Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 12 1996 12:30 AM

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

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Dear Bill:

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       As you know, the world of media criticism demands brutal honesty, so here's some: I was a big fan of your Washington Post media column, but your debut cover story in the New Republic (Dec. 16 issue) was ridiculous. In several places it was off not in the shadings, but by 180 degrees. I hope that you will soon return to the bracing and subtle logic I have come to expect from you.
       The article purports to explain "Why the Establishment Media Wouldn't Dish the Dirt on Clinton in '96." It begins by recounting how Walter Cronkite devoted almost a whole show to pulling the Watergate story together for viewers in the fall of 1972 on CBS, even as the voters prepared to vote overwhelmingly for Richard Nixon. Your point is that no one did the same for Whitewater this fall. After arguing that when it comes to counterattacking, the Clinton White House is actually worse than the Nixon White House, you go on to indict the New York Times in particular for falling down on the job. You cite content analysis showing that Clinton scandals were under-covered, then conclude by writing that voters have "been denied the information and analysis they needed to make sense of all the scandals before they voted."
       First of all, you never acknowledge that the timing of the two scandals differs. The Watergate break-in was in June 1972. So, by that fall, Cronkite's services as a clarifier were much in need. By contrast, Whitewater broke as a "scandal" first in the spring of 1992, then in the late fall of 1993. By 1994, today's Cronkites had each done what you suggested. Peter Jennings, in particular, devoted an evening news broadcast in early 1994 to an explicitly Cronkite-style in-depth report on what we knew about Whitewater then, which was about what we know now. It is now more than four-and-a-half years since this "scandal" broke. In Watergate time, that's from the break-in all the way through Jimmy Carter's election.
       Your point, apparently, is that the scandals should have been revisited anyway. Well, they were--repeatedly. When George Stephanopoulos wrote a persuasive letter (ooh, I called it "persuasive"; I must be "in the tank," right?) of complaint to the New Republic, you first tried to respond by writing, simply, "case closed." Your point was that merely because a White House spinmeister responded quickly to something with which he disagreed, the media must, ipso facto, have gone easy on Clinton. Your equation is, White House spin equals puff coverage. The merest attempt on Stephanopoulos' part to do his job proves that we in the "establishment media" have failed to do ours. Or so you said.
       Even you soon realized your "case" wasn't "closed." By totaling up 143 Page One scandal stories during the campaign in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and by proving that the networks ran twice as many stories on ethics as on the economy, Stephanopoulos left your argument that the scandals had been downplayed in tatters. So, you retreated from your content analysis (in which an average of one scandal story a day proved insufficient for your appetite), and you restated what you considered to be your main point: "It's not that the media didn't cover the president's various ethical problems," you wrote. "It's that they didn't make the Clinton scandal stories matter to the public."
       In other words, faced with the fact that the press, especially the New York Times, has been covering the hell out of Clinton scandals and is always in the market for something new ("new" as in "news"; very important concept), you fell back on attacking the press's lack of "context." I agree with you there, Bill. My biggest criticism of the press is that it lacks context in the coverage of just about everything. It's the No. 1 point of all media critics. But instead of attributing that habitual lack of context to the normal failings of journalists, you go for the Rush Limbaugh theory that because reporters are "culturally comfortable" with Clinton, they have gone easy on him.
       I'd argue that the cultural affinity cuts both ways; it was Clinton's baby boomer peers who were toughest on him in 1992. Besides, as even Newt Gingrich has admitted, Clinton has hardly been the beneficiary of a friendly press. The coverage is intermittently fawning, as it is with every president, but over time he has certainly taken his lumps. Wouldn't you agree?
       The candidate in 1996 about whom the press "wouldn't dish the dirt" was clearly Bob Dole. Does the name David Owen ring a bell? He received a tiny bit of coverage this year. But this guy was Bob Dole's closest aide for years. If Dole had been elected vice president in 1976, he was going to give Owen his Senate seat. Owen not only did time in prison--this year, he publicly accused the Doles of lying about their blind trust.
       How about Simon Fireman? He was Dole's finance vice chair. In October, he was convicted and fined millions for laundering Dole campaign contributions through a Hong Kong bank. Not a lot of coverage, to say the least. And--I happen to be one of those who doesn't think the old Dole mistress story had much relevance. But it was downplayed, too.
       The reason Dole got such a free ride on these stories is not because the press loves him but because he was hopelessly behind. If he had been ahead, these stories would have been treated more seriously, as the Clinton scandals were when new angles presented themselves. As you know, the horse race conditions everything.
       One point on which I agree with you: Stuart Taylor's American Lawyer story about Paula Jones [which SLATE excerpted] didn't get enough of a ride. And you're right that feminists are guilty of double standards galore on Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood.
       Of course, you neglect the other double standard--the conservatives who believe both Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones--but never mind. You continue to believe that Jones--a household name in America--has not received enough publicity. But she hasn't had her trial yet. Thomas and Packwood faced emotional hearings at which the charges against them were presented before a national audience. Just imagine the coverage of a Jones trial. This is the appropriate forum for pushing the idea that something happened between Clinton and Jones. Or, would you prefer: "Bill Clinton, Sexual Harasser. Next on Primetime Live!"?
       What seems to bother you, again, is that we didn't somehow make the public see the truth. You seem to think we should harp and harp and harp some more until the public listens.
       But journalism doesn't work that way. Stories reach critical mass not because some group of editors wants them to, but because of a series of fortuitously timed news developments. That's the way Whitewater inflated in 1993 and 1994, and it's the way it might again.
       As for the Watergate analogy, why not come out directly in favor of a constitutional crisis? Is Watergate Redux what you want? Does the evidence we know so far merit it?
       You write: "When the Nixon White House came down on CBS News in an effort to kill the Cronkite Watergate piece, it was considered an extraordinary moment in White House press relations--a scandal in itself. Today, on the Clinton scandal beat, such interventions are the norm." You seem to be saying that the Clintonites are worse. This is ahistorical. The Clinton White House spins its predictable line or very publicly says Gary Aldrich is full of it (not too arguable, by the way). The Nixon White House tried to yank the licenses of CBS affiliates (as well as the Washington Post's) and ordered IRS audits and wiretaps on its enemies in the media. Quite a difference.
       Did you notice the recently released tapes showing that Nixon directly ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution? Still comfortable with basing a whole cover story on the comparison?

Best,
Jon

William Powers is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of the magazine's Dec. 16 cover story, "Scandal-Shy." Jonathan Alter is a columnist at Newsweek and contributing correspondent at NBC.