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Reporters, Questioning Themselves

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 21, 1998; Page C01

    On I-Day plus 2, some questions for the media:

    How do you treat an impeached president of the United States?

    Do you cover President Clinton as besieged by a never-ending crisis? Or do you follow the White House spin -- and whoever guessed you could spin an impeachment with a South Lawn pep rally -- and focus on the search for a swift ending in the Senate?

    Do you allow space for other issues? The decision will affect whether Clinton can be heard on anything other than his own survival.

    Will you follow in the footsteps of Larry Flynt? Are there teams of reporters investigating Rep. Bob Livingston over the extramarital affairs outed by the Hustler publisher?

    With Livingston knocked out of the speakership, is everyone in Congress fair game? (Or would it be easier at this point to compile a list of lawmakers who haven't been fooling around?)

    Will you continue to report Republican charges hurled at the White House without evidence? When GOP leaders say the administration must have leaked word of Livingston's affairs -- even though Flynt bought the story from the women fair and square -- does the press act as a neutral transmission belt? Is there no choice but to amplify charges that Clinton bombed Iraq to distract from impeachment?

    And speaking of Iraq, how long will it take journalists to go beyond Pentagon propaganda and fully gauge the results of last week's mini-war?

    Will you -- can you -- do anything to reconnect with readers and viewers who are sick of your coverage of the whole Lewinsky-Tripp-Starr/impeachment mess?

    In fairness, one thing must be acknowledged: The journalists who warned for 11 long months that Clinton was in deep political trouble turned out to be right. The overwhelmingly party-line impeachment vote followed tens of thousands of stories and programs that banged the scandal drums even as most of the public complained about the deafening noise.

    Clearly, reporters understood what many Americans did not: No matter how salacious or questionable the allegations against Clinton, the scandal machinery -- the criminal investigation, the House hearings, the prosecutor's report -- would grind on.

    But a majority of the public, polls say, has never bought the notion that the sex-and-lies charges in the Monica Lewinsky case were gravely serious, or impeachable. On that score, the media remain out of touch with their audience, which still sees the whole shebang as a strange Beltway obsession.

    Some journalists view the impeachment vote as some sort of validation. "There's a sense among much of the public that the media were driving this thing, that it was a media creation, and I don't think that's right," said Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "This was on its own track."

    The press, said Sesno, "was closer than anyone. They kept trying to push it, advance it. They knew it wasn't going away. They knew [Kenneth] Starr's report would be taken credibly by the majority party, even if the rest of the country didn't. The press knew there was an underlying problem there with the truth. . . . People said don't be ridiculous, it's about sex. Well, it's not about sex. It's about perjury and high crimes and misdemeanors."

    Still, it's worth recalling that journalists kept misreading the tea leaves. Many said impeachment was dead after the Paula Jones suit was thrown out last April, after the president's videotaped testimony was played in September, after the Democrats made gains in November.

    "Did most people in the press think we'd get to this day after the election? I don't think so," said Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's managing editor.

    "Whereas we've been criticized for coverage of the facts, virtually all of that proved to be true. On the politics, we haven't been any better than anybody else. Everybody miscalculated -- members of Congress miscalculated, the White House miscalculated."

    As a Senate trial looms, the public may again grow tired of the inevitable media circus -- particularly if the prospect of Clinton's removal seems remote. The press, of course, will say it is obliged to cover a constitutional crisis -- the one it has insisted all along could not be avoided.

    Footnote: Why didn't former White House spokesman Mike McCurry tell us sooner that he had, as explained to BBC, "enormous doubts" about Clinton's "increasingly bizarre personal behavior"?

    Beat the Press

    Surveys on public distrust of the media are now a dime a dozen. But a report for the American Society of Newspaper Editors contains some particularly disturbing findings.

    To wit: Seventy-eight percent of those questioned believe that powerful people or groups can influence newspapers to "spike" or "spin" a story. These include government officials, big business and rich people. Half said decisions are influenced by advertisers' interests. And more than three-quarters said newspapers pay much more attention to stories that support their point of view.

    Forty-two percent said television is the most biased medium, compared with 23 percent who chose newspapers.

    An overwhelming 86 percent said the names of criminal suspects should not be published until formal charges are filed -- a complete repudiation of the current mode of reporting.

    Finally -- and perhaps most worrisome -- among those who said they had been involved in a news story, 31 percent found errors and 24 percent said they weren't quoted accurately.

    1998 Spin Award

    Time magazine last January, after Clinton gave a deposition about Lewinsky in the Paula Jones case: "Clinton departed in what sources close to him say was an ecstatic mood. . . . The president felt that the deposition had gone smashingly for him. . . . One person close to the president said, 'Everyone is going to sleep well tonight.' "

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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