Contempt Ruling Doesn't Beat Boffo Visuals

Never underestimate the power of gripping video clips to submerge real news. Judge Susan Webber Wright surprised reporters with her decision Monday night, April 12, to issue her contempt of court citation against President Clinton for lying under oath in the Paula Jones case. A historic black mark for the first President found in contempt of court? Yes, but ABC and NBC gave the news barely a minute Monday night, less time than they gave to a man rescued by helicopter from a crane above an Atlanta fire. The coverage, by network:

ABC. Peter Jennings made time for only 70 seconds on the ruling. He previewed it by downplaying it: "When we come back, a judge rules the President is in contempt, or was. It may sound worse than it is." When Jennings asked reporter John Cochran to summarize the ruling, he portrayed it as a minor development on a contemptible story. "Above all this is an embarrassment, a distraction to the President at a time when he's trying to be an effective commander-in-chief and trying to get the nation focused on Kosovo, not on Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky." Jennings replied: "Very cogent."

The next morning on Good Morning America, ABC aired a segment on the ruling. ABC legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin implied Wright gave the right remedy, while impeachment or indictment was insane: "It was very stinging, but it was also very measured and appropriate and I think the remedy was very sane - it was not impeachment, it was not throwing him in jail. It was just saying, look, you can't do this and you're going to pay a penalty." ABC did not follow up on a possible appeal.

NBC. After leading with an almost three-minute story on the fire rescue off the crane, Brokaw sympathized with Clinton over the ruling. [See box.] The next morning on Today, Tim Russert appeared for a four-minute interview, in which he prototypically declared the contempt citation was "a big deal," while the network's larger news judgment disagreed. Russert came after several segments on the daring fire rescue. NBC didn't follow up on a potential appeal, but did add two more fire rescue reports. It added up to 13 and a half fire-rescue minutes on NBC.

CBS. By contrast, CBS Evening News devoted a full story to the contempt charges, with Scott Pelley under-scoring their seriousness, that the Jones reimbursement "could range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," and that the ruling could spur Clinton's disbarment. CBS This Morning had no interview segment on it, but Bill Plante used the same stern analysis as Pelley in two reports. CBS did not follow up on the appeal.

CNN led with the story on Monday night. On Tuesday's Inside Politics, Bob Franken added: "the first sitting President to be found in contempt of court, could also be faced with another first." Little Rock law professor John DePippa declared: "I think there's a very good chance that he'll be disbarred." On Tuesday night, CNN's Bruce Morton commented that Clinton "got nailed for contempt of court. Not a close call, either. 'Contumacious,' the judge called the President. Webster's says that means 'stubbornly perverse or rebellious, willfully disobedient.'"

FNC not only led with the story on its Monday Fox Report, but followed up on the question of whether the President would appeal, uniquely showing footage Tuesday of Clinton refusing to answer the question. - Tim Graham