The Whitewater Trial: A Media Embarrassment

The Whitewater Trial: A Media Embarrassment
by L. Brent Bozell III
May 30, 1996

The verdicts came: guilty, guilty, guilty, on 24 of 30 counts. What a mortifying embarrassment for the national media, who must wipe the egg off their faces - again. Since 1992, we've heard one media excuse after another as to why Whitewater just isn't a story. Never mind Hillary's contradictory statements about her role. Never mind the documents that disappeared and then reappeared in the Clintons' private quarters. Never mind the S&L fraud in Arkansas that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Even as Bill and Hillary Clinton's business partners went on trial, we were told it wouldn't mean anything. U.S. News editor-in chief and hopeless Clinton apologist Mortimer Zuckerman spoke for the media on Cal Thomas's CNBC show March 24: "I don't think there's anything there unless Kenneth Starr does come up with anything, and the fact that there is a trial going on, I think is not going to be relevant to what the elections are going to be all about. You can't run an election based on attacking the President's wife."

Days before the verdict, on May 24, former New York Times White House reporter Tom Friedman told the all-liberal panel on PBS's "Washington Week in Review" that the Republicans' ad noting the active-duty President's in-the-army-now defense against the Paula Jones lawsuit came "right when Whitewater seems to grinding to a halt as a legal issue." Moderator Ken Bode agreed: "Whitewater is sort of diminishing, sort of fading away, it's a shadowy thing now, it's going away."

That collective wishful thinking on the part of the 89-percent Clinton press is best exemplified by the stunning lack of coverage of the Arkansas trial. A Media Research Center analysis from February 29 to May 19 found the Big Three networks aired only 13 reporter-based Whitewater stories on their evening news shows - an average of about 4 stories per network over a 11-week period. CNN's "The World Today" did a bit better with 10 stories in 11 weeks. In the land of Gumbel, the news wasn't much better: the three network morning shows aired only 14 reporter-based stories and five interviews in 11 weeks. Most of the stories about the trial centered on the only thing the media couldn't ignore: the President's videotaped testimony.

The most stunning lack of coverage came from "NBC Nightly News," which aired only one reporter-based story in the entire 11 weeks. How does the NBC brass explain one story in 80 days now that the convictions are in? Nor did any of the magazine shows cover the trial - but then, all of the magazine shows combined have aired only two reporter-based stories on Whitewater in the last four years.

Although Time carried a 15-page cover story excerpting James Stewart's Whitewater book "Blood Sport," the news magazines devoted fewer pages to the Whitewater trial than they did to the Jackie Onassis auction. In their May 6 editions, Time made the Jackie O auction their cover story and gave it eight pages. Newsweek devoted six pages and U.S. News, two.

The trial wasn't the only angle on Whitewater that vanished down the memory hole. On February 29 and again on March 7, Senate Democrats blocked votes extending the tenure of the Senate Whitewater Committee. The Democrats held up any further hearings until agreeing to a deal on April 18. One reporter-based story on ABC's World News Tonight (and anchor briefs on ABC's Good Morning America and CNN) were the only coverage of the Democratic filibuster until the hearings resumed April 24. Do we need to ask how many outraged media homilies about the "people's right to know" we would have heard were Bill Clinton a Republican and had the GOP shut down a Senate investigation?

The only thing more astonishing that the media's blase reaction before the verdicts is the media's blase reaction afterward. The night of the convictions on the no-Whitewater network, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw asked Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert: "Tim, Alfonse D'Amato, the Republican Senator who's been running the Whitewater hearings on Capitol Hill, has so much as admitted recently that he didn't get very far. There have been any number of exhaustive journalistic efforts. What do we think may be out there? Anything left?"

After we're done laughing at the idea of "exhaustive journalistic efforts" on the networks, what is "left" is piecing together what Whitewater means, not just in terms of crimes, but the misdemeanor of hypocrisy. The American public hasn't seen the networks replay the Bill Clinton who announced his candidacy in 1991: "When the ripoff artists looted our S&Ls, the President was silent. In a Clinton administration, when people sell their companies and their workers and their country down the river, they'll get called on the carpet." Turns out Bill Clinton was well aware of these "ripoff artists." He called them his business partners.