In This Issue
Saving the Sex Talk For Our Sitcoms; NewsBites; Admired For Her Faithful, Loving Lies?; "Remarkable" Calculated Confession; Clinton's Lawyers Lashed
Saving the Sex Talk For Our Sitcoms
The cynical expectation that Ken Starr’s report to Congress would be covered like a juicy Harlequin romance novel did not come to life on the networks. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the media aftermath is the relative scarcity of reporting on the actual sexual details included in the report. In prime time news magazine shows the hosts were soon lashing out at Starr for embarrassing Clinton.
Beginning with Friday night, September 11, the evening after the report hit the Internet, evening and morning news shows all spent more time running through Starr’s abuse of power and obstruction charges than on the sexual incidents and perjury recounted in the report. While that journalistic focus emphasized the crimes and abuses under investigation, MediaWatch analysts’ review of the first weekend’s coverage found the networks’ vague references to sex failed to convey the legal absurdity of the President’s denial of sexual relations.
On the 11th, CBS’s Scott Pelley observed that "sex is only the foundation for the serious legal allegations that follow," but only he detailed a specific incident in which Clinton misused his power over the Secret Service to ensure his affair with Lewinsky remained secret. Otherwise, the networks all relayed the same basic impeachable charges from the Starr report and followed with stories on the rebuttal from Clinton lawyer David Kendall. Only CBS’s Bob Schieffer noted Lewinsky said Clinton told her "he had hundreds of affairs in his early part of his marriage, but after he had turned 40 he had tried to slow down." Only NBC’s Lisa Myers picked up on Clinton as a cad: "Lewinsky testified that weeks into their sexual relationship the President still called her ‘kiddo,’ and she wasn’t sure he even knew her name." To be specific:
ABC: Jackie Judd ran through Starr’s charges, mixing in a vague reference to the sexual incidents: "As evidence, the report includes explicit details about ten sexual encounters Lewinsky said she had with Mr. Clinton. Including one in the Oval Office bathroom and another that occurred while Mr. Clinton was on the phone with a member of Congress. The details are necessary, prosecutors write, to prove the President perjured himself in the Jones case and again before Ken Starr’s grand jury when Mr. Clinton denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky whatever definition is used."
CBS: Coverage began with Bob Schieffer on Capitol Hill. Over video of the boxes with the report being opened Schieffer suggested: "It had been advertised as steamy and you could almost see the steam rising as the boxes came open. It was a tawdry tale told by a young woman who had become emotionally involved with an older married man."
Schieffer added: "She and the President had ten sexual encounters, eight while she worked at the White House, two thereafter," noting "the physical relationship with the President included oral sex, but not sexual intercourse." Schieffer recounted two episodes: "There are also torrid passages. During one episode a cigar was used as a sex toy. At another point they had sex while he chatted on the phone with a Congressman."
CNN: On their special at 8pm ET, Wolf Blitzer and co-anchor Judy Woodruff got no more specific on sex than to refer to "intimate touching." In the second half of the show co-anchor Bernard Shaw warned that some viewers might find the next story offensive. In it, Jonathan Karl examined the controversy over the definition of sex. He read the definition Clinton reacted to in the Jones deposition: "A person engages in sexual relations when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks of any person." Karl explained that Clinton claims oral sex is not in that definition, but without getting into any offensive detail concluded by noting that "Lewinsky describes in graphic detail activity with the President that goes beyond oral sex."
FNC: On the Fox Report, David Shuster read a cleaned up recollection of one incident, with a portion displayed on screen: "The report says quote, ‘According to Ms. Lewinsky, she performed oral sex on the President on nine occasions. On all nine of those occasions the President fondled and kissed her bare breasts. He touched her...both through her underwear and directly...On one occasion the President (used) a cigar (to stimulate her.)’ On several occasions, the report says that Monica Lewinsky was performing oral sex on Mr. Clinton while he was talking on the phone with a member of Congress."
NBC: Nightly News reporter Lisa Myers took time to lay out how Starr’s facts counter Clinton’s claim of no sexual relations: "Specifically, the President told a grand jury that he never touched Lewinsky’s breasts or other intimate parts of her body and therefore had not perjured himself in his deposition in the Jones case last January when he said he had not had sexual relations with Lewinsky. Prosecutors cite at least 13 instances in which he touched her in very intimate ways including one episode involving a cigar. In another disclosure not likely to sit well with Congress, the report also charges the President and Lewinsky were having sex while the President was on the phone with three different members of Congress in November 1995."
As the hours passed, network reaction switched to attacking Kenneth Starr’s inclusion of explicit details in the report. On ABC’s 20/20, Barbara Walters asked Jackie Judd: "When you read this report it is so salacious, it is so graphic. There will be many people who will feel it’s disgusting, wonder what they’ll tell their children. There could be a backlash against Ken Starr. I asked the prosecutor’s office today why it had to be so salacious and was told that the answer is in the report."
During a special two-hour Dateline, Stone Phillips demanded of guest Bill McCollum, a Republican Congressman from Florida: "Did this report have to be that detailed, that explicit? I mean you cringe when you read it. Does the Congress need it, do the American people need to hear it, should the President be subjected to that kind of embarrassment?" Phillips apparently thought so in 1992, asking George Bush in a question re-aired in the same show without any suggestion that NBC had any evidence, if he’d had an affair with aide Jennifer Fitzgerald
On Saturday’s NBC Nightly News, Keith Miller checked in with a stale recitation of jaded European reaction: "In France, Le Monde described the report as ‘a monster... worthy of the reports of the Inquisition...where deviants and heretics were hunted down to the depth of their souls.’" A woman in Paris complained: "It’s horrible. I hate Kenneth Starr and I think it’s horrible for Clinton but, because he loses credibility about the world."
On Monday morning Today’s Katie Couric came at Pat Buchanan: "Do you think Ken Starr really had to get so graphic in this report? I mean it’s, much of it is in the ‘more than what we really wanted to know’ category. Did the details have to be so lurid?"
Reporters and pundits answered the question correctly — that Clinton’s legal hair-splitting required explicit detail, followed by minute-by-minute corroboration of Clinton’s and Lewinsky’s whereabouts. In short, the Starr report corroborated Lewinsky’s testimony, but that damning proof, as Couric confessed, was "more than we really wanted to know." The network stars suggested they don’t want the truth. They don’t want evidence. They want Clinton’s survival.
By Tuesday night, Dan Rather reported that CBS pollsters went looking for public disgust with Ken Starr: "Nearly two-thirds polled say the explicit content of Starr’s report is, quote, ‘inappropriate.’ Majorities of those polled say Congress was wrong to release the sexy details and that the special prosecutor’s motive was to quote ‘embarrass’ the President." The exact numbers: 65 percent called the release of sexual details inappropriate; 59 percent thought it was wrong for Congress to release them and 59 percent said they were meant to embarrass Clinton. That was not the networks’ intention.
Tiny Cup of Joe
Senator Joseph Lieberman’s blistering remarks on the floor of the Senate September 3 may have marked the beginning of the end of the Clinton presidency. But you wouldn’t have known it watching TV news that night.
Lieberman, a thirty-year friend of Clinton’s, opened the floodgates for dissatisfied Democrats by castigating Clinton for his "immoral" behavior. Yet CBS Evening News gave only 20 seconds to Lieberman. NBC Nightly News gave it 19 seconds. Both broadcasts also skipped similar comments from Democratic Senators Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Only ABC’s World News Tonight and FNC’s Fox Report presented longer segments and with soundbites from Lieberman, Kerrey, and Moynihan.
By the following morning, Today seemed intent on making up for NBC’s earlier inattention, running several stories on Lieberman and his fellow disenchanted Democrats. ABC’s Good Morning America aired a full story on the three Senators. But CBS ran only a brief mention on This Morning.
White House reporters described the President’s September 10 meeting with his Cabinet as an encounter group of sorts. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said they "emerged from an emotional one hour session, saying the President had pleaded for their forgiveness. They say he was on the verge of tears." Few picked up on the more intriguing story about Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala’s sharp exchange with Clinton.
None of the network news shows that evening reported anything about Shalala. Later, on ABC’s Nightline, Ted Koppel mentioned: "Donna Shalala was, according to one participant in that White House meeting, much angrier. Speaking of the President she said, ‘He betrayed me.’ When the President promised to improve as a person, she told him to say it is one thing, to demonstrate it is another, to which the President replied, ‘If people had felt that way in 1960, Nixon would have been elected President.’"
The next morning, The Washington Post described Shalala’s "unexpectedly ‘harsh’ assessment" in a front-page story. But none of the network morning shows mentioned Shalala in their reports on the meeting. On that evening’s Nightly News, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell relayed the incident and a comment from Shalala saying, "his response to her was pointed, but not testy, when she told him leaders are judged by good behavior, not just good policy." That aired again the next morning on Today, but the other networks kept quiet.
Why just focus on Clinton when you can impugn past Presidents? On NBC’s September 11 Dateline special, Jane Pauley teased: "Tonight some presidential tales you may not have learned in school. Whispers of things amiss with presidential mistresses are as old as America itself. Even including the father of our country? The man who could not tell a lie? Rob Stafford reports on the gossip and the skeletons hanging in the White House closets."
Stafford began by claiming: "41 men have been President of the United States and 14 of them, fully a third, have been targets of gossip about sexual misconduct and extramarital affairs. For the most part, though, the public never heard the allegations until after the Presidents had died. What’s unique about President Clinton’s current problems is they are being debated while he’s still in office."
Stafford started by muddying George Washington: "There were stories that the secret love of his life was his best friend’s wife. Some say Thomas Jefferson had secret affairs with married women before he was President. And historians still debate whether he fathered children with one of his slaves."
Without a scintilla of evidence they broke their marriage vows, Stafford advanced rumors about more recent (GOP) Presidents: "Before he settled down into his political career and his marriage with Nancy, Ronald Reagan was quite a man about Hollywood. And stories even surfaced about George Bush and a longtime government employee." Stafford worried: "But the assault on President Clinton’s character has taken on an entirely new dimension which gives rise to concern over the very office that he occupies."
Admired For Her Faithful, Loving Lies?
NBC Promotes First Lady’s Focus on "What She Does Best"
As the Clintons faced Ken Starr’s listing of impeachable offenses, NBC praised Hillary Clinton’s remarkable performance in the role of wronged spouse, lauding a victim instead of disdaining an architect of obstruction and a co-perpetrator of seven months of lies.
On the September 11 Today, co-host Matt Lauer enthused: "Extraordinary performance from the First Lady in the last couple of days. Last night she introduced her husband. We saw it in the Mik [Jim Miklaszewski] piece but I think it bears watching again. Here’s what she said with her husband sitting right next to her."
That night, Tom Brokaw plugged: "Still ahead tonight, NBC News In Depth. How’s she coping with this personal betrayal?...The First Lady, caught up in the President’s lies. Now where does she turn?" Andrea Mitchell played a clip of a minister at the prayer breakfast praising Hillary’s grace and courage, adding: "Enough grace and courage to be her husband’s chief cheerleader at a political event last night." Mitchell worried: "How can she carry on now that the entire nation can learn the sexual details?" She answered with "friends and former aides who have been with the First Lady," including her former press secretary and CBS flack Lisa Caputo, and Mandy Grunwald, who began 1992 by shaming ABC’s Ted Koppel out of questioning Clinton’s sexual recklessness with Gennifer Flowers on Nightline.
Jane Pauley picked up on Mitchell’s theme the next night in a two-hour Dateline special titled "The President and the People." Pauley claimed Hillary unquestioningly accepted her husband’s denials: "She had believed his denials and indeed last January, as she told the Today show’s Matt Lauer, he seemed to take for granted that she wouldn’t believe everything she read in the papers....Then silence. As the investigation turned up the heat on friends and colleagues, even as he testifies under oath before a grand jury, she says nothing. Balancing a threat to her marriage against the assault on his presidency, she does what she does best, she goes to work. In July, a bus tour to preserve historic places."
Pauley continued: "By August people are looking into her eyes for an idea of what she’s going through." After noting the irony that the woman who said in 1992 she’s not just standing by her man now is, Pauley asserted: "Once vilified for ambition and political overreaching when she took on health care, now she’s admired for being the faithful, loving wife." At least by NBC.
"Remarkable" Calculated Confession
Hours before the Starr report’s release on September 11, the networks were awed by Bill Clinton’s latest confession in front of a prayer breakfast. The awe wasn’t tempered by the possibility it was another calculated maneuver forced by events rather than genuine repentance, or the subsequent all-fronts attack by Clinton’s lawyers on the Starr report.
In live CBS coverage that morning, Dan Rather insisted: "The President of United States has given a solemn apology." That night he declared: "At an extraordinary White House prayer breakfast this morning, the President went beyond his recent round of apologies. He went to acknowledging sin and expressing remorse and repentance." CBS then aired a (for network TV, incredibly long) 90-second clip from the address.
On ABC in the morning, Peter Jennings lauded his courage: "A unique circumstance to see the most powerful man in the world saying what he did before all of us." Cokie Roberts chimed in: "Quite an extraordinary speech."
Tom Brokaw asked Tim Russert during live NBC coverage: "I don’t think anybody will say, except perhaps the most partisan adversary of the President, that what he had to say was too little. The question is was it too late Tim?" An impressed Russert replied: "Tom, it’s ironic. On August 17th the President was given a draft saying many of the things he said today. And he rejected it three weeks ago because he did not want to be perceived as quote, ‘weak.’ Today the President of the United States, the leader of the free world stood up in front of everyone and said, ‘I have sinned. I have a broken spirit.’ It was remarkable." Brokaw echoed Russert in asking David Bloom: "David, the White House staff have any sense the President was going to make this remarkable confession to the country today?" Later, MSNBC anchor Chris Jansing also called it "an extraordinary speech."
On CNN, reporter Wolf Blitzer told viewers: "It was the most dramatic, the most emotional, the most poignant speech he gave on this subject." Blitzer noted "many of his closest advisers" said Clinton "was about to speak from his heart this morning." Blitzer agreed, describing it as "a poignant statement by the President begging the country for forgiveness, saying he is going to do his best never again to sin, as he now says he clearly did sin."
Clinton's Lawyers Lashed
Although journalists still take shots at Starr for releasing an overly graphic report, not even the liberal press could support Clinton’s fantastical legal interpretations arguing he did not perjure himself. On two September 13 Sunday morning shows, Clinton attorneys David Kendall and Charles Ruff were flummoxed by probing questions.
On ABC’s This Week, Cokie Roberts confronted Kendall, "You have answered questions in certain ways. It’s tortured language about what sex, about what alone, about what the meaning of the word is, is. Just as a commonsensical human being was the President telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"
She then challenged Clinton’s moral authority: "The President took the oath to faithfully execute the laws of the country.... but he attempted to, he attempted to thwart the case. And in his seven months of non-stop attack on the judicial system, has he faithfully executed the laws of the United States?"
Later, Sam Donaldson doubted Clinton’s memory lapses: "Has he forgotten he had sex with Monica Lewinsky?" ABC political commentator George Will had a memorable follow-up: "I gather your answer to Sam is, he could remember being alone with Miss Lewinsky when she was delivering pizza, but not when she was delivering oral sex?" Donaldson concluded: "I take it your case is, the President of the United States may be a liar, but he’s not a perjurer."
On NBC’s Meet The Press, Tim Russert parsed what Clinton said: "He says that when she gave him oral sex, that’s her having sex, not him having sex as he understands it. And when Monica Lewinsky said that he, in fact, had fondled her, touched her....he said, that never happened. Now, are the American people supposed to believe that?"
Russert even suggested an interregnum might be in order: "No less than five women have come forward and complained about the President’s sexual behavior. Is there any consideration being given by the President to seek professional help?...Would the White House ever consider invoking the 25th Amendment, where the President would step aside for six or eight weeks, go away for counseling and therapy, and allow President Gore to run the country?"