News Magazines: Also AWOL on the Hearings

News Magazines: Also AWOL on the Hearings
by L. Brent Bozell III
July 31, 1997

The networks' decision to ignore the Senate fundraising hearings - not just by electing not to give any live coverage, but also by failing to even summarize them most nights on the evening news - is becoming painfully apparent to everyone. On CNN's "Reliable Sources," Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz was blunt: "The real significant failure here has been by NBC and ABC, which have simply blown off these hearings, just blotted them out of their evening newscasts, which is their 'front page,' on many, many days of the hearings so far. And I just think that is just giving the back of your hand to an important story."

What's less recognized is the equally awful job the news magazines are doing, especially since they maintain that the manic 24-hours-a-day news cycle requires them to provide a longer, more in-depth view, to offer perspective on the news. On Charlie Rose's PBS dronefest in 1996, Time boss Walter Isaacson asked the American people to let Time set the agenda for them: "Time magazine...can be your intelligent agent. It can help set the agenda so that we, in a time when everything is fractured, 500 channels, hundreds of thousands of places to go on the World Wide Web, what we do need in this country, and maybe in this world, is common ground." If that's the case, then Time's agenda calls for Americans to come together and ignore the fundraising hearings in favor of more important issues like gay serial killers and Cosby paternity squabbles.

In the issues dated July 14, both magazines gave the Senate hearings a significant preview - six pages in Time, four pages in Newsweek. But as the hearings progressed, and the evidence of wrongdoing increased, the coverage became less and less serious. One week later, Time was down to a couple of pages, Newsweek one. The July 28 issues were stunning examples of tabloid news judgment: Time had 16 pages on Gianni Versace's murder, to only one on John Huang. Newsweek obliterated its entire space on national affairs for 17 pages on Versace and Andrew Cunanan. Then the August 4 editions arrived: nothing in Time except Jamie Malanowski's fictitious interview with Fred Thompson using lines out of Thompson's movies. Newsweek devoted another six pages to Cunanan, eight to "the new rich," and just a half-page scoop on Democratic attempts to blacken the reputation of Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

So how can the American public get any update on the hearings? They can't get live coverage on network TV, on most nights the network "news" gives them nothing. And now Time and Newsweek are simply absent without leave. Tabloid trash rules.

Just look at the magazines' covers to see what are the most important stories of the day. Both focused on Mars on July 14. The next week, it was all blondes: Time had the folk-pop strummer Jewel, Newsweek had Playboy centerfold-slash-sitcom star Jenny McCarthy giving an "ooh, icky" look at a cigar. For July 28, Time picked Versace and Newsweek went with Cunanan. The August 4 had the Mormons, and Newsweek had "The New Rich." (Webster Hubbell was not mentioned.) In short, nothing on the hearings.

This isn't exactly new: while the magazines have produced some original reporting on the fundraising scandal beat, it's usually in small, one-page reports buried deep in the magazine with little promotion.

Let's go back to the very beginning. Both Time and Newsweek have put the fundraising scandal on the cover only once: Newsweek on October 28, Time in the November 11 issue (on news stands just a day before Election Day). Neither has bothered to put any elected official on their cover since their November 18 election wrap-ups.

Both had one significant burst of coverage after the election: in the five weeks from February 24 to March 31, Time had 21.5 pages, Newsweek 30. Now compare what they've done in the succeeding four months, dated April to July: Time's logged 19 and two-thirds pages, Newsweek only ten and one-third.

Now compare that to the really important stories: Time had 17 pages in one week on the Heaven's Gate mass suicide. Newsweek gave it 30 pages that week, and another nine a week later. Or look at actual coverage of substance: China (with the death of Deng Xiaoping and the handover of Hong Kong) outpulls China subverting U.S. elections: Time's done at least 35 pages, Newsweek 63.

We might quibble from time to time about a newspaper report here and there. But we must concede - no, proclaim - that the newspaper industry, across the board, has on the whole been highly responsible in their coverage. The television networks and the weekly magazines, on the other hand, have become a joke, an embarrassment to the journalistic profession.