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Campaign Fund Hearings Barely Visible on Television

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 1997; Page A04

Anchors Brit Hume and Tony Snow were chatting as the Fox News Channel broke away from the Senate fund-raising hearings.

"So far, no bombshells," Hume said during the second day of testimony Thursday.

"It's not likely you're going to see any bombshells," Snow said.

Bombshells or not, the Fox channel, owned by conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch, is the only major network that has decided to provide live daily coverage of the hearings. The other potential venues – CNN, MSNBC, PBS and C-SPAN – have all taken a pass, prompting hundreds of calls from angry viewers.

"If this were Ronald Reagan accused of selling foreign policy to the highest bidder, it's a little hard to imagine this wouldn't have attracted more attention," said Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor. "I can't think of a higher and better use of a 24-hour news channel's time in July than to cover these hearings."

Nevertheless, television has apparently decided that Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) is presiding over "a bust," as Forrest Sawyer put it on ABC's "Nightline." The three major broadcast networks have been covering the hearings on the nightly news, but rarely at the top of the newscasts. Last Thursday, the "CBS Evening News" carried just three sentences read by anchor Bob Schieffer.

Eason Jordan, CNN's executive vice president for news, dismissed as "nonsense" the notion that his network is shying away from a largely Democratic scandal. "We are not going to carry the hearings wall-to-wall irrespective of their news value," he said. "Just like a good newspaper, we're not going to automatically put them on Page 1." MSNBC spokeswoman Lauren Leff says her network prefers to offer "a coherent daily roundup" at 4:30.

C-SPAN spokesman Richard Fahle said the nonprofit network has "a personal commitment to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage" of the House floor, "and we just don't deviate from that." C-SPAN's scheduled 10 p.m. rebroadcast of the hearings has been delayed past midnight, in part by "special order" speeches to an empty House chamber. "Our viewers are upset with us," Fahle said.

Some are downright frustrated. "I have been listening all week to various journalists and media experts go on about how the public is not interested in the hearings. . . . We are passionately interested," said Naomi Roberts of Orange Park, Fla.

After Fox provided only a half-day of coverage of the first day of testimony, Fox News President Roger Ailes, a former Republican strategist, decided on daily coverage for at least the next several weeks. The channel, which reaches 22 million households nationwide, is breaking away for commercials and news updates. Fox News is carried in the District but largely unavailable in the Washington suburbs.

"It's not just about ratings," said John Moody, Fox's vice president for news. "We think there's something important here." National Empowerment Television, a conservative media organization, is also covering the hearings, which resume today.

The dearth of live coverage has made the network news all the more crucial in shaping viewers' perceptions of the hearings. Dramatic exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses have been conspicuously lacking. On Thursday, for example, the only sound bite carried on ABC's "World News Tonight" was of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) saying in a mock Chinese accent: "No raise money, no get bonus."

The flat demeanor of the only witness to date, former Democratic National Committee finance director Richard Sullivan, has provided less than gripping footage. In a typical exchange, aired on CBS Wednesday, committee counsel Michael Madigan asked: "Not to put too fine a point on it, you were concerned about foreign money, right?"

"As I was concerned with every fund-raiser, that they know the rules," Sullivan replied.

On Thursday, the night CBS gave the hearing three sentences, "NBC Nightly News" found important-sounding news. "An apparent direct hit," said anchor Brian Williams. "A straight line from a Chinese bank to the war chest of the Democratic Party." The reference was to funds transferred from the Bank of China to Democratic donor Johnny Chung, who was shown in a White House photo shaking hands with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But the gist of the Chung story, like much at the hearings, had already been reported in the newspapers, as ABC seemed to recognize. "The Republicans presented a little bit of new evidence that a lot of those donations may have been from foreign sources," said correspondent Linda Douglass. "But Sullivan insisted he didn't know the money was foreign and he believed that neither did anyone else." CNN's Candy Crowley also played down the Sullivan testimony: "They have gotten precious little out of him, although it is not for lack of trying."

Newspaper coverage, too, has varied widely. The Washington Post and Miami Herald did not give the hearings front-page display Thursday; the Herald, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and USA Today carried no Page 1 story Friday. The Los Angeles Times, by contrast, led the paper with hearings stories both days.

But drama takes time to build. As several commentators have noted, The Post's headline on the third day of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 was "Watergate: Not Exactly High Drama."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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