CyberAlert -- 09/17/1997 -- ABC Has Anti-Paula Policy; Jennings Reverses on Mother Teresa

ABC Has Anti-Paula Policy; Jennings Reverses on Mother Teresa

  1. Tuesday morning papers had new fundraising disclosures, but the morning shows avoided it all.
  2. Tuesday night the hearings generated stories on all the networks, but only CBS highlighted the charge of an FBI cover-up and NBC gave the hearings a mere 40 seconds.
  3. "I would much rather that this story didn't exist" ABC's John Donvan declared about the Paula Jones case as he revealed that his ABC boss in New York refuses to air developments in the story.
  4. On Friday Peter Jennings said derisive comments on Mother Teresa were inappropriate. On Monday he said they "added immeasurably" to ABC coverage.

1) Tuesday morning newspaper stories disclosed more evidence of illegal fundraising at the White House involving President Clinton, but the morning shows ignored it all. Tuesday night, however, the three broadcast networks all ran stories.

A September 16 USA Today subheadline announced: "New documents suggest that White House gatherings June 7 and June 21, 1995, for Democratic donors were, in essence, fundraisers held on government property. If so, the events could be a violation of federal law." Next to that story a sidebar from the Associated Press was headlined "1994 Document Suggests Gore Knew Calls Illegal." The document showed that in 1994 Gore was driven to DNC headquarters in order to place fundraising calls, suggesting that he knew making calls from federal property would be improper.

Previewing Tuesday's testimony from Karl Jackson of the U.S.- Thailand Business Council, a September 16 Washington Times headline declared: "Witness Puts Clinton at Scene of Illegal Fundraising Pitch."

None of this prompted a syllable Tuesday morning, but MRC analyst Eric Darbe noticed that during the 7am news Good Morning America had time to report that OJ Simpson had moved into a new house. Today, MRC analyst Geoffrey Dickens pointed out, made time for a multi-day interview with Kitty Kelly about her book on the British Royal family, a book full of unsubstantiated allegations that Today (and Dateline) highlighted.

2) Tuesday night (September 16) the networks carried fundraising stories, though all very different. CBS led with a charge that the FBI has suppressed information about Chinese efforts to funnel money, ABC ran a full story on how the coffees raised hard money and what happened at the hearings, and NBC gave the hearings just 40 seconds.

NBC Nightly News led with study on how doctors are prescribing too many antibiotics, followed by stories on a micro- organism in Maryland waters that causes lesions on fish and an update on Dodi Fayed bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones. About nine minutes into the show, after the fist ad break, Tom Brokaw read a 40-second update on the hearings. Here's what he reported, in full, over three still photos of the White House coffee:

"In Washington still another story of raising campaign money in the White House, this time in the presence of President Clinton. Karl Jackson, a Republican and former Bush administration official, said the pitch came at this White House coffee where the President was at his side. He said John Huang stood up and said elections cost money, I am sure everyone here will want to support the President's re-election. That in testimony today before the Senate committee hearing. Democrats at that meeting say they don't remember the solicitation. Later that day, however, a guest at the coffee did contribute $85,000 dollars. Soliciting campaign funds in government buildings -- remember, this was the White House -- that's illegal."

Illegal activity in front of the President. But NBC didn't judge it worth a full story.

ABC's World News Tonight started with a Trevor Rees-Jones update followed by a full report on how Clinton will reject the tobacco deal. After an ad, Peter Jennings went to story on a study from "two public interest organizations" on how Americans spend more repairing cars than the U.S. spends on road repair. Euro-centric Jennings then narrated a piece on how the Europeans build better roads. Next, he announced that consumer prices were up only 0.2 percent.

About 13 minutes into the show, and after the second ad break, ABC got to fundraising. Linda Douglass began by noting that Attorney General Reno has said coffee money was legal because it was soft money. Douglass continued:

"But now an ABC News analysis of contributions from people who attended the coffees shows that more than $667,000 was put into a fund that went to specific candidates -- that is called hard money and it is illegal to raise such money on federal property."

Relaying that Republicans want an independent counsel named, Douglass told viewers that the White House insisted the coffees were not fundraisers. Douglass countered:

"But today a businessman who attended one coffee testified that fundraiser John Huang made an outright pitch for money with President Clinton at his side."

After a soundbite from Karl Jackson, Douglass added:

"A Democratic fundraiser who was at the same coffees testified that she never heard Huang ask for money."

Douglass concluded with the White House spin followed by her own favorable spin on Reno's situation:

"For their part, White House officials said today it doesn't matter if Huang asked for money because the coffees were held in the White House residence, where they argue raising money is legal. Reno wouldn't talk about any of this today but she's said to be furious with the pace of the Justice Department's investigation. In fact, late today Reno's spokesman announced there has been a major shake-up in the Justice Department's team investigating campaign fundraising."

Fundraising topped the CBS Evening News. Rather announced the Reno-ordered shake-up as he introduced Bob Schieffer's story on charges of a cover-up leveled by Senator Arlen Specter.

Schieffer began: "Dan, this was not great day for the Clinton White House. The Attorney General decided to bring in all those new people after Republican Senator Specter issued a withering indictment of the way she and the FBI have been handling the case this far. Specter says the FBI now admits it has known for more than a year that a Democratic campaign contributor, in Specter's words, 'made significant campaign contributions as part of a plan of the government of China,' but for some reason did not tell Senators investigating all of this."

Following a Specter soundbite Schieffer moved to Tuesday's hearings with the "first direct allegation that those now famous White House coffees were actually fundraisers...." CBS showed a clip of Jackson's testimony before Schieffer offered this tough conclusion:

"Democrats discounted Jackson's statement, noting that he once worked for Republicans. But far more serious is Specter's charge. If the Justice Department has been caught covering up, that could be real trouble for all concerned."

"Real trouble" if people hear about it. But two of the three networks skipped Specter's charge.

3) ABC's White House reporter John Donvan revealed Tuesday that his boss told him to not even bother filing reports which include news on the Paula Jones front. And that's fine with him since he prefers to stick to "much larger issues."

This week CNN's TalkBack Live (3-4pm ET) is broadcasting from the Freedom Forum's Newseum in Arlington, Virginia. Tuesday's guests: the White House reporters for the four networks.

Talking about how the media can get caught up in a frenzy, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asserted:

"If we do get a sense that really large numbers of people are interested in the subject, we want to satisfy their curiosity. And, you know, as all of us know, sometimes it was the OJ Simpson trial that fascinated millions of Americans, so we did a lot of reporting on that. A few weeks ago, the last couple of weeks, it was Princess Diana's tragic death. But other times, it's very, very different stories, and it's almost on a day-to-day basis. Our editors and our producers and we will decide what is news."

ABC's Donvan jumped in with a comment displaying just how upset he and his boss are at any coverage of Paula Jones:

"But Wolf, you're saying that we are passive in this process, that the news just happens to us. And, in fact, we make decisions. We do make decisions. And I would say this is not just because I'm from ABC, but because I'm on ABC, I've seen it in the case of the Paula Jones story in particular. I work for an Executive Producer who has consciously said that until he is sure on a daily basis that there's really news there that has really moved forward, that it's relevant, that it matters to the public, that he will make the choice not to do the story. And I think that may be one explanation for why we've done it less than others. But I've always disagreed with the notion that the news happens to us. We make decisions about it."

The name of the Executive Producer of World News Tonight: Paul Friedman.

Earlier in the show Donvan made his disdain for the story quite clear, disagreeing with NBC's David Bloom who called the Jones case a "legitimate issue." Here's the exchange:

CNN's Frank Sesno, hosting the show: "Isn't it fair to say that the White House would like to see us standing and sitting here talking today about just about anything other than this issue?"

David Bloom: "Well, this is a legitimate issue. This would be an unprecedented lawsuit against a sitting President. We have every right and duty to cover this."

Sesno: "OK. I want to go over to the Internet now. We're joined, as we will be throughout the hour, by our viewers from all over the world, really, who join us. This one, 'So why does the press seem so consumed with this Paula Jones?,' from Michelle Shelton. John, are you consumed?"

Donvan: "No, I'm not. I part ways with David on this one. I would much rather that this story didn't exist, that it didn't happen, that the suit had never come up. I don't particularly enjoy it. I don't think the American public, the majority doesn't enjoy it. I think there are Clinton haters who would like to be able to use this issue to hurt him. It's difficult to know whether there's a case there or not, because we're outside the process. But I would much rather be talking about much larger issues than this one."

We certainly don't want to do anything that might help "Clinton haters." So much for covering the news. If Donvan doesn't "enjoy" the story then it won't get covered.

4) After Christopher Hitchens spent two minutes trashing Mother Teresa Friday night during ABC coverage of her funeral, anchor Peter Jennings acted like he found the comments inappropriate for the setting:

"I was just going to make the point that I wasn't sure that this was the right occasion for us to continue having a debate about Mother Teresa. I may be wrong, but that's the decision for now."

Well, that's not what Jennings really felt if you believe a more recent assessment he issued. On Sunday, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, The Washington Post noted Tuesday in picking up an item from Monday's New York City papers, "expressed his 'deep regret' over TV's 'tasteless' criticism of the late nun," specifically the attacks by Christopher Hitchens on ABC.

Apprised of this complaint, the Post's John Carmody reported that Jennings "stoutly defended the choice of Hitchens." Jennings told Carmody: "I thought it added immeasurably to our coverage. Some of the debate about Mother Teresa very much has focused on reported relationships with the rich. I thought his presence set off an interesting, lively debate." As noted in the September 15 CyberAlert, ABC didn't think having a guest on to attack Diana during her funeral would have added "immeasurably" to their coverage since they avoided such scrutiny of Diana's life.

As a reminder of what kind of comments so pleased Jennings, here's some of what what Hitchens intoned at about 2am ET Saturday during the funeral (for more, see the September 15 CyberAlert):

"It will be recalled, for example, that when she got the Nobel Prize for peace, never having done anything for peace or claimed to have done anything for peace, that she said the greatest threat to peace in the world was abortion and she said that contraception was morally equivalent to the murder of abortion.
"It will be recalled as to how much time she spent with the richest of the rich and the sleaziest of the sleazy with people like the Duvalier family in Haiti whom she went to praise and from whom she received a medal and to whom she said they were lovers of the poor and not only that, even more blasphemously, that the poor loved them, the Duvaliers.
"It will be remembered that she took stolen money from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan and other Catholic fundamentalists who was giving her money that didn't belong to him and she wouldn't give it back when asked..."

Let's review today's media lesson. Reporting on Paula Jones should be shunned, books full of uncorroborated sexual allegations about the Royal family should be promoted, but saying anything mean about Diana should be avoided, though disparaging Mother Teresa during her funeral is just great.

-- Brent Baker