MediaWatch: October 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 10

Frenzy Over Princess Diana's Death Buries Senate Fundraising Hearing Coverage

Celebrity Culture Sinks Politics Again

In July, MediaWatch noted how compelling details of the Senate fundraising hearings were buried by the media frenzy over the murder of designer Gianni Versace, with a Versace-to-hearings ratio of 7 to 1 on the network morning shows.

At the end of August, Britain's Princess Diana died in a car crash. While the death of the most photographed woman in the world is news, it is certainly not as important as a fundraising imbroglio implicating President Clinton and Vice President Gore, the two most powerful men in the world.

Or is it? MediaWatch analysts examined fundraising scandal stories in August and September on the Big Three morning shows and evening shows, plus CNN's The World Today. The networks broadcast 686 stories on Diana between August 31 and the end of September compared to just 113 stories about the fundraising scandal. That's a ratio of more than 6 to 1. Isolating the morning shows, collectively they aired 407 stories on Princess Diana's death, while devoting just 36 to the scandal. That's an astonishing ratio of 10 to 1.

In August, the networks combined for a paltry total of 16 full stories and five anchor briefs on the evening shows, and five full stories and two briefs in the morning. In the evening, ABC aired only one fundraising story in the whole month. CBS was next with four full stories and one brief, followed by NBC Nightly News with five full stories (mostly about Johnny Chung) and two anchor briefs. CNN The World Today ran the most coverage with six full stories and two anchor briefs.

TV coverage picked up when Sen. Fred Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee reconvened hearings in September, but many disclosures were missed. The evening shows broadcast a total of 51 full stories of scandal coverage with 25 anchor briefs.

Like most other months this year, most networks skipped fundraising stories on a majority of their broadcasts. In September's 30 days, with the Thompson hearings in their most dramatic stage, the morning shows were all guilty (CBS 28 days with no story, NBC 24, ABC 22). In the evening, CBS, ABC (both 20 nights off) and NBC (19) took more than half the month off, while only CNN (12) didn't.

The Big Three morning shows aired a total of 21 full stories and 17 anchor briefs on the fundraising scandal. Like July and August, the morning shows did not have a single member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on to discuss the hearings.

CBS This Morning broadcast just two anchor briefs and one full story, and it was about Justice Department inquiries, not the Thompson hearings. That's three reports compared to 109 on Diana's death. On ABC's Good Morning America, the Diana-to- scandal ratio was 145 to 17. Like the Versace story, NBC's Todaybroadcast the most Diana segments with 153, versus 18 segments on fundraising.

CNN's The World Today showed 92 segments on Princess Diana's death while airing 34 segments on fundraising in September. CNN offered a segment on the Thompson hearings almost every day they were in session in September. Though The World Today had about twice the stories as the other newscasts, the show is twice as long.

In the evening, NBC aired the second most stories, devoting 15 segments to the fundraising story, compared to 66 on Diana. CBS broadcast 67 segments about Diana, but just 14 about the fundraising scandal. ABC showed the least Diana segments (46) but only aired 12 stories on fundraising, creating the greatest discrepancy between Diana news and fundraising news at a ratio of almost 4 to 1.

In addition to spotty coverage of the Thompson hearings, the networks continued to ignore interesting print developments in the scandal:

August 5: A New York Daily News story detailed how Al Gore made at least 48 calls from the White House, many more than he previously admitted. Coverage: None at that time.

August 8: The Washington Post reported the DNC handed over 4,000 pages of documents from the files of its former Finance Chairman Richard Sullivan after he testified, rendering them almost useless to the committee. Coverage: zero.

August 1: NBC aired an interview with Johnny Chung, who told viewers that aides to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary demanded he make a $25,000 contribution to the Secretary's favorite charity before he could discuss arranging a meeting with her. But CBS News viewers didn't hear about the scandal until almost a full month later. Through September, ABC News viewers still had not heard Chung's explosive charges about O'Leary.

September 6: The Washington Post published an article alleging that Al Gore knew the nature of the Buddhist temple event because he referred to it as a "fundraiser" in an e-mail he sent to a staffer. Coverage: Zero.

September 9: DNC Chairman Don Fowler testified before the Senate Government Affairs Committee. Despite saturation coverage of RNC Chairman Haley Barbour's appearance a few months before, neither ABC's World News Tonight nor any morning show filed a report.

September 11: Gene and Nora Lum, big Democratic contributors and major players in the fundraising scandal, were sentenced to 10 months in prison for hiding illegal donations to Senator Ted Kennedy's re-election campaign. Coverage: Zilch. Also, Clinton's National Security Adviser Sandy Berger testified before the Thompson committee. Coverage: only CNN, and ABC (for 18 seconds).

September 12: The Los Angeles Times reported that top intelligence officials told the Thompson panel that Ted Sioeng, a big Democratic donor, may have been the conduit for money and a major player in a Chinese scheme to influence the U.S. elections. Network coverage: nothing.

September 18: The Washington Post story was headlined "Papers Show Use of DNC Ads to Help Clinton." The story quoted consultant Dick Morris on how the Clinton campaign could evade the spirit of election laws and press its advertising themes with DNC soft money. Network coverage at that time? Zero.

September 19: A trio of Democratic consultants plead guilty to funneling union money into Teamsters' President Ron Carey's re-election campaign. Coverage: Only CNN, and a Good Morning America anchor brief on ABC.

September 26: The Los Angeles Times reported a Senate deposition of Clinton aide Harold Ickes revealed he witnessed Clinton make calls from the White House. Network coverage? ABC and NBC did zero, CBS Evening News gave it 21 seconds, and CNN had noted the deposition on the 12th.