MediaWatch: November 30, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 21

Starr's Day Couldn't Match Media's Year

As independent counsel Kenneth Starr prepared to address the House Judiciary Committee on November 19, the media were showing no fear. For months, they had broadcast their Carvillesque incantations and push polls insisting that Starr was a partisan zealot. These ten months of hammering home a theme couldn’t be erased in a day.

For large parts of the day, Starr’s legal interpretation of Monicagate and other scandals provided a brief respite of equal time for the case against Clinton. But even if Starr’s testimony carried the potential to rivet America as Ollie North’s Iran-Contra testimony did in 1987, the networks insisted that nothing he said would ultimately change the scandal as they had so relentlessly framed it.

Nine minutes into CBS’s live coverage, Dan Rather had already laid down his marker, insisting that Starr has become known as a "Republican partisan." That night on Nightline, Ted Koppel began: "Inadvertently, at least, some of the President’s allies did Kenneth Starr an enormous favor. As long as he did not show up before the House Judiciary Committee this morning in a stained trench coat with a copy of Hustler magazine under his arm, he was bound to exceed expectations." The next morning on Today, Katie Couric joked: "Do you think Ken Starr’s standing in the opinion polls is going to go up a bit? I mean, he has nowhere to go but up, right?" Tim Russert smiled and replied: "Well, exactly right. Lower than Saddam Hussein in many of the polls."

The news networks (CNN, MSNBC, FNC) stayed with Starr all day long, beginning at 10 A.M. Eastern time. While the Big Three all went live at the beginning, CBS aired the most coverage, while ABC left early and NBC jumped out early and often. ABC signed off at about 3:17 because Republicans weren’t providing an alternative viewpoint to Starr. Peter Jennings claimed: "We were trying to make the point a little earlier today that we heard Mr. Starr at length this morning and we saw a lot of Democratic agitation, so we wanted an opportunity for the Democrats this afternoon to have a go at Mr. Starr, in purely generic terms, and the Republicans do not seem disposed to have at him, so we are going to try to keep the sense of balance by coming back a little later on today and listening to Mr. Clinton’s lawyer David Kendall question Mr. Starr as well." Jennings offered this reasoning after Democratic counsel Abbe Lowell grilled Starr for an hour. (Kendall’s quibbles with Starr were later excerpted on Nightline.)

Evening News. That evening, the networks led with multiple stories about his appearance featuring many soundbites of his comments, as well as Democratic attacks on him. Reporters noticed Starr’s calm demeanor, and Democrats’ failure to challenge Starr on the evidence against Clinton. An even balance of comments for and against Starr was quite a feat. But the networks still attempted to convince the public that this impeachment process was doomed.

ABC’s Jackie Judd noted: "Clearly, the Independent Counsel had a huge challenge going into this hearing, to reshape his public image and to restore credibility to his much-maligned investigation." ABC also insured the coverage wouldn’t get too tough by not calling conservative analysts George Will or William Kristol into the studio at any time during the day or night, although Jennings called on George Stephanopoulos and Cokie Roberts.

CBS’s Dan Rather produced the strangest image of the night, calling the hearing "an extraordinary mix of lofty constitutional law and muddy mosh-pit politics." (As if Republicans and Democrats and Ken Starr were jumping up and down and into each other at a Nine Inch Nails concert.) As usual, Rather marshaled Clinton-friendly poll results, although he gave no word of when the poll was taken. One result indicated Clinton’s high approval rating (67 percent). Another, listed on the screen as "Reason for Republican inquiry?", found 56 percent answering "to damage Clinton" and just 34 percent saying "to investigate charges." Bob McNamara reported from Fort Worth about how conservative talk show host Mark Davis conceded listeners are "tired and bored and want the story to go away."

On NBC, Lisa Myers noted that under "ferocious attack" from Democrats, Starr was "unflappable, although he hasn’t changed many minds." Then Gwen Ifill reported on "moderate" Republicans: "Just upstairs from the impeachment hearings today: political reality. Illinois Congressman John Porter, one of at least a dozen Republicans who say that even if the committee recommends impeachment, he probably won’t. "Ifill concluded: "Now even the President’s enemies want middle ground, not impeachment."

Sam Dash Quits. Whatever ground Starr gained, the networks sought to erode the next evening after Sam Dash, the former Democratic Watergate counsel and ethics adviser to Starr, resigned in protest of Starr’s testimony. ABC’s Peter Jennings suggested: "A single lawyer may have done the kind of damage to the independent counsel Kenneth Starr today that 16 Democratic Congressmen and the President’s lawyer didn’t quite manage to do yesterday." Although she reported that Dash had been under pressure from the White House and other Democrats to resign, Jackie Judd touted Dash’s "impeccable credentials as an adviser on ethics."

On CBS, the same Dan Rather who regularly calls Starr a "Republican partisan" referred to "the widely respected, independent Sam Dash." Rather and reporter Scott Pelley never referred to Dash as a Democrat.

NBC’s Lisa Myers joined Judd in noting a possible White House connection to Dash’s day-after departure, but Tom Brokaw began the show with a funeral dirge: "Good evening. In poll after poll and in other ways, the public says it does not want President Clinton impeached. That issue hurt the Republicans in the elections. Special prosecutor Ken Starr offered no new smoking guns in his long appearance before the Judiciary Committee. And then tonight a stunning new blow to Starr’s reputation: his own ethics adviser has quit in protest. That has only accelerated the unraveling of the impeachment process."

Four days later, Scripps-Howard Editor Dan Thomasson noted what viewers missed: Dash’s "reputation for partisanship was relatively well-demonstrated" during Watergate. Dash edited out unfavorable mentions of Democratic presidents in Nixon White House memos, and allowed his probers to leak material damaging to Nixon, including the existence of a White House taping system.