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From the April 1999 MediaWatch

Media Avoid Lewinsky, Step Around Broaddrick

Meet the Obedient White House Press

President Clinton’s March 19 press conference, his first formal solo press conference in more than ten months, was delayed five weeks after the final impeachment vote so that reporters would be able to "move on" to "the nation’s business." The strategy worked.

Nevertheless, on MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams that night, reporter Campbell Brown insisted: "I think it surprised even some of the veteran White House correspondents — the number of questions relating to the impeachment trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. There were a lot of people here who felt he should have gotten beyond this, but there were quite a number of questions."

What was Brown talking about? Lewinsky’s name was never even mentioned, even though, in her interview with Barbara Walters and her new book, she said Clinton gave her the first orgasm of the affair, meaning he lied about touching her "with an intent to arouse or gratify." Of the 21 questioners, eleven asked about either the coming war in Kosovo (five), the damaging Chinese theft of nuclear secrets (four), Bosnia (one), or Russia (one). Several of those, especially the China questions, were tough. Only six questions related to the scandals Clinton long avoided questions on, and four of those were slow-pitch softballs.

Former Clinton aide David Gergen described the jilted lovers of the press corps on CNN’s Larry King Live when he borrowed from Clinton’s talk about his marriage: "Well, they’re working hard. They love each other very much, but it’s going to be a long time putting this relationship between the President and the press back together." But several journalists were still willing to display their sensitive feelings for Clinton.

Eighty-something self-employed reporter Sarah McClendon yelled the suggestion that Clinton had been worse than assassinated: "Sir, will you tell us why you think people have been so mean to you? Is it a conspiracy? Is it a plan? They treat you worse than they treated Abe Lincoln."

U.S. News & World Report correspondent Kenneth Walsh tip-toed around a impeachment post-game analysis: "I understand that you don’t want to speculate about what your opponents might do now after the impeachment struggle is over, but I wonder what your feelings are after some period of reflection on the impeachment process, how you were treated, and if you feel resentment, relief, and how you think people will deal with this and see it 10 to 20 years from now."

Washington Post reporter John F. Harris wondered if kiss-and-tell books were causing Clinton pain: "Sir, George Stephanopoulos has written a book that contained some fairly tough criticism of you. Earlier Dick Morris had written a somewhat similar book. How much pain do these judgments by former aides cause you? And do you consider it a betrayal for people to write books on the history of your administration while you're still in office?"

CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller asked if Clinton would disavow his earlier support for the Independent Counsel act now that he’s been the target of Kenneth Starr.

On the non-scandal front, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked a boost-the-Hillary-hype question: "There’s been a lot of people in New York state who have spoken with your wife, who seems to be pretty much convinced she wants to run for the Senate seat next year. A) how do you feel about that? Do you think she would be a good Senator? And, as part of a broader question involving what has happened over the past year, how are the two of you doing in trying to strengthen your relationship, given everything you and she have been through over this past year?"

Blitzer could have asked a much tougher question. Just two days earlier, Starr deputy Hickman Ewing admitted in the latest Susan McDougal trial that he had drafted an indictment of Hillary Clinton for lying about Whitewater. Instead of asking Clinton if his wife should have been indicted, Blitzer asked if he thought his wife would be a good Senator. On Larry King Live that night, Blitzer claimed, "on a more substantive note, we did learn from the president, beyond that, that he says they are still very much in love and they’re working very hard to repair their relationship despite all that’s gone on this past year."

The two tough questions on Clinton"s pattern of lying about sex came from the husband-and-wife team of ABC’s Sam Donaldson and Jan Smith, a reporter with Washington’s Fox affiliate WTTG. Donaldson asked Clinton to respond to Juanita Broaddrick’s allegations: "Shouldn’t you speak directly on this matter and reassure the public? And if they are not true, can you tell us what your relationship with Ms. Broaddrick was, if any?" He refused to answer for the second time. Smith asked about school children learning about truth-telling: "What do you think your legacy will be about lying, and how important do you think it is to tell the truth, especially under oath?"

Neither CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News mentioned the Broaddrick question and non-answer. It wasn’t included in an ABCNews.com summary, although McClendon’s Lincoln question made it. On The World Today, CNN’s John King touched on Broaddrick for 13 seconds.

Reaction to Donaldson’s Broaddrick question varied. On Larry King Live, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz suggested, "I was struck by the fact that there was no follow-up. In fact, the whole press conference seemed to me to be kind of lacking in passion; it seemed like a back-to-business meat and potatoes news conference like you might have seen back in 1995....There was a time when, if somebody like Donaldson had asked about Juanita Broaddrick and the president tried to get away with that non-answer, there might have been two or three follow-ups and putting the President on the spot."

CBS White House reporter Bill Plante was more nonchalant about never getting an answer: "When he says, ‘I’m too busy to talk about that, that’s why I send it to my lawyers. I’m just here doing the people’s business.’ They know that works, and that’s what we can expect to hear on any of those topics from now until the end of his presidency." Blitzer agreed: "I think it worked for him because he was really well-rehearsed, well-prepared. They spent a long time, he and his top advisers, going over practice questions. They knew these sensitive questions would come up."

On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren explained the lack of follow-ups: "At that point, you face a question about how you want to behave. One of the things this White House has done politically is try to make the press an issue as much as the Republicans an issue, saying that we’re trying to divert people away from the business that matters. We’re part of the political calculation and the political strategy of this White House. Certainly, it’s fair to say someone might have asked again, but it’s also very clear the president was not going to answer."

Jan Smith came under attack on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Lehrer suggested: "Most of those questions, we were just listening to them again in our excerpt, they all began with a lecture before they got to the question. And that seems to be, you have to do it, right?" Media correspondent Terence Smith agreed: "Jan Smith even citing George Washington and swearing to tell the truth. Sure, reporters show off in situations like this."

On Late Edition, CNN pundit and former New York Times and U.S. News reporter Steve Roberts claimed all this proved that old canard of liberal bias does not exist: "We’re in favor of a good story and we’re against whoever is in power. And that has worked against Clinton for years now and at least one thing we can now all agree on, all this notion that the press is all liberal and always pampers Democrats. I think in the last year we can say that has not been true." Maybe Roberts was half-right. You’d think a liberal wouldn’t let Clinton get away with a non-answer to a rape charge. But a Democrat-pamperer would.



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