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Media Weigh In on Ho-Hum 'Historic' Event

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, November 20, 1998; Page F8

    Twenty minutes into yesterday's House impeachment hearing, Tom Brokaw felt compelled to interrupt.

    As Democratic lawmakers were demanding that President Clinton's lawyer be given more time to question Kenneth Starr, the NBC anchor said: "What we have underway here is the opening skirmish."

    "Clearly an attempt by the Democrats . . . to hijack the hearings," added Tim Russert.

    ABC's Cokie Roberts, who had predicted that the Democrats would "want blood," broke in during a vote on the matter to say that Republicans should have gone along to "give the appearance of more fairness."

    Journalists did more than cover the hearing; they were part of the show, serving as producers, choreographers and theater critics. By the time Starr raised his right hand, in fact, his opening statement was old news. The Associated Press started carrying leaked excerpts of the 58-page opus at 6:42 p.m. Wednesday, and his remarks were thoroughly masticated by the evening chat shows and the morning papers.

    The independent counsel also stole a page from the White House playbook by engaging in some preemptive spin. Starr gave an interview to ABC's Tim O'Brien, which aired yesterday on "Good Morning America," while his spokesman, Charles Bakaly, carried the banner on "Today" and on Wednesday's "Larry King Live."

    For all the media chatter about the day's "historic" import, the NBC and CBS affiliates in Washington gradually abandoned the hearing. WRC cut to the "Roseanne" show just after 11 a.m. and stayed away for most of the day; WUSA went with local news at 4. They had plenty of company: By early afternoon, the Big Three affiliates in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and other cities had switched to soaps and other fare. And ABC News pulled the plug at 3:17.

    Fortunately for scandal addicts, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, C-SPAN and Court TV hung in for the duration.

    Just before the opening gavel, CBS's Dan Rather offered the most partisan description of the day's proceedings, saying, "The impeach-the-president inquiry is being conducted by the Republican-led Judiciary Committee."

    Other pundits punctured the sense of drama by insisting that impeachment was going nowhere. The House, said Russert, "will vote it down. It will never get to the Senate."

    NBC's Lisa Myers said Starr was determined to show "that he is not a sex-obsessed prosecutor out to get the president of the United States."

    As Starr droned on, most of the networks opted for visual variety. They shrank Starr into a little box so they could show pictures of Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp or Paula Jones. They summarized what Starr was saying under his face and broke away for reaction shots. Fox used a large and distracting "Clinton Scandal" logo; CBS had "White House Under Fire"; Court TV blared "STARR ON THE STAND." On MSNBC, Brokaw talked over Starr to plug the network's Web site and "NBC Nightly News." Fox superimposed marginal details on the screen ("Full name: Monica Samille Lewinsky.")

    Instant analysis was the order of the day. During the lunch break that followed Starr's two-hour opening statement, the cable pundits seized the airwaves. "Is he a terrific television salesman?" CNN's Bruce Morton By early afternoon, the Big Three affiliates had switched to soaps and other fare.

    asked of Starr. "No, he's not. . . . He's kind of like your high school Latin teacher."

    "It's sort of a snoozer," said MSNBC legal analyst Cynthia Alksne. "I noticed people behind him yawning."

    John Dean, the former Nixon aide who testified before the Senate Watergate Committee 25 years ago, popped up as an MSNBC analyst to say that "Mr. Starr acquitted himself very well."

    MSNBC was clearly the most interactive, fielding e-mail and phone calls from the likes of Eli from New Mexico ("I thought that Ken Starr was an evil man. . . . But then when I heard the totality of his evidence . . . I believed the guy").

    Law students interviewed in California told MSNBC the hearing was "a waste of time," as one put it, while tavern customers in Atlanta were more supportive. "Kenneth Starr is an American hero," said a man in the bar.

    Shortly before the hearings resumed at 2 p.m., the cable networks went live to White House impeachment lawyer Gregory Craig, who engaged in some mid-inning spin. Craig declared there was "nothing new" in Starr's presentation and that he should have cleared Clinton on Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate "months ago if not years ago."

    Media accounts surfaced during the proceedings. Committee Chairman Henry Hyde quoted Washington Post columnist David Broder; Democratic counsel Abbe Lowell cited New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse. Democratic lawmakers asked about Starr's comments to Brill's Content about leaks.

    A break just before 4 p.m. produced a new round of scorecards about Starr. "He didn't seem to break a sweat," said Fox's David Shuster. "He got mildly defensive at times," said MSNBC's Brian Williams. CBS's Bob Schieffer said the Democrats scored points by saying that Starr had evidence clearing the president on Whitewater and other investigations but "held that back."

    As the hearing dissolved into partisan speechifying, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) focused on the media. Noting that Starr had testified that he made his arguments in court, "not on the talk-show circuit," she said, "This very morning, you appeared on 'Good Morning America.'" Lofgren also cited the investigation of alleged improper leaks by Starr's office, asking if he would "release the press from their vow of confidentiality to you and your deputies." Starr did not offer a response.

    Finally, the other major networks had had enough. CBS ended its live coverage at 5:30 p.m., NBC at 6 (though affiliates were offered MSNBC instead). And the proceedings did not get glowing reviews.

    ABC's Peter Jennings said he was "very struck" that there was "so much political posturing." Fox's Brit Hume said the hearing would continue into the evening "assuming everyone on the committee is still awake." George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton aide, said on ABC there were "no big bombshells."

    Various spin patrols fanned out and declared victory. Fox's Shuster reported that Starr's deputies "are positively ecstatic" about their boss's performance. CNN's Wolf Blitzer said White House aides "think that Ken Starr's not doing very well." Democratic attorney Richard Ben-Veniste told MSNBC that "Mr. Starr has dropped any pretense of independence here and has become an advocate for impeachment."

    More neutral analysts gave Starr passing grades. ABC legal consultant Jeffrey Toobin said he had been "cogent," "fair" and "persuasive." NBC's Myers said Starr had been "unflappable" but "probably hasn't changed many minds."

    The evening newscasts found another television event equally compelling: a Japanese housewife asking Clinton during a Tokyo town meeting whether his wife and daughter had forgiven him for his relationship with Lewinsky. The president said he believed they had. The woman said she would never have forgiven her husband.

    The day's dramatic high point again involved the media. Starr turned testy after 8:30 p.m. when presidential attorney David Kendall pressed him about alleged improper leaks to journalists. Kendall asked whether journalists had made up news reports citing "prosecutors" or "sources in Starr's office."

    "I'm not here to accuse the media of anything," Starr replied.

    Kendall accused him of "massive leaking."

    "That's not fair!" Starr shot back. By this time, however, NBC, ABC and CBS were long gone.

    The hearing ended more than 12 hours after it began, but the Ken Starr Show may not be over. An ABC spokeswoman confirmed that the network is talking to the prosecutor about an interview with Diane Sawyer on "20/20" next week.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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