Handling a Story With Kid Gloves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999; Page B1
As soon as Monica Lewinsky's name began appearing in newspapers a year ago, the editors at Time for Kids realized they had a problem. How would they describe the nature of this White House scandal in a magazine published for elementary school students?
"We had an anguished discussion at our editorial table," said Claudia Wallis, the magazine's managing editor. "We called some teachers about how to describe what he was accused of. And in the end, we decided to go with the phrase that the president was accused of having a young girlfriend."
That, at least, was the wording in the Time for Kids edition read by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at schools in the Washington area and nationwide. In the version of the magazine that goes to second- and third-graders, there was no mention of the president's problems until last month and then only a paragraph saying he had been "accused of lying under oath and other offenses."
Similar debates have occurred many times over the past year at the offices of Weekly Reader, Scholastic Inc. and other publishers of current events magazines distributed in classrooms throughout the country. The magazine staffs say that while they consider the impeachment crisis an important subject for schoolchildren, it's a challenge to write about it without going into details that are more appropriately discussed at home than at school.
Many Washington area parents and teachers say they are satisfied with the way the magazines have handled the situation. But some teachers have declined to use any of the issues that contain stories about the Clinton scandal, deeming the topic too sensitive. And at the other extreme are parents and teachers who say the articles are too cautious.
The three major children's magazines Scholastic, Time for Kids and Weekly Reader have a combined circulation of about 14 million. Time for Kids circulates only in elementary schools, while Scholastic and Weekly Reader also have editions for middle and high school students.
At this point, editors at all three magazines have decided that students in third grade and below are too young to be told about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Weekly Reader and Scholastic haven't even told those children about Clinton's impeachment, and their editors say they have no plans to change that policy during or after the Senate trial.
Scholastic waited until September to run its first story for older elementary children about the scandal. In its Oct. 12 editions for grades 5 and 6, Scholastic said Clinton was accused of "lying to hide an inappropriate relationship with a younger woman." That language was too bold for some teachers, who did not use the issue in their classrooms, said Suzanne Freeman, Scholastic News editor for grades 4 through 6.
The magazine was more circumspect in its Jan. 11 report to fourth-graders on Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives and the resignation of Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.).
"Livingston quit after reporters found that he'd kept secrets about dishonest behavior. Since Clinton's problems began with similar accusations, Livingston urged him to resign, too," the story said, never mentioning that the behavior at issue was adultery.
Mark Lewis, a fourth-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary School in Washington, thought that language was too vague, given what children already know about the Clinton scandal from other news media and from their parents.
"My kids, they absolutely know about it," Lewis said. "They use the words 'slept with.' They've heard it from their parents and talked about it at home."
So instead of giving his class the student edition of Scholastic News, Lewis handed out photocopies of the teachers' edition of the magazine.
Preston L. Coppels, principal of Hillside Elementary in Loudoun County, which subscribes to Weekly Reader and Scholastic, said he is satisfied with the magazines' treatment of the story and thinks they help guide classroom discussions.
"The kids are asking the questions, and we've got to have the answers," Coppels said.
But Laurie Woulfe, who teaches fifth grade at Loudoun's Aldie Elementary School, has avoided both the magazines and the whole subject of Clinton's affair in her classroom.
"This particular impeachment gets so into family values and so forth, and you have a very wide variety of family values in any classroom," she said. "I'm not going to touch this one. I've told the children to go home and discuss it with their parents."
Some parents say they would like to see more discussion of impeachment in the classroom magazines. Linda Polzin, 36, whose daughter, Elizabeth, is a first-grader at Waugh Chapel Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, is disappointed that the first-grade edition of Scholastic News hasn't run anything about the House impeachment vote or the Senate trial.
Her daughter already knows that Clinton is in trouble, and it would be good for her to talk about it in a discussion directed by a teacher, Polzin said.
"She asks me almost every day," Polzin said. "She says, 'Have they impeached him yet?'"
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company