CyberAlert -- 07/09/1997 -- Russert vs. NBC

Russert vs. NBC; No One's at Fault, It's the System

  1. Morning through evening rundown of Tuesday hearings coverage: CNN barely covers and they don't lead ABC in the evening.
  2. On MSNBC Tim Russert declared Clinton's fundraising calls an "enormous" abuse. But NBC didn't tell viewers about them.
  3. "What's important...isn't what one party can show about the other, but what the campaign-finance system shows about our political system," argued a Washington Bureau Chief in forwarding the media line that a successful hearing will lead to "reforms."

1) Here's a rundown on July 8 coverage of the hearings:

-- Morning shows. As predicted in the July 8 CyberAlert, the Tuesday morning shows did finally get around to examining the Senate fundraising hearings. Or at least two did. The total coverage Tuesday on CBS This Morning consisted of one brief item read during the 8am news, MRC analyst Steve Kaminski informed me.

ABC's Good Morning America led the show with a hearings preview by Bob Zelnick. A few minutes later, MRC news analyst Gene Eliasen noted, Kevin Newman hosted a discussion on the hearings amongst Sam Donaldson, George Stephanopoulos and Bill Kristol. NBC Today didn't lead with the hearings, but the MRC's Jessica Anderson observed that during the first half hour Katie Couric interviewed Tim Russert about them.

-- Day time. The Broadcast networks skipped the hearings, but both CNN and MSNBC covered some of the opening statements. (We don't have access to the Fox News Channel.) After showing Fred Thompson and John Glenn CNN, however, returned to regular programming, airing CNN & Company and Burden of Proof.

MSNBC stuck to the hearings from 10am through to 1pm ET, though viewers saw more of MSNBC's analysts talking about the hearings than they saw of them as MSNBC featured a quad-split with what anchor Brian Williams dubbed the "Brady Bunch": Lisa Myers, Tim Russert and Michael Isikoff. Williams, brought in special for the opening day coverage, made the fourth box on screen. At about 12:30pm ET, while CNN viewers got to see Burden of Proof examine a Caribbean murder case, MSNBC returned to the Hart building and showed viewers the comments from Senators Don Nickels, Arlen Specter and Robert Toricelli. (MSNBC will air a daily wrap-up show at 4:30pm ET)

Specter appeared on CNN's Inside Politics at 4pm ET. Bernard Shaw's first question: "Senator, I have to ask you, what is your prime concern in all of this? Getting to the truth, or which party gets the blackest eye?"

After some questions about immunity for Huang, whether Specter was "convinced that classified information has not only been disclosed, but has been shared with another government" and if the President got him his job, Shaw's last question reflected the prevailing media attitude that a successful hearing is defined by leading to the sacred campaign finance reform:

"Senator, do you really believe in your heart of hearts that after the last witness has testified, after the hearing record is closed, you Senators, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, are going to reform the very system upon which you depend to get elected and re-elected? Do you really believe that?"

-- Evening: The CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News led their July 8 shows with the hearings, but not ABC's World News Tonight which started with two stories on the Fen Phen diet drug. After the first ad break, reporter Linda Douglass focused on the "bombshell" announcement from Glenn about immunity for John Huang. Next, anchor Peter Jennings questioned Sam Donaldson about the history of providing immunity to congressional witnesses.

Phil Jones offered the first story on the CBS Evening News, noting Thompson's charge about China trying to buy influence. But, Jones emphasized, Glenn "had his own headline" on Huang. Later in the show CBS aired a "Follow the Dollar" piece from Eric Engberg re-hashing the reason Democrats got into trouble: After the 1994 GOP victories Clinton panicked and launched a "scramble" for money to fulfill the Dick Morris plan to buy a massive number of TV ads in 1995 paid for by DNC.

Opening NBC Nightly News Brian Williams offered this colorful re-cap that emphasized the showbiz aspects of the hearings:

"Right after the gavel fell this morning the accusations started to fly. There was talk of a Chinese plot, obstruction of justice, a surprise witness, espionage, treason, the CIA, the death penalty, and this was just opening statements day at those hearings in Washington to investigate campaign fundraising. Opening day didn't bode well for bi-partisanship as both parties lined up to one up each other."

Lisa Myers noted that Huang got 37 top secret briefings while at Commerce and only Myers on Tuesday night pointed out that Huang often left his Commerce office to use a phone and fax of another company associated with the Lippo Group. Williams then posed a couple of questions to Tim Russert.

2) After a news story about Clinton missing the hearings while at the NATO summit, at about 11:40am ET during MSNBC's coverage of the opening day hearings, Tim Russert marveled:

"You know, there's something else interesting as we watch that same news report, Brian [Williams], and that's the NATO meeting. You saw someone there on stage waving; his name was Bill Clinton. He should be at the center of these hearings. It was his campaign that is accused of all these abuses. When you think of Haley Barbour and his foreign connection, it's about this big [holds up 2 fingers slightly apart]; John Huang and his fundraising connection, four or five million, is about this big [holds up his hands much farther apart]. The Clinton/Gore campaign, in all the money they raised, is enormous, with all the coffee clatches and now evidence of phone calls directly from the Oval Office and Vice President Gore from his office. And yet, President Clinton's in Madrid. He's heading to Warsaw where the White House is hard at work at having people in the streets, two or three deep, welcoming the triumphant American President who helped get Poland into NATO. It is very much 'I'm not a part of this.' Many Republicans are saying, 'Mr. President, it is your obligation to tell John Huang and to tell Charlie Trie to come forward and tell all. Let's find out. As the Commander in Chief, you should want to know, sir, whether or not our national security was violated.' The absence of Bill Clinton's name in these hearings is quite striking."

"...and now evidence of phone calls directly from the Oval Office." What? What calls? If you are a NBC News viewer this would be news to you. As detailed in the June 30 CyberAlert, the news of Clinton personally placing fundraising calls broke on Thursday, June 26. Total broadcast network coverage: One anchor-read item on one half-hourly newscast on the June 27 GMA. NBC (and CBS): zilch in the morning and evening.

Russert is Vice President of NBC News and Washington Bureau Chief. If Clinton's calls are such a big fundraising abuse, then why didn't he didn't he make sure NBC News viewers learned of this important disclosure? NBC's lack of coverage is what allows Clinton to claim "I'm not a part of this."

3) Clinton and Democratic misdeeds and violation of current campaign finance laws should not be the primary focus of the Senate hearings. No, as noted in my introduction in item #1 above to a question from Bernard Shaw, many in the media see this as an opportunity to impugn both sides equally and then impose liberal reforms.

An illustrative example: a front page Boston Globe "news analysis" from Washington Bureau Chief David Shribman. "U.S. Political System Itself to Face Scrutiny in Hearings," the headline declared. Shribman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, began his July 8 diatribe:

"The long-awaited campaign-finance hearings that begin this morning on Capitol Hill are not the second round of Watergate. They are not Iran-Contra redux. They are not the Fulbright Vietnam hearings, nor the Army-McCarthy hearings, nor the Truman defense-contract hearings.

"At times it will seem as if an individual, or a presidential campaign, or a political party is being investigated. That's only partly true. What's really in the dock beginning today isn't any politician but the system that politicians built. What's important beginning today isn't what one party can show about the other, but what the campaign-finance system shows about our political system.

"Unlike Watergate, these hearings are likely to have no smoking gun, though you'll hear a lot about tobacco money and gun money. Unlike Iran-Contra, these hearings are likely to have no patriotic hero-rogue like Oliver North, though you'll see a lot of rogues who, in private meetings, once portrayed themselves as partisan heroes.

"'These hearings will give us the best picture we have yet of how unseemly this fund-raising can get -- the kind of characters involved, the extent to which the parties actually seek out and woo these donors and the scope of funds being provided by a relatively small group of people,' said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College specialist on campaign finance."

In other words, just as liberals and Clintonites contend, everybody does it.

Indeed, Shribman continued: "...the hearings that begin this morning aren't really about John Huang and Charlie Trie or Abraham Lincoln's bedroom but about the political loophole -- unregulated 'soft-money' contributions to the parties, not to the candidates -- that makes them important. Soft money exploded in 1996, with Democrats raising $124 million (242 percent more than they raised in 1992) and Republicans raising $138 million (178 percent more than they raised four years earlier).

"Most of this money came from wealthy individuals or corporations and labor unions that had been banned for a half-century from participating in federal elections. Most of this money came in the form of large contributions of $100,000 or more. Many of the donors gave money to both sides, in effect hedging their bets but in the meantime undermining the political influence of small donors -- or, more perilous still, of individual voters."

Indeed, no one is at fault, these bad things happen because of a bad system: "In the age of political 'spin' there are likely to be few spectacles like the spin of summer. In their effort to minimize any changes in the system, the two parties will attempt to spin viewers toward the conclusion that their rival, and not the system, is at fault."

But if the current rules are violated why would new rules work? Shribman then summarized the spin offered by both parties, but note that he only corrects with "the truth" the Republican spin:

"The Republicans will probably try to lay all of the problems onto foreign contributions, arguing that the issue is not flaws with the system but illegal acts by individuals. That will put the focus on the White House, controlled by the Democrats, and not on the Congress, controlled by Republicans. In truth, foreign contributions account for far less than 5 percent of the total unregulated money given to both parties.

"For their part, Democrats will probably try to rally around spending levels, pressing to limit contributions as a way of keeping special-interest money flowing but restricting how much can be raised, knowing that Republicans routinely attract more money than Democrats."

Keep this thinking in mind as you watch and read coverage of the hearings. It's the prism through which most reporters see them. No one's at fault (except Haley Barbour). It's just that terrible "system." But that can be fixed with a more powerful FEC and more regulation to control speech and spending, and thus make the media even more influential.

-- Brent Baker