Plain as the News on Your Face: Clinton Lies and Obstruction That TV News Has Ignored


The Monica Lewinsky story presented the media with a potent cocktail of boss-intern sexual allegations and perjury charges that have captured the usually apolitical public even as it decries the story's overcoverage. News organizations and "committees of concerned journalists" have reprimanded themselves for their own coverage of the Monicagate story and criticized the TV networks for going "too far" with too little information. But a hard look at past TV coverage suggests that the problem with television news isn't the lack of substantive new information. It's the networks' long-standing failure to report the Clinton administration's tendency to mislead the public or obstruct justice, even when the nation's leading newspapers do the legwork for them.

Polls suggest the public believes that the Monicagate story is simply a sordid tale of office hanky-panky that a sex-starved media could not resist. The most serious aspects of the story -- coverups, perjury, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice -- have antecedents in previous White House attempts to stonewall damaging Clinton scandals, scandals that the networks have covered with much less fervor than the Monicagate story. If the networks wished to improve their public reputations instead of presenting themselves as ruthless exploiters of Clinton's personal excesses, they could re-examine past Clinton scandals to explain to viewers how the White House damage-control strategy on the Monicagate story is quite similar to their strategy to kill other damaging stories.

In theory, there are three stages to news coverage of scandal stories: allegation, investigation, and resolution. On too many stories, the networks won't even begin to touch the allegation, even after some legal body has resolved the story for them. This analysis lists only five well-reported stories in the last two years out of many reports from the nation's leading newspapers, many of which cannot plausibly be linked to a "vast right-wing conspiracy." To explain these stories, we've separated them into four parts: the initial charge, a subsequent revelation reported in print, why it was important, and how the TV networks (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's evening show The World Today) covered (or didn't cover) it, especially when the story was truly "news" -- in the 48 hours after it broke.