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MediaWatch: September 7, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 14

Lobbing the Ultimate Conversation Stopper

Three days after admitting a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton authorized cruise-missile attacks on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. Was this attack intended to divert attention from Monicagate?

All the networks noted the similarities to the satirical film Wag the Dog, in which the White House creates a fictional war with Albania to distract from a sex scandal. If the timing had been a cynical damage control strategy, it surely worked in the short run: From Thursday to Sunday, the evening shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN carried 78 stories on the attack to just six Lewinsky pieces (one report mixed the stories together). In the four mornings after the attack, from Friday through Monday, the Big Three aired 61 full segments on the attack to just seven on Lewinsky (another 13 segments mixed both).

Media and Republican figures initially questioned the attack’s timing, but the backlash came quickly. In Time’s daily Internet update, Frank Pellegrini reported: "Although Clinton-haters Newt Gingrich and Dan Burton have avowed their support of the strike, Republicans Arlen Specter and Dan Coats did not shy from the low road." U.S. News & World Report writer Stephen Budiansky flayed the press: "The only comforting bit of normality in the entire week was provided by the reliable inanity of the Washington press corps. The reporter who demanded to know if Defense Secretary William Cohen had seen the movie Wag the Dog reassured us that in one corner of the globe, the world was all right."

On Nightline, Ted Koppel noted an ABC poll which found 30 percent believed in a Wag the Dog strategy: "Those are the times we live in... I have to assume that there is a sense of embarrassment among all of us. Let me just speak for myself. I have sense of embarrassment that we are even raising questions like this at a time like this." Koppel ended: "This, the President tells us, was one of those few exceptions, one of America’s rare opportunities to fight back. To doubt his word on this occasion may cross our minds but is, in the final analysis, unthinkable."

But Koppel did not find it "unthinkable" in 1991 to charge that the 1980 Reagan campaign delayed the release of American hostages in Iran. Nor was it "unthinkable" days before the 1992 election to wonder if the Bush administration secretly armed the Iraqis before the Gulf War: "This story is not a trivial issue." In both cases, Koppel devoted major resources to proving those false, insulting theories were true.