Checkbook journalism taps Clinton TV pays top dollar for 'news' rights INAUGURATION 1993

January 21, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It can safely be said that no president-elect has ever used and abused television the way Bill Clinton & Co. did this week.

Sure Ronald Reagan, Michael Deaver & Associates were good. But it took them years in the White House before they were anywhere near as good as the Clintons.

And, the Reagans never figured out that you could stage events at our most sacred national monuments, use those events to link the president-elect to the most powerful icons of our heritage, and then sell those events to TV networks as prime-time entertainment spectaculars.

Reagan and his handlers would let the network news divisions cover such stage-managed, image-making events for free -- and they thought they were clever for getting 30 or 45 seconds of coverage.

Harry Thomason -- the sitcom producer who was put in charge of inaugural events by his friend, Bill Clinton -- said last week that he was proud of being the first person in his position to manufacture inaugural events and then sell rights to those events to HBO, CBS and Disney, among others. The televised events brought in about $4 million, which Thomason said will be used to help defray the $28 million cost of all the inaugural events.

Thomason also said he saw nothing wrong with appropriating sites and using them as stages for prime-time entertainment shows featuring the likes of Michael Bolton.

Those who spent the week in front of their TV sets watching all the inaugural events surely have their pick of lowest TV moments.

For example, viewers watching CNN's coverage Sunday of the Clintons' and Gores' arrival by bus to Washington were told just as the two couples marched onto the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that CNN would not be able to show any more of the event.

The reason CNN, which could show pictures from Saddam Hussein's command center in Baghdad earlier in the day, couldn't show pictures from the Lincoln Memorial Sunday was that Thomason had sold exclusive rights to the event to HBO for $2 million and everyone else was barred from covering not just the entertainment portions of the program, but also a speech that Clinton made during the event.

It didn't take long for those watching the event on HBO to know that it was not about Lincoln, the reflecting pool, a national reunion or anything else as much as it was about celebrating Clinton.

The heraldic trumpets trilled and the timpani rolled like thunder the moment the Clintons appeared on the steps. It was two hours of the pomp of ancient Rome meeting the glitz of Las Vegas, as the HBO production closed with a fireworks and a recorded version of Elvis Presley singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In between, performer after performer told us how Clinton represented hope.

Tuesday night's prime-time special on CBS -- which Thomason termed the "official" gala because CBS paid the Clinton committee for broadcast rights -- was even more commercial than HBO's. CBS sold commercial time and sliced and diced the show to suit its advertising schedule.

Earlier Tuesday, those who could afford cable TV saw the Clintons singing with the Disney characters in a show for children at the Kennedy Center that the Disney Channel paid for. Clinton is surely the first president-elect Disney ever paid to pose with Mickey Mouse.

It became apparent yesterday while watching legitimate inauguration events -- the swearing-in of Clinton and Al Gore, the departure of George Bush and Dan Quayle, and the parade -- that there was huge difference between the Thomason TV events earlier this week and the rituals of government filtered through TV news.

Thomason justified all the pseudo-events he dreamed up and sold to TV on Clinton's behalf by saying he was using TV to make the inauguration "more accessible" than ever.

But those weren't real inaugural events Thomason and TV were making accessible. Those were artificial TV events created by Thomason with the help of show biz producers. Above all else, they were designed to do two things: get big ratings -- according to Nielsen numbers, 45 million people watched all or part of the Tuesday night gala -- and celebrate Clinton. Viewers were not being addressed as citizens, but rather as consumers being delivered up to advertisers.

In the end, such events don't take us closer to government. Instead, they alienate us from it.

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