Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 31 1996 3:30 AM

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

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Dear Bill:

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       You write in your last missive that you're "standing behind every word" in the original New Republic cover story that kicked off the debate we're having. You try to argue that in your story you weren't passing judgment on the seriousness of the Clinton scandals, only on the press coverage. When I took you to task for beginning and ending your story (with more in the middle) with Watergate, you replied, "I am comparing the coverage, not the scandals themselves." You agree that so far, Whitewater has not been proven to be anything more than "a mushy series of allegations." Whoa. Were we talking about the same New Republic piece? If you haven't come to any conclusions about the Clintons and these scandals, why is the headline of your piece "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil"? If you just wanted a "thoughtful, dispassionate look" at the allegations--without a predetermined conclusion--why was the subhead "Why the Establishment Media Wouldn't Dish the Dirt on Clinton"? I know headlines have to simplify, but in your story you clearly wanted dirt, and you clearly made a comparison between Watergate and Whitewater. I challenge anyone to read the piece and come away with a different impression.
       I continue to be amazed by your characterization of the Clinton scandals as having received "scant attention" in 1996. Can an average of one story a day in the major media really be "scant"?
       You say that we agree on the need for some "Will Hillary Be Indicted?" stories. Perhaps we do. But the strong tone of your TNR piece suggests that such a Hillary analysis would have been disappointing had it simply said, "We don't know." That's the root of the problem. Journalism has a hard time saying, "We don't know." Perhaps a few such pieces would have been useful during the election year, but I hardly think that's what you were looking for.
       By the way, I assume you believe that, given the recent news, the number of Newt Gingrich stories were too few this year.
       I think we had plenty, myself. The New Republic has turned civic journalism (speaking of mushy concepts) into a caricature (as it did the idea of charter schools). It has done good things in some places and unbelievably stupid things in others. I don't think scandals should be ignored all the time in favor of stories about the Consumer Price Index. But you have to admit that, in general, the press obsesses too much on scandal and conflict and too little on complicated stories about government that much more directly affect the way real people live. I hope that as TNR's media critic, you will explain why it is that the press misses so many of these other kinds of stories--stories that do not make an appearance, on average, once a day.

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.