MediaWatch: August 10, 1998

In This Issue

Geraldo Uses His NBC Venues to Promote Clinton; NewsBites; Slow As Reno on the Fundraising Scandal; Pushing U.S. News Left; Rating Military Readiness

Geraldo Uses His NBC Venues to Promote Clinton

The White House's Favorite "Reporter"

Geraldo Rivera has been replaced by Jerry Springer as the paragon of chair-tossing daytime tabloid television. A decade ago, Rivera’s social commentary was limited to subjects like "the lesbian baby boom" and "transsexuals in prison." But Rivera has taken his attention-grabbing antics uptown with a new contract with NBC worth an estimated $5 million a year that includes not just his nightly CNBC show Rivera Live, but a forthcoming nightly half-hour news show on CNBC, plus stints as an NBC News reporter. All for a man who bluntly told Today’s Matt Lauer in May: "I believe objectivity is a fantasy."

Rivera served as Today’s reporter on President Clinton’s China trip. Rivera’s passionate attachment to Clinton came through in an article in the August 1-7 TV Guide. Mary Murphy chronicled the hourly doings of the press corps on the trip, like this entry for June 30:

"8 P.M., Geraldo Rivera’s Suite. Rivera is beaming. ‘I’ve been to see the boss,’ says Rivera, referring to Clinton. ‘McCurry took me up to the 45th floor to an alcove outside the President’s bedroom. He came out. He told me he’s just gotten a message from the Dalai Lama and that the Dalai Lama was ecstatic that progress had been made.’ Rivera was not permitted to bring a cameraman with him upstairs, but his informal audience is nonetheless an obvious mark of favor. I ask McCurry why Rivera — and not [CBS reporter Scott] Pelley — got the interview. ‘Because Geraldo was arguably the biggest network name on the trip,’ he says. ‘Besides, when it comes to scandal stuff, Geraldo has been as open-minded as you would want a journalist to be. We notice things like that. So we felt a little private time with Clinton was not inappropriate.’"

Praise for Rivera’s "open-mindedness" has clearly been returned in kind. On Today he offered a glowing account of his Clinton encounter and relayed the "joke" he told about Bill Clinton: "I was thinking if they give him any more airtime he’s going to have to register as a pro-democracy dissident." TV Guide also noted that on Today, Rivera termed Newsweek magazine and The Washington Post as "‘sex-obsessed sister publications’ which have been ‘suckling leaks from the breast of the likes of Ken Starr.’"

But the White House staff probably set their VCRs for Rivera’s pro-Clinton orations on CNBC. On May 19, Rivera delivered a stem-winding Clinton defense: "This man has scarcely had a day in office untainted by accusations of scandal. His very frustrated political enemies have tried every imaginable attack on the President’s so-far impenetrable armor. There’s been Whitewater, Filegate, and Travelgate, each trumpeted in its time as the scandal that would bring down his presidency. All now revealed basically as next to nonsense. Miserable flops costing taxpayers millions."

Rivera wondered how Clinton could endure all the abuse: "How much of his vital attention is being consumed by Ken Starr’s endless probe, by the Monica Lewinsky saga, by the fears that his trusted Secret Service agents will be forced to rat out the maybe gory details of his private life....And finally, and most importantly, how can our bridge to the 21st century feel about the slanderous charge amounting almost to treason, that for Johnny Chung’s bribe of 100,000 lousy dollars he sold America’s missile secrets to the Chinese, who now aim their deadly devices at America’s children?.... I watch him and I wonder how he does it. I watch him and wonder how much is too much for any man."

On Rivera’s June 26 show, MSNBC’s John Hockenberry suggested: "If, as you say, the Linda Tripp testimony leads to a Monica indictment it will be the ultimate betrayal of Monica." Rivera replied from China: "And I think that’s what Linda Tripp was aiming for along with her mentor Lucianne Goldberg, the book agent. They wanted to make money on a book, but once push came to shove they were perfectly willing to sacrifice the young former White House intern on the altar of greed, on the altar of hatred for Bill Clinton and his administration and I think they’re going to accomplish that at least in the short term. But if it comes to trial, Linda Tripp will be facing some severe questioning by Monica Lewinsky’s very capable counsel. And my God, a first year lawstudent hearing those tapes will be able to make her look like exactly what she is, a treacherous, back-stabbing, good-for-nothing enemy of the truth."

Rivera even threw rhetorical punches at Jay Leno on NBC’s Tonight Show July 13 when Leno suggested perjury was the issue: "I disagree. I think it’s all about sex. Whitewater: they tried it, came up with nothing. Travelgate: nothing. Filegate: nothing. All they have is this purported semi, neo, almost, quasi sex with a 24-year-old and then the lie about it. What married man is not going to lie about it? It is Hillary’s business, it is not the grand jury’s business. And for Ken Starr to pretend with this lofty language that you’re talking about profound constitutional issues is the height of hypocrisy. He will do anything necessary, by any means necessary to nail the President of the United States."

On the July 29 Today, Geraldo sparred with conservative MSNBC pundit Laura Ingraham over the meaning of Monica Lewinsky’s immunity deal: "The New York Times story, as every New York Times story virtually since the beginning of Whitewater, is grossly overstated. I can report with confidence that contrary to what you’re hearing in this, the newspaper of record, that that basically was the same deal Bill Ginsburg offered in January...The question is whether Congress is in the mood to impeach a popular President for doing something that virtually every member has done at some time in their lives."

Katie Couric admonished Rivera: "I want you to take off your political adviser’s hat even though you may have fantasies of serving in that role. I’d rather talk about some basic legal issues." When Couric brought up reports that Lewinsky would testify the White House had no role in writing "talking points" advising Linda Tripp what to say to Paula Jones’ lawyers, Rivera proclaimed: "The talking points were the banner that the right wing ran up the hill and said, ‘Bruce Lindsey suborned perjury, he’s the one, the talking points are going to bring down this President.’ And now suddenly the talking points are history. Just like Whitewater, just like Travelgate, just like Filegate. It’s going to turn out that this President is the most maligned and assailed man in the history of the Executive Office and we’ll all be deeply ashamed." Heaven help Geraldo if events prove the maligners and assailers correct.


Sticking to Sex.
As if the Monica Lewinsky story was the only scandal in Washington, TV reporters missed chances in July to expand the Clinton scandals beyond "just sex."

The Washington Post published two bombshells July 10. Bill Miller reported a federal judge ordered the FEC to review Judicial Watch’s allegations that the Clinton administration and the DNC offered spots on overseas trade missions in exchange for donations. George Lardner disclosed that Al Gore fundraiser Howard Glicken pleaded guilty to soliciting and laundering $20,000 in foreign money in 1993 for Democratic Senate campaigns.

On July 11, the Post and The Washington Times reported Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Defense Department to seize and search the computer of Pentagon official Clifford Bernath, who admitted to leaking Linda Tripp’s security clearance form. Lamberth ordered the seizure after Bernath deleted documents from his computer.

Nine days later, The Washington Times added to the Tripp story with a Bill Sammon report that Tripp was among the nearly 1,000 names on a revised list of FBI files obtained by the White House. TV coverage of all these? Zero.

Grand Old Losers.
"Nelson Rockefeller. Jacob Javits. Mac Mathias. Lowell Weicker. All once proud and powerful members of the Republican Party. And all Northeastern moderates." On the July 21 Inside Politics, CNN’s William Schneider pushed the media belief that power lies in the center for the GOP: "With conservatives controlling the GOP leadership, moderate Republicans have become marginalized in their own party. Do they have a future? We tracked them down in their native habitat: Connecticut."

After quotes from local Republicans about how most Americans are pro-choice, and oppose the NRA and the religious right, he concluded: "If the Republicans lose Congress and the White House in 2000, it could provoke a showdown in the GOP. The experience of losing election after election might teach the Republicans the same lesson that it taught Democrats: power lies in the center."

But if "moderates" win in Connecticut, why did Weicker lose? In fact, in 1988, his last year in office, Weicker, earned an American Conservative Union ranking of 4 on a scale of 100. His Democratic opponent, Joseph Lieberman, multiplied that score by eight in 1989. But Schneider’s thesis conflicts with reality: when Northeastern Republicans controlled the party it was in the minority for close to 50 years until the 1994 conservative Republican revolution; or that in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan ran as a conservative he was overwhelmingly elected twice.

Roman Roadblock.
Peter Jennings found the newest health problem on the July 21 World News Tonight: Catholic hospitals. Jennings asserted: "When a Catholic hospital is the only one nearby are patients losing some of their options? We’ll take A Closer Look....This is not about cost. It’s about ideology. What happens when a Catholic hospital is the only one around."

Michele Norris investigated what happened when the Catholic hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire entered into a partnership with another city hospital, "a partnership formed to help cut costs, but because of the Catholic church’s rules about birth control and abortion, there have been severe consequences for patients."

Norris ran two soundbites from Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice and a clip from an upset doctor, but just one soundbite from the head of the Catholic Hospital Association. Norris warned: "In many cases the merger leaves the Catholic hospital with a virtual monopoly on hospital care. Anyone who wants access to one of the restricted services has no choice but to go elsewhere. That’s the dilemma that patients now face in 76 communities across 26 states."

Then Jennings talked to medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, who suggested there was nothing wrong with a hospital owner running it as they see fit. But Jennings countered: "A cynic on the other hand might say that here is the Catholic church trying to get around the abortion laws in the country and force its will on an increasingly larger number of people. What do you say to that?"

Slow As Reno on the Fundraising Scandal

Networks Reluctant to Note Calls for Independent Counsel

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee heard testimony on August 4 from FBI Director Louis Freeh and chief investigator Charles LaBella. Both have written memos to Attorney General Janet Reno arguing she has no choice but to appoint an independent counsel.

Chairman Dan Burton asked Freeh about who may have violated the law on fundraising: "Does that include the President and the Vice President?" Freeh replied: "Yes sir." Is that big news, the FBI Director saying Clinton and Gore are personally being investigated for law-breaking? Not to ABC or CNN, which ignored the exchange that night. NBC played it deep in their story. Only CBS and FNC News made it the lead of their reports. Instead, ABC and CNN focused on Reno rejecting Burton's subpoena of the Freeh and LaBella memos.

But the networks had been ignoring new fundraising developments for weeks. On July 23, New York Times reporter David Johnston revealed LaBella’s memo on the front page: "After a 10-month inquiry, the departing chief of the Justice Department’s campaign finance unit has concluded in a confidential report to Attorney General Janet Reno that she has no alternative but to seek an independent prosecutor to investigate political fundraising abuses during President Clinton’s re-election campaign, government officials said Wednesday."

But was it serious enough for TV? That morning, NBC’s Today aired two briefs totaling 41 seconds on the matter, while ABC and CBS were silent about it. Despite a question to Reno about the matter at a press conference that morning and her videotaped response, that night ABC and NBC aired nothing, while CBS and CNN aired full reports. That night, CNN’s Pierre Thomas became the first to note that Sen. Fred Thompson read from portions of FBI Director Louis Freeh’s November memo to Reno, which was noted on the New York Times front page on July 16.

CBS and NBC continued to ignore it on July 24, even though the Today show interviewed Al Gore. So did ABC’s Good Morning America, but Aaron Brown asked Gore a question at the very end wondering only how Gore could get around prosecutors: "There are more and more, every day, calls for an independent counsel to look at the campaign finance stuff, some of which includes phone calls that you made or didn’t make during the campaign season. Is there any way short of an independent counsel to put this behind you?"

Pushing U.S. News Left

A feud has broken out between former U.S. News & World Report Editor James Fallows and owner Mortimer Zuckerman, with each accusing the other of contaminating the magazine with their personal views. Fallows announced his own firing in June, blaming it on editorial clashes with Zuckerman. That angered Zuckerman and his deputy, Editorial Director Harold Evans. The two sides have been haggling since over severance for Fallows.

Fallows and Zuckerman are outspoken liberals and in telling the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz about the flaws the other inflicted on the magazine, their examples demonstrated how each tried to use the magazine to push his liberal views. In his July 28 story Kurtz described how Zuckerman complained that "last fall...Fallows was considering a cover story in which a disgruntled doctor blasted the practices of health maintenance organizations. Working title: ‘The Patient Is the Enemy.’ Zuckerman thought the piece was terribly one-sided, part of a pattern of editorials masquerading as news stories. He ordered up a more balanced article that ran with the headline: ‘Are HMOs the Right Prescription?’"

Matching what the July 29 MediaWatch Study documented, Kurtz relayed how Zuckerman "criticized the magazine’s coverage of the Monica Lewinsky investigation as ‘slow off the mark and weak initially.’"

Partisans for Fallows countered that Zuckerman and Evans pushed articles by their friends, who just happened to be liberal crusaders. "One was liberal columnist Joe Conason," Kurtz reported, "whom Evans wanted to profile Clinton-bashing publisher Richard Mellon Scaife; Fallows was wary of Conason’s politics, and while Conason was paid for the piece, it still hasn’t run." In another incident, Kurtz highlighted how "U.S. News staffers still hoot about Zuckerman trying to assign a story on Hispanic culture to his friend, socialite Bianca Jagger. Zuckerman says reports that he dated Jagger are false and that he asked only that she be consulted on the story."

In the rush to replace Fallows might Zuckerman have stumbled upon a conservative? An August 3 New York Times profile of new Editor Steve Smith relayed how "Smith describes himself politically as somewhat right of center. ‘I am not an ideological guy,’ he said. ‘I got into journalism not to save the world but to do good stories.’"

Will Zuckerman, who has strong liberal views, let him? In the June 29 issue, the next to last edited by Fallows, Zuckerman declared that Ken Starr is causing the Founding Fathers to spin in their graves: "When they wrote the First Amendment, they imagined a press corps as a curb on power. They did not anticipate an independent counsel free from checks and balances. They had no role for a chief inquisitor. Nor should we."

Rating Military Readiness

Since the Cold War, reporters usually focus on defense issues only when a liberal shibboleth is involved, like gays or Kelly Flinn, and tend to worry more about "full-funding" for Head Start than spare parts for Air Force planes. An exception to that trend was ABC’s John McWethy report on Air Force readiness on the July 16 World News Tonight. Reporting from Langley Air Force Base, McWethy warned: "Within the U.S. military and especially the Air Force, there is a growing sense of crisis. Weapons are aging, aircraft sit idle for lack of spare parts, long tours of duty in the Persian Gulf are killing morale and wearing out equipment."

McWethy quoted an opinion from General Richard Hawley, who claimed a "ten to twelve percent" drop in readiness. McWethy added, "But the numbers do not begin to describe the depth of the problem or the frustration it is creating on the flight line."

Senior Airman James Mullins angrily resented the state of the Air Force: "If I have to wait a month to get the part to fix the jet, and then the part I get doesn’t even work, how is readiness so good? The jet’s not flying, it’s sitting on the ground. The pilot’s not getting his training. In my opinion, readiness stinks."

Lieutenant Charles Collier, a maintenance officer, said that of the 21 jets he was in charge of, "on a given day we probably have ten." McWethy noted acidly "That means less than half of this squadron can fly. Pilots are also getting out in record numbers, going to airlines for better money and for a life that does not include long separations from their families." He also said that soldiers "fed up with long deployments for peacekeeping" are leaving for higher paying and less stressful jobs in the private sector. "They can still defend the nation, they argue. But they admit the erosion in their capabilities is alarming and may not be easy to reverse."