Clinton on TV: Here, There And Everywhere, It Seemed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page E1
About 90 minutes into the broadcast of President Clinton's testimony about Monica Lewinsky, NBC blinked.
Two top executive producers called Tom Brokaw from the control room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and said the network would cut away from one of the most sexually explicit parts of the testimony.
Around the same time, CBS News President Andrew Heyward walked out from the Studio 47 control room on Manhattan's West 57th Street to the set where Dan Rather was anchoring. Heyward, who had already skimmed the transcript, said he wanted to leave in the most graphic portions, and Rather agreed.
Up on West 66th Street, Shelby Coffey III, ABC's executive vice president, sat in a small third-floor edit room with his thumb on a switch in case the network needed to break away immediately.
NBC switched to its talking heads as a prosecutor asked the president about the use of "an object" during sexual activity. NBC cut away again a few minutes later when Clinton was asked about a cigar, masturbation and phone sex.
"We just don't think it's necessary for you to hear all of the very vivid descriptions," Brokaw told viewers. Six other networks CBS, ABC, CNN, Fox News Channel, C-SPAN and NBC's own cable outlet, MSNBC stayed with the videotape.
The airing of a president's grand jury testimony was an unprecedented moment in television history, one that showed Clinton alternately combative, composed, forgetful, quietly angry and embarrassed. While the tape failed to live up to its advance billing of a heated confrontation, it also provided the raw material for sound bites that will be replayed many thousands of times.
Most news programs yesterday used part of Clinton's opening statement: "When I was alone with Miss Lewinsky on certain occasions in early 1996 and once in early 1997, I engaged in conduct that was wrong."
During the morning broadcast, NBC News President Andrew Lack and Vice President Bill Wheatley decided to break away when the testimony "went over the line," Wheatley said. "We were mindful of the fact that despite the warnings, some viewers still might be deeply offended, and there might be unsupervised children." But MSNBC, he said, "has a far different audience profile for example, children don't watch."
ABC News President David Westin said he stayed with the testimony because "as much as something like this could be, it was portrayed in pretty clinical language."
"Viewers know by now that the Starr investigation is replete with very graphic sexual content," said CBS's Heyward. "You can justify bending the usual rules." ABC employed a five-second delay and CBS used a 10-second delay for part of the morning, but both carried the four-hour videotape in its entirety.
The taped testimony underscored the danger of relying on leaked accounts. During the pregame spin last week, Clinton was described as practically in a purple rage.
"Our sources say the president was not just evasive, but profane. At times lost his temper and at one point, stormed out of the room," said CBS's Bob Schieffer.
"Sources familiar with the president's August grand jury testimony says that Mr. Clinton looks at times furious," said CNN's John King. "The president is said to have lost his temper," said Fox's Carl Cameron. The New York Daily News reported that at one point Clinton "exploded in anger." A Republican congressional aide told The Washington Post the tape was "devastating."
Instead, viewers saw a composed witness who kept his anger under control, did not use profanity and did not storm out as the commentators quickly acknowledged.
"Certainly this is not the disaster that some people forecast," said NBC's Lisa Myers.
"The prosecutors and the president fought to a draw," said Fox's Fred Barnes.
"Much more restrained than we had been led to believe," said CBS's Gloria Borger.
"Gee, what happened to the stormy temper tantrums?" asked CNN's Jeff Greenfield.
"This presentation by the president does not contain a smoking gun," said NBC's Tim Russert.
CBS's Schieffer was more critical, saying Clinton's performance "does strain credulity. . . . He is, I think, evasive by any definition."
White House aide turned ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos offered this assessment: "Angry, charming at times . . . and also evasive at times."
For days, there was high-minded talk from the Big Three networks that they would review Clinton's testimony and carry only selected portions. But they wound up airing the videotape in real time and living color.
As an attorney who has sat through many long depositions, ABC's Westin said he had been concerned the testimony would "wander off and become boring, pointless and repetitive." But, he said, "we concluded it was more gripping and meaningful" than they had expected.
Heyward said that once he saw the session wasn't "mired in legalisms . . . it became pretty obvious that this was something we should stay with."
Said Wheatley: "We thought, gee, this was pretty compelling material."
Was each network worried about the competition? "You don't want to give your viewers an invitation to go somewhere else," Heyward said.
While some of those viewers may have sat through the entire tape, many Americans will form their impressions of the testimony from the snippets replayed on yesterday's news shows and for days and weeks to come. Shortly after the tape ended, the networks chose these sound bites:
NBC, after Clinton was asked about a statement by his lawyer in the Paula Jones suit that he never had sex of any kind with Lewinsky: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
Fox News Channel: "I'm not going to answer the question. . . . Oral sex performed on the deponent under this definition is not sexual relations."
NBC again: "I do not believe that I violated the definition of sexual relations that I was given. . . . That's all I have to say."
The networks came on at 9 a.m. but the videotape didn't roll until 25 minutes later, giving them time to deliver their warnings and speculate on what viewers were about to see.
"We caution that portions of this will be graphic. . . . Blockbuster Video wouldn't rent some of this material," Rather said.
"A lot of this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people," said Brokaw.
On WJLA, which preempted ABC's coverage here, anchor Kathleen Matthews asked reporter Jim Clarke: "What kind of things do you think we will actually hear the president say?"
In his testimony, Clinton took a swipe at Newsweek and, without naming him, reporter Michael Isikoff, for their role in breaking the story. "Newsweek, frankly, had become almost a sponsoring media outlet for the Paula Jones case, and had a journalist who had been trying, so far fruitlessly, to find me in some sort of wrongdoing," the president said.
Responded Washington bureau chief Ann McDaniel: "We didn't create the story; we covered the story. We're proud of our coverage."
On special hour-long evening newscasts, the networks played up these Clinton answers:
NBC: "I'm not going to answer your trick questions." And: "I'd give anything in the world not to have to admit what I've had to admit today."
CBS: "My goal in this deposition was to be truthful, not particularly helpful."
ABC: "These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse. They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined." And: "It depends on how you define 'alone.' "
ABC's Linda Douglass seemed to attribute the earlier accounts of a furious Clinton to administration leaks: "The White House did a very good job of raising expectations that the president would lose his temper."
None of the reporters or pundits described the tape as a bombshell or predicted that it would move public opinion. Even the politically polarized co-hosts of "Crossfire" agreed that the tape wasn't much. "I really expected fireworks . . . expected the president to get red in the face," said Bill Press. Pat Buchanan called it "disappointing," saying: "It does not move the ball anywhere. It did not live up to expectations."
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