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"Another Screwup" or Another Coverup?

Networks That Mention Latest White House Notes Downplay Their Embarrassing Potential

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee questioned Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh yesterday on differences of opinion over Reno's refusal to appoint an independent counsel in the fundraising scandal. CNN and MSNBC both provided live coverage of Reno from 9:45 AM to 12:30 PM ET. When Freeh appeared at 3:45 PM, both networks went live again before cutting out 40 minutes early at 5 PM.

In addition, on Monday night the White House released 35 pages of notes from Oval Office records manager Janis Kearney, including then-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta wondering why "a convicted felon (cocaine-selling DNC donor Jorge Cabrera) was allowed to 'run around' the White House." Kearney also captured Panetta being told the Federal Election Commission's investigation of 1996 fundraising would not be done before the election: "This will certainly help move campaign reform forward." ABC's and CBS's morning shows ignored it yesterday and today, as did ABC last night.

Evening news, December 9:
ABC's World News Tonight led with the hearing. Reporter Linda Douglass began: "Much to the disappointment of Republicans, the Attorney General and the FBI Director presented a united front."

CBS Evening News also led with the hearing, but Bob Schieffer underlined partisan bickering: "It got so heated at one point a Democrat said Reno's critics should see a shrink." Schieffer aired a clip of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) saying "only quick medical advice may be helpful in dealing with the degree of pathological hatred that permeates portions of this town." CBS did run a full Scott Pelley report on the Kearney notes.

NBC Nightly News led with the press conference of suspended NBA player Latrell Sprewell. After the first ad break, Claire Shipman covered the notes, but played them down: "The notes don't contain much more than a few titillating details...But the real problem this time isn't the substance, it's the now-tattered White House reputation. Behind the scenes, aides admit that though they believe it, this explanation for the delay does seem flimsy. As one staff member put it, 'It's another screwup and it sure doesn't make us look very good.'" In another signal the networks don't like promoting GOP-led hearings, Brokaw aired only brief soundbites from Reno and Freeh, but featured none of their questioners.

CNN's The World Today carried a long anchor report on the hearings, and a Brooks Jackson story on the notes, which ended: "Republicans are livid that it took eight months to produce these excerpts, 35 pages in all. A good question is were they worth the wait?"

Morning shows, December 10:
ABC's Good Morning America included interviews with reporters Cokie Roberts and Linda Douglass, but no mention of the Kearney notes.

CBSThis Morning completely ignored news of hearings or delayed notes, but Bill Plante did report on the South Bronx, which Clinton will visit today. (CBS ignored Clinton's $5,000-a-plate fundraisers later today.)

NBC's Today featured only anchor briefs on the hearings this morning. Yesterday, Today led with a raft of skeptical stories on fundraising, even claiming the media wouldn't let the White House escape scrutiny (See box). That's not the approach NBC took during the Thompson hearings. - Tim Graham and Brent Baker