MediaWatch: December 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 12

One Overlooked Tornado

With all the talk about the destructive forces of El Nino, it is surprising another weather-related story was overlooked by all the network evening shows but one — except that it involves evidence the President may have lied to the Whitewater grand jury. Last spring, a tornado aided in the discovery of a trove of Whitewater documents in a damaged Mercury Marquis, including a check made out to Bill Clinton for $27,600 from James McDougal’s failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.

NBC Nightly News was the only one of the four network evening shows to report it. On November 10, Fred Francis reported: "Before junking [the car] mechanic Johnny Lawhorn pried open the trunk and found a cashier’s check for $27,600 payable to Bill Clinton. Adding to the mystery, Bill Clinton has testified that he never borrowed money from his Whitewater partner. But the amount of the check corresponds exactly to the amount of a Whitewater loan repayment. So why was it made out to Bill Clinton? That’s what the Whitewater grand jury wants to know."

ABC, CBS, and PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer all ignored it. Except for a 17-second Ann Curry news update on the November 6 Today show and a brief mention by Mark Knoller on CBS Saturday Morning two days later, the network morning programs didn’t touch it. CNN’s Bob Franken and Wolf Blitzer covered the story on Inside Politics, but it never made it onto CNN’s evening newscast, The World Today.

Three days after the story broke, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert interviewed the President one on one during the 50th anniversary edition of Meet the Press, and although he asked Clinton about his golf handicap, he forgot about the check. At least his network beat the competition on a very uncompetitive story.