MediaWatch: February 8, 1999

Vol. Thirteen No. 3

In Love With the White House Lawyers

After the Senate impeachment trial was interrupted by the State of the Union address, the media’s determination to damage it intensified. Among the latest findings:

  • Adding ABC, CBS, and NBC together, the House managers drew less total evening soundbite time (2 minutes, 25 seconds) than the Clinton team (3 minutes, 6 seconds).

  • Adding the February 1 editions of the three news magazines together, the White House lawyers drew 297 words of direct quotation, while the week before, the House managers were given 141 words.

  • When the Senators asked questions to both sets of lawyers on January 22 and 23, CBS and NBC aired none of it and ABC aired just ten seconds to illustrate "softballs" thrown to the managers. But all three seized on comments from Pat Robertson and Robert Byrd that the trial should end.

THE FACE TIME GAP. While all three broadcast networks gave White House Counsel Charles Ruff an hour more live coverage on the afternoon of January 19 than the House managers received, the length of soundbites granted to White House arguments on the Senate floor varied from network to network.

During White House arguments from January 19 to 21, CBS showed the most favor for the White House by more than doubling the 35-second average it gave the House managers to 80 seconds a night. NBC increased its soundbites for the Clinton team to 53 seconds a night, about 25 percent more than the 40-second average for the managers. ABC dropped from the 70 seconds a night it offered the GOP to 53 seconds for Clinton’s crew.

CNN, which showed both sides’ presentations live, gave the White House much less soundbite time in its 8pm ET hour: from an average of six minutes and 36 seconds for the House prosecutors to two minutes and 57 seconds for the President’s lawyers.

Clinton’s counsels also drew the lion’s share of TV praise. Just after Ruff wrapped up on the 19th, CBS’s Bob Schieffer was impressed: "I thought that Mr. Ruff was quite eloquent in the way he wound that up. Just prior to that, a very clever pre-emptive strike." Schieffer’s January 14 verdict on the GOP’s Hyde and Sensenbrenner: "Thus far, Dan, we have not heard either Clarence Darrow or William Jennings Bryan, this has been fairly tedious."

Another contrast was evident on Nightline. On January 14, Koppel assessed the House case: "It was, as Nightline correspondent Chris Bury reports, pretty straightforward, pretty dry, bordering at times on dull." On the 19th, Koppel noted "a terrific day for Mr. Ruff and a terrific speech for him, one which got extraordinary reaction."

While the January 20 arguments of Greg Craig and Cheryl Mills attracted fewer quotes, Mills enjoyed puffy profiles. On Good Morning America, co-host Diane Sawyer cooed: "Cheryl Mills of the gentle gestures and velvet voice....Her friends say they’ve never seen her like that before, that the lawyer behind the politeness and pearls is in fact a fast-talking, fiercely combative, fight-to-the-finish opponent, and that’s why both Clintons want Mills on the team....The portrait she keeps on her office wall is Michael Jordan. At the age of 33, she’s in the starting lineup of the playoffs, too."

On the night of January 21, ex-Sen. Dale Bumpers drew unanimous raves. ABC’s Linda Douglass called him "at ease and confident." On CBS, Dan Rather touted how the Clinton defense "had a homespun wind-up and wallop today." CNN’s Jeanne Meserve asserted Bumpers "used folksy humor, his renowned rhetorical skills and his knowledge of the Constitution." NBC’s Gwen Ifill found "a folksy and pointed defense of an old friend."

While Greg Craig’s daily criticism of the GOP case drew quotes or an entire story as the managers presented their case, none made time for reaction from a Republican as the Democrats closed their arguments on the 21st. ABC avoided any GOP reaction, while CBS and NBC ran the same clip of Hyde simply opposing a short-circuit of the process.

The question and answer sessions on January 22 and 23 drew just ten seconds of Big Three air time. Even CNN provided only 97 seconds of soundbites on those two evenings (52 seconds for the House, 45 for the White House). But calls to end the trial energized the networks, especially when Pat Robertson declared, "They might as well dismiss this impeachment hearing and get on with something else because it’s over as far as I’m concerned."

ABC’s and NBC’s morning shows ran stories the next day, and all three networks told the story that night. On CBS, Eric Engberg concluded, "Republican insiders say Robertson was simply stating the obvious, that the party should not prolong the trial." NBC reporter David Bloom relayed Robertson and George Bush’s complaint that there is now "excessive intrusion into private lives."

The same emphasis greeted Sen. Robert Byrd’s surprise call on the 22nd for a hasty end to the trial. All the networks led with Byrd. Peter Jennings opened: "Senator Byrd is a constitutional scholar, sometimes called the conscience of the Senate on such matters, and if he says it’s okay to dismiss the case other politicians in both parties may decide it’s okay to follow." CBS’s Bob Schieffer claimed that "Byrd’s announcement is not so significant just because he’s so revered here, but also because many Democrats thought he was ready to convict the President." NBC’s Tom Brokaw asserted: "Robert Byrd, one of the senior statesmen of the Senate, caught everyone by surprise when he announced late this afternoon he would move to have the trial dismissed....This will put a lot of pressure on the Republicans."

While the networks gave few chances for Republicans to rebut White House arguments, on the 25th NBC’s Fred Francis focused on how one manager was opposed within his own family: "Most of the citizens strongly support their Congressman, a House prosecutor, Lindsey Graham. Graham’s slice of the South’s Bible Belt is in stunned disbelief that the President may be acquitted... But even within this religious community, at Lindsey Graham’s own church, some say the Congressman has gone too far. Graham’s Aunt Verna and Uncle Hollis, who helped raise him, say he’s wrong."