MediaWatch: May 1996

Vol. Ten No. 5

Trial? What Whitewater Trial?

On Sunday, April 28, President Clinton videotaped testimony in the fraud trial of James and Susan McDougal, his business partners in Whitewater Development, and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. Recognizing the gravity of a President testifying for the defense of his business partners, most of the networks covered the story that night. But what about the rest of the trial?

To determine how much coverage the Whitewater trial and related stories generated, MediaWatch analysts reviewed network morning news and evening news programs on ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC from February 29, a few days before the trial began, to April 30, as the trial neared its end. Analysts also reviewed corresponding news magazine coverage in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report from issues dated March 4 to May 6. In nearly two months of the trial, the four networks aired only 16 reporter-based Whitewater stories on the evening news shows -- an average of less than four per network over a two-month period. Seven of the 16 (44 percent) were on the President's testimony. Although Time carried a long cover story excerpting James Stewart's Whitewater book Blood Sport, the news magazines devoted fewer pages to the Whitewater trial than to the Jackie Onassis auction. 

Some significant stories barely or never made the air. On February 29 and again on March 7, Senate Democrats blocked votes extending the tenure of the Senate Whitewater Committee. The Democrats upheld further hearings until agreeing to a deal on April 18. One Jackie Judd report on ABC's World News Tonight and an anchor brief on ABC's Good Morning America and on CNN's The World Today were the only coverage of the Democratic filibuster until hearings resumed April 24. Jennings introduced the Judd story by calling it the "endless Whitewater saga."

On March 15, a federal appeals court removed Judge Henry Woods from the Jim Guy Tucker case and reinstated four fraud counts struck down by Woods, finding the judge was too close to the Clintons. Despite several network stories and a Nightline on the integrity of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the networks never covered this story.

On March 24, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 52 percent of respondents believed the First Lady was not telling the truth about Whitewater and 49 percent said they thought she acted illegally. While the Post published the poll on page A16, ABC never reported it. When word leaked on April 29 that the FBI found Hillary Clinton's fingerprints on the long-missing Rose Law Firm documents discovered in the White House, it drew only four anchor briefs. To break down the coverage by network and show:

Evening News. The most stunning lack of coverage came from NBC Nightly News, which did not air a single reporter-based story in two months -- and only two anchor briefs. (Due to NBA basketball coverage, NBC had no newscast the night of Clinton's testimony.) CNN's The World Today aired six reporter-based stories, one of which was followed with analysis by CNN legal expert Roger Cossack. ABC's World News Tonight aired six reporter-based stories from Jackie Judd. CBS Evening News aired four reports, including an April 24 story by Phil Jones questioning the integrity of Starr. (The evening shows aired 25 anchor briefs, 16 of them on CNN.)

Morning Shows. The three network morning shows aired only 12 reporter-based stories and five interviews in two months. Again, around half the coverage (seven of the 12 stories and two of the five interviews) concerned Clinton's testimony. Here, surprisingly, NBC's Today did the most, airing four reports and two interviews with Blood Sport author James Stewart. CBS This Morning and Sunday Morning aired four reports and one interview with Stewart. ABC's Good Morning America aired three reports and an interview with ABC's Cokie Roberts and Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson on Blood Sport. (The shows ran 26 anchor briefs.)

Magazine/Interview Stories. None of the magazine shows covered Whitewater -- but then, from 1992 forward, the magazine shows combined have aired only two segments on it.

In the last two months, CNN's Late Edition did the most, asking one question to Sen. Al D'Amato on March 24, and airing a Bob Franken report on April 28, followed by five questions to guests. NBC's Meet the Press had four Whitewater questions on two shows. ABC's This Week with David Brinkley asked Leon Panetta one question on April 28 about Clinton's testimony. Whitewater never came up on CBS's Face the Nation.

Nightline, which did five shows on Whitewater in January, posed one question to Bob Dole on whether Whitewater should be wrapped up, and an April 24 program on the "controversy raging" around Ken Starr.

News Magazines. Time set itself apart from the competition with its 15-page excerpt of Stewart's book in the March 18 issue. But Time did no reporting on its own. Its only coverage of any length came in two Margaret Carlson columns pooh-poohing the scandal's importance.

U.S. News & World Report reviewed the upcoming trial in two pages on March 4, but did no other article a page or longer. The March 11 issue had a brief on the hearings debate headlined: "Whitewater: Time for the Curtain?" U.S. News owner and Editor-in-Chief Mortimer Zuckerman wrote a two-page editorial attacking "The Silly Hillary Pillory" on April 1. Newsweek ran one-page pieces on aspects of Whitewater on March 4 and 11, but nothing substantial after that. In their May 6 editions however, Newsweek devoted six pages to the Jackie Onassis auction. Time made it its cover story and gave it eight pages. U.S. News kept its Jackie O coverage to two pages.

Zuckerman may have captured the media's collective death wish for Whitewater on CNBC's Cal Thomas show March 24: "I don't think there's anything there unless Kenneth Starr does come up with anything. And the fact that there is a trial going on, I think is not going to be relevant to what the elections are going to be all about. You can't run an election based on attacking the President's wife."