CyberAlert -- 06/17/1997 -- PBS Claims Scandals Overplayed

PBS Claims Scandals Overplayed; CBS Denounces Talk Radio

  1. The latest four scandal developments ignored by the networks: Hillary Clinton to be subpoenaed on the FBI files; Trie gets money from China; Temple donors reimbursed; Tamraz detained.
  2. PBS meanwhile contends that the networks have overplayed the Clinton fundraising scandals. That's right, overplayed.
  3. In the midst of laudatory questions to Bill Clinton, Charles Osgood calls talk radio an impediment to racial understanding: "It's not always very constructive." Clinton agrees.
  4. NBC's Gwen Ifill tells Clinton that both his critics and supporters think he's "abandoning minorities and the poor."

1) The Friday and Saturday newspapers were packed with Clinton fundraising disclosures, but the networks decided to ignore them all -- even before the McVeigh penalty verdict was announced late Friday. First, two stories mentioned by only one network:

-- "Solomon Accuses Huang of Espionage: Rules Chairman Makes Case in Letter to Freeh," declared a front page story in Friday's Washington Times. "Huang Leaked Secrets, GOP Lawmaker Says" announced a Los Angeles Times headline. The June 13 USA Today also carried a story on Congressman Solomon's charge based on electronic intercepts that Huang relayed classified information to the Lippo Group in Indonesia.

Coverage: As noted in the June 13 CyberAlert, on the June 11 CBS Evening News, reporter Bob Schieffer raised Solomon's charge as well as the Congressman's belief that Huang had access to State Department computer traffic. The other networks: zilch on Friday, Saturday or Sunday on the ABC and NBC morning and evening shows.

-- The June 13 Washington Times reported that "Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday successfully blocked Republican efforts to grant immunity to 18 persons tied to suspected campaign finance abuses, including 15 Buddhist monks and nuns who may have been illegally reimbursed for donations to the Democratic Party."

Coverage: As also reported in the June 13 CyberAlert, NBC's Lisa Myers concluded a June 12 Nightly News piece by noting the Democratic obstructionism. ABC and CBS have yet to mention it.

Now, four developments ignored by all the networks, even by CNN:

-- "Hillary Clinton May Have to Testify About FBI Files," announced a June 13 USA Today headline. In the same day's Washington Times the headline read: "White House Objections Are Dismissed By Judge: Way Clear for Hillary Subpoena in FBI Files Case." Times reporter George Archibald began: "A federal judge yesterday dismissed Clinton administration objections to a lawsuit by former government appointees whose FBI files were improperly searched three years ago, paving the way for Hillary Clinton to be subpoenaed for a sworn deposition. U.S. District Court judge Royce Lamberth branded government motions to dismiss the case filed on behalf of former Reagan-Bush appointees as a 'weak attempt to avoid discovery.'"

-- Friday Washington Post readers were greeted with this headline: "Fundraisers Pressured Temple After Gore Visit; 12 Donors Were Reimbursed."

-- "Developer Tied to China Sent Money to Trie Account," revealed a story in Friday's USA Today. The AP picked up the story and it appeared in other papers on Saturday. USA Today's Edward Pound reported: "A foreign developer with ties to the Chinese government funneled at least $470,000 into a Washington bank account controlled by Charles Yan Lin Trie while Trie was raising money for the Democratic Party."

-- On Saturday, newspaper readers learned that Roger Tamraz had been detained. The June 14 Washington Post headline announced: "Tamraz Held in Republic of Georgia: Democratic Donor Wanted in Lebanon on Embezzlement Charges."

Coverage: Three of these four ran in Friday morning's papers, hours before the McVeigh verdict took over news coverage, but not a syllable appeared Friday morning on ABC's GMA, CBS This Morning on NBC's Today about these developments, nor that night though they found time for their usual features: ABC ran a "Solutions" piece and NBC a profile of an American Success and a piece on young millionaires.

And the networks didn't pick up on the developments on Saturday or Sunday either. (Golf pre-empted NBC Nightly News in DC on Saturday and Sunday, but nothing appeared on Today those mornings). MRC analyst Clay Waters informed me that CNN didn't air a scandal story Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.

2) Given this dearth of television coverage, what did PBS tell viewers over the weekend? That the media's credibility is being hurt by television network overcoverage of Donorgate. That is not a typo. PBS, always in touch with reality, argued that Clinton's fundraising scandals, especially the Lincoln bedroom angle, were overplayed.

Over the weekend (Friday night in Washington, Sunday in New York City), many PBS affiliates carried the latest edition of Media Matters, an occasional series looking at media coverage. The show sometimes even runs a story by a conservative. The latest edition, for example, included amongst its three stories a piece by Terry Eastland, formerly with Forbes MediaCritic, on coverage of Gulf War Syndrome.

After a report examining local TV news, Alex Jones, the Executive Editor of the show, set up the next piece:

"While the public may trust local television news more than other news sources, overall, public trust in the media has been on the decline in recent years. Many say it's because of too much cynicism among journalists, too many feeding frenzies, too many stories that scream, 'Gotcha!' One prime target of this syndrome has been politicians in general, and especially the President. Bill Clinton's presidency has been tarnished by one story after another challenging his integrity and honesty. The clamor reached a fever pitch when the White House was accused of selling the Lincoln bedroom for campaign contributions. It was, undeniably, a juicy story, but did the media go overboard? Geneva Overholser, Ombudsman for The Washington Post and former Editor-in-Chief of The Des Moines Register, gives the story a hard look."

As transcribed by MRC intern Jessica Anderson, Overholser began by asserting: "Not since Richard Nixon has a sitting President received a grueling interrogation about campaign finance that Bill Clinton has. It is clearly a legitimate story, but does it merit this much ink and airtime, or have reporters stacked the deck against Clinton?"

Yes, Overholser argued over the next 15 minutes, before concluding:

"In the end, despite all the ink and airtime, Donorgate probably won't go down in history as President Clinton's Watergate. After all, so far there's no smoking gun. Selling the White House made a great story, but with all the fuss about who slept over in the Lincoln bedroom, reporters may have shortchanged the bigger story: that our nation's whole system of campaign finance is badly broken, and will the press now finally focus on that scandal? Maybe, but only if there are no other beds making headlines."

Houston to PBS: What planet are you on? Overplayed? Overholser ran about ten clips of network stories, which is probably just about every story that aired. The Washington Post broke the bedroom story on December 15. NBC first mentioned it on January 21. Other than a brief flurry of stories at the end of February, the networks hardly touched the matter and, as any CyberAlert reader well knows, they've skipped most major Donorgate revelations.

For a reality check, review the February, March and May MediaWatch studies in which the MRC's Tim Graham put together a list of revelations and showed how little TV coverage they garnered. Go to:

3) CBS anchor Charles Osgood refused to challenge Clinton on anything, but he managed to trash talk radio as a detriment to racial harmony. The CBS show Sunday Morning featured an interview with President Clinton taped after his big race speech. Osgood's talk radio bash was surrounded by softball questions for the President.

Here, as taken down by MRC intern Jessica Anderson, are all of Osgood's inquiries aired on the June 15 broadcast:

-- "Do you believe that what fathers and mothers do and say, with respect to attitudes about different kinds of people, have great influence on how we think initially?"

-- "Sir, was there some particular incident or series of events that triggered your decision to take this initiative now on race relations?"

-- After Clinton explained that "This seemed to me to be a good time to ask the American people to step back and be honest with each other, and have this conversation and come up with a plan to move us into the 21st century, as we ought to be," Osgood wondered: "Does that plan necessarily involve new legislation or government action?"

-- "Is there risk involved in that, though, sir, if you have people speaking frankly, do you really want people to say what they think about others? We have something of that kind that goes on on talk radio all the time and people say what they think, but it's not always very constructive."

Clinton took advantage of the chance to denounce talk radio: "Yeah, but people in talk radio, the difference is in talk radio, people are talking at each other and talking about each other, instead of speaking with each other. I don't mind the honesty of talk radio, what I mind is the hard-headedness of it. You know, 'I've got the whole truth, and I know it, and I'm going to scream at somebody and then I don't want to hear anything back from someone who disagrees.' What I want is a level of complete honesty and candor, but in a setting in which everybody feels free to speak their mind and then they try to reach common ground. And I believe about eight in 10 Americans would think that was worth doing."

-- "Do you think that today the United States is a racist country and is it mainly white racism?"

-- "Do you think the presidency still is the bully-pulpit that Theodore Roosevelt called it, with respect to issues like this, and with all that you have on your plate now, I mean particularly some legal problems being thrust on you, does it make it more difficult for you to try to do this?"

-- "Over the years, since the 1960s, we've had the Kerner Commission report, we've had other studies, and fairly recently our national conversation on race, but still we seem to be far short of our goal. Haven't we studied this issue to death?"

-- "Since the Kerner Commission report, the country has changed somewhat and is changing even faster now into a multi- ethnic kind of society. Does that change the picture?"

-- "Mr. President, are you optimistic that this country will ever see its way to the ideal of racial justice?"

What a tough set of questions. Osgood did not raise any concerns of either conservatives or, except on talk radio, of critics on the left. Don't want to appear divisive.

4) NBC's Gwen Ifill believes the only Clinton critics worth mentioning are those to the left of Clinton. In an interview that NBC aired on Monday's Today, Ifill asked the President:

"Is this welfare bill your great vulnerability on this subject? Your supporters, your critics, they all say that, perhaps, you are abandoning minorities and the poor."

An example of how Clinton is occasionally subjected to critical coverage of his policies -- from the left.

-- Brent Baker