Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 14 1996 12:30 AM

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Jon,

Advertisement

       I am sincerely stunned, and more than a little intrigued, by the way you and other media watchers have reacted to my debut New Republic piece. I seem to have broken some secret, unspoken rule of the club. Your collective tone is of incredulous disdain, as in: Whoooaaa, what's up with this new guy? He's got some ridiculous idea that the coverage of the Clinton scandals was inadequate. Can you imagine? Must be some raving right-winger. Is he insane?
       I don't feel insane. In fact, as I wrote the offending piece, I found myself worrying that I was merely stating the obvious. It was absolutely clear to me as I followed the '96 campaign that the media's coverage of the Clintons' ethical problems was not what it should have been, which is thorough, rigorous, systematic, and intellectually honest. We are, after all, talking about a sitting president who faces numerous serious allegations of abuse of power while in office. If one or more of these scandals were to explode in the second term, it would have profound consequences for the nation. Can anyone argue with this reality? Is there any case to be made for putting the scandal coverage into low gear, just as the people are about to make their choice for the next four years? I can't think of one. And so, coming into the high campaign season this fall, I fully expected the establishment media organs (the four leading newspapers, the four major TV networks, and the three newsweeklies) to produce a lot of energetic, clarifying journalism on the scandals.
       They produced nothing of the kind. This is my essential argument, and I didn't think it a very controversial one. But you and the rest of the mainstream media-critic brethren will have none of it. Apparently, one must not attack the great and powerful New York Times, et al., not to mention the White House's goodly media masseurs. Apparently, on this subject, they are all simply above reproach.
       Unlike many of the other media critics, Jon, you have earned a reputation for thoughtfulness and an open mind, so I am going to make another run at this, in hopes of bringing you around.
       First I have to tell you that in reading your protests, I did not recognize my own work. For instance, you totally missed the purpose of my opening section, in which I recall how, in 1972, only two of the leading purveyors of news--the Washington Post and CBS News--made a conscientious, high-profile effort to tell the public what they needed to know about the nascent Watergate scandal. "Your point is that no one did the same for Whitewater in the fall," you wrote of this section. Whatever gave you the idea that that was my point? I think the Watergate-Whitewater analogy, which you attack again later in your refutation, is utterly bankrupt. In the second-to-last paragraph of the piece (which perhaps you didn't reach), I wrote as much: "Watergate and Whitewater are not in fact terribly similar scandals either--though the trajectories of their coverage may be--but the latter is reported in terms suggesting it is Watergate all over again." Here I was explicitly criticizing the media for their inability to distinguish between different kinds of scandals, and to move beyond their hoary Watergate paradigm.
       I used the Cronkite story not because I think Whitewater is Watergate redux, but because I think CBS News did in 1972 what the rest of the establishment media, most notably the New York Times, should have been doing. That is, it took a thoughtful, dispassionate look at a scandal story that showed signs of becoming a big deal in the president's second term, and made sense of it for citizens who were about to vote. The citizens chose to re-elect Richard Nixon anyway, resoundingly. One could argue that if the New York Times and the rest of the establishment media had joined the Washington Post and CBS in shining a spotlight on that scandal, Nixon might not have won so handily. But that's a pointless sort question that doesn't really interest me, with regard to either 1972 or 1996. I am not arguing that the media somehow stole the election from Bob Dole--Bob Dole lost it for himself. I am simply observing that the most powerful institutions of the national press fell down on the job, and that they might have done much, much more to inform voters about the facts and significance (if any) of the ongoing Clinton scandals. A presidential campaign is an ideal time for the media to get to the bottom of such scandals, because it is a period when the people are thinking about the presidency with unusual intensity and concern. For the reasons that I outlined in the piece--passivity, intimidation, ideological sympathy, distaste for character issues--in 1996, the media chose not to take this opportunity to dig some more and make the scandals more comprehensible, and thereby enlighten voters.
       You write that I "seem to think we should harp and harp and harp some more until the public listens." I am not pushing for harping. I am pushing for information and understanding. It's clearly your feeling that the media provided the public with all the information and understanding it needed about the ethical issues, that there was no more good work to do on these stories. Do you really believe that? "Stories," you write, "reach critical mass not because some group of editors wants them to, but because of a series of fortuitously timed news developments." Do you really believe that? Having, like you, worked for years inside an establishment news organization, I can tell you that that's not the process I observed. Yes, news happens "fortuitously" out in the world and journalists cover it, but news also happens because news managers choose to make it happen. Editors and producers decide something is important and they go after it. That's what the Washington Post and CBS did in 1972. The "fortuitiously timed" development was nothing more than the guts of a few reporters and editors.
       This time around, a decision was made, either actively or passively (and I think it was the latter), not to go after the scandal stories. The message the media sent to voters was: Don't worry about these things, we've looked at them and they are not significant. Was that an accurate message? Maybe so. I have my doubts. The sad part is that media weren't even willing to say it overtly. If they had looked closely at the scandals and run special articles and broadcasts concluding that they probably won't amount to much, that would have been helpful to voters. But this would have meant going out on a limb. On the flip side, telling voters that the scandals might indeed add up to something bad, and perhaps bring us a rocky second term, was risky too. The media shrank from sending either message. They were silent, but that silence was very articulate. It said: no big deal. (I am excluding here the campaign-finance scandal, which was aggressively covered, but broke too late and too raggedly to have any meaning.)
       Your point about the timing of the Clinton vs. the Nixon scandals is a strange one. Just because some of the Clinton scandals were years old, that doesn't mean they shouldn't have played a role in the coverage. Indeed, it's a crucial duty of journalists to re-examine old conclusions and assumptions about such matters. Here I think of the Paula Jones story. I woke up on Election Day believing in my heart that Paula Jones is probably a kook, a golddigger and a tool of the president's political enemies on the right, nothing more. That is the message I got from the establishment media, who long ago dismissed her case. Your Washington bureau chief, for example, referred to Jones as "some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks." Then, about a week after the election, I came across that stunning piece by Stuart Taylor Jr. in the American Lawyer, in which I learned for the first time that Jones may be for real, and that this case could cause the administration serious trouble at the very beginning of the second term.
       You say that Taylor's piece "didn't get enough of a ride." I am not speaking about this story as a "ride," a word that evokes an image of the news as an endless cycle of "hot" stories rising and falling. I am speaking about the truth. In his Jones piece, Taylor did what every major media organization should have done on every pending Clinton scandal. He put aside his preconceptions and ideological biases (both of which he admits to), and systematically went after the real story.
       Do you believe that what Taylor did on that story was beyond the ken of the New York Times and all the other leading news organizations, whose resources certainly exceed those of the American Lawyer? Do you think that the Jones story was the only character issue that might have benefited from this sort of careful, thoughtful, and scrupulous treatment? Didn't you, too, wake up on Election Day with notions about these scandals that might well have been off base, or foggy? What ever happened to Hillary Clinton's commodities-trading scandal, for example? I don't recall the media getting to the bottom of that one. And what exactly occurred with those FBI files? I imagine you think the campaign season just wasn't a "fortuitous" time for a closer look at these and all the other scandals.
       I think coverage of any Dole ethics stories should have met exactly the same standards I lay out for the Clinton stories. If you say there were some major uncovered Dole ethics stories, I'm interested in that. But I disagree with your suggestion that the press blew it on Dole more than on Clinton. The man running for re-election this year was, and is, the subject of an astounding array of ethical investigations and scandals relating to his conduct in public office. That is a much more important story than the media led the country to believe.

Yours as ever,
Bill

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.