MediaWatch: August 10, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 13

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?"