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MediaWatch: August 24, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 14

A Chronology of Embarrassing Error

Faced with the prospect of a President perjuring himself before a federal grand jury, media pundits sensed danger, and began wondering how to get Clinton out of it, composing drafts of a confessional speech to the country. But the President’s August 17 admission that he lied for seven months only underscored the need for a bucket of media mea culpas. From the day the Lewinsky story first broke in The Washington Post on January 21, some in the media chose to defend the President at all costs to their reputations for accuracy — or reverence for the truth.

  • By 5 p.m. Eastern time on January 21, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift had staked out the so-what defense on MSNBC: "Well, he’s been elected twice with people knowing he has had affairs. Now is the fact that this woman is 21. I mean, she’s still of age, I suppose. You know, I think that the distaste that people may feel for this will also be because of the fact that the probing into this person’s private life has occurred. I think past Presidents, Lyndon Johnson for one, certainly Jack Kennedy, these things went on, you know, libido and leadership are linked."
  • That night, Bryant Gumbel tried a bolder attack, asking Scott Pelley on CBS’s Public Eye: "Scott, as you and I both know, a popular move these days is to make a titillating charge and then have the media create the frenzy. Given Kenneth Starr’s track record, should we suspect that he’s trying to do with innuendo that which he has been unable to do with evidence?"
  • On January 25, weekend Today co-host Jodi Applegate took on Gennifer Flowers just days after The Washington Post revealed that Clinton admitted having sex with Flowers in his Paula Jones deposition. Applegate insisted the audio tapes Flowers played in 1992 were doctored: "Given that all of these are still only allegations against the President, why should people believe you now, even still?" Flowers replied: "Well, in the first place, he admits the relationship took place, so I mean the truth is out." Applegate snapped: "According to The Washington Post."
  • As CNN’s Impact concluded that night, Bernard Shaw warned that Clinton could be wrongly accused: "A final thought on what you have seen and heard in this edition of Impact. A breaking news story is never the full picture. Remember speculation that Middle Eastern terrorists bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building? In fact, Americans did it. Remember first reports that Princess Diana was hounded to death by the paparazzi? In fact, we learned that the man driving her speeding limousine was drunk. And that investigation is not over. Remember Richard Jewell highly suspected in the Olympic park bombing? In fact, the FBI apologized for targeting the wrong man. And now we are in the middle of another breaking story; the President and his accusers. All the facts are not in."
  • Morning show interviews with Hillary Clinton hesitantly skimmed the surface of Lewinsky’s allegations, but also suggested an innocent President. On January 27, Today co-host Matt Lauer asked: "So if what you have heard is something you can believe, and if what the President has told the nation is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then you’d have to agree that this is the worst and most damaging smear of the twentieth century." On the 28th, ABC Good Morning America co-host Lisa McRee inquired: "What is it about your husband, Mrs. Clinton, that seems to make him a lightning rod for these types of allegations?....You’ve also talked about your husband’s generosity and his warmth, and his, you know, his warmth with people even, you know, people he hardly knows."
  • That evening, Bryant Gumbel tossed James Carville the very definition of a softball on Public Eye: "Where does Lewinsky fit into this conspiracy theory? Is she victimizing the President or is she too a victim?"
  • NPR anchor and former weekend Today co-host Scott Simon laid another pompous commentary on Today viewers on February 1: "So over the next few weeks President Clinton’s most delicate relations may not be with an independent counsel who stones every turn of his life or an old intern spinning astounding stories, but with millions of Americans who’ve come to like and admire Bill Clinton and don’t want to feel foolish for believing in him. And to be sure prosecutor Kenneth Starr has also put himself on trial. If after all of the agony over these past few weeks it doesn’t produce a single plausible actual charge against President Clinton, and probably soon, it may be the independent prosecutor who could be dismissed by the American public."
  • On the February 27 Dateline NBC, Josh Mankiewicz (son of McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz) deplored asking the Secret Service to testify: "But ever since agents began guarding Presidents after the assassination of William McKinley, the Secret Service has kept its secrets. Now the man investigating the President may want to ask agents in the White House what they know about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. And that’s made a lot of current and former agents wonder who they’re supposed to protect the President from — an assassin, or a character assassination?"
  • CBS Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood took out his poet’s pen on February 28: "The jokes, the snickers, and the flippery/ The slope we’re on is long and slippery/ And there is something in the air which this country best beware/ for there is danger in the dirt and lots of people could get hurt/ And what we sow, we someday reap/ Last night as I laid down to sleep/ I dreamed an apparition swarthy/ the unshaved ghost of Joe McCarthy."
  • On March 10, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter declared on Today: "I do think there is some value in [ex-conservative writer David Brock’s] apology because it does illuminate some larger facts about our times. I think when historians look back on all this, they’re gonna be less concerned about all the legal details of who said what to whom when, and more concerned about the way we drove this truck into the muck. And if David Brock, who helped drive the truck into the muck, wants to help push it out now, great."
  • CNN’s Bruce Morton deplored what Monicagate was doing to the profession of politics on The World Today April 1: "Has anybody in the history of America, any President certainly, had his character so trashed, so publicly, for so long? I think the answer is no and I think Mr. Clinton is probably personally damaged by that and I think, if you were a young state representative, 28 years old, you’re sitting with your wife and kids thinking: do I want to run for President someday? What are you going to say? You're going to say good grief no, look what they do to them."
  • On April 11, Eleanor Clift was still spinning for Clinton on The McLaughlin Group: "We don’t live in Salem and I think the country is sick of the witch hunt. The Paula Jones case was the gateway to Miss Lewinsky. Now that the Jones case has been thrown out, I think it’s going to be very difficult to go after a young woman and try to force her to answer questions about intimate matters."
  • Bryant Gumbel took his latest shot at the scandal on the July 1 Public Eye, waving the white flag of European decadence: "Over five months have passed now since those first over-hyped reports alleged a sexual relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Although Mr. Clinton has denied it and nothing has been proven, the mere suspicion seems to have obsessed a good number of media people and other Americans. What some view as high scandal in our country, is barely cause for concern elsewhere. Richard Schlesinger takes a look at the French connections."
  • Monicagate didn't even rise to the level of a real scandal, the networks implied. On February 12, Tom Brokaw introduced: "In Depth tonight. More on the alleged White House scandal." On May 3, CNN Late Edition host Wolf Blitzer asked: "What is the White House strategy right now in dealing with all of these late breaking developments involving this so-called scandal?" The President’s admission should put any of that so-called analysis to rest.