MediaWatch: April 5, 1999

In This Issue

Meet the Obedient White House Press; NewsBites; Two Thumbs Down for Oscar's Honors; Blame Reagan First; CNN Catches Gore Gaffes

Meet the Obedient White House Press

President Clinton’s March 19 press conference, his first formal solo press conference in more than ten months, was delayed five weeks after the final impeachment vote so that reporters would be able to "move on" to "the nation’s business." The strategy worked.

Nevertheless, on MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams that night, reporter Campbell Brown insisted: "I think it surprised even some of the veteran White House correspondents — the number of questions relating to the impeachment trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. There were a lot of people here who felt he should have gotten beyond this, but there were quite a number of questions."

What was Brown talking about? Lewinsky’s name was never even mentioned, even though, in her interview with Barbara Walters and her new book, she said Clinton gave her the first orgasm of the affair, meaning he lied about touching her "with an intent to arouse or gratify." Of the 21 questioners, eleven asked about either the coming war in Kosovo (five), the damaging Chinese theft of nuclear secrets (four), Bosnia (one), or Russia (one). Several of those, especially the China questions, were tough. Only six questions related to the scandals Clinton long avoided questions on, and four of those were slow-pitch softballs.

Former Clinton aide David Gergen described the jilted lovers of the press corps on CNN’s Larry King Live when he borrowed from Clinton’s talk about his marriage: "Well, they’re working hard. They love each other very much, but it’s going to be a long time putting this relationship between the President and the press back together." But several journalists were still willing to display their sensitive feelings for Clinton.

Eighty-something self-employed reporter Sarah McClendon yelled the suggestion that Clinton had been worse than assassinated: "Sir, will you tell us why you think people have been so mean to you? Is it a conspiracy? Is it a plan? They treat you worse than they treated Abe Lincoln."

U.S. News & World Report correspondent Kenneth Walsh tip-toed around a impeachment post-game analysis: "I understand that you don’t want to speculate about what your opponents might do now after the impeachment struggle is over, but I wonder what your feelings are after some period of reflection on the impeachment process, how you were treated, and if you feel resentment, relief, and how you think people will deal with this and see it 10 to 20 years from now."

Washington Post reporter John F. Harris wondered if kiss-and-tell books were causing Clinton pain: "Sir, George Stephanopoulos has written a book that contained some fairly tough criticism of you. Earlier Dick Morris had written a somewhat similar book. How much pain do these judgments by former aides cause you? And do you consider it a betrayal for people to write books on the history of your administration while you're still in office?"

CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller asked if Clinton would disavow his earlier support for the Independent Counsel act now that he’s been the target of Kenneth Starr.

On the non-scandal front, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked a boost-the-Hillary-hype question: "There’s been a lot of people in New York state who have spoken with your wife, who seems to be pretty much convinced she wants to run for the Senate seat next year. A) how do you feel about that? Do you think she would be a good Senator? And, as part of a broader question involving what has happened over the past year, how are the two of you doing in trying to strengthen your relationship, given everything you and she have been through over this past year?"

Blitzer could have asked a much tougher question. Just two days earlier, Starr deputy Hickman Ewing admitted in the latest Susan McDougal trial that he had drafted an indictment of Hillary Clinton for lying about Whitewater. Instead of asking Clinton if his wife should have been indicted, Blitzer asked if he thought his wife would be a good Senator. On Larry King Live that night, Blitzer claimed, "on a more substantive note, we did learn from the president, beyond that, that he says they are still very much in love and they’re working very hard to repair their relationship despite all that’s gone on this past year."

The two tough questions on Clinton"s pattern of lying about sex came from the husband-and-wife team of ABC’s Sam Donaldson and Jan Smith, a reporter with Washington’s Fox affiliate WTTG. Donaldson asked Clinton to respond to Juanita Broaddrick’s allegations: "Shouldn’t you speak directly on this matter and reassure the public? And if they are not true, can you tell us what your relationship with Ms. Broaddrick was, if any?" He refused to answer for the second time. Smith asked about school children learning about truth-telling: "What do you think your legacy will be about lying, and how important do you think it is to tell the truth, especially under oath?"

Neither CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News mentioned the Broaddrick question and non-answer. It wasn’t included in an summary, although McClendon’s Lincoln question made it. On The World Today, CNN’s John King touched on Broaddrick for 13 seconds.

Reaction to Donaldson’s Broaddrick question varied. On Larry King Live, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz suggested, "I was struck by the fact that there was no follow-up. In fact, the whole press conference seemed to me to be kind of lacking in passion; it seemed like a back-to-business meat and potatoes news conference like you might have seen back in 1995....There was a time when, if somebody like Donaldson had asked about Juanita Broaddrick and the president tried to get away with that non-answer, there might have been two or three follow-ups and putting the President on the spot."

CBS White House reporter Bill Plante was more nonchalant about never getting an answer: "When he says, ‘I’m too busy to talk about that, that’s why I send it to my lawyers. I’m just here doing the people’s business.’ They know that works, and that’s what we can expect to hear on any of those topics from now until the end of his presidency." Blitzer agreed: "I think it worked for him because he was really well-rehearsed, well-prepared. They spent a long time, he and his top advisers, going over practice questions. They knew these sensitive questions would come up."

On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren explained the lack of follow-ups: "At that point, you face a question about how you want to behave. One of the things this White House has done politically is try to make the press an issue as much as the Republicans an issue, saying that we’re trying to divert people away from the business that matters. We’re part of the political calculation and the political strategy of this White House. Certainly, it’s fair to say someone might have asked again, but it’s also very clear the president was not going to answer."

Jan Smith came under attack on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Lehrer suggested: "Most of those questions, we were just listening to them again in our excerpt, they all began with a lecture before they got to the question. And that seems to be, you have to do it, right?" Media correspondent Terence Smith agreed: "Jan Smith even citing George Washington and swearing to tell the truth. Sure, reporters show off in situations like this."

On Late Edition, CNN pundit and former New York Times and U.S. News reporter Steve Roberts claimed all this proved that old canard of liberal bias does not exist: "We’re in favor of a good story and we’re against whoever is in power. And that has worked against Clinton for years now and at least one thing we can now all agree on, all this notion that the press is all liberal and always pampers Democrats. I think in the last year we can say that has not been true." Maybe Roberts was half-right. You’d think a liberal wouldn’t let Clinton get away with a non-answer to a rape charge. But a Democrat-pamperer would.


Duck and Cover

As the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal continued to develop, much of the press coverage remained dismissive of the allegations, and several stories diverted attention by focusing on the political nature of the GOP response.

That’s not new. Last year when allegations of missile technology transfers to China first surfaced, there was a similar rush to defuse the potency of the issue. On May 22, 1998, Time’s daily Internet update led with the headline "Chinese Connection Has GOP Drooling."

On the March 18 World News Tonight, ABC’s Linda Douglass stressed spin over substance. "The charge that Mr. Clinton is soft on China is red meat for conservatives." She concluded: "Republicans insist they are not trying to make the Chinese spying case into a partisan issue. Nevertheless, they are planning task forces, hearings and investigations that may well last into the campaign season."

Andrea Mitchell’s March 17 NBC piece was more balanced. But Mitchell stressed that although conservatives "want to punish China," a "leading Republican" (George Shultz) believes "that would be a big mistake." Mitchell ended by noting that "even critics of the administration say China policy is now more about politics with Republicans taking every shot they can get." Amazingly, Republican attempts to get to the bottom of the most serious spying case since the Rosenbergs were disregarded as nothing more than a typical partisan exercise.

Don’t Stain Nature
"Before America turns into one giant paved-over subdivision," announced a March 22 Time headline, "people are fighting back. Is there hope?" Yes, since suburban sprawl is not the problem.

Senior Writer Richard Lacayo repeated Al Gore’s warnings about the environmental dangers of suburban sprawl and suggested Gore’s advocacy shows that "suburban overgrowth has become a national headache." Lacayo sugggested Gore’s "message may still need work, but his plan has some merit." The only Republican quoted was a pollster worrying Gore was "startlingly on track with voters."

Lacayo ignored an opposing point of view. But Steven Hayward pointed out in the March 22 National Review that sprawl is an old environmentalists’ tale: "Developed land accounts for less than five percent of the total land area in the continental United States..Since World War II, the amount of land set aside for wildlife, wilderness conservation, and national parks has grown twice as fast as urban areas."

Lacayo concluded by lamenting: "But sprawl is mostly indelible ink. Once the roads and houses and strip malls set in, you can’t just get them out. The best way to fight sprawl is to stop it before it starts." But to do that is to battle a foe that does not exist.

Same Killer Instinct
It’s not even 2000 yet and already CNN and NBC are helping liberal groups drag out the old ‘GOP is too extreme on abortion’ line.

On the March 23 Today, NBC’s Lisa Myers publicized a National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) ad campaign: "Eleven months before the first primary, two top Republican hopefuls already are under fire. Accused of trying to hide their opposition to abortion. An abortion rights group is running ads in Iowa and New Hampshire questioning whether Elizabeth Dole is all that different from her male opponents."

Myers, without labeling NARAL as liberal, or on the other "extreme" of the abortion issue, aired a portion of an ad on Elizabeth Dole which claimed, "Like the rest of the Republicans on the far right, Elizabeth Dole is anti-choice." Myers also played a second NARAL ad pairing George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan.

On the March 22 Inside Politics Judy Woodruff never called NARAL liberal, but did label Pat Robertson and the National Right to Life Committee conservative. After playing clips of the NARAL ads, Woodruff said abortion creates "a troubling complication" for the GOP: "While anti-abortion activists make up a large part of the GOP base, other more moderate voters, especially women, have drifted away from the party, in part because of its hard-line image on issues like abortion."

Two Thumbs Down for Oscar's Honors

Networks Agree Kazan's Personal Life Outweighs Job Approval

The decision to award director Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar caused an uproar on the Hollywood Left, and the media were their willing publicists. In 1952, before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Kazan named colleagues he knew to be communists. The same crowd that said "move on" during the Lewinsky scandal because it was Clinton’s personal life suggested that Kazan’s work couldn’t be honored because of his personal actions.

In coverage leading up to Oscar night, Kazan’s supporters found little opportunity to voice support, while communist sympathizers were made out to be the heroes. Katie Couric started off on the March 19 Today, talking to actor Rod Steiger, a leading Kazan critic, and columnist Richard Cohen, who wrote a column defending Kazan. What began as a point-counterpoint segment soon turned into two to nothing, with Cohen agreeing the award now was inappropriate.

On ABC’s World News Tonight March 19, Peter Jennings raised the Kazan case during a piece on "The Century," concluding that "The HUAC campaign was, most historians now agree, out of proportion to the actual threat. Communist influence, while present, had little impact on Hollywood." Later on Nightline, Michel McQueen reported on the controversy, with the talking heads against Kazan getting most of the air time. They ended by allowing actor F. Murray Abraham to give a three-and-a-half-minute dramatic reading of a letter written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

The day of the Academy Awards, Bruce Morton commented on Kazan for his "Last Word" on the March 21 Late Edition. "At the height of U.S. Red-baiting hysteria in the 1950s," Morton informed viewers, "Kazan was a witness...and he named names." Morton took sides: "Kazan made a choice. At the awards, the audience will make its choice: Silence or applause. You can argue either way. Me? I’d sit on my hands."

Only the March 19 NBC Nightly News and March 21 CBS Sunday Morning provided the exceptions, allowing both sides adequate time to express their views, without dismissals about communism.

On Good Morning America the morning after, though, reporter Cynthia McFadden recalled that her favorite moment, besides seeing Monica Lewinsky and Madonna together at a party, "was in the car driving up to the red carpet, a lone protester holding a sign that said, ‘Kazan: the Linda Tripp of the ‘50s.’"

Blame Reagan First

CNN's Cold War Rewrites the '80s

CNN’s 24-part weekly Cold War series got to Ronald Reagan late this winter, arguing that he "crushed Latin American revolutionary dreams" and that his use of civilian-looking aircraft for spying confused the Soviets, thus leading to the shootdown of KAL-007.

The February 21 episode on Central America blamed Reagan for driving the Sandinistas to communism. Noting how the U.S. mined its harbors, narrator Kenneth Branagh asserted: "Nicaragua’s precious stock of oil went up in smoke; the economy was reeling. And, all the while, ways had to be found to contain the U.S.-backed Contra invasion. The Sandinistas asked the Soviets for help." Later Branagh insisted that "to help pay for the continuing bloodshed in Nicaragua, Reagan’s men secretly sold arms to Iran. The American dollar, and the failures of the armed left, crushed Latin American revolutionary dreams."

A month later, Cold War got to U.S.-Soviet relations through the 1980s and the misguided Strategic Defense Initiative. "Many American politicians and scientists campaigned against what they saw as Reagan’s expensive folly," Branagh declared on the March 21 episode, adding: "Reagan’s critics said that SDI was hugely expensive and would never work. They were appalled by the deep cuts in welfare programs that would be needed to pay for it." In reality, social spending soared in the ‘80s.

Instead of painting the Soviet shootdown of the KAL-007 passenger jet in 1983 as an example of Soviet brutality, CNN managed to implicate Reagan. Branagh charged: "The Americans stepped up spy flights in sensitive areas along the Soviet Union’s long borders. Aircraft packed with electronic surveillance gear looked like civilian airliners and often flew close to passenger routes." That led to confusion when "KAL- 007, with 269 people on board, deviated into Soviet air space, more than 300 miles from its normal route."

Gorbachev soon came to power and wanted peace. But Reagan’s Star Wars stood in the way at their first summit: "Gorbachev left Geneva without agreement on his main objective: curbing the arms race." CNN let Gorbachev explain his agenda for the second summit in Iceland: "The nuclear arms race should never be taken into space." Eventually, the Soviets rose above Reagan’s stubbornness before their third meeting: "Ronald Reagan still pursued his Star Wars vision. The Kremlin now believed that it would never happen and therefore should not delay agreement on arms reduction."

CNN Catches Gore Gaffes

Vice President Al Gore made two outlandish boasts in March, but unlike the broadcast networks, CNN aired a news story about them and recalled a few classics.

First, in a March 9 interview on CNN’s Late Edition/Prime Time Gore insisted: "During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet." Second, Gore told the March 16 Des Moines Register about how his father "taught me how to clean out hog waste with a shovel and a hoe. He taught me how to clear land with a double-blade ax; how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules."

Eleven days after the Internet claim, on March 20 ABC’s World News Tonight delivered the only broadcast network news show mention, but allowed Gore to put the best spin on it: "I was very tired when I made that comment because I had been up very late the night before inventing the camcorder. And anyway, nobody questioned Strom Thurmond when he said he invented the wheel."

The night before, CNN’s The World Today, after hitting on the Internet, explored the farming boast ignored by the ABC, CBS and NBC evening and morning shows. Bruce Morton countered: "Gore is a city kid: father a Senator, he grew up in Washington, went to St. Albans, a well-known private school here, and then to Harvard. Summers at the family farm, yes, but mules and double-bladed axes? What he meant, a spokesman said, was ‘the fact that he spent his summers working on the family farm.’" Morton recalled another boast: "Gore once claimed the two characters in the movie Love Story were based on his wife, Tipper, and himself. The author said, news to me, and Gore backed off."

He added: "Then there was his emotional account, at the 1996 convention, of his sister’s death from lung cancer in 1984." Undercutting Gore’s pitch, Morton pointed out: "Gore bragged about farming tobacco as a presidential candidate in 1988, four years after his sister’s death." Morton showed Gore on February 23, 1988: "I want you to know that with my own hands, all my life, I’ve put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I’ve hoed it. I’ve suckered it. I’ve sprayed it."