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Impeachment Debate

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page C01

    House Republicans are demanding the impeachment of President Clinton, the president of Iraq is assailing the United States, and Marty Ryan is directing traffic in the Fox News Channel control room.

    "We're gonna double-box the House and show you Saddam Hussein and say he's making a speech to his country," the executive producer tells anchor Tony Snow in his earpiece.

    As Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) winds up his defense of Clinton -- "Monica Lewinsky is not Watergate," he thunders -- Snow breaks in to say: "At this hour, Saddam Hussein is also addressing the Iraqi people. . . . For now, we'll return to the House floor. Barney Frank of Massachusetts is now opening his comments."

    "Nice going, Tony," Ryan says.

    On the wall of the control room are 40 television screens showing Dan, Tom, Peter, Sam, Cokie and the rest engaged in the same juggling act -- trying to cover the first House impeachment debate in 130 years and the bombing in Baghdad and, equally important, trying to secure face time for their star anchors and correspondents. Ryan's job is to choreograph the cutaways without being too intrusive. "You also want to be fair about interrupting Democrats and Republicans," he says.

    It is a heady moment here at 400 North Capitol St. NW for the newest of the cable news networks, one that debuted just over two years ago. It is also an opportunity for an operation owned by Rupert Murdoch, run by onetime GOP consultant Roger Ailes and anchored by Snow, a former Bush White House staffer and friend of Linda Tripp, to demonstrate its evenhandedness.

    "Just because of my conservative background, a guy like me would never have had a shot" on the other networks, says Snow, battling a bloodshot left eye because of conjunctivitis. "They've given me a shot." There is no hint of partisan tilt in the coverage.

    At 8:30 a.m. Snow is on the set, draped by what one staffer calls "the million-dollar shot" of the glistening Capitol dome on a cloudless day. He is promoting his Sunday show with a half-dozen Fox affiliates. Kansas City and Dallas are next.

    "Thanks, Louie," Snow says into the camera. "Well, on 'Fox News Sunday' we'll cover the three I's -- Iraq, impeachment and infidelity." A moment later: "Is it Mark? Mark and Sue? Hel-lo? Mark and Heather? Thank you," Snow says.

    During a break, he reflects on the day's emotional nature. "Having worked in the White House . . . it's kind of scary," he says. "I think of a lot of friends of mine over in the White House. Your heart goes out to them. This is no fun."

    Whatever the gravity of the moment, television is ruled by logistics -- moving correspondents around, getting the right tape feed, bouncing images off satellites. In the newsroom outside the studio, controlled chaos reigns amid the ringing phones, shouting voices and blare of TV sets. "I've gotta call the control room," says assignment editor Bruce Becker. "Hyde could come up before 10," he says, referring to Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

    Every second counts, and staffers bark at each other in shorthand. "We're gonna do a two-way with Shep and then we're gonna do a handoff?" Snow asks a disembodied producer. A moment later: "A beauty shot and then back to the studio?"

    Every network runs into technical problems when covering complicated live events, and Fox is no exception. As House Clerk Paul Hays reads the articles of impeachment, Snow is getting a garbled feed in his earpiece: "I've got a huge problem here. We've gotta get the audio straightened out."

    The seconds tick off. "Better hurry, we're on Article 4, guys," Snow says. Floor director Mary Pat Dennert cues him for a voice-over, but it turns out to be a false alarm. When Snow makes his comments 10 minutes later, it is almost without warning and he doesn't realize he is on camera. To top it off, the mikes are picking up some banging in the building.

    Correspondent Wendell Goler makes a "320 call" from the White House, alerting the bureau to breaking news (on an internal extension called 320). He says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart has accused the Republicans of a cynical strategy to demand Clinton's resignation.

    Snow is moved to another chair so Fox analysts Juan Williams and Jeff Birnbaum can join him. "I'll fire something really quick and we'll just do bam-bam," he tells them.

    In the darkened, icy control room, Ryan is talking into Goler's ear: "How ya doing, buddy? As soon as Barney's done, Tony will get you in and we'll big-box, little-box you."

    After Goler's brief report, Washington bureau chief Kim Hume reads Ryan a wire bulletin on her computer: "Saddam calls on Iraqis and Arabs to resist and hit the criminals." Now Ryan wants an update from correspondent Greg Palkot in Baghdad. Palkot phones in -- Fox cannot get him up quickly enough on camera -- but the connection is lost. He calls back while Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.) is declaring his support for impeachment. "Fade out of Gekas and do a quick thing with Baghdad," Ryan orders.

    The hopscotching is more frequent now. Ryan wants an update from Capitol Hill reporter Carl Cameron. The gavel sounds as Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) is winding up, but Fox stays with the House floor as Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) starts his speech.

    "You've gotta be quicker than that," Ryan snaps at his staff. They resolve to start switching as soon as the gavel sounds, not when the lawmaker actually stops talking. Cameron is soon delivering his report, but when fiery orator John Lewis (D-Ga.) begins bellowing, Hume says, "Uh-oh, we're gonna want this." Cameron is told to wrap.

    It is just after 11, and the decisions are growing more difficult. Should Fox take a speech by Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister? "I don't care," Hume says. "Do you care? It's just propaganda anyway." The network also must decide whether to cover a noon Pentagon briefing at which video of the attacks will be played.

    A producer for Dick Morris, the Clinton campaign strategist turned Fox commentator, tells Hume that Morris wants to make a point about the bombing. But he has to wait.

    On the video wall, Hillary Rodham Clinton is saying on CNN that the vast majority of Americans support her husband and that this is a time for reconciliation. Ryan is frustrated because a pool camera shared by the networks didn't pick up the first lady's remarks and he doesn't have the footage.

    "We can just feed it to Tony," Hume says.

    A New York producer calls to say that Aziz is getting incendiary, so Fox cuts to the Iraqi's speech, then to the Pentagon briefing, then to Dick Morris, then to Lockhart's briefing. Snow breaks in on Lockhart to say that Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D-Mass.) "is holding forth with some heat." Fox gives Kennedy the floor -- for the last 30 seconds of his speech. Soon it's off to other correspondents. The impeachment of the president of the United States has become just another programming element.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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