Networks, Magazines Bury House Managers'
Where Did the Senate Trial Go?
the days of Vietnam, Watergate, and even Iran-Contra, the networks
blacked out their regular programming for live coverage of major
political events, suggesting the national interest was more important
than the bottom line. Now, in some amalgamation of the profit motive and
liberal motives, live coverage of the first Senate impeachment trial in
131 years quickly vanished from the network airwaves. To be specific:
- As the trial began on
Thursday January 14, ABC, CBS, and NBC bailed out of live coverage of
the House managers’ opening arguments after 90 minutes. (Five days
later the networks each awarded White House Counsel Charles Ruff an
hour more to present his case.)
- Not only did the networks
fail to offer live coverage of the trial, the House managers got
little soundbite time to make their case on the evening newscasts. ABC
led the Big Three by averaging 75 seconds of soundbites a night over
the first three nights, while NBC could barely muster an average of 40
seconds per night and CBS 35.
- The news magazines were even
worse than television. How many words of direct quotes from the House
managers did they carry? Time led with 83 words, U.S. News &
World Report printed 48, Newsweek just 10. If the quotes
were read out loud, they’d be shorter soundbites than the networks
LET THEM EAT CABLE. For
Americans without cable, only PBS stations offered live gavel-to-gavel
coverage of the trial, and PBS affiliates don’t always accept the
network feed. On the trial’s first day, ABC and NBC continued to offer
the Senate feed to their affiliates, but did any stations remain? NBC’s
Washington affiliate went straight to soap operas and ABC’s D.C. outlet
left after another 90 minutes for Oprah.
ABC’s World News Tonight
led the Big Three with a nightly average of 75 seconds of manager
soundbites over three nights. NBC Nightly News averaged only 40
seconds. CBS Evening News averaged just 35 seconds on Friday and
Saturday. (On Thursday night, CBS offered a special one-hour newscast,
the first half of which did not air in Washington, so it was left out of
the sample.) By comparison, CNN’s 8pm newscast offered an average of six
minutes and 36 seconds of manager speeches over three nights.
For example, take the speech of
Rep. Asa Hutchinson, described by Time as the "star performer" of
the managers. NBC gave him 12 seconds to make his case, and another NBC
story carried four seconds of his remark, "This is certainly a humbling
experience for a small town lawyer." ABC’s Jackie Judd gave Hutchinson
his own story, which contained 43 seconds of his arguments in the
Opening arguments from White
House counsel Charles Ruff on the 19th drew more live coverage than the
House GOP. The three networks stayed with Ruff from a bit after 1pm ET
until he ended at just past 3:30pm ET. Taking out a 15-minute break,
ABC, CBS and NBC gave Ruff’s defense an hour more time.
That night, CBS reporter Bob
Schieffer focused on Ruff’s teary rebuttal of Rep. Henry Hyde’s claim
that acquitting Clinton will be a betrayal of soldiers who died for
freedom. CBS aired an astonishing 62-second soundbite of Ruff. And how
much time did CBS give Hyde the night he made that summation? Reporter
Eric Engberg did give Hyde two soundbites totaling 15 seconds, but
nothing on the clip that drew Ruff’s ire.
LIVE FROM LEFT OF CENTER. On some level, the lack of live coverage
of the Senate trial shouldn’t be surprising. The Big Three have never
offered live coverage of House or Senate hearings into the Clinton
scandal, from Whitewater in 1994 and 1995 to the Thompson hearings on
fundraising in 1997. But other events drew more attention:
The beginning of the O.J.
Simpson murder trial received more sustained live coverage than the
Senate trial. CBS and NBC carried segments of opening arguments in the
Simpson trial live on January 23, 24, and 25, 1995. ABC also aired live
coverage on the 24th and 25th. On those two days, ABC and NBC affiliates
also aired live testimony in the late afternoon and early evening.
In October of 1991, all three
networks aired live coverage for three long days of the Hill-Thomas
hearings. The networks that so disdained broadcasting the graphic sexual
details in the Starr report put Hill on live with her unsupported claims
that Thomas talked of pubic hairs on Coke cans and porn films full of
humans having sex with animals.
In July of 1987, all three
networks carried Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony live for six
weekdays (July 7-10 and 13-14), and stayed another full day with John
Poindexter. Then the networks rotated Iran-Contra live coverage for
another ten weekdays that month. The networks never made any noise about
rotating Senate trial coverage.
FRIENDLY’S FORGOTTEN. When former CBS News President Fred Friendly
died last March, the networks lionized this TV news pioneer for his
integrity, including his bold resignation from CBS in February 1966 when
his network ran daytime reruns of I Love Lucy instead of Senate
hearings on the Vietnam War. Friendly told his boss: "If I keep
compromising over important matters, I won’t be Fred Friendly at all —
I’ll be a flabby mutation." In his eulogy on ABC’s World News Tonight,
Peter Jennings warmly recalled: "Fred Friendly believed, and he never
missed an opportunity to remind all of us who are journalists, that it
was our responsibility to hold the government’s and even the public’s
feet to the fire on the great issues of the day."
But TV news divisions in the
1990s can hardly pretend to uphold Friendly’s philosophy in their
current flabby mutations. Instead of holding the public’s feet to the
fire, they’ve pandered to audience apathy and submerged the trial of the
century for the noble cause of soap operas and game shows.
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