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From the January 1999 MediaWatch

Networks, Magazines Bury House Managers' Case

Where Did the Senate Trial Go?

In 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 offered.

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 Senate.

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.

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.

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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