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Media Notes:
Joe Lockhart, Pressing His Issues

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 18, 1999; Page C1

    Just before New Year's, "CBS Evening News" reported that "the White House is now looking for a deal that would head off a Senate vote on impeachment" and rule out criminal prosecution after President Clinton leaves office.

    Five minutes after the story aired, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart was on the phone to CBS reporter Bill Plante, who defended the piece. "He was definitely irritated," Plante says.

    Days later, Lockhart called CNN correspondent John King about another CNN reporter's claim that the White House was not really contesting the facts in the Senate trial. "He called within approximately three nanoseconds to say that was not the case," King says.

    Such episodes – Plante calls them "Joe moments" – have become commonplace as Lockhart settles into the press secretary's job. Lockhart says he made "a conscious decision" as impeachment heated up to become more aggressive from the podium, and White House reporters say he's stepped up his efforts off camera as well.

    "I do this every day," Lockhart says. "It's part of my job. People don't notice as much when a deputy press secretary calls. They notice when the press secretary does."

    Lockhart, who was Mike McCurry's deputy until October, has the thankless task of defending an impeached president who is no longer holding news conferences – and doing battle with the journalists his boss doesn't much like.

    "I think the entire press operation at the White House has become more aggressive in recent weeks," says CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, who has frequently tangled with Lockhart at the daily briefing. "From all outward appearances, it seems clear that a meeting was held and a decision was made that they were going to try to roll back the press as much as they could. We are getting more calls these days after the broadcast."

    Lockhart, a former television producer, is hardly the first press secretary to complain about negative stories. But King says that "Joe is more minute-by-minute engaged" than McCurry was. "Mike was more big-picture, Joe is more nuts-and-bolts. . . . Sometimes he's right, sometimes I think he's overboard."

    The feeling is mutual. When several reporters pressed Lockhart last week about their lack of access to Clinton, he accused them of trying "to embarrass me."

    Lockhart's combative comments from the podium are important because television replays his strongest sound bites again and again. After the House prosecutors filed their impeachment brief last week, he dismissed it as a "cheap mystery" with "overblown rhetoric . . . about sinister plots." This drew the attention of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the lead House prosecutor, who replied: "I'll leave the invective to Mr. Lockhart."

    When the House was nearing a final vote, Lockhart accused the Republicans of trying to "dumb down impeachment" in "a strategy that betrays partisanship and cynicism." Lockhart now says he had to remind people of the gravity of impeachment because the broadcast networks, having gorged themselves on the salacious details, failed to carry much of the House hearings.

    Few critical reports escape Lockhart's notice. When the White House leaked word that Clinton wanted to increase the defense budget, CBS producer Mark Knoller reported on "CBS Saturday Morning" that the proposal followed years of administration defense cuts. Knoller got an earful from Lockhart, but produced the budget figures to back up his contention.

    "He was right, I was wrong," Lockhart says.

    On the Plante story, Lockhart complained that the CBS reporter had not called him for comment. Plante told him he had tried to reach White House impeachment lawyer Greg Craig. Lockhart replied that it wasn't Craig's job to brief the press.

    When Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) admitted to extramarital affairs before Hustler's Larry Flynt could break the news, ABC's Cokie Roberts reported that someone close to the White House had told her a rumor at a party about a Livingston affair. Lockhart loudly objected to Washington bureau chief Robin Sproul and also phoned an ABC executive in New York.

    "He called before we were off the air," Sproul says. "He is aggressive – that is his style. We thought the story was solid. What Cokie said was true."

    Lockhart says journalists shouldn't take the criticism personally. "Sometimes circumstances dictate a more aggressive stance," he says.

    Dog Bites Man

    Gunther IV was front-page news in the Miami Herald. The imposing German shepherd even merited a color photo.

    Gunther, the story explained, wanted to buy Sylvester Stallone's waterfront estate. He had $200 million to play with, for his father, Gunther III, had toured Europe with a musical group. German Countess Karlotta Liebenstein liked the dog and left him a fortune. Gunther's offshore holding company planned to bid about $20‚million for the five-bedroom mansion. This was confirmed by Maurizio Mian, an attorney for the Gunther Corp.

    Gunther wound up taking a sizable bite out of the Herald's credibility, along with the local stations that barked up that tree. Mian admitted it could be taken as a joke. He admitted to the Italian press in 1995 that the pooch is not rich and Countess Liebenstein never existed. But the Gunther Corp. hasn't quite fessed up.

    The Herald ran a light follow-up, saying the episode "may rank among Miami's all-time best – worst? – publicity stunts." The piece made no mention of the paper's role in trumpeting the shaggy-dog story.

    "It got on the front page because it was so bizarre," said Assistant Managing Editor Mark Seibel. "Unfortunately, the bizarreness didn't trigger the usual warning flags. I think it probably should have." But, he said, "how many staff resources do you commit to something like this?"

    Media Morsels

    Mike Barnicle, the ousted Boston Globe columnist, is returning to television. Barnicle, who is recovering from heart surgery, says he's "grateful" to Boston's WCVB-TV for bringing him back on the nightly "Chronicle" program after a five-month leave of absence. The ABC affiliate did not address the charges of journalistic enhancement that led the Globe to drop Barnicle. But the station said it had accepted his apology for touting a George Carlin book on the air that he admitted never reading.

    Critics who say California TV stations don't cover much politics probably had no idea how right they are. A study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication found that local newscasts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and three other markets devoted 0.31 percent of their time to last fall's gubernatorial campaign. (The fraction would have been minuscule even if sports, weather and commercials were excluded, the researchers say.) Gov. Gray Davis and challenger Dan Lungren showed up far more in paid ads that brought the stations millions of dollars.

    BBC radio paired former White House lawyer Lanny Davis with conservative attorney Bruce Fein for a mock impeachment trial last week, complete with a 12-person jury of ordinary citizens, with more Republicans than Democrats. The verdict? A 6-6 tie, or less than the two-thirds majority needed for conviction.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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