweek had a story, and NBC did, too. But ABC gave it 18 seconds, CBS nine seconds. Was it something of greater import that squeezed out this bombshell? Apparently, Dan Rather thought so: "The huge Pacific weather machine [El Nino], whipping up the waves and winds, is also giving a gentle lift to the tender wings of the Monarch butterfly. CBS's John Blackstone has the story and pictures that will make you flutter with delight."

Let's examine why a criminal indictment of one of the federal government's most powerful officials is a yawner for today's press:

1. It's about sex. More to the point, it's a Clinton administration sex story, and a different set of rules apply here. To the media, trolling around into Cisneros paying off old lovers is as distasteful as working the Gennifer Flowers beat. And this story too, had a tabloid taint, haveing been provided to "Inside Edition" by ex-lover Linda Medlar. Besides, does it really serve the public interest to undermine the first HUD Secretary since 1980 to actually care about homelessness?

2. It's an old story. For the 89-percent pro-Clinton press, however, "old story" has a new definition: when it comes out (borken by a conservative publication like the Washington Times, or better yet, the London Sunday Telegraph) it's summarily ignored by the mainstream press (particularly the networks). The story won't go away. Months (or in some cases years) later, a reporter will be asked why he never covers it, triggering the prerequisite groan about this being an "old story."

This is where Newsweek's December 22 Cisneros story is fascinating: it quotes the aforementioned tape clip nailing Cisneros' shady intentions - but two years after it first mattered. Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman revealed that Cisneros "gloomily discussed his plight with Newsweek" a year ago. So why didn't we hear about it a year ago? It was an old story!

3. He's a minority, and criticism implies racism. You doubt me? When Cisneros got into trouble in early 1995, Bryant Gumbel was interviewing Sen. Ted Kennedy. He mentioned investigations of Cisneros, then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, then-Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, and then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, then asked: "The Clinton White House seems to be having a hard time retaining high-profile minorities particularly. Do you think, Senator, they are being held to a higher standard in Washington than their white predecessors?"

4. It's a Washington story. The public demands the national media report on shootings in Kentucky, car crashes in California, septuplets in Iowa, and of course, the Monarch butterfly's response to El Nino.

This is not to say that all Washington-based stories are unimportant: all the networks jumped on the story of the President's new puppy. On ABC's "Good Morning America," co-host Charles Gibson noted the President spends an enormous amount of time fundraising, but "things like the dog...get the headlines," to which U.S. News reporter Debra Dickerson replied: "I think that has a lot to do with the dumbing down of the news in general...we're giving people what they want and not what we should be giving them." Ineeded: ABC gave their viewers nothing that morning on the Cisneros indictment although it was less than 24 hours old.

Optimistic conservatives keep telling us the Clinton scandals will soon achieve "critical mass." I doubt it. Because there's this huge uncritical mass called the American people, lulled to sleep by an uncritical national media counting the fat grams in cheesy fries and sponsoring dog-naming contests. It's not that the public doesn't want information about their corrupt government It's that the public has no idea how corrupt their government is.