Whitewater: The Story Reporters Loved to Hate

Executive Summary

In a study of nearly three months of network and news magazine coverage, the Media Research Center found that despite the suggestion that the national media's only bias is in favor of "a good story," the Whitewater story ­­ indictments, convictions, Senate hearings, and all ­­ is still the story reporters love to hate. The lack of coverage is matched by the disparaging tone members of the media have displayed toward Whitewater over the past few months. A representative sampling of these follows on page two.

First, among the study findings:

From February 29 to May 20, the four TV evening news shows aired only 23 reporter­based stories on Whitewater in more than 11 weeks. Only 13 reports came from the Big Three, compared to ten stories on CNN's The World Today. Eleven of the 23 stories focused on the President's testimony.

The most stunning lack of coverage came from NBC Nightly News, which aired only one reporter­based story in the entire 11 weeks ­­ on May 9.

The three network morning shows aired only 14 reporter­based stories and five interviews in 11 weeks. Again, much of the coverage (nine of the 14 stories and two of the five interviews) concerned Clinton's testimony.

None of the magazine shows covered the trial ­­ but then, from 1992 forward, all of the magazine shows combined have aired only two reporter­based stories on Whitewater.

Although Time carried a long cover story excerpting James Stewart's Whitewater book Blood Sport, the news magazines devoted fewer pages to the Whitewater trial than they did to the Jackie Onassis auction. In their May 6 editions, Time made the auction their cover story and gave it eight pages, Newsweek devoted six pages, U.S. News, two.

Some significant stories the networks barely or never covered:

On February 29 and again on March 7, Senate Democrats blocked votes extending the tenure of the Senate Whitewater Committee. The Democrats held up further hearings until agreeing to a deal on April 18. One reporter­based story on ABC's World News Tonight (and anchor briefs on ABC's Good Morning America and CNN) were the only coverage of the Democratic filibuster until the hearings resumed April 24.

On March 15, a federal appeals court removed Judge Henry Woods from a related case against Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and reinstated four fraud counts struck down by Woods, finding the judge was too close to the Clintons. Despite several network stories and an entire Nightline on the credibility of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the networks never covered the Woods story.

On March 24, an ABC News/Washington Post poll announced 52 percent of respondents believed the First Lady was not telling the truth about Whitewater and 49 percent said they believe she acted illegally. While the Post published the poll, buried on page A16, ABC never reported it.

When word leaked on April 29 that the FBI found Hillary Clinton's fingerprints on the long­missing Rose Law Firm documents discovered in the White House, it drew only four anchor­read briefs. Second, there's a good reason why Whitewater has received so little coverage: Many reporters don't think it's worth covering or that it's been over covered.

Check out these recent quotes:

On Friday's Washington Week in Review (May 24) on PBS they discussed the RNC ad attacking Clinton for invoking the Soldier and Sailors' Act, prompting New York Times columnist Tom Friedman to note the ad was created "Right when Whitewater seems to be grinding to a halt as a legal issue." A few minutes later, moderator Ken Bode (also a CNN analyst), offered his view of why Republicans decided to run the ad: "Whitewater is sort of diminishing, sort of fading away, it's kind of a shadowy thing now, it's going away."

Steve Roberts of U.S. News & World Report, on C­SPAN's Washington Journal, May 16: "This kind of call which says, 'You're all liberals,' haven't been listening, they haven't been reading. Anybody, anybody, it seems to me, who gives a fair reading, Brian [Lamb], of the press coverage of Bill Clinton's first three years, cannot say that the press has been easy on Bill Clinton. The press has beaten the hell out of Bill Clinton over and over again, and Whitewater, which that caller mentions, is just one example and day after day coverage of that issue, which is legitimate and should be there."

Time columnist Margaret Carlson and U.S. News & World Report Editor­in­Chief Mort Zuckerman on CNBC's Cal Thomas show, March 24, 1996:

Carlson: "It's [Whitewater] out there, it's been out there, it's not going to have any more impact than it's already having."

Zuckerman: "I don't think there's anything there unless Kenneth Starr does come up with anything, and the fact that there is a trial going on I think is not going to be relevant to what the elections going to be all about, you can't run an election based on attacking the President's wife."

Eleanor Clift of Newsweek on The McLaughlin Group, February 10, 1996: "If Ken Starr is a credible prosecutor he will bring this to a conclusion and the Clintons will be exonerated."

Margaret Carlson, Time magazine columnist and former White House reporter, on CNN's Capital Gang, December 23, 1995: "As the curtains keep getting lifted there's nothing there! There's no big, you know, there's no big smoking gun. There's no magilla! And they keep going and not finding anything."