MediaWatch: January 11, 1999

In This Issue

Moral Equivalence on "Men of the Year"; NewsBites; Networks on China: Still Soft on Defense; Hillary's Holiday Halo; Let's Avoid Impeachment; Baldwin Wanted Hyde Stoned?

Moral Equivalence on "Men of the Year"

The Cold War may be over, but Time is putting moral equivalence back into fashion. Time’s December 28-January 4 "Men of the Year" package stressed how indistinguishable Bill Clinton and Ken Starr were. What was really fuzzy was the line between news reporting and opinion. Time matched two articles that were mostly reporting (on Ken Starr and Hillary Clinton) with bushels of liberal opinion:

The article summarizing the package began with two pages of photos lined with large-type copy that read: "There is rubble everywhere around us now. The fate of a President moved from the hands of a flushed girl on a rope line to the halls of a howling Congress in battle fatigues. Civility, long rationed, ran out first. Politicians no longer express opposition: they are expressing hatred. No action, however solemn, is judged on its merits; everyone’s got an angle. Even if the fighting ends tomorrow, it will be years before the wreckage is cleared." That’s not how Time summarized Watergate.

Senior Editor Nancy Gibbs epitomized Time’s moral-equivalence angle: "Bill Clinton did something ordinary: he had an affair and lied about it. Ken Starr did something extraordinary: he took the President’s low-life behavior and called it a high crime. Clinton argued that privacy is so sacred that it included a right to lie so long as he did it very, very carefully. Starr argued that justice is so blind that once he saw a crime being committed, he had no choice but to pursue the bad guy through the Oval Office, down the hall to the private study, whatever the damage, no matter the cost. One man’s loss of control inspired the other’s, and we are no better for anything either of them did." She concluded: "This, then, is the legacy of a year that cannot end too soon. A faithless President and a fervent prosecutor, in a mortal embrace, lacking discretion, playing for keeps, both self-righteous, both condemned, Men of the Year."

In "How Starr Sees It," Eric Pooley and Michael Weisskopf presented the results of their three interviews with Starr. Unlike many Time articles over the past year, the story allowed evidence that perhaps Starr wasn’t a right-wing fanatic, although regularly referring to the perception he "so often seemed wild and obsessive." Eventually, moral equivalence surfaced again: "The more Clinton stalled, the more Starr pushed. The more Starr pushed, the more Clinton stalled. And in the end, each drove the other to a kind of madness." They claimed "Time and again, Starr’s confidence in his own moral rectitude has blinded him to, at the very least, the appearance of bias and conflict of interest." They ended by noting Starr "needs to place himself in the company of heroes and Bill Clinton, he still dreams of being found not guilty."

Margaret Carlson’s column was titled "The Clinton In Us All: Those who hate him seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to him." Carlson focused on the infidelity excuses of Bob Livingston, Dan Burton, Henry Hyde, and Helen Chenoweth, as well as Bob Barr’s complaints about coverage of his speech to a racist group.

A Richard Lacayo "Viewpoint" article was headlined "Where the Right Went Wrong: In backing Starr’s witch hunt, conservatives fell in love with big government." Lacayo claimed that for conservatives, "government interference with private economic behavior remains a bad thing, but regulation of other kinds of private behavior, chiefly meaning sex, is something America needs more of." Lacayo concluded: "What most people decided this year is...Clinton at his most unbuckled and slippery is still less a threat to American values than Starr. They decided that Starr’s questions are worse than Clinton’s lies."

In "The Better Half," Karen Tumulty and Nancy Gibbs analyzed how "During her husband’s greatest crisis, Hillary has come into her own." The two did lay some blame for the scandals on Hillary’s resistance to investigation. But they failed to crystallize what Hillary knew and when she knew it. And they wondered if Hillary’s fidelity made her "his co-conspirator...Or was she the ultimate family-values conservative?" Time noted Hillary’s vital role in bucking up the White House, noting in her interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, "She shone the light on Starr — his agenda, his henchmen, his ideological gene pool — and suggested that this was the real story, the real danger, rather than anything her husband might have done...By the end of the year, a majority of the public had come to agree with her about Starr, their fear of unaccountable government agents more intense than their distaste for even a lecherous, lying President."

feinted to the right. Humorist Andrew Ferguson interviewed Lucianne Goldberg and humorist Christopher Buckley joked about Monica’s future.

In a sidebar titled "The Friend From Hell," Paul Gray laid into Linda Tripp, noting that Dante would put her on the lowest rungs of Hell for her "ongoing personal treachery." In responding to the notion that Tripp taped Lewinsky in self-defense, Gray argued: "This line of defense amounts to a condemnation: she hoodwinked a friend in order to protect herself. Even the most rabid Clinton haters, who would welcome any means of getting a philandering perjurer out of the White House, must, or should, wonder: What would life be like if everyone, all friends and loved ones, behaved like Linda Tripp?"

In the third liberal editorial, Michael Kinsley claimed: "Is there anybody with no secrets he or she would be tempted to commit perjury for? That’s not a blanket excuse for perjury. But when the perjury was a your-secrets-or-your-life stickup staged by a prosecutor who couldn’t nail his target on anything else, anyone with an ounce of imagination is tempted to excuse it."

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote on the final page: "The press...thought it was still playing Watergate and pursued the story toward an ending the public did not seek. So did House Republicans. Eventually the press caught up with the people. Could that be the story of the year?" Rosenblatt must not have been reading Time this year.


Right-Wing Dole?

Elizabeth Dole, "a social conservative" and "darling" of the right? That’s how ABC and MSNBC described her as she resigned from the American Red Cross on January 4, hinting at a run for President.

ABC World News Tonight reporter John Cochran asserted: "She could be a strong contender: a social conservative who can appeal to the party’s core voters, but one who might also attract women turned off by the Republican Party in recent years." Cochran didn’t explain how she’d appeal to the right and overcome the media mantra that women reject the GOP’s social conservatism.

Later, on his MSNBC show The News with Brian Williams, Williams asked New York Times reporter Richard Berke: "She is, after all, a Harvard law graduate, a Duke University graduate, a formidable woman, a darling of some on the right. Why should Elizabeth Dole not mix it up at this early stage and get in the race?"

"Darling" of whom? As Cal Thomas noted on FNC’s Fox Report, "nobody knows what she really believes" and "she does have a liberal streak. She has been all over the place on the abortion issue, for example, which is a litmus test as it is for liberals. It certainly is for conservatives."

CBS reporter Phil Jones was able to identify an accomplishment, a regulatory expansion: "That stoplight in the middle of your back car window, that’s known as the ‘Dole light,’ one of her safety legacies as President Reagan’s Transportation Secretary."

Fight Fiercely, Bill!
As the clock ran out, the White House press corps was upset that the Clinton team wasn’t doing enough to fight impeachment. So revealed ABC’s Sam Donaldson in a report from Jerusalem aired on the December 13 This Week.

Donaldson announced at the top of the show’s roundtable discussion that "Many reporters who’ve covered the President all during the scandal, and who may have been pretty tough on him, are almost today beseeching the White House to get out there and fight, or wondering why at least he doesn’t. For instance, the President says he will talk to any of these moderates who want to talk to him, but he’s not going to call them. What’s wrong with calling as long as you don’t threaten them or do anything improper?"

He wanted Clinton to leave the Middle East: "Why not leave after the Gaza occasion and get back home so you can continue to fight impeachment? Well they say to us, this is very important. Is it more important than keeping your seat?" Sam also disputed White House claims that going on CNN was good enough: "I like Larry King but he’s got a small audience, no offense. The President, why not go on all the television networks and reach millions of people and say ‘Let me just say that I need your help.’"

No Dissent on Iraq.
When Bill Clinton went to war against Iraq on December 16, the night before the House’s impeachment debate was scheduled, the networks suggested Republicans should rally around the President. On ABC, Peter Jennings bemoaned how "there was not the traditional rally around the leader support that usually results while American forces are in action overseas."

ABC reporter John Cochran allowed House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss to complain about not getting briefed on Iraq in advance, but contrasted him with the rest of the country: "And yet, go outside Washington and most Americans find it inconceivable that the President would order airstrikes to gain nothing more than a short delay in an inevitable impeachment vote."

The other networks highlighted instant polls. On CBS, Dan Rather announced that 79 percent favored the strike. Second, when asked "Clinton’s timing has more to do with...", 61 percent replied "need to respond immediately" while only 26 percent believed "scheduled impeachment vote."

Over at NBC, Claire Shipman touted "an NBC News overnight poll which shows that 75 percent of Americans approve of President Clinton’s decision to order military strikes. When asked whether the military action was timed to delay the impeachment vote, 59 percent said no, 27 percent said yes."

Networks on China: Still Soft on Defense

Bipartisan House Report on Missilegate Gets Just Seconds

After months of media groaning about the lack of bipartisanship in the impeachment debate, on December 30 a special select House committee of five Republicans and four Democrats released a unanimous report which concluded that U.S. technology deals with China over the last 20 years have boosted the accuracy of their missiles and harmed America’s national security.

Of the broadcast networks, only CBS considered it worth a full story. ABC’s World News Tonight gave it a piddling 22 seconds and NBC Nightly News allocated 26. FNC and CNN also provided full stories, but only FNC reminded viewers that Loral’s Chairman donated $100,000 to Democrats just before his company earned a technology transfer waiver.

The next morning, ABC and NBC aired even less, although the December 31 New York Times advanced the story by revealing the panel found China had stolen military-related American technology from American nuclear labs. NBC’s Today aired nothing while ABC’s Good Morning America allowed 17 seconds in the 8am newscast.

It wasn’t just the official House probe that the networks ignored. New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth continued to plug away with front-page dispatches on the Missilegate front:

December 9:
Gerth relayed: "A secret Pentagon report concludes that Hughes Space and Communications, without proper authorization, gave China technological insights that are crucial to the successful launchings of satellites and ballistic missiles." Network coverage: zero.

December 15:
Gerth, David Johnston, and Don Van Natta presented an overview: "Federal authorities have unearthed new evidence that Beijing’s efforts were part of a broader campaign to obtain access to high technology," contradicting the earlier view that donations were meant to swing specific elections. "Investigators now believe contributions were intended to enhance the political standing of those passing along the contributions to Democratic causes, to give them clout in arguing for favorable policies on trade and technology." Network coverage: zero.

December 24:
Gerth revealed CIA officers in China "told headquarters in March 1996 that a consultant who worked for American aerospace companies had made payments to Chinese officials in hopes of getting lucrative contracts...The cable languished in CIA files for more than two years." The consultant, Bansang Lee, was a Chinese-American who worked for both Hughes and Loral. Network coverage? Zero.

Hillary's Holiday Halo

A year of reporting on Monicagate wound down with more of the same strange themes -- for example, that Hillary Clinton’s victimhood made her ever more admirable.

On the December 9 Today, Katie Couric delivered an early Christmas gift to the Clintons: a chance to appear on television together without tough questions and with gushing praise for the First Lady. In a tour of the White House decorations, Couric softly pressed the President for comment on the House impeachment probe, but also noted: "Meanwhile, your wife looks incredible...She spent a lot of time in New York last week going to many events. And everywhere you [Hillary] went you got such an incredibly positive response. That’s sort of an early Christmas gift. Are you grateful or gratified by that display of affection that you really see wherever you go now?"

Today Executive Producer Jeff Zucker conceded in the December 10 USA Today, "it is slightly awkward talking solely about how many wreaths and bells there are at the White House when this (the impeachment inquiry) is going on. It’s a fine line."

A December 28 CBS special, The Ladies Home Journal Most Fascinating Women of ‘98, also praised Hillary for standing by her man. CBS 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl handled the portion of the show on Mrs. Clinton: "Why were we so riveted by her performance? Was it that we expected to see her crumble, cry, agonize? And how do we explain her spike in popularity in the face of her husband’s scandal? Part of it was surely sympathy, maybe even pity, and she became more human, more vulnerable. There’s also something appealing about her loyalty, her standing by her man, and the dignity with which she has comported herself. We are all grateful for grace in the midst of disgrace."

Stahl didn’t address the "dignity" with which she went on Today in January and lied about how the allegations about Lewinsky were false and then maligned conservatives as being part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, a charge she has never had the "grace" to withdraw.

Let's Avoid Impeachment

A Day with Maria Shriver

Viewers of NBC News on impeachment day, Saturday, December 19, were treated to Maria Shriver’s liberal political advocacy as she suggested moderates were being manhandled and that the GOP is "ruled by extremists" and those "out of touch, out of control." But she never asked a Democrat anything about why they are standing so enthusiastically behind a man they say disgraced the presidency. Some examples of Shriver’s agenda:

Before the vote she tried to discredit the likely outcome, arguing with Republican George Gekas.

Shriver: "Several Republicans I’ve talked to told me today you cannot imagine the pressure on people down there to vote with the Republicans, they’d break your leg if you broke with them today."
Gekas: "Who said that?"
Shriver: "Oh, somebody told me that."
Gekas: "You check with that somebody."
Shriver: "I did. I checked with them and they said the pressure was so intense from the Republican leadership."
Gekas: "Ask him if he ever talked to me and the answer would be no."
Shriver: "He didn’t use your name but he said the pressure is unbelievable to stay the course."
Gekas: "Well that’s your description of it. I have seen no evidence."
Shriver: "That’s his. Break a leg was his description."
Gekas: "Do you want my answer?"
Shriver: "Sure."
Gekas: "My answer is I have not seen any evidence of that kind of pressure..."

Following a vote on an article in the afternoon, she told Democrat Tom Barrett that the impeachment decision would impugn the Congress. Admitting that "this is certainly a mark against Bill Clinton, against his presidency," she insisted "its also a mark against this Congress and this Congress will be forever known as the Congress that impeached the President of the United States."

Later, she demanded Republican Ann Northrup respond to the Democratic characterization that the vote "marks the downfall of the Republican Party, that it shows that this party is ruled by extremists." When Northrup noted that there are lots of Republican moderates, Shriver retorted: "So you don’t buy Congressman Bonior’s assessment that this House, and particularly the people like yourself, out of touch, out of control?"

Baldwin Wanted Hyde Stoned?

Actor Alec Baldwin may have meant it as a humorous skit when he railed about stoning Henry Hyde to death, but even after he apologized and a leading entertainment industry figure condemned him, the mainstream media never highlighted his outburst.

On the December 11 Late Night with Conan O’Brien the NBC host wrapped up his interview with Baldwin by asking about Clinton’s plight. Baldwin replied:

"They voted on one article of impeachment already. And I come back from Africa to stained dresses and cigars and this and impeachment. I am thinking to myself, in other countries they are laughing at us 24 hours a day and I’m thinking to myself, if we were in other countries, we would all right now, all of us together, [starts to shout] all of us together would go down to Washington and we would stone Henry Hyde to death! We would stone him to death! [crowd cheers] Wait! Shut up! Shut up! No shut up! I’m not finished. We would stone Henry Hyde to death and we would go to their homes and we’d kill their wives and their children. We would kill their families. [stands up, yelling] What is happening in this country? What is happening? UGHHH!"

Cutting to the supposed punch line, O’Brien then jumped up and put an air mask over Baldwin’s mouth to calm him down. Now, substitute the name Al Gore or Hillary Clinton for Henry Hyde and the name of a conservative for Baldwin. What would have been the reaction from the major networks?

In this case: nothing, not even after the Washington Post reported that "Baldwin said the exchange was a parody mocking the sanctimony of representatives...and that he was sorry Hyde took it badly. ‘In the current supercharged climate there’s no room for this kind of glibness,’ he said."A December 21 Post item by TV columnist Lisa de Moraes relayed how Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, wrote Baldwin: "However it was said it’s not something you use as a joke, it’s not something you parody. This is incendiary."

FNC’s Special Report with Brit Hume played a RealPlayer clip of it from the MRC Web page and Rush Limbaugh alerted his listeners. After the December 20 Fox News Sunday showed an excerpt of Baldwin’s outburst, Brit Hume observed: "I think it was not in earnest. On the other hand, I don’t think the thought would have occurred to him to say it on that show if it hadn’t occurred to him otherwise."