MediaWatch: March 22, 1999

In This Issue

Stephanopoulos Book: Ethics Trumps Scoops; NewsBites; No "Moving On" to Chinese Espionage; Brokaw Still Ducking Juanita; Lou Dobbs Goes to Los Alamos

Stephanopoulos Book: Ethics Trumps Scoops

Just weeks after the 1996 election, the networks started a bidding war over the newest network star. ABC, CBS, and CNN fought to land departing Clinton spin specialist George Stephanopoulos.

When ABC won, it touted an expansive job. The New York Times noted he was "expected to do some reporting as a correspondent," including long pieces for Good Morning America, even documentaries for their cable networks, Arts and Entertainment and the History Channel. CNN was prepared to offer Stephanopoulos his own weekend talk program. CBS proposed a role on Face the Nation and on its Eye on People cable channel. Soon after he landed the ABC job with a reported six-figure retainer, he auctioned the rights to his memoirs for $2.75 million to Little, Brown, a Time Warner offshoot. He also joined Newsweek as a contributor.

In The Wall Street Journal, Byron York warned that the top aide’s "firsthand knowledge of events in the current White House puts his fellow journalists at ABC in an awkward position: Either they ask him about things he won’t likely talk about, or they stifle their journalistic instincts and don’t ask questions that should be asked." ABC stifled their instincts.

In the second week in March, Stephanopoulos finally offered a fraction of the lowdown with the book All Too Human. As Howard Kurtz summarized in the March 11 Washington Post: "On Gennifer Flowers, on the draft controversy, on Whitewater, on Paula Jones, Stephanopoulos came to doubt what he was paid to tell reporters, but kept quiet about those doubts until now."

Once again, he was in demand at the networks. He began at ABC, doing This Week, 20/20, and Good Morning America. From there, he moved on to CBS’s This Morning, NBC’s Today, and CNN’s Larry King Live. Everywhere he went, the networks didn’t focus as much on the scoops the book revealed (Bill’s temper, Hillary’s crying in meetings, etc.) as they did on why it had to be revealed now, if at all. No one, least of all ABC, wondered about his disloyalty to ABC. If they signed him to bring an inside view, why did he withhold it until his book came out?

ABC. On the March 10 20/20, co-host Diane Sawyer walked Stephanopoulos through his years of service, and asked if Clinton was loyal to him. But she also noted his remarks mentioning impeachment on ABC when the Lewinsky scandal broke: "It made you the poster boy for betrayal...People have said, this guy gave him his career, and when the chips are down, instead of saying ‘I can’t talk about this,’ he joins the enemy...What about silence out of respect for what you were to him and what he was to you?"

On Good Morning America the next day, Charles Gibson said Presidents require discretion in aides and asked, "Are you being disloyal?" Sawyer echoed: "But are you really saying that never once in your room alone at night, did you say to yourself, ’Am I doing the right thing while he’s in office, making money on a book with what was basically happening’? Did you have a contract of some sort of loyalty while you were there?...I understand it’s honest for you, but it’s hurtful for them. I mean, you are hurting people you were once close to."

CBS. On March 12, This Morning co-host Mark McEwen waited two questions until disloyalty arrived: "You know, George, a lot of people call you an ingrate, backstabber, they say no Bill Clinton, no George Stephanopoulos. A tell-all book about the man you made you, as it were. James Carville, one of your buddies, said you said some things that he wouldn’t have said. Paul Begala said ‘I think this book is a mistake.’ Are you an ingrate? Is this book a mistake?" McEwen wondered: "One of the things we learn in this business, they always say don’t burn your bridges. Why nuke this bridge to the Clintons?... Why not wait till he got out of office?"

But McEwen also noted: "You talk about the Gennifer Flowers, when you first heard about this tape that came out of them on the phone. And you thought what’s he doing talking to Gennifer Flowers in the middle of a campaign? You said he lied. If he didn’t, why is he putting all of this at risk? Why didn’t you bail then?" He added: "Do you feel responsible for Bill Clinton and for bringing, I guess, some of the tragedy of Bill Clinton, how this presidency has sort of come down because of the man?"

CNN. On CNN’s Larry King Live March 12, King (and the callers allowed on the program) raised the loyalty questions with Stephanopoulos, a night after King invited Clinton aides Paul Begala and Dee Dee Myers and former Lyndon Johnson aide Jack Valenti to address whether he was "all too disloyal." But King also asked Stephanopoulos about Juanita Broaddrick and whether Clinton "has an illness."

NBC. Two days after airing a David Bloom report featuring aides who found the book "too honest," co-host Katie Couric opened the March 12 Today: "Good morning. He was once one of the President’s most trusted aides, but his new book about his years on the inside has many wondering whether he’s a traitor or a man of integrity." Couric told him "a lot of people... see you as a turncoat, a Linda Tripp type." In addition to suggesting his book was "sorta gross," Couric asked "Why now George? Couldn’t this have waited until the President was out of office?" And: "But couldn’t they learn about those things after he left office?"

Couric did ask about his early doubts: "You talk about the Gennifer Flowers tapes. Again, how you felt so duped and betrayed, yet you continued to stand by your man and in a way you became in a way an enabler.... Why not, if you felt so repulsed by his values, which clearly you came to that point later on...I mean, why didn’t you leave then, George? Why didn’t you say his values system does not gibe with mine?"

PBS. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer didn’t interview Stephanopoulos, but they did have a panel discussion with the topic "What Price Loyalty?" on March 11. Smith’s panel discussion included no conservatives or critics of Clinton — Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton flack; Kennedy intimate and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; and Peter Carlson of The Washington Post, who, Smith explained, "wrote an article earlier this week about what he called ‘the American game of cashing in.’" Emanuel dominated the segment with long pro-Clinton answers. But Schlesinger expressed delight with the addition to the historical record and Carlson noted, "When George Stephanopoulos worked for the President, his job was to make him look good. Nobody complained about that. Now he comes forward to present a more three-dimensional view, and his morals are called into question. That seems odd to me."

On CNN’s Capital Gang, The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt recalled how Stephanopoulos operated less than ethically in 1992 when Hunt was the Washington Bureau Chief: "For those of us that knew George before he was a virgin, I want to tell you something, this book is a shocker. I’ll give you one example. In 1992 we broke the story about Clinton evading the draft. James Carville and Paul Begala called me up directly. We had a fight over it to no avail because the story was right. George went behind our back and told everyone that we were had by right-wing Republicans. That was a lie and he knew it." But the rest of the media were more concerned about Stephanopoulos betraying Clinton, not them.

When Gary Aldrich planned to appear on several networks to plug his book Unlimited Access in 1996, it was George Stephanopoulos who called to intimidate the networks out of their commitments, arguing Aldrich failed to meet a "bare threshhold of credibility." Now, when Stephanopoulos came forward to admit he had forwarded lies about Clinton’s adultery, lies about Clinton’s draft status, lies about Clinton’s actions in office, the focus wasn’t on his dishonesty, but on his disloyalty. It’s a fitting reflection of how the media’s situational partisan ethics coincide with those of the White House.


Al the Inventor?

For four years every sentence or idea that then-Vice President Dan Quayle fumbled was highlighted by nearly every media outlet and news program. Quayle’s successor, Al Gore, has filled the former VP’s shoes and occasionally stuck one in his mouth, but Gore gaffes have never been popular with the press.

On March 9, Gore appeared on CNN’s Late Edition/Prime Time for an interview with Wolf Blitzer. At one point Gore proclaimed: "During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet." Unfazed by the claim, Blitzer moved on to an unrelated question. Days later, Republicans drew attention to the quote with jokes about creating the paper clip, but none of the network morning or evening shows covered Gore’s Internet gaffe.

Five days later on Sunday’s Late Edition, Blitzer defended Gore: "He was involved in supporting legislation that promoted the Internet. I think that’s probably what he meant to say." Panelists on several weekend talk shows discussed Gore’s boast without Blitzeresque rationalizations. On CNN’s Capital Gang, Time’s Margaret Carlson made it her Outrage of the Week, wondering:"Is being a heartbeat away from the Whopper-in-Chief rubbing off on Gore?"

Pot Promoters?
Hemp beer served on Air Force One? Matt Drudge first reported the incident on his Web site on February 16: "Late Monday evening aboard Air Force One [as President Clinton was returning from his trip to Mexico], stewards passed out ‘Hemp Golden Beer’ to the President, members of Congress and the press!"

Could that be true? No one in the press touched the story until the March 15 issue of U.S. News & World Report. In her article about U.S. farmers fighting the ban on growing hemp, Elise Ackerman noted hemp is on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s controlled-substance list, then made a passing mention of the episode: "President Clinton has yet to state his official position on the plant, but Hempen Gold, a cream ale brewed from hemp seeds, was recently served on Air Force One."

Not only did the entire media ignore Drudge’s embarrassing scoop, but ABC’s Connie Chung passed up an ideal opportunity to bring it up. On the March 8 Good Morning America, Chung talked to Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, allowing him plenty of air time to promote the latest technological advances in the War on Drugs. Not once did she press him on the topic, even though he traveled to Kentucky three days later to denounce hemp advocates for "a thinly disguised attempt to legalize the production of pot." Instead, Chung asked press-release questions such as: "I wanted to ask you about an announcement you’re making today concerning an artificial enzyme that will help fight cocaine addiction. What can you tell us about it?"

Auditing the IRS.
Three and a half weeks after the IRS cleared Newt Gingrich and the Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) of any violations in accepting tax-deductible donations to fund his college course, the Los Angeles Times got around to informing its readers.

But the thrust of the February 27 Times story was not the vindication of the former Speaker. Instead, reporters Art Pine and Alan Miller warned: "Critics fear that the decision could break down the barriers that have prohibited tax-exempt charitable organizations from getting involved in politics, paving the way for politicians to set up such groups to finance their political activities."

Not until the tenth paragraph, after quotes from two liberals, did the Times get to a Gingrich ally, Jeff Eisenach of PFF. But then the paper tried to counter any idea of exoneration by focusing on how the IRS reached its February 3 conclusion without seeing transcripts of testimony before the House ethics committee, though the Times did allow Eisenach to argue that if there had been anything incriminating, the House would have provided it to the IRS.

But then Pine and Miller suggested the IRS went soft: "There also have been debates over whether IRS supervisors really examined the evidence fully or simply took a bow in hopes of heading off a clash with a powerful figure."

No "Moving On" to Chinese Espionage

Stolen Bomb Secrets Draw Less TV News Than Monica's Book

Last year, The New York Times broke the story that two defense contractors were kept from prosecution by the Clinton White House despite giving China knowledge that advanced their ballistic missile technology. On March 6, the Times landed another shocking scoop: "Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the minatiurization of its bombs."

Put the two together — miniaturized nuclear warheads on improved ballistic missiles — and you have an American security nightmare. So did the networks leap into a post-impeachment frenzy of substance on the story? No. In the first ten days of the story, the Big Three aired only 11 stories, six of them on the CBS Evening News. ABC’s World News Tonight arrived first on the story but aired only three reports, and NBC Nightly News did just two, even though NBC Vice President Tim Russert told MSNBC’s John Hockenberry the charges were "dead serious."

The morning shows were worse, airing only six full news reports and one interview in the first ten mornings. ABC’s Good Morning America carried three, NBC’s Today two, and CBS’s This Morning one. As the China story sat unaddressed, ABC had to air a half-hour on weight loss, CBS asked O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran about his upcoming appearance on the CBS soap Guiding Light, and two networks urgently discussed the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll.

Only NBC’s Today aired an interview. On March 9, Katie Couric helped Energy Secretary Bill Richardson make excuses for the breach: "Isn’t there a possibility that China could have done this on its own? After all, you’ve got the U.S., the British, the French, and the Russians all able to make these warheads without spying."

Even when the networks touched the story, reporters sometimes stressed uncertainty. On March 11, Anne Thompson reported on NBC Nightly News: "The doubts expressed here are also being voiced in Washington. Senior law enforcement and intelligence officials tell NBC News neither the CIA nor the FBI is at all sure Lee is the source of the leaks, if there are any leaks at all." Well, if there weren’t any leaks, how did the Chinese leap 15 years ahead of themselves in warhead technology? The grave prospect of a Chinese missile threat to America has drawn less morning and evening show coverage than Barbara Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky. So much for "moving on."

Brokaw Still Ducking Juanita

NBC Nightly News Promoted Monica

NBC Nightly News never aired footage of their own exclusive Dateline interview with Juanita Broaddrick conducted by Lisa Myers, but did find the time to promote a competing network’s interview with Monica Lewinsky, as well as their own exclusive with her parents.

Despite Myers, a Nightly News regular, obtaining an exclusive interview with the woman accusing the President of raping her in 1978, anchor Tom Brokaw never showed a frame of Broaddrick, nor ever told his viewers what she alleged. The night the interview aired, February 24, Brokaw ended his show by vaguely referring to how Dateline would feature "an exclusive interview with the woman known as Jane Doe No. 5, Juanita Broaddrick. Her controversial accusations about President Clinton. Dateline tonight at 8, 7 central."

Yet on March 2, Nightly News aired not one, but two stories plugging ABC’s exclusive with Lewinsky landed by Barbara Walters. Brokaw set up the back-to-back pieces: "NBC News In Depth tonight. Speaking out. Monica Lewinsky in her own words. For more than a year now we’ve heard her on audio tapes and in depositions on videotape, but now Monica Lewinsky is telling her version of a story that’s been reported, dissected and debated around the world. First installment: the airing of an interview on ABC with Barbara Walters. The details began to leak out tonight and we begin our In Depth reporting now with NBC’s White House correspondent David Bloom."

After the Bloom piece came a story by Bob Faw in which the camera zoomed in on a full page newspaper ad taken out by ABC News for 20/20. Faw observed: "Hype, too, for that Barbara Walters interview tomorrow night. ABC, which isn’t paying Lewinsky, reportedly hoped to charge $800,000 a commercial, five times the going rate, a $35 million windfall." As he spoke, viewers saw the ad with a big head shot of Monica and could read the ad copy as the camera panned down: "Monica. The Barbara Walters Interview. Special time 9/8c. 20/20." But Faw wasn’t done yet selling the ABC interview, he then played a clip of Walters from MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning program claiming, "There is yes, there is one revelation, there is one thing that she has never said before."

An NBC exclusive interview Brokaw was not ashamed of was Katie Couric’s Today show segment with Bernard and Barbara Lewinsky. On the March 9 Nightly News Brokaw aired a two-minute excerpt from Monica’s father and stepmother.

Lou Dobbs Goes to Los Alamos

At least one major media figure appreciates the gravity of the burgeoning Los Alamos espionage scandal. On March 9, CNN Vice President Lou Dobbs anchored his Moneyline NewsHour from Los Alamos where he devoted five stories to the allegations involving Chinese spying and stolen nuclear technology. Dobbs also aired additional interviews with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on the same program.

Dobbs underscored the magnitude of the scandal in his opening. Calling it "arguably the most alarming nuclear espionage scandal in nearly 50 years, at least since the Rosenbergs," Dobbs stressed that "the growing scandal involves more than one man suspected of betrayal and espionage." Indeed, as reports by correspondents Bill Dornan and Rebecca MacKinnon showed, the White House’s tardy response to the charges raised still more questions about why the administration would relax restrictions on technology exports to China at the same time it knew about the spying. Dornan noted the White House had not pursued the breach in a way that was either "immediate" or "vigorous."

In his interview with Richardson, Dobbs showed he was equally circumspect about White House claims of a strenuous pursuit of the spying, asking, "Is it your judgment, it has been charged, that security here is just too lax?" Later, Dobbs pressed Richardson on the correlation between satellite technology transfer and alleged espionage at Los Alamos, noting that a "number of questions arise" when discussing the exact nature of the association.

Dobbs concluded the Los Alamos portion of the show by asking Wolf Blitzer about the "central role" China had played in three of the major controversies facing the Clinton administration: the campaign finance scandal, the satellite technology transfer and the Chinese espionage case. It’s good to know someone in the press still takes allegations of stolen nuclear technology seriously.