MediaWatch: April 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 4

Janet Cooke Award: If John Major's "Sleazy" What's Clinton?

The term "sleaze" is not a word the national media employs in the Clinton era. In the decade beginning with its coinage by Walter Mondale in the 1984 campaign through May 1994, a MediaWatch study of major newspapers and news magazines found reporters used the term "sleaze factor" 114 times in news stories to refer specifically to the Reagan administration or the Republicans, and only on eight occasions to the Democrats. Never in that period had it been applied to Bill Clinton.

That same imbalance of "sleaze" labeling surfaced on the April 1 NBC Nightly News. For highlighting the "sleaze" of Britain's Conservative Party after years of avoiding the "sleaze" label on Bill Clinton, NBC earned the Janet Cooke Award.

Tom Brokaw announced: "In Britain tonight, the national election campaign formally got under way. And if you think American campaigns are too much about candidates' personal lives, check the Conservative Party -- in power for 18 years, and a P.R. man determined to get rid of all of them."

Reporter Ron Allen began: "In Britain, it's a single-issue campaign: sleaze. Charges of adultery, indecency, bribery. Three disgraced members of the Conservative Party quit the race in one week. They're the party in power who say they stand for family values."

On came left-wing publicist Max Clifford: "They will be remembered for one thing: that's being sleazy." Allen explained: "Tennis isn't Max Clifford's game -- he plays hardball kiss-and-tell, selling scandals to London's tabloids for big fees." Clifford added: "It gives me a chance to show up people that I believe should be shown up for what they really are -- hypocrites."

Allen continued: "Scandal is making the race a stroll for the man who wants to be Prime Minister, Tony Blair of the Labor Party. Twenty points behind and mired in sleaze -- the incumbent, Conservative John Major. Clifford says the Conservatives are ruining Britain. In one sleaze attack, he gave the tabloids letters a Conservative lawmaker wrote to his underage gay lover...He then helped a 17-year-old waitress expose another Conservative lawmaker." Allen went on: "Sleaze didn't start with the current campaign, it's been dogging the Conservatives for years. Since the last election in 1992, at least 16 senior officials with the ruling party have left office clouded in scandal. And it's not just sex. Some are accused of pocketing thousands of dollars in bribes....David Leigh wrote the book on sleaze. The corruption he goes after is about cash, not the steamy sex tales of Max Clifford."

Leigh asserted: "We've had one party for 18 years whose slogan has been `greed is good'....We're looking at someone who's operating in a very sleazy area of the market itself." Allen concluded the story: "Clifford says there's more sleaze he's ready to sling, and the election here is still a month away."

No one from the Conservative Party was put on to defend their reputation. No one appeared in the story to object to the findings or partisan leanings of Clifford or Leigh, a writer for the left-wing Observer newspaper, a sister publication to the notoriously left-wing Guardian newspaper. When MediaWatch called NBC's London bureau for comment, Ron Allen was on assignment in Zaire, but producer Carol Grisanti claimed there was a simple reason for the story's one-sidedness: "No one could speak to us. No one from the Conservative Party would. There's a moratorium on speaking to the press until after the election is over. That's what we were told." But shouldn't NBC have sought out the Conservatives' side of the "sleaze" charges elsewhere, or at least explain they weren't talking to the press? "Well, we didn't find that necessary. It was about fact."

Clearly, NBC could have at least forwarded actual, existing criticisms of Laborites and their media allies from newspaper accounts. Critical barbs about Leigh's book ("poses as many questions as it answers," wrote the Sunday Telegraph, parts of it were "fantasy," said The Mail on Sunday) were ignored. Clifford, who the London Daily Telegraph reported Conservatives call "a front man for those in charge of Labor's dirty tricks" and the Labor Party "totally condemns" as a profiteer, was not identified by Allen as the man who brought O.J. Simpson to Britain for an image-polishing. Couldn't NBC find one person in London to bash Clifford? "We tried that as well," Grisanti told MediaWatch. Only pasting the "sleaze" label on the Conservative Party made the air.

Now this is not the approach NBC has used in recent American campaigns. Take NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams when the Clinton White House was caught with Republican FBI files, a clear offense against good government. Instead of putting the onus on a sleazy White House, he scorned the opposition: "The politics of Campaign '96 are getting very ugly, very early. Today, Bob Dole accused the White House of using the FBI to wage war against its political enemies, and if that sounds like another political scandal, that's the point." A massive violation of privacy was cast as just another partisan food fight.

Or take Dateline NBC's July 26, 1994 feature on American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell. At the opening of the show, Stone Phillips declared: "The Whitewater hearings opened today, and this man couldn't be happier. He's the conservative bad boy who's having a field day going after President Clinton," immediately followed by Clinton flack James Carville saying: "He's just another scumbag in Washington that wants to turn a buck."

Minutes later, in previewing stories still to come, Phillips added: "He pummels the President, he skewers the First Lady, and he's having the time of his life doing it....He's declared war on every Democrat and liberal in Washington." Carville again followed immediately: "He's willing to ruin people's lives, and lie and engage in anything to do it."

When the actual story arrived, Phillips announced Tyrrell "has declared war on the White House. Its policy is strictly scorched earth: leave nothing and no one standing." Reporter Lisa Myers questioned the tone and accuracy of Tyrrell and the Spectator. Tyrrell puckishly defended the magazine and then Myers turned to liberals like Carville and academic Kathleen Hall Jamieson for a bracing critique. Myers' story was tough, but two-sided, with a sympathy toward respect for the President and First Lady and some privacy in their personal lives.

Allen's story was almost exactly the opposite: a completely one-sided attack on "sleazy" Conservative Party politicians with no questioning of their attackers in the press, and no sympathy or respect for governing authorities or their personal lives. There's plenty of facts available on Clinton sleaze, but NBC doesn't bother with that. Instead, it spends its time compiling dirt on conservatives in a foreign country.