The press ought to provide context for Whitewater



WASHINGTON -- Once again, the press is finding itself obliged to do some hand-wringing self-examination over its coverage of public affairs -- in this case, the whole controversy over Whitewater.

The central question is obvious enough: Has the press given disproportionate attention to the story and, by so doing, made it into something more than it should be?

If you followed the news only casually in the last few weeks, you would be forgiven for inferring that President Clinton's presidency is being threatened by a crisis of monumental proportions -- and that the White House is conducting a Nixonesque attempt to cover it all up.

In fact, what we are dealing with is a series of questions raised about the conduct of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas more than a decade ago.

Were the Clintons given a sweetheart deal because of his political position? Did Clinton, as governor, allow or encourage state regulators to take it easy on a savings and loan involved in the deal?

There is no allegation, as there was in the cases of Watergate and Iran-contra, of crimes directed from the White House or committed in the White House. Yet the temptation to equate Whitewater with Watergate is inevitable.

To some degree, the preoccupation by the press has been legitimate and fueled largely by the mistakes of the White House -- in the handling of the files of deputy counsel Vincent Foster after his suicide, in convening questionable meetings with regulators in the White House, in originally appearing reluctant to cooperate in disclosing all the facts in the case.

When a White House official close to the president commits suicide, that is front-page news by any definition. The same is true of six members of the White House staff being subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury. It doesn't happen every day.

But there is a significant difference between covering those stories and putting them into the proper context. And it is fair to say that, simply because of the differences in the way they operate, there is also a significant difference between the performance of mainstream newspapers and the television networks.

Newspapers have been able to provide some context for the Whitewater story -- pointing out, for example, how it differs from Watergate and detailing in lengthy articles the issues to be examined. For readers of those newspapers, the information is there if they choose to use it.

But television provides the basic diet of news for most Americans. And television simply lacks the time for a similar explanation of the context. At one point, ABC News devoted almost an entire evening news program to Whitewater. It was extraordinarily well-done, but even 20 minutes of television coverage can only scratch the surface in a story as multifaceted as Whitewater.

There are other factors beyond technical differences that determine how the press covers a story. One is simply competitive pressure. The press mob scene outside the federal court building the other day may have created an impression of )) something more momentous than what happened inside. But no news organization could afford not to cover whatever did happen.

Another variable is the role of the Republicans in Congress. They are the ones quick to make comparisons with Watergate and to throw around talk of "impeachment" of the president. But can the press ignore Phil Gramm and Al D'Amato? Of course not. All the press can do -- but often fails to do -- is provide its readers and viewers with the proper context.

Another factor subtly influences the story -- Clinton's history as a candidate of being less than forthcoming on such controversial pieces of his personal history as his efforts to avoid the draft during the war in Vietnam and his experience smoking marijuana as a student in England. Candidate Clinton was inclined in those days to give legalistic answers, so it is not surprising if reporters now parse every reply.

But what if it turns out that, let's say, the Clintons may have been given some favorable treatment in Arkansas and given some help to their political pals but did nothing illegal? What if it turns out that the Foster suicide was just that? And that those White House meetings were essentially innocuous attempts to devise the proper spin on the issue?

There is no assurance those things are true. But if they are, readers and viewers will be entitled to ask what all the fuss was about.

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