Lobbing the Ultimate Conversation Stopper
Reporters Recoil at
Thought of Missiles as Scandal Scuttlers
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
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 attackís timing, but the backlash came quickly. In
Timeís 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 Americaís 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.
The highest ranking Democrat in the House refused to rule out
impeachment of Clinton and a respected Democratic party elder suggested
the President resign, but the networks stayed almost silent.
The August 23 Washington Post
carried an op-ed by retired Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) stating that
Clinton must disclose all of his illegal behavior, which Nunn concluded
"will require personal sacrifice and may even require his resignation,
but it would fulfill the Presidentís most important oath ó to preserve
and protect our nation." Network coverage? On Sundayís Meet the Press
moderator Tim Russert asked James Carville to react to Nunn, but no
evening newscast or morning news show uttered a word.
The August 26 Washington Post
reported Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said: "Impeaching the President ó
and effectively overriding the election of 1996 ó should not be
undertaken lightly...that doesnít mean it canít be done or shouldnít be
done; you just better be sure you do it the right way." Coverage of this
major break away from the Clinton line by an influential and leading
Democrat? One 15-second item on ABCís Good Morning America.
That morning on Today, NBCís Matt
Lauer failed to raise the issue during an interview with Lanny Davis and
Stuart Taylor, but he did note the Postís August 24 front-page story on
the Speaker of the House: "Stuart, Newt Gingrich has said he wants to
see more information on this, he wants to see everything. And as you
mentioned before, heís looking, he says impeachment inquiries shouldnít
go forward unless they can find some sort of pattern of felonies, not a
single human error. Does Ken Starr owe it to Newt Gingrich to show him
what heís come up with over these four and a half years?"
Lost in Space
Something was missing in the recent John Glenn encomiums offered up by
Time and Today. The August 17 Time cover said of
Glennís October space mission: "A gimmick? No, a timely reminder that we
can still have heroes." But Glenn, depicted by Timeís Jeffrey
Kluger as the quintessential "elder statesman," played an important role
last summer in stonewalling and toeing the White House line during the
Senate fundraising hearings. Time featured a brief interview
titled "The Soul of a Senator," in which Kluger and Dick Thompson tossed
softballs at Glenn: "Do partisan attacks cross the line into personal
attacks these days?" Glenn was allowed to wax philosophical on the
dangers of partisanship and the need to work together without any
mention of last summerís hearings.
Back then, Time only noted Glennís
partisan antics in three captions, two under photos and one under a
cartoon calling Glenn and Sen. Fred Thompson "old vaudevillians
upstaging each other."
On the August 25 Today, reporter
Mike Boettcher spoke almost entirely of Glennís career as an astronaut
in the Ď60s, not as an obstructionist in the Ď90s: "He was an American
hero then, and will be again when he makes his second trip into space."
After the glowing piece, Jodi Applegate spoke of Glennís "terrific
opportunity" and Matt Lauer wondered aloud: "How cool is he?" Even the
avuncular Al Roker couldnít resist: "Heís the best."
U.S. News & World Report Editor-in-Chief Mortimer Zuckerman
lashed out at Bill Clinton in the August 31 issue: "How, we must ask,
could someone be so reckless as to stake his public reputation and
effectiveness as a national leader on the discretion of a young woman
who was looking for a Washington adventure, a woman who would hold on to
a dress as a souvenir of a sexual relationship? What appalling judgment
to get involved with such a woman in the first place ó and then expect
her to keep quiet about it."
But the press never made his recklessness
an issue. Take for example, the same Zuckerman in the February 10, 1992
U.S. News, ripping into Gennifer Flowers and an alleged
Clinton-hating press: "The prospect of bringing down one of the best
candidates in the Democratic field was far too exciting for second
thoughts and clouded otherwise sound minds.... Legitimate press
standards do not include rummaging in the garbage of White House
Hillary Reagan Clinton?
With a name like Investigative Reports,
one might assume the Arts & Entertainment Channelís report on Hillary
Clinton would investigate Hillary scandals. Instead, host Bill Kurtis
(once with CBS) treated viewers to "a search for the core of her
"Her story plays like a Greek drama: the
quest for power, the intoxication of success, the labyrinth of personal
and political intrigue," he began. "Itís about triumph and tragedy, itís
a love story set against a backdrop of war [clip of Ken Starr], fraught
with the dangers of what the Greeks called hubris. It is a play not
finished, yet its storyline captivates the world....In this edition of
Investigative Reports, we focus on a main player in this drama
and aim for a glimpse into the inner workings of perhaps the most
influential woman of the last half-century."
Kurtisís "investigation" took him to
Hillaryís "village," as he referred to her hometown of Park Ridge,
Illinois, and followed her as she celebrated her 50th birthday there in
October 1997. In tracing her growing up into politics, Kurtis championed
her commencement speech at Wellesley: "She gained national attention for
supporting the right to student protest, in the process taking to task
then-Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke. As she met her husband-to-be
and moved into public life, her politics continued to move
unquestioningly to the center. Yet her moral compass, even 30 years
later, has never really left Park Ridge."
Despite touching on liberal items like
the ill-fated 1300-page health plan, Kurtis continued to praise the
First Lady as somewhat conservative. "A blend of her conservative past
and political present, Hillary Rodham Clinton defies the pigeonhole, and
it would appear, that is just the way she likes it."
Citing her book It Takes a Village,
Kurtis claimed Mrs. Clinton holds old-fashioned views: "That traditional
view includes the subject of divorce. For the First Lady, simply put,
divorce means failure...It's a distinct position, evocative of another
time and place."
Kurtis ended the "investigation" with
apprehension over whether in the end Hillaryís legacy will triumph: "A
sense of nobility. As her days in the White House dwindle to a precious
few, it provides, perhaps, a last refuge for this First Lady, her work
in child care, education and womenís rights affording a safe harbor from
the taint of scandal, and a glimmer of hope for her own political
future. For now, the Clinton administration is a drama without a final
act, but the elements are there for a suspenseful conclusion: the
spreading stain of scandal, the politics of power, the weight of
history. For Hillary Rodham Clinton, there is something else at stake:
Is there enough time to put the legacy she wants together before the
final act is written?"
Unlike Religious Right,
Gay Left Goes Label-Free
No Divisive Probe
of Democratic Factions
reporters perform a curious ritual in election years. They break down
the Republican Party into constituent groups and gravely report on
internecine battling between, for example, "moderates" and the
"religious right" which threaten to scare off "independent and moderate"
voters. In January, MediaWatch noted that in 1995 and
1996, three national newspapers usually applied a conservative label to
the Family Research Council (in 63 percent of stories), Concerned Women
for America (71 percent), and Eagle Forum (75 percent).
But these reporters rarely create a story
out of discord between moderate and liberal factions of the Democratic
Party. In January, MediaWatch found abortion advocacy
groups were labeled as liberal in only 2.8 percent of stories in three
national newspapers in 1995 and 1996. So what about liberal gay groups?
In mid-September, Vice President Gore will engage in his latest courting
of the gay left by appearing at the annual dinner of the Human Rights
Campaign, a year after President Clinton made the "historic" decision to
address that event.
To document the labeling patterns of
national reporters on gay-left activist groups, MediaWatch
analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to analyze every news
story on five gay groups from January 1, 1995 through June 30, 1998 in
The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. In
411 stories, the five groups were labeled only five times, or in 1.2
percent of stories.
The Human Rights Campaign was
tagged only three times in 226 stories (1.3 percent). Only one came
within a news story. In a January 28, 1998 Washington Post-Style
section feature on Clintonís post-Lewinsky State of the Union address,
Frank Ahrens noted a party "thrown by several groups, many of them
lefty" ó including the HRC. "And, as the President appeared on the big
screen, a deafening cheer went up." The other two came indirectly in
headlines. A January 27, 1996 report on Rep. Ron Wydenís successful
Senate campaign was headlined "Candidateís Backers Hope to Make Oregon a
Liberal Proving Ground." The March 26, 1996 USA Today featured
the headline "For liberals, Clinton only choice: President has grudging
but solid support."
But two stories downplayed the HRCís
partisan leanings. On June 18, 1995, USA Today described HRC as
"the nationís largest non-partisan gay group." A June 2, 1996 Post
feature on gay GOP Congressman Steve Gunderson described HRC as a
"bipartisan gay political organization." The HRC often went label-free
even as Democrats flocked to their side:
- The Washington Post reported on
July 5, 1998 that one HRC activist said of Dick Gephardt: "I have
taken note that in the last six to 12 months he has been much more
clear and forthright on gay and lesbian issues." Gephardt was keynote
speaker at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Denver.
- The Post reported that HRC
estimated "openly gay donors gave $3.2 million to Democrats [in 1995
and 1996]. Two-thirds of self-identified gay voters backed Clinton in
1996, providing seven percent of his total votes, according to an
independent exit poll." The HRC itself says it gave $1.1 million in
the 1995-96 cycle and dispatched staff to work on key races.
- In 1997, Hillary Clinton headlined a
Barbara Boxer fundraiser at the home of HRC Executive Director
- Ted Kennedy spoke at their 1996
"United in Victory" convention rally in Chicago. Clinton sent a
videotaped message to the group claiming his administration "has taken
more steps than any other to bring the gay and lesbian community to
- The weekend before the 1996 GOP
convention, HRC aired TV ads asking "Why are Bob Dole and Congress
wasting our time with new laws attacking gay relationships?" HRC drew
a label in none of these reports.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force drew only two labels in 72 stories (2.8 percent), both of them
indirectly in headlines. On May 27, 1996, the New York Times
headline on page 10 was "Many Disllusioned Liberals See No Alternative
to President." In the article, former NGLTF head Urvashi Vaid said she
could not vote for Clinton. On October 9, 1996, the Washington Post
headline read "Despite Some Discontent, Clinton Manages to Consolidate
Core Liberal Base." On July 6, 1997, the Post identified
conservative opposition, but not liberal advocacy in the headline "More
Companies Reaching Out With Gay-Friendly Policies; Domestic Partner
Benefits Gain Momentum in Tight Labor Market, Despite Risk of Offending
Post reporter Megan Rosenfeld
explained NGLTFís view on May 22, 1996: "Unofficially, the task force
sees itself as a funkier alternative to the officially non-partisan,
dollar-oriented HRC." Vice President Gore spoke to their annual awards
ceremony on September 15, 1997, and hosted an event for gay activists at
the vice presidential mansion where Tipper Gore introduced him as her
"partner." In 1995, NGLTF Policy Institute head John DíEmilio told
The New York Times about conservative "pro-family" rhetoric:
"Overtly, itís a claim to defending tradition. What it in fact turns out
to be is a deeply anti-feminist and homophobic message with a strong
tinge of racism."
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation was awarded zero ideological labels in 81 stories. GLAAD
is more media-oriented than the HRC or the NGLTF, wielding a lot of
power in Hollywood to insure positive portrayals of gay characters.
USA Today noted on April 20, 1998 that CNNís Larry King spoke at the
annual GLAAD Media Awards banquet: "Itís all about applauding the media,
TV, and movies for their efforts in presenting gays in a favorable
GLAAD was portrayed as the opposite of
conservatives without getting labeled in a June 11, 1998 New York
Times story on Internet filtering services. Reporter Pamela Mendels
referred to an appeals panel that included "representatives of groups as
diverse as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the
conservative group Morality in Media."
The same phenomenon occurred in the
September 16, 1995 Washington Post, when reporter Jay Mathews
covered Coors offering domestic partner benefits: "The Christian right
and the gay protesters appear somewhat disoriented at finding themselves
assailing the same enemy....The move stunned conservative Christian
groups that had been accustomed to Coors support for anti-gay rights
Founded in 1991 to support gay
candidates, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund drew no labels in 18
stories. Even the waning militant protest group ACT-UP (searched under
its full name, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) had no
liberal tag in 14 stories. The New York Times noted their decline
with the headline "A Decade-Old Activism of Unmitigated Gall Is Fading."
Whether most voters (or most reporters)
agree or disagree with the policy agenda of liberal gay groups, if
reporters think it fair to describe the religious right as "extreme" or
threatening to "moderate" voters, shouldnít they apply the same standard
to the gay left? Thatís especially true when the gay left regularly
describes their opponents as extreme. "All political stripes reject the
extremist anti-gay agenda," HRCís Elizabeth Birch has claimed.
Reportersí use of labels helps to place the far left squarely in the
mainstream, while conservatives are placed on the fringe.
Sober and Sensible
Since the beginning of Monicagate,
the networks have used their pollsters to reinforce how popular Bill
Clinton is and how most people donít care about perjury concerning his
"private life." But on August 12, five days before Clintonís grand jury
date, ABC News polling analyst Gary Langer rejoiced in the results on
"As the Monica Lewinsky affair spins
toward its rendezvous with destiny, itís worth celebrating what has been
perhaps the biggest surprise of the scandal: the sober and sensible way
average Americans have responded to the whole brouhaha....Pundits hate
this kind of thing; Those who declared him dead have had to reconfigure
their best lines to accommodate ó drat! ó actual public opinion."
Langer explained: "It turns out that most
Americans have responded to the Lewinsky affair with more of a head
scratch than a knee jerk. Their message on this score has been steady:
Clintonís personal behavior, however unsavory itís alleged to be, is
As the Presidentís admission drew nearer,
Langer endorsed the White House spin that a strong economy negates sex,
lies, and perjury: "Lewinskyís a far juicier story, but when it comes to
evaluating presidential performance, average Americans check their
wallets. The lowest unemployment in a generation, trivial inflation,
growing personal income: Whatís a stained dress in the face of these? So
far, not much."
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