Tonight's Top Story: We Stink

"Feeding Frenzy" Followed by "Rush to Judgment" Breast-Beating Without Conservative Counterpoints

One signal of Bill Clinton’s New Hampshire turnaround in 1992 came with self-critical media reports insisting "the people" didn’t care about scandals the media were reluctant to cover. On February 14, 1992, ABC World News Tonight reporter Chris Bury mourned: "In the campaign’s final crunch, questions of Clinton’s character, his personal life, and the draft are pursued daily, almost always by the press. And that is the trouble for Clinton: the press hounds him about character; voters seem more worried about other things." At that point, ABC’s evening newscast had aired four stories in ten days about Clinton’s draft evasions.

ABC was the first off the self-critical mark by Day Three of Monicagate, as Peter Jennings anchored three segments on overcoverage: "We know from just answering the phone around here that the amount of attention we are giving this story is, at the very least, debatable. We in the media..are devoting major time and resources to these events, but have we been carried away, are we doing too much, and are we not being fair?"

The flagellation frenzy continued this week. On Wednesday, CNN aired a special Investigating the President: Media Madness? Jeff Greenfield began: "More than 200 years after the Founding Fathers risked their lives to found a nation built on the idea of freedom, after crafting the Bill of Rights, whose very first guarantee is the right of a free press to inform and educate the people, millions of those people are asking the press one question fraught with significance: What the hell are you people doing trying to find out what kind of sex the President of the United States might or might not be having?"

CNN’s panel of experts included Dan Rather, CNN’s Greta Van Susteren, Time’s Walter Isaacson, Newsweek’s Ann McDaniel, James Warren of the Chicago Tribune, David Broder of The Washington Post, White House press aide Mike McCurry, comedian Bill Maher, professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and in a feint toward balance, a dramatically outnumbered Tucker Carlson of The Weekly Standard, who was never asked about liberal bias. Taped Bruce Morton segments were heavily salted with liberal experts like Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and Jamieson. The show took one phone call and spoke to three students, all of whom complained of low standards on Monicagate or media mistreatment of Clinton.

On PBS, most of last night’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was devoted to the "rush to judgment." Anchor Elizabeth Farnsworth began a focus-group interview: "Have the media gone overboard or have they done a fairly good job?" Most agreed it was overdone. Then anchor Phil Ponce talked to a narrow panel of media insiders: Newsweek’s Richard Smith, CNN’s Frank Sesno, former CBS newsman Marvin Kalb, and the ubiquitous Jamieson. All agreed with Kalb that "This is a very sorry chapter in American journalism."

None of these shows wondered: (1)Have the media undercovered Clinton scandals for six years? (2) Do self-flagellating media seminars just serve to bury the idea of a liberal bias and help Clinton turn his political fortunes around without answering any questions? (3) If the President is lying, then won’t the festival of hand-wringing look like a rush to judgment? — Tim Graham