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Clinton Video Could Pose Problems for Networks

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page A32

If President Clinton's videotaped testimony to the grand jury in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation is released, it could instantly transform television coverage of the case -- and present the networks with a major dilemma.

"It's an unprecedented side of the story," said Al Ortiz, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News." "It may show a dimension of the president that we heretofore haven't seen."

"It could be a defining moment," said Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "People will be able to judge for themselves whether [independent counsel] Ken Starr went too far in his questions or Bill Clinton misled or evaded too much in the answers he provided. The facial expressions, the words he uses, when he gets angry, that will convey a lot."

But the unprecedented opportunity to air grand jury testimony -- at a time when Congress is considering an impeachment inquiry -- is fraught with pitfalls for network executives.

"Most likely we'll watch it go by, decide what's newsworthy and play it to air on an urgent basis," Ortiz said. "I don't think we'd be going with it blindly, in part because of the taste issues that would arise. This story has been difficult on the taste front since last Friday, and we've been wrestling with it. We would probably err slightly on the side of caution."

NBC News President Andrew Lack and his deputies are debating the question and expect to reach a decision this morning. "The deposition is historic, yet there's obviously a concern about the content," said spokeswoman Alex Constantinople.

Cable news networks, with 24 hours to fill, are likely to carry significant parts of the testimony, which lasted four hours. "We'll air major portions of it," Sesno said. But he said there may need to be some "filtering," depending on "the degree to which this gets into a level of explicit detail."

While the networks have extensively covered Starr's 453-page report, they have also lacked pictures, which is why the same shots of Clinton hugging Lewinsky on a rope line are shown again and again.

But the testimony footage would immediately turn the story into a made-for-TV drama, with key questions and answers aired hundreds of times, presenting Americans with the same spectacle that the grand jurors saw on Aug. 17.

The videotape would be made available to all networks simultaneously through a joint feed. "The time to watch the video, stop, review it and be responsible has evaporated because of competitive pressures," said one network executive. "We could be sitting here trying to be responsible when half the thing is already out on another network."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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