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MediaWatch: July 27, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 12

Clinton Scandals? News You Can Lose

In 1996, Atlantic Monthly writer James Fallows released his fifth book, titled Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. He quickly became a media critic the media could love, appearing for interviews on ABC’s Good Morning America and serving as the main source in a PBS Frontline shaped almost entirely on his book’s theories. His take on scandals sounded conveniently close to Clintonspeak:

"For the national press, scandals have become the main obstacle to keeping news in perspective. Real and alleged scandals, involving figures from Bill Clinton to Michael Jackson, have come to serve as a distraction machine, systematically diverting attention to a spectacle whenever the political system threatens to deal with an important but dull-seeming question affecting the way people actually live."

Months after the book’s arrival, Fallows’ boss, real estate/magazine magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, elevated Fallows to the editorship of U.S. News & World Report, only to fire him at the end of June this year. In his 22 months at the helm, Fallows practiced what he preached: until Monica Lewinsky changed the rules, scandal was nearly absent from the magazine, and when it did appear, it carried an exculpatory tone.

To document the scandal coverage in U.S. News & World Report over Fallows’ tenure, media analysts surveyed issues of U.S. News and counted the number of pages (photos included) devoted to Clinton scandal news, compared to other magazine fare. Since news magazine pages are divided into three columns, space is often divided in thirds. Editorials were included. Like the rest of the media’s scandal coverage, Fallows’s tenure can be divided into two segments, pre-Monica and post-Monica. In the 68 issues from September 23, 1996 (the first issue with Fallows’ name in it) through January 1998, the magazine ran a total of 44.6 pages on the fundraising scandal, averaging less than two-thirds of a page per issue. From February 1998 through Fallows’ last issue, dated July 6, U.S. News ran 100 pages of Monicagate and Missilegate news in 23 issues, or more than four pages an issue.

Head to Head. But U.S. News regularly printed much less than its competitors. From October 1996 through July 1997, analysts compared it to Clinton scandal coverage in Time and Newsweek. In the ten issues from October 21 to December 23, Newsweek devoted 15.3 pages to the fundraising scandal, and Time printed 13. Both gave the charges a cover story. U.S. News offered only 1.3 pages (and never gave it a cover story). Its first coverage was a one-page November 18 post-election column by David Gergen offering Clinton advice, which he didn’t take: "Prohibit anyone in his entourage — except for his attorneys — from talking about Kenneth Starr...Appoint a Republican as Attorney General...Clinton must talk to the country in an open, contrite manner about the ethical clouds that hang over him."

From January through July of 1997, Time ran 52.2 pages of fundraising scandal coverage, Newsweek 43.3, and U.S. News 22.3. So U.S. News printed fewer than half as many pages of scandal coverage as Time or Newsweek. More than half of Time and Newsweek’s coverage came in March, when Newsweek ran 27 pages, Time had 21.5 — and U.S. News printed just 5.8.

Analysts found in issues dated from August 1997 through January 1998, U.S. News only ran another 21 scandal pages. In other words, the magazine printed fewer pages on scandal in six months than it devoted to "News You Can Use" in several individual issues, such as these in 1997: "Best Mutual Funds" (22.5 pages), "Best Graduate Schools" (28.5), "Best Hospitals" (27), "Best Colleges" (29) or "Mysteries of Science" (40). When they touched on scandal, it often served to downplay them or exculpate Democratic offenses. For example:

April 14, 1997: In a classic example of how U.S. News veered off scandal news to make its own political points, a team of reporters moved quickly from the week’s new findings on Clinton abuses to underline donor scandals such as: the FCC’s granting of free high-definition frequencies, a ban on generic-drug competition on some drugs, the failure to stop credit-card late fees caused by slow postal delivery, and the higher cost of cable TV under a new telecommunications law.

July 21, 1997: In a piece titled "Is the latest Red Peril actually a red herring?" David Kaplan and Julian Barnes wrote: "FBI investigators believe that most of the $2 million the Chinese allegedly spent or budgeted to increase their influence went to legal activities like lobbying and bringing senators to Beijing on expensive junkets." Paul Glastris followed up with more than two pages on how "the ship of state is more likely to be tugged by U.S. ethnic groups than by foreign money." Gloria Borger’s column on John Huang was headlined "A useful punching bag."

September 1, 1997: The headline read: "The Canadian menace? Countries other than China dominate foreign lobbying." Julian Barnes introduced a two-page chart: "Sen. Fred Thompson, who resumes his campaign finance hearings this week, has alleged a Chinese conspiracy to illegally influence U.S. policy. But nearly 100 nations pay some 1,500 lobbyists and public-relations consultants to influence the U.S. government legally. Even if China’s alleged illegal contributions — which in July the FBI put at less than $100,000 — were added to the total it spent on legal lobbying ($327,000), China still wouldn’t make the U.S. News list of top 10 lobbying nations."

When Johnny Chung pleaded guilty to making foreign donations, the March 16, 1998 U.S. News claimed: "Virtually every company in China is state-owned. While the government uses a few as fronts, most are purely commercial." Since May, they’ve ignored his tale of funneling money from a Chinese general into the DNC.

May 11, 1998: The tone of coverage is suggested by headlines like "The Survivalist/How does Hillary Clinton cope with the barrage of sex scandal charges? By launching a national campaign to make people be nicer." And: "Feeling ‘like Paul Revere’/William Ginsburg: defending, liberty, a client — and himself."

June 8, 1998: Two months after the New York Times broke Missilegate, U.S. News ran the headline: "Red Scare? The sensational rhetoric over the China scandal obscures a basic question: Is China friend or foe?" The reporters hit all the Clintonite defense lines systematically: both parties took money from satellite companies, other countries will give China technology if we don’t, satellite companies didn’t intend to help China, U.S. demand for satellite launches make closing off China an unattractive prospect. Gloria Borger used a column titled "Commies! Treason! Yippee!" to bash Republicans and predict Rep. Chris Cox’s hearings into Missilegate would be a failure if they didn’t build a case for campaign reform bills.

June 29, 1998: In a cover story on "The Other Tapes," Elise Ackerman wrote of early Tripp-Lewinsky tapes U.S. News heard: "The tapes cast some doubt on one of Starr’s key charges against Clinton: that he and his friend Vernon Jordan got Lewinsky a job in New York as an enticement for her to lie in a deposition for the Paula Jones lawsuit against the President. In these conversations, Lewinsky... was already talking about having the President get her a different job — two months before she was subpoenaed in the Paula Jones case."

In a September 15, 1997 essay after Princess Diana’s death, Fallows preached: "The press’s tools for changing public opinion are nearly identical to politicians.’ And if Senators or Presidents are expected to surmount the immediate demands of the political market — which threatens to put them out of work, not just cut into profits — then the same standard should apply to the press. What people care about is at least partly shaped by what the press serves up. This market, like the one for political ideas, works both ways."

Readers of U.S. News must not care about scandal, since the magazine has hated to report on it.