MediaWatch: October 5, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 17

Clinton Didn't Yell, But Aides Didn't Tell

Again, White House Benefits from Misleading the Media

The media created widespread expectation that the videotape of Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony would show Clinton exploding in profanity and storming out of the room. When that prediction did not come true as the tape aired nationwide on September 21, Clinton's approval rating rose. The media began talking of a backlash, that the Republicans had overplayed their hand.

Left out of this triumphant spin: who fed the media this dishonest line? And would anybody care if the White House lied to them again? The day after Clinton's testimony aired, CBS's Bob Schieffer told The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that "his sources were on Capitol Hill, not the White House. But, he said, 'I got it from Democrats who'd been talking to the White House.

I do not believe the people I talked to would deliberately mislead me."

Kurtz added: "White House officials acknowledge that they knew this negative spin would eventually help Clinton. But they say they offered accurate guidance to reporters once they were briefed by the President's lawyers last Friday." If that was true, why were expectations so high on Monday? (One exception was NBC's Lisa Myers, who specifically reported before the video aired that Cinton did not storm out.)

On CNN's Reliable Sources September 26, Time reporter Karen Tumulty claimed many reporters got their information from Clinton aides who weren't lying, just misinformed: "I am told that he was quite angry from having sort of held it in and I think that is where the spin came from and it was one of the cases that we've had all along in this story, is that the people who really have the information are the people who aren't talking."

But on CNBC's Tim Russert the same night, Schieffer changed his mind about being misled: "By accident or design, we were deliberately misled on this. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Now whether this was done this way in the beginning, purposely and deliberately, I don't know. But I do know this for a fact: Once I went out with that story I got no call from the White House telling me 'Bob, you've gone too far.' I got no call from any Democratic official telling me, you know, that story is just wrong. They let it stay out there because they knew what was happening was it was building up expectations."

By focusing on expectations, the media made Clinton's performance -- not the truth of his testimony or the spin of his aides -- the biggest story in town.