TV Pundits, Tabloid Trend Are Unseemly Bedfellows
By Tom Shales
It seems like only five minutes ago that the sex life of sportscaster Marv Albert was being discussed on every channel in the land, and there are so many channels, but that was small potatoes. It had nothing on the media's overnight fixation on Bill Clinton's alleged sex scandal involving a White House intern.
Once more, as seems to be happening with greater frequency, the lead story on "Inside Edition" and "Hard Copy" is the same as the lead story on "The CBS Evening News." And we have Ted Koppel hot-footing it out of Cuba, and a historical visit by the pope there, to race back to Washington and solemnly discuss, yes, oral sex on ABC's "Nightline."
The race appears to be about who can air the most outrageous charges against the president first, never mind if they have any substance or relevance -- although broadcast news people like ABC's Sam Donaldson, recently reinstalled as White House correspondent (and talk about great timing), are insisting they're not repeating half of what they hear, that what gets to the air is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
But what if there really is no iceberg at all?
Naturally the crisis was the subject du jour on the networks' Sunday morning talk shows. On ABC's "This Week," with Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, guest Trent Lott, Republican senator from Mississippi, predicted to the two hosts: "You are going to spend two-thirds of this show talking about this issue." Wrong! They spent three-thirds of the show talking about it, and tossing around words like "impeachment" and a possible presidential "resignation."
"This Week" featured a few of the guests who have become grimly inescapable since the story broke Wednesday, among them Michael Isikoff of Newsweek magazine and William Ginsburg, lawyer for Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who did or did not become the president's special pal. The same faces keep popping up, the same voices heard. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) hippity-hopped from "This Week" to CNN to CBS's "Face the Nation" with Bob Schieffer.
On "This Week" he said something that made George Will laugh: "People say they vote Dow Jones, not Paula Jones," indicating the voting public may care far, far less about these indelicate intricacies of the president's personal habits than the salivating press does.
In widening the net of usual suspects to bring onto such shows, Tim Russert got the most outspoken White House spokesman, James Carville, to show up on yesterday's "Meet the Press." Carville offered in the most fiery and effective language yet a defense of the president and urged a halt in the rush to judgment. But Russert committed a moral if not journalistic sin by including in the lineup Matt Drudge, publisher of the so-called Drudge Report that some people read on the Internet.
Drudge, as sleazy-looking a character as anyone involved in the case so far (and that is saying something), has no credentials whatever to serve on a panel with professional journalists or even professional pundits. His only credential is his computer. Drudge's sudden rise to fame, and now Russert's implied endorsement of him, may be but one small sign of the new electronic Tower of Babel that the Internet will become.
What goes onto the World Wide Web isn't governed by the rules of good journalism or, certainly, by the proprieties of good taste. Anything can be floated around out there in cyberspace and then make its way into the real world. For Russert to include Drudge on a panel alongside the likes of William Safire was a blot on Russert's record.
Carville, piped in from San Francisco, was in feisty and scrappy form, however. Russert, perhaps a little nervous, first referred to him as "Mr. President." Carville derided busy bee Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who for years has been unsuccessfully trying to make a federal case out of the Whitewater business and who was memorably dubbed "nutty" by a former Justice Department official early in last week's coverage.
"This is a scuzzy investigation, and I guarantee you one thing right now," Carville said. "When the facts come out, people are going to be repulsed by it." Of course, people are already repulsed, but he meant they would be further repulsed when they learned all of Starr's tricky tactics. In fact, he declared war against Starr -- Starr Wars, obviously.
"There's going to be war," Carville said. "The friends of the president are disgusted by these kinds of tactics and we're going to fight and we're going to fight very hard to defend the president."
Carville spoke of facts to come to light during the coming "weeks" and "months," but on "Meet the Press" and other talk shows, the assumption was being aired that the scandal will come to a head within days. Donaldson asked, during the show's round-table discussion, "What will President Gore do?" George Will declared Clinton's a dead presidency -- "as dead, deader really, as it was when President Woodrow Wilson had a stroke."
Wilson's wife took over and pretty much ran the country then, you may recall from history books. Yipe!
If Russert is to be scolded for putting Drudge on the bill, he also deserves credit for reserving six minutes and 20 seconds of "Meet the Press" yesterday for a discussion of the pope's visit to Cuba. Maybe it was a token effort but it was an effort just the same. Mostly, though, all the networks have been fearful of letting the White House story subside for even a few seconds.
Of course the nation does have its priorities. No one was suggesting yesterday that the Super Bowl be postponed while the nation contemplates this alleged national crisis. It was being suggested, though, that the State of the Union speech might not take place as scheduled tomorrow night. When this possibility was raised by Schieffer on "Face the Nation," senior presidential adviser Rahm Emanuel replied, "It's going to be Tuesday night."
And when Schieffer asked if there was any talk inside the White House about the president resigning, Emanuel said, effectively, "That's ridiculous. It's not even under consideration."
CNN showed enterprise in digging through its videotape file and producing footage of the president hugging Lewinsky in a receiving-line sort of situation soon after his reelection, and of Lewinsky looking up longingly and lovingly at Clinton at still another of the president's handshake appearances.
But all the reckless prattle about the president's alleged misadventures is on tape, too, and when it's all over, if it's this week or this summer, someone should review everything and take note of who said which idiocy, who jumped to which conclusions, who talked most wildly and irresponsibly, while it was going on.
At least the ratings for the State of the Union speech ought to set a record. All kinds of dramatic scenarios can be envisioned. The president might make the speech, report on the healthful economy and on other accomplishments of his administration, talk about things that remain to be done, and then as a historic finale, resign. You couldn't blame him for being fed up.
You couldn't blame TV viewers for being fed up, either. Not with the president's alleged sexual activities. The presidency is not the priesthood, and the voters who elected him twice already knew he had a roving eye at the very least, though it's not his eye that appears to be the problem. But then we wouldn't want a tense president, would we?
The fever pitch of it all is dizzying -- and depressing. Lott, one of the president's political foes, said on "This Week" that he was "sad about this" and that "I really do worry about the effect on the presidency and the country." None of the reporters or anchors seemed to feel that same sense of concern. It's sad, it's sordid, and it's ugly, very ugly -- especially ugly if there is no substance to the charges.
What's that Microsoft slogan again? "Is this a great time, or what?" The answer to that, this week anyway, would have to be "what."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company