MediaWatch: August 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 8

Dressmakers Outrank Democrats

Last fall, Hedrick Smith devoted an hour of his PBS special The People and The Power Game to decrying the media's negative coverage of Clinton: "By focusing on scandal and conflict over substance, and by our increasingly negative tone, the media has distorted the nation's agenda and lost touch with the public we claim to serve."

But network news coverage in the month of July suggests the substance of scandal is being swamped by the titillating tabloid fun of celebrity murders. The killing of fashion designer Gianni Versace and the subsequent manhunt for gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan dramatically outnumbered coverage of the Thompson hearings, even though the murder happened a week after the hearings began. To be specific:

The morning shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired 132 full segments on Versace and Cunanan, but devoted only 18 full segments to the Thompson hearings, a ratio of more than seven to one. (The shows also aired 49 anchor briefs on the murder, compared to 16 on the hearings.)

The Big Three morning shows aired 51 interviews on Cunanan and five on the hearings, for a ten to one ratio. All five morning show interviews on the hearings were held with network pundits, who reviewed the hearings as theater and as a horse race. Senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee never appeared to discuss the substance of the investigation. Morning show hearings coverage declined each week, from 21 to seven to five to one in the last week.

Evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN aired 93 full reports on the Cunanan story to 58 full reports on the hearings. (The shows also aired 11 anchor briefs on Cunanan and 12 on the hearings.) Evening stories on Cunanan led off the newscast on 30 shows, and came number two in 23 shows. By contrast, the hearings came first in only five newscasts, and drew the second story seven times.

Like most of the other months this year, the networks skipped fundraising stories on a majority of their broadcasts. In July's 31 days, the morning shows were all guilty (CBS 29 days off, NBC 20, ABC 17). In the evening, ABC (19 nights off) and NBC (17) preferred to play hooky, but not CBS (10) or CNN (11).

Some networks were less distinguished than others in their rush for the tabloid headline over the slow exposition of corruption in high places.

Morning shows: CBS This Morning won the prize for ignoring the hearings. After one anchor brief on the first day, July 8, and one Phil Jones report and two briefs on July 9, they took the rest of the month off.

On ABC's Good Morning America, the Cunanan story attracted 41 full segments, including 17 interviews. The hearings drew just nine full segments, with three interviews of ABC pundits. Co-host Charles Gibson traveled to Miami to cover Cunanan, but never came to Washington for the hearings. (Good Morning America aired 20 Cunanan anchor briefs to seven on the hearings.)

NBC's Today loved the Cunanan story the most, with 59 full segments, including 24 interviews, to only eight segments, including two Tim Russert interviews, on the hearings. (Today's anchor-brief gap was 18 to 6.) Like ABC, NBC sent co-host Matt Lauer to Miami, not Washington.

After Haley Barbour testified, news anchor Sara James asked Russert if the fundraising scandal was now over: "Does it end here, Tim?" After Lisa Myers profiled Sen. Fred Thompson, co-host Katie Couric asked: "Lisa, back to the really important things. I remember he brought that country singer Lorrie Morgan to a Washington dinner once a few years back. Is he still dating her?"

Evening shows: CNN's The World Today (and Prime News on Wednesdays) had the greatest evening news discrepancy between the Cunanan killings and the Thompson hearings: 29 to 14. CNN led its newscast with Cunanan nine times, and made it number two on seven nights. CNN aired a story or brief on the hearings every evening after they took place, and their 14 full stories ran longer than the other networks. But The World Today is twice as long and it barely matched the others in the number of stories. The hearings never led CNN.

CBS Evening News led the Big Three in Cunanan coverage, with 24 full stories and two anchor briefs. The murder led off eight broadcasts, and got the second story six times. While CBS dragged far behind their morning competitors in caring about the Senate corruption probe, Evening News came in first among the Big Three with 18 full pieces and two anchor briefs. CBS aired a story every night after the Senate hearings were in session. Fundraising led the newscast once, on July 8. ABC's World News Tonight followed CBS closely in capitalizing on Cunanan with 22 stories and an anchor brief. ABC also led its newscast with Cunanan eight times, and gave it second-billing on seven days.

By contrast, the hearings drew 14 full reports and two briefs. Fundraising led the newscast twice, including a July 9 piece touting Clinton's high new approval rating of 64 percent. ABC's John Donvan underlined the poll: "Mr. Clinton in Europe is moving like a man on a roll. A summit here where he got almost every- thing he wanted, an economy back home that is the best in decades. Even the charges being raised about his party's fund- raising tactics do not seem to stick."

While NBC's Today led in the Cunanan frenzy in the morning, Nightly News trailed the other evening shows with 17 full reports and four anchor briefs. NBC led with Cunanan on five nights, and gave it the number two slot three times. NBC devoted five "In Depth" features to Versace and Cunanan, but none to the hearings. NBC aired 15 reports on the hearings, nine of them in the first week. Fundraising led two shows, and made the number two slot just once.

The hearings were first and second on July 8, as the hearings began. That night, Brian Williams cast the probe as a partisan food fight in a question to Tim Russert: "It's clear the Republicans are going after the President, that's half of what this is all about. They'll also go after John Huang. Who will the Democrats be left to attack?"

That's a far cry from the line NBC's John Chancellor took in 1987, decrying Oliver North's efforts to hide Iran-Contra details: "There is a colossal arrogance at the heart of the Iran- Contra operation....North was working for the American government, but when he got in trouble, his first priority was to keep his files from the American government. It wasn't trustworthy, and that's the greatest arrogance of all."

Ten years later, the White House and the DNC ignore subpoenaes and withhold documents for months from Congress and the Independent Counsel, but Americans are kept busy watching the detective stories.