Network news officials were livid yesterday after the White House restricted their coverage of President Bush's offer for Persian Gulf peace talks, leaving each network with one camera trained on Bush for 39 minutes, even while he was answering reporters' questions.
"We'd certainly use the word 'censorship,' and that's a word we don't use lightly," says Bill Headline, Washington bureau chief for Cable News Network. "It's yet another arbitrary restriction on coverage. ... I think it looked awful."
Each network keeps two cameras in the White House briefing room, with the second one used for cutaways and shots of reporters asking questions. But less than two hours before Bush's 11 a.m. appearance in the pressroom, the White House ordered the four second cameras removed. White House suggestions that an extra "pool" camera be added proved technically impossible.
Sources say NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert called White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater to complain and a brief but unprintable exchange ensued. Network anchors Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings all mentioned the dispute on the air in explaining the awkward camera angles.
The White House billed Bush's 10-minute statement as an "address to the nation," although such addresses, which are limited to one camera, are usually formal speeches from the Oval Office. Fitzwater did not return a call seeking comment.
Insiders say Bush feels more comfortable in the pressroom setting than reading a prepared speech at his desk. White House aides told the networks that the bank of second cameras, which swivel on a platform to Bush's left, were banned because the president finds them distracting.
"We have a legitimate journalistic role, and part of it is allowing the public to know who is in the room, how they are asking the questions," Russert says. "Our role is not just cosmetic." Headline says relations with the White House have sunk below "the worst days of the Nixon administration."
The networks briefly threatened to boycott the Bush address before backing off. "It was thought to be a resort to nuclear warfare when we were exchanging artillery shells," says ABC News Washington Bureau Chief George Watson.
Late Hits Over Lisa Olson
The Lisa Olson Incident may be over as far as the National Football League is concerned, but Boston's two-fisted newspapers are still slugging it out after the whistle has blown.
The Boston Herald this week mounted a full-page assault on Boston Globe sports columnist Will McDonough ("Truth Vs. McDonough"), charging that he prints "innuendos and lies," as one critic put it. McDonough hit back in a telephone interview, calling Herald sports editor Bob Sales a "gutless sleazeball."
Who says journalism isn't a contact sport?
The action began in September when the Globe broke the story that Herald sportswriter Olson claimed to have been sexually harassed by several naked New England Patriots during a locker room interview. McDonough pooh-poohed her allegations, saying there was "no concrete evidence" for some of them. "Olson Backup Said to Be Thin," one column was headlined. "Report Says Incident 'Exaggerated,' " said another.
McDonough, who doubles as a football analyst for NBC, also interviewed Patriots tight end Zeke Mowatt on "NFL Live," playing up Mowatt's claim that a lie detector test had absolved him of any blame.
When an NFL report this week substantiated most of Olson's charges -- and Mowatt was fined $12,500 as the chief culprit -- it was pay-back time. "I knew the Herald was going to come after me," McDonough says. "It was only a matter of time."
Herald editor Sales says McDonough was way off base. "The man uses distortion and innuendo and often has a number of hidden agendas in what he writes," he says. "We were trying to set the record straight because he was wrong and Lisa was being victimized in a very cruel way."
McDonough insists most of his stories were "completely accurate," except for one report saying the league would not seriously punish the players involved. His work can't be all that shoddy, McDonough says, since the Herald has tried three times to hire him.
Footnote: The Globe took another slam at its tabloid rival this week, chiding the Herald for editorializing in favor of Philip Morris Cos.' $60 million campaign to publicize the Bill of Rights without disclosing that the Herald's owner, Rupert Murdoch, is on the tobacco company's board. "The opinion was generated from my own cerebellum," says Herald chief editorial writer Jeff Jacoby. "If we restrained ourselves on everything that Rupert Murdoch happens to be involved in, we wouldn't be a very effective editorial page."
Gay Bias Suit at UPI
No one but a few close friends knew that Julie Brienza was a lesbian during her 4 1/2 years as a reporter for United Press International. That changed when she agreed to write a freelance article about the religious right for the Washington Blade, a gay publication. She found herself at the center of a storm whipped up by a Milwaukee preacher and wound up losing her job.
Brienza filed a $12.7 million suit Thursday against UPI, charging that the wire service fired her because of her sexual orientation. "I was absolutely stunned that UPI would bow to the pressure of a religious broadcaster known for his hatred of lesbians and gay men," Brienza says.
UPI spokesman Milt Capps would only reiterate his comments to the Blade after Brienza's firing last spring. He said then that Brienza was fired for working on a freelance piece on company time and misleading the wire service's Milwaukee bureau into believing she was working on a UPI story when doing the reporting. Brienza says these minor infractions were just a "pretext."
While reporting the freelance piece, Brienza called the Rev. Vic Eliason, whose evangelical ministry owns several radio and television stations in Wisconsin. When Eliason learned Brienza had called from UPI's desk at the Supreme Court, he complained to the wire service that he and other subscribers were paying for her work for a homosexual newspaper. He also appealed to his radio listeners, who jammed UPI switchboards with demands for Brienza's ouster.
Eliason, who did not return a call seeking comment, hailed the firing on the air, saying, "Christianity has triumphed."
"What Vic Eliason has done is he's taken my choice away," Brienza says. "I wasn't 'out' to my family, which is what hurts the most. ... He did that for me, and I resent that. ... I got fired on top of it. It hasn't been a pleasant time."