MediaWatch: October 1996

Vol. Ten No. 10

Clinton's Character Off Limits

The networks spent early October on referee patrol for Bill Clinton, ruling out of bounds anything critical or negative about him.

World News Tonight anchor Forest Sawyer announced October 3: "Bob Dole decided to step onto center stage with a harshly worded attack not only on the administration's work in the Middle East, but its entire foreign policy....The administration has so far answered softly." The "soft" response? ABC didn't show it, but Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry retorted that Dole advisers are "nattering naysayers of gloom."

MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams that night showed new ads from the Dole and Clinton campaigns: "We're going to begin with the latest ad from the Dole campaign which takes the campaign into a bit of nasty territory." Dole's ad simply showed clips of Clinton talking about taxes to illustrate he's really a liberal. Williams failed to tag the Clinton ad as "nasty," but it included this negative attack line: "Dole and Gingrich tried to slash school anti-drug programs. They'd take us back."

Bozo became the big news on October 8. A man in a crowd yelled at Dole that he should "get Bozo out of the White House." Dole shot back: "Bozo's on his way out." CNN's Bernard Shaw opened Inside Politics: "Was he borrowing the words of an over-enthusiastic supporter, or did Bob Dole lower the level of civility a notch in his contest with Bill Clinton?"

On the next morning's Today, Katie Couric asked NBC's Tim Russert: "As you've heard Tim it turned decidedly nastier in the Dole camp yesterday. He was talking about a moral crisis. He refused to answer a question if President Clinton was morally and ethically capable of being President. You heard that Bozo exchange. Effective strategy or is this going to come back to haunt him?"

Swift network condemnation followed Dole's October 14 decision to raise the ethics issue. On NBC Nightly News David Bloom declared: "In his harshest, most personal attack yet on the President, Bob Dole today charged that the Clinton Administration is unethical, that Bill Clinton himself is slipping and sliding away from questions about possible illegal campaign contributions."

The next day Dole again discussed what he termed "public ethics," leading CBS reporter Phil Jones to worry that Dole "runs the risk of looking desperate and mean-spirited."

Dole's speech prompted Matt Lauer to begin his Today newscast on October 16, the morning of the second debate: "Bob Dole is not waiting for that debate to attack Bill Clinton's ethics. With more on a campaign that is now getting meaner, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell is standing by live."