MediaWatch: January 25, 1999

In This Issue

Where Did the Senate Trial Go?; NewsBites; Hypocrites Exposed by Flint: TV News; Magazines: Scandal Isn't Substance; ABC Begins Trial with GOP Labeling; Nixing Judge Nixon's Case

Where Did the Senate Trial Go?

In the days of Vietnam, Watergate, and even Iran-Contra, the networks blacked out their regular programming for live coverage of major political events, suggesting the national interest was more important than the bottom line. Now, in some amalgamation of the profit motive and liberal motives, live coverage of the first Senate impeachment trial in 131 years quickly vanished from the network airwaves. To be specific:

  • As the trial began on Thursday January 14, ABC, CBS, and NBC bailed out of live coverage of the House managers’ opening arguments after 90 minutes. (Five days later the networks each awarded White House Counsel Charles Ruff an hour more to present his case.)

  • Not only did the networks fail to offer live coverage of the trial, the House managers got little soundbite time to make their case on the evening newscasts. ABC led the Big Three by averaging 75 seconds of soundbites a night over the first three nights, while NBC could barely muster an average of 40 seconds per night and CBS 35.

  • The news magazines were even worse than television. How many words of direct quotes from the House managers did they carry? Time led with 83 words, U.S. News & World Report printed 48, Newsweek just 10. If the quotes were read out loud, they’d be shorter soundbites than the networks offered.

LET THEM EAT CABLE. For Americans without cable, only PBS stations offered live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial, and PBS affiliates don’t always accept the network feed. On the trial’s first day, ABC and NBC continued to offer the Senate feed to their affiliates, but did any stations remain? NBC’s Washington affiliate went straight to soap operas and ABC’s D.C. outlet left after another 90 minutes for Oprah.

ABC’s World News Tonight led the Big Three with a nightly average of 75 seconds of manager soundbites over three nights. NBC Nightly News averaged only 40 seconds. CBS Evening News averaged just 35 seconds on Friday and Saturday. (On Thursday night, CBS offered a special one-hour newscast, the first half of which did not air in Washington, so it was left out of the sample.) By comparison, CNN’s 8pm newscast offered an average of six minutes and 36 seconds of manager speeches over three nights.

For example, take the speech of Rep. Asa Hutchinson, described by Time as the "star performer" of the managers. NBC gave him 12 seconds to make his case, and another NBC story carried four seconds of his remark, "This is certainly a humbling experience for a small town lawyer." ABC’s Jackie Judd gave Hutchinson his own story, which contained 43 seconds of his arguments in the Senate.

Opening arguments from White House counsel Charles Ruff on the 19th drew more live coverage than the House GOP. The three networks stayed with Ruff from a bit after 1pm ET until he ended at just past 3:30pm ET. Taking out a 15-minute break, ABC, CBS and NBC gave Ruff’s defense an hour more time.

That night, CBS reporter Bob Schieffer focused on Ruff’s teary rebuttal of Rep. Henry Hyde’s claim that acquitting Clinton will be a betrayal of soldiers who died for freedom. CBS aired an astonishing 62-second soundbite of Ruff. And how much time did CBS give Hyde the night he made that summation? Reporter Eric Engberg did give Hyde two soundbites totaling 15 seconds, but nothing on the clip that drew Ruff’s ire.

On some level, the lack of live coverage of the Senate trial shouldn’t be surprising. The Big Three have never offered live coverage of House or Senate hearings into the Clinton scandal, from Whitewater in 1994 and 1995 to the Thompson hearings on fundraising in 1997. But other events drew more attention:

The beginning of the O.J. Simpson murder trial received more sustained live coverage than the Senate trial. CBS and NBC carried segments of opening arguments in the Simpson trial live on January 23, 24, and 25, 1995. ABC also aired live coverage on the 24th and 25th. On those two days, ABC and NBC affiliates also aired live testimony in the late afternoon and early evening.

In October of 1991, all three networks aired live coverage for three long days of the Hill-Thomas hearings. The networks that so disdained broadcasting the graphic sexual details in the Starr report put Hill on live with her unsupported claims that Thomas talked of pubic hairs on Coke cans and porn films full of humans having sex with animals.

In July of 1987, all three networks carried Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony live for six weekdays (July 7-10 and 13-14), and stayed another full day with John Poindexter. Then the networks rotated Iran-Contra live coverage for another ten weekdays that month. The networks never made any noise about rotating Senate trial coverage.

When former CBS News President Fred Friendly died last March, the networks lionized this TV news pioneer for his integrity, including his bold resignation from CBS in February 1966 when his network ran daytime reruns of I Love Lucy instead of Senate hearings on the Vietnam War. Friendly told his boss: "If I keep compromising over important matters, I won’t be Fred Friendly at all — I’ll be a flabby mutation." In his eulogy on ABC’s World News Tonight, Peter Jennings warmly recalled: "Fred Friendly believed, and he never missed an opportunity to remind all of us who are journalists, that it was our responsibility to hold the government’s and even the public’s feet to the fire on the great issues of the day."

But TV news divisions in the 1990s can hardly pretend to uphold Friendly’s philosophy in their current flabby mutations. Instead of holding the public’s feet to the fire, they’ve pandered to audience apathy and submerged the trial of the century for the noble cause of soap operas and game shows.


Dream Team

The House impeachment managers are a bunch of conservative Christian zealots? Take it from CBS reporter Phil Jones, and his GOP helper. In a January 6 Evening News piece, Jones used Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to paint the managers as extremists out to get the President rather than men preserving justice and the rule of law.

Jones asserted: "Democrats believe the House managers are conservative zealots, and some Republicans agree." Viewers saw King claim: "It’s a very hard-core group...who are very hard-nosed and determined to get Bill Clinton."

Jones agreed: "Indeed, the impeachment managers are strikingly alike. All 13 are white, all 13 males, all 13 Christians, all 13 lawyers....And says Republican Congressman Peter King, who voted against impeachment, they hear something he’s not hearing." King said they "live in an echo chamber" where they think everyone shares their low opinion of Clinton. If liberal Democrats had impeached a GOP President, how likely is it CBS would have used a conservative Democrat to tag his party’s majority as a bunch of extremists?

Of course, the tagging didn’t stop there. NBC’s Lisa Myers implied conservatives have inherent racist and chauvinistic tendencies. In a January 14 Nightly News report, she described the House managers this way: "To conservatives, they may be the dream team. Thirteen lawyers, all white, all male, all conservative with varying degrees of legal talent."

Lisa’s Byrd Bath
In a brief hagiography of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) which aired on both NBC Nightly News and MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams January 5, Lisa Myers found a man renowned for his "unflinching devotion to principle" and "a Democrat known for integrity and independence."

Referring to Byrd as "the Senate’s most respected voice on impeachment," Myers touted a scholar and a stickler for the Constitution. While "most politicians quote public opinion polls, Byrd quotes the founding fathers and Greek and French philosophers."

Myers ran through a decidedly sanitized version of Byrd’s biography: "This from an orphan who grew up in grinding poverty, worked first as a butcher and earned his law degree at night after he was elected to the senate from West Virginia. His only known indulgence, his fiddle, which he gave up in sorrow after his grandson died. For Byrd, it was a matter of sacrifice, a matter of principle." Myers concluded: "Whatever the verdict, Robert Byrd will make sure it’s done right, for the Senate and for history."

Myers left out Byrd’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, his opposition to the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, and his reputation as the King of Pork Barreling. But when Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) set the record for length of Senate service on May 22, 1997, Myers asked him the next morning: "You were once a segregationist. You voted against most major civil rights bills. Do you regret that at all?"

Rivera Kicks Claire
So much for teamwork at NBC News. On CNBC’s January 13 Upfront Tonight, NBC star Geraldo Rivera attacked his own colleague for asking a critical question of his beloved President.

In summarizing the day, Rivera complained: "So on the eve of his impeachment trial, the President decided to field a couple of snotty questions like this one." Rivera then played a clip of an unseen female reporter asking Clinton: "Lawyers are arguing that the charges against you don’t amount to high crimes and misdemeanors. Do you personally believe that perjury and obstruction of justice are not impeachable offenses?"

The female reporter with the nerve to ask such a "snotty" question? NBC’s own Claire Shipman. In the clip Rivera aired, the camera focused on the President, so perhaps Rivera made a mistake. But just minutes later in a story by Jane Wells, viewers saw the same exchange with the camera pointed at Shipman. Rivera already angered NBC’s other White House reporter, David Bloom, to the point where he now refuses to appear live on Rivera’s shows. How long before Rivera castigates his network’s own anchor Tom Brokaw?

Hypocrites Exposed by Flint: TV News

Hustler Publisher Interviewed, Clinton Accusers Ignored

Pornographer Larry Flynt threatened to expose the personal lives of Republicans who would impeach or remove President Clinton. When Flynt planned to drop a bombshell on January 11, Geraldo Rivera invited him to blow up Republicans on CNBC’s Rivera Live. Flynt only produced the dud that Rep. Bob Barr used a legal privilege to sidestep adultery questions in his divorce, but ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS This Morning invited him for an interview.

ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas began January 12: "In Washington this morning, there is nervousness among Republicans about what Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt might do next. Last night, Flynt released what he says is damaging evidence about the personal life of Republican Congressman Bob Barr, one of President Clinton’s most vocal critics and an opponent of abortion rights."

That night, ABC’s World News Tonight was the only broadcast network newscast to carry Flynt’s story. John Cochran began: "Whatever you think of Larry Flynt or his pornographic magazine, he has shown that if you’ve got enough money you can put an ad in the paper offering up to one million dollars for dirt on Congressmen. And then mainstream journalists will report your allegations about the personal life of, well Bob Barr for starters." Cochran concluded: "Democrats sympathize, but say the sexual McCarthyism started when wealthy opponents of President Clinton financed investigations into his relations with women in Arkansas, including Paula Jones. Larry Flynt says he’s just evening the score, making Clinton’s enemies pay, and making others wonder, ‘will this ever end’?"

But have the networks always jumped on personal allegations and interviewed the accusers?

  • Good Morning America and CBS This Morning passed on Gennifer Flowers, at least until ABC invited Flowers last March. But the morning after the New York Post suggested in August 1992 that George Bush may have had an affair, authors Joe and Susan Trento were invited on ABC and CBS to share their theories.

  • Neither morning show interviewed writers from The American Spectator or the Arkansas troopers when Troopergate broke in 1993. Neither interviewed Paula Jones in 1994, even though both interviewed journalists Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, whose book that year argued Clarence Thomas was a sexual harasser.

  • Both morning shows passed on Gary Aldrich, whose book alleged Clinton left the White House for extramarital affairs at a D.C. hotel.

Magazines: Scandal Isn't Substance

For all of television’s lack of focus on the House managers’ presentation, they actually came closer to resembling just-the-facts hard news than the news magazines. The week the trial began, you could see the lack of interest in the January 18-dated cover stories: Time featured the Y2K problem, Newsweek profiled radio talk show host Don Imus, and U.S. News & World Report promoted "Outstanding American High Schools."

The January 25 issues betrayed the same determination to downplay the trial. For cover stories, Time focused on "Too Much Homework," Newsweek on "The Michael Jordan We Never Knew," U.S. News on "The Internet Stock Bubble." The cover blurbs signaled the studied ignorance of the House managers that readers would find inside. Time ("Impeachment: the Disconnect"), Newsweek ("Clinton’s Counterattack"), and U.S. News ("The White House Readies Its Defense") looked right past the week they were allegedly covering.

Time didn’t hide its opinion that the trial was unimportant, beginning with its headline: "The Great Disconnect: While Washington obsesses about the President’s trial, Emporia, Kansas — and the rest of the country — are busy with more important matters." The story arrived at the managers in paragraph 25: Asa Hutchinson got 49 words. A profile of Hutchinson carried another 34 words.

Newsweek’s subheadline read: "The Clinton Counterattack: As the President’s lawyers defend him in the Senate dock, he goes to the podium of the House to remind the country that he’s a master of policy, an able steward of boom times. The people are listening, but in Washington the trial grinds on. Is Bill Clinton a visionary, a felon, or both?" Jonathan Alter suggested "the goose bumps one associates with momentous events feel more like a recurring skin rash. It can’t go away soon enough." The story offered the House managers only ten words of a quote from George Gekas. While Alter focused on how Clinton would beat the rap, Newsweek disposed of the case in a small box titled "The Accusations and the Defense."

U.S. News devoted a bigger box, across most of two pages, with a similar matchup of prosecution claims and defense rebuttals. The story used only one 48-word quote from Rep. James Sensenbrenner.

ABC Begins Trial with GOP Labeling

The opening of President Clinton’s impeachment trial on January 7: a moment in history marked with solemnity and seriousness by Senators on both sides of the aisle. But on ABC, a time to tag Republicans with ideological labels, with none for Democrats.

Linda Douglass began just before Chief Justice Rehnquist’s swearing in, identifying two groups of Senators on the floor, one of Republicans and the other of Democrats. The Republicans: Slade Gorton, Fred Thompson, Connie Mack and "Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania, very conservative member, one who wants witnesses." The other group, Douglass informed viewers, included Senators Tom Daschle, John Breaux, Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry. No labels for any of them.

Then as Senators each signed the oath book, Peter Jennings identified Democrats John Kerry, Herbert Kohl, Ted Kennedy, and Carl Levin, all without labels. He then labeled two more Republicans, and ignored a liberal: "Senator John McCain here of Arizona, left-hander. More right than left in his politics and intending to run for President of the United States. Senator McConnell of Kentucky, very determined conservative member of the Republican Party. Senator Mikulski of Maryland. It tells you something about how often they’re in the news whether they are easily or not easily recognized..."

Just seconds later: "Senator Rick Santorum, one of the younger members of the Senate, Republican, very determined conservative member of the Senate. That’s Senator Daschle there in the left hand side of your picture. Behind him Senator Byrd. Senator Sarbanes of Maryland, a long time Democratic Senator just walking across the picture...."

After not labeling Charles Schumer, Jennings alerted viewers: "Mr. Smith of New Hampshire, also another very, very conservative Republican intending to run for the presidency." Jennings rounded out his identifications with the final five Senators, three of whom are among the Senate’s most liberal: "Senator Torricelli of New Jersey that was. Senator Voinovich, Senator John Warner of Virginia, and the next one up Senator Wellstone from Minnesota and the last W, having all 100 Senators, in the brown suit there, Senator Wyden of Oregon." ABC only warned of conservatives in our midst, not the liberals.

Nixing Judge Nixon's Case

During their third day the House managers referred to how the Senate had impeached federal judges for perjury, including Judge Walter Nixon in 1989. The broadcast networks all ignored the point that night, Saturday January 16. Among those voting to convict and remove Nixon were then-Senator Al Gore and many current Senators, including Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

But on Sunday’s World News Tonight, ABC reporter Tim O’Brien took it up, only to discredit the comparison. O’Brien started by noting that Clinton defenders contend that lying about sex is not sufficient for removal even if all the charges are true. He then got to the GOP point: "But Republican House managers pointed out this week that a number of federal judges, most recently Walter Nixon in Mississippi, had been removed from office for committing perjury. Republican Senators argued today the standards for removing Presidents should be no different than for removing judges."

After playing a clip of Phil Gramm on This Week saying there’s only one standard for all federal officials, O’Brien launched his counter-argument, with two soundbites and two additional points he made himself: "But former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who had voted in favor of removing Judge Nixon, says removing a President is far different from removing a federal judge." On Meet the Press Mitchell said that judges are not elected by the people and elections are sacred.

O’Brien picked up the Democratic argument: "Article III of the Constitution says federal judges shall ‘hold their offices during good behavior.’ There is no such requirement in the Constitution for Presidents." Lanny Davis then got time to assert: "Judges are appointed for life. Nobody votes for a judge. If a judge is a drunk you want to get rid of him and he can’t be gotten rid of in an election. He’s got to be gotten rid of through impeachment."

O’Brien concluded: "Presidents, on the other hand, can be voted out of office and may not serve more than two full terms. In a preview of what is certain to come this week, the President’s defenders were arguing today that not only does the Constitution require different standards for removing Presidents than for removing judges, but also that there are different levels of perjury and that no one has ever been removed from office for lying about sex."