Media Avoid Lewinsky, Step Around
Meet the Obedient White House Press
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.
SENSITIVE 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.
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."
SAM AND JAN. 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.
THE POST-GAME SHOW. 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
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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