MediaWatch: August 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 8

Tabloid Tales Trump Scandals

The national news magazines boast of their ability to provide in- depth perspectives on the news. Last year, Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson suggested on PBS: "Time... can be your intelligent agent. It can help set the agenda so that we, in a time when everything is fractured, 500 channels, hundreds of thousands of places to go on the World Wide Web, what we do need in this country, and maybe in this world, is common ground."

Congressional hearings into the fundraising scandal offered the news magazines a complex, meaty subject that the networks punted (see Study, page 6) but they decided to ape TV news and cover celebrity murders and tabloid features instead.

On the Monday before the hearings, in issues dated July 14, the Senate hearings received a significant preview six pages in Time, four pages in Newsweek, four in U.S. News & World Report. But as the hearings progressed, and the evidence of wrongdoing increased, the coverage shrunk and grew sillier. One week later, Time offered a cover story on folk singer Jewel, plus eight pages on teen crime, but only two on the hearings. Newsweek gave its cover to centerfold-turned-TV-actress Jenny McCarthy, and devoted one page to a John Huang story.

U.S. News did a one-page story attacking Fred Thompson's claim that China subverted U.S. elections, and another three pages claiming the real story was ethnic lobbies within America.

The July 28 issues were stunning examples of tabloid judgment: Time put Gianni Versace on the cover, and had 16 pages on his murder, to only one on John Huang. Newsweek put Versace's killer Andrew Cunanan on its cover, and omitted its entire space on national affairs for 17 pages on the murder. (Compare the Cunanan craze to fundraising coverage from April to July: over 17 issues, Time logged 20 pages, Newsweek only ten.) U.S. News gave Cunanan a page, the hearings a whisper in its Washington Whispers feature.

Newsweek devoted six pages to Cunanan on August 4, and a half- page to Democratic attempts to dig up dirt on Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). U.S. News had six pages on "Day Care Dangers" and a couple of paragraphs on Republican Haley Barbour. Time published nothing on the hearings except a fictitious interview with Senator Fred Thompson using lines out of his movies.

After witnesses detailed Charlie Trie's multi-million dollar funnel from China and the White House obstructed the release of documents, the August 11 editions arrived: Newsweek offered one paragraph, U.S. News a third of a page and Time had zilch. Those interested in the hearings couldn't find them on TV or at the magazine stand.